21 Jul 2020 | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: From little snaps, big things grow

by Mike Clayton

Clayton: 15th at Kingston Heath_image
Kingston Heath's par-3 15th now (left (Photo: Gary Lisbon)) and how it looked in the late 1970s (right).

Ashley Marshall, a long-time Kingston Heath member, recently sent me a 1970s photo of him hitting a tee shot on the famed par-three 15th hole.

I put the photo on Twitter and asked if anyone could guess the hole.

It had altered so much since the image was taken that it inspired a flurry of wild – and far from the mark – guesses.

It was also a hint into how Sandbelt golf began to change in the years soon after the teenage Marshall was learning the game in the 1970s.

Kingston Heath’s 15th is one of one of Australia’s most iconic and easily recognised short holes, but so different was the 1970s version that most, including several members, guessed incorrectly.

In 1926, Alister MacKenzie bunkered Dan Souter’s already existing layout. The Yorkshire resident thought the Carnoustie man’s routing – with its remarkable amount of compelling golf squeezed onto a relatively flat and unremarkable site – almost beyond criticism.

MacKenzie did, however, consider Soutar’s blind, over-the-hill, short par-three 15th a “blot” on the course and determined, with the committee’s permission, to alter it.

Building great uphill short holes isn’t easy. Holes playing downhill with everything in clear view are high on visual appeal and, consequently, popularity.

Having the tee below green level usually means at least a part of the putting surface and the surrounding hazards will be blind. The 15th suffers these twin maladies, yet the brilliance of the green, the visual appeal of its bunkers and the shot it asks for mark it as a world-class hole.

Marshall’s photo shows an utterly unremarkable hole, one crowded on the right – and to a lesser extent, the left – by encroaching ti-tree.

It’s unrecognisable from the iconic hole members enjoy today.

The story of both the destruction and then restoration of MacKenzie’s hole is a window into the descent into – and later the re-emergence from – a dark period of golf course architecture in Australia.

The history of committee-inspired alteration to Sandbelt courses after the Second World War isn’t one of any redeeming virtue and Kingston Heath wasn’t the only club to take the wrong road and lose something from MacKenzie’s brilliance.

At Victoria, Kingston Heath and Metropolitan, scores of bunkers were filled in, grassed over or engulfed by encroaching ti-tree, perhaps Kingston Heath’s par-five 12th a chief example. And the beautiful bunkers left of the great uphill par-four 11th hole at Victoria were replaced by a curious grove of non-indigenous trees.

John Sloan, Bruce Grant and I were fortunate enough to be entrusted with the “restoration” of Victoria, where the aim of both club and architects was to return the course, as far as practicable, back to the dramatic look so evidenced by photos taken in the early 1930s.

Early on there were sceptics, one committeeman asking if we all wanted to go back and drive “FJ” Holdens.

Ash Marshall Kingston Heath 15th 1970s_image
Ash Marshall tees off on the 15th at Kingston Heath in the late 1970s.

My view, of course, was that we didn’t. But I remember replying: “It’d be nice to get back playing on the equivalent of a 1930s classic Rolls Royce, though.”

As it did at Kingston Heath, it took a couple of decades to break the back of the work, but it’s a reasonable argument to suggest both Kingston Heath and Victoria are now architecturally – one assumes the condition of both is much advanced – as excellent as they were in the 1930s.

The hollows in the middle of the fourth, fifth and eighth fairways at Metropolitan were once bunkers and, in fairness, removing them did nothing to detract from the golf. They still left plenty enough to make the golf interesting for members.

But, no club lost more than Metropolitan when a government – caring little for either golf or magnificent architecture – deemed seven holes on its original back nine could be better used to build a school.

The Premier of the day, Henry Bolte, was apparently a “racing man” who, unbelievably to many, considered building Monash University on Metropolitan and adjacent Huntingdale when there was a perfectly good paddock 3km up the road.

Commonwealth changed its great first and seventh holes, replacing both with new holes failing to match the quality of the shorter ones they had replaced.

At least at Kingston Heath’s 15th, there were the bones of something to restore.

Perhaps the cost of maintenance was an issue in the 1950s and few members tend to complain when committees remove bunkers and plant trees.

What could possibly be wrong with planting a tree? 0r 500 trees?

What indeed?

Likely the members of the 1950s didn’t quite appreciate the quality of the relatively new courses MacKenzie and his Australian contemporaries – including 1924 Australian Open champion Alex Russell ¬– had left them.

Marshall’s 1970s photo was taken perhaps five years before a small cadre of Kingston Heath members began to seriously question the merits of their course and how best it could be improved.

It would have been easy ¬– much easier for those bearing the brunt of the early criticism ¬– for them to leave well enough alone as Kingston Heath was ranked among the country’s 10 best courses.

It sat just below The Australian, the famed Sydney course Jack Nicklaus had recently rebuilt and made into something remarkably similar to the golf one would find in parts of the United States. It was hugely popular at a time when everything American was assumed to be great and no one thought to question the game’s best player.

Kingston Heath was viewed as a very good course, but The Australian wasn’t to be the catalyst for its reinvention. Remarkably, Kingswood, a much less well-known course just down the road provided that inspiration.

14th and 15th Kingston heath course Gary Lisbon_image
The par-3 15th (left) and par-5 14th (right) at Kingston Heath GC in Melbourne. (Photo: Gary Lisbon)

Bruce Grant’s older brother, Graeme, was the young and ambitious superintendent at Kingswood in the late 1970s. Both had done their apprenticeships at Royal Melbourne under Claude Crockford who, as a young man, had taken over from Mick Morcom, the man responsible for building much of MacKenzie’s work in Melbourne.

Graeme worked wonders at Kingswood in the late 1970s. His greens were the best in the city – hard, fast and putting all but Royal Melbourne’s famed surfaces to shame.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but Kingston Heath’s greens in the late 1970s were soft, mushy poa, lousy to putt on and hitting irons into them – especially in the winter – was akin to hitting a shot into a basket of wet washing.

Grant was the first to rid Sandbelt fairways of poa-annua, pioneering instead the year-round use of couch grass that gave members better surfaces, especially in the warmer months.

His work at Kingswood so impressed a couple of influential Kingston Heath members that they enticed him to move clubs. Thus began the transformation of the course we know today, one consistently ranked among the world’s top 25.

He studied photos of MacKenzie’s original work and quickly came to the realisation that much had been lost. And no better was it exemplified, he thought, than by what had transpired over the years to the 15th hole.

Early photos show MacKenzie’s dramatic line of bunkers running all the way from the tee to the green – the assumption being that he and Morcom had wanted to make the uphill shot look as dramatic as possible from the tee.

This is pure supposition, but I assume at some point – and in the face of predictable complaints from those aggrieved – the committee decided to fill in the bunkers “only affecting poor players”.

They were filled with sand, grassed over and presumably the complaints went away. In their place, ti-tree grew right up to the edge of the fairway and only MacKenzie’s magnificent greens complex saved the hole from unmemorable mediocrity.

Something similar happened at the 12th hole. Grant discovered original second-shot bunkers lying buried under a thicket of dense ti-tree, a plant Peter Thomson once so accurately described as a “creeping weed”.

Some still revere it, but one wonders why.

It’s not native to the area, it’s awful – read impossible – to play from, difficult to manage and no less a crime is how it smothers the beautiful little heathland plants so important to the look and feel of the best Sandbelt courses, let alone the local environment.

The 1950s was also a time in Melbourne’s history when there was a growing reverence for “native trees” – the European phase was thankfully passing – and one particularly inappropriate species was the Mahogany gum. Although Australian, it is a big, inland forest tree that’s utterly unsuited to windy golf courses by the sea. But in the 1950s they were cheap, grew quickly and filled gaps isolating one hole from another. Fortunately, that, too, has proved a passing phase.

Grant was the one who initially fired up the chainsaws and the golf is better for his brave choice. The critics – and there were plenty – couldn’t justify the cutting down of a tree, no matter its effect on turf, the golf or the natural habitat.

Ultimately the movement Grant began at Kingswood and then Kingston Heath spread around the city. Every Sandbelt club switched to year-round warm-season grasses; bunkers were restored; and non-indigenous trees removed.

Responsible clubs wisely understood their role as custodians and took the indigenous route because it’s the only responsible long-term way to vegetate Australian golf courses.

As important was the movement to restore great golf – to understand the role of trees and the place of bunkers.

It dragged Australian golf out of a contented malaise into something that is a “real asset to a nation”, as MacKenzie once noted of the importance of a great golf course.

Occasionally, it takes just a single photo to remind us of how far we’ve come.

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