11 Dec 2019 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Perfection isn't always perfect

by Mike Clayton

13th Hole Royal Melbourne composite generic_image

Cindy Crawford earned fame and fortune from her extraordinary face and the little, dark mole just above her top lip.

Not even perfection was perfect.

Golf architecture is a world away from fashion modeling but there is some connection between the two.

Tom Simpson, the great English golf course architect, thought golf courses ought to show off the occasional Crawford-like imperfection.

Writing at the height of his powers in the early decades of the last century Simpson suggested of a new course he was building, “We therefore intend to include one thoroughly amusing but bad hole for the sake of variety and a brief interval of mental tranquility.”

One of Simpson’s best courses, and certainly one of the most tranquil and beautiful in the world is Morfontaine, a classic heathland course just north of Paris.

One wonders where Morfontaine’s amusingly bad hole really is, such was the near flawlessness of his work there.

Alister MacKenzie was a contemporary of Simpson and a significant part of his reputation as one of the great architects was forged in Australia. He transformed golf in this country and Royal Melbourne is his masterpiece.

This week at the Presidents Cup, twelve of his West Course holes are mixed with six of Alex Russell’s (his Australian partner) best from the East to form the Composite Course.

The golf magazines rank the two separately but the Composite Course has a legitimate claim to be the best course in the world. 

In the latest World Top 100 list the West came in seventh and the East at 96 and the holes on the East are unquestionably superior to the six West Course holes they replace.

Perfection though isn’t perfect and whilst it’s easy to write of Royal Melbourne’s greatness there are a few things the harshest critic might point to as flaws with the course the teams of Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are playing this week.

With its hugely wide fairway the opening hole on the West steels from the principle of the shot off the first tee on The Old Course at St Andrews. At both it’s awfully hard to mess the drive up, allowing players the comfort of knowing they are unlikely to ruin their day almost before it has begun. 

The problem is a hole designed to open the course is the 17th this week, making it a bit like reading a book with the chapters out of order. It’s not a bad 17th hole but the 17th on the West Course (9th this week) might be the best par four in the country and the original 17th on the Composite (the 15th) is one of the finest par fives.

The very next hole, the par 5, 2nd West (the 18th) is played off the women’s tee this week as a par four. Whilst the carry bunkers wouldn’t pose a problem off the very back (par 5) tee they are too close to the tournament tee to even look ‘right’ because the scale doesn’t quite work.

A great long two-shotter is thus reduced down to a drive and a short iron and something MacKenzie wouldn’t even recognise if the measure is the clubs he wanted players to be hitting into one of the most beautiful green sites on the course.

Less than ideal too is the downhill, turning to the right, short par 4, 13th hole.

It’s the 3rd on Russell’s East Course and a fabulous hole where you are often trying to hit a draw into a flag on the left of the green but off a slope going down and away and doing all it can to encourage a fade. 

In that sense it’s a little like the 13th at Augusta where MacKenzie built a ‘fade’ green but had you hitting into it off a lie with the ball way above your feet and screaming ‘big hook’. 

Way back in the 1974 Chrysler Classic Lee Trevino drove right down by the edge of the green on the third day. Sometime not long after a small tree was mysteriously planted to, I assume, discourage such a disrespectful attack. In fairness, if ever a tee shot was made for Trevino’s hard, sliding fade it was this one

The problem is trees grow and 45 years on (Trevino was 80 last week – can you believe it?) it’s a huge tree blocking the view of the green from the right half of the fairway. 

It is hardly unreasonable to suggest if Russell had wanted a tree there he might have planted it himself and it remains a ‘blot’ on what is still a great hole because it would surely be even better if you could see all of the green from the right half of the fairway.

Ben Crenshaw first played the Composite Course in the 1979 Australian PGA and he reported back to a friend how much he loved the course and that “we walked past the best par 3 I’ve ever seen.”

That hole is the 14th but the choice to include Crenshaw’s hole meant the uphill par three (4 East) was dropped and now the players walk right past one of the very best long threes in the country. It’s a pity.

Then there is the 16th on the West, probably the best long par 3 in Australia, but one suffering from the misfortune of being on the other side of the narrow suburban road cutting off four west course holes (13-16) from the main ‘paddock’. 

It might even suffer the indignity of serving as a car park this week, something akin to Cindy Crawford serving ice creams at the movies.

Royal Melbourne isn’t the hardest course in the country. It doesn’t have the best fairways and nor does it show off spectacular ocean views sure to seduce the golfer falling for their charms but it is nonetheless, perfection.

It just isn’t perfect but Simpson and Crawford both might argue it’s no bad thing.

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