04 Mar 2023 | Professional golf |

Clayton: Journey into the mountains

by Mike Clayton

Millbrook golf image
Millbrook has some of the best vistas in golf. Photo: Getty

It’s not easy to make good courses in the mountains because, almost by definition, there is a lot more rock than sand.

The green-to-tee transitions between holes are difficult, meaning there are the inevitably long walks from one good piece of ground to another, but it’s equally inevitable the surrounds and the views are some of the most stunning in the world. The most famous mountain course professional golf visits is Crans-Sur-Sierre, a couple of hours drive out of Geneva. Its fame comes from being the long-time host of the Swiss Open (now the European Masters) rather than the quality of the architecture but the long view down the valley from the 7th tee must be the most stunning in the game. This week the New Zealand Open is at Queenstown’s Millbrook Resort and anyone who has visited will know of extraordinary scenery which always reminds me of Switzerland. The level of golf here is levels above what we found in Crans despite the play, in the absence of any wind, not being particularly taxing. The 4-under-par halfway cut was some indication of the difficulty, but the weather has been ideal, and Queenslander Chris Woods leads at 12-under. The scoring all summer long has been low. In large part its because the courses now play so short for players routinely driving the ball, in the old money, 300 yards. A course of 6400 metres like this is no longer considered long and only a decent wind makes the game difficult. I’m caddying for Elvis Smylie this week and of the 22 par 4s he’s played he drove onto one (the 13th on the Coronet Course) and hit one of his four wedges onto 17 others. The other four were covered with a 9 iron, a couple of 8 irons and a lone 6 iron into the beautiful 450-metre 5th hole on the Coronet Course. It was the same at Rosebud, 13th Beach and Bonnie Doon and even the Australian Open at Victoria and Kingston Heath, two of our greatest courses, were little more than wedge-fests. Twenty years ago, give or take a couple, Peter Thomson was building Moonah Links on the Mornington Peninsula and his reasoning for making the course close to 7000 metres was we didn’t have a championship course to compare with the great Open Championship courses including Muirfield, Troon or Carnoustie. Muirfield retains its difficulty because of the happy coincidence of almost unlimited space to move tees back. Carnoustie is just a beast and whilst the front nine at Troon is usually downwind and something of a ‘pushover’ the second half coming back into the wind is no fun at all if you don’t have your best stuff. Moonah Links never captured the popular imagination of the players, and we can argue the merits of the course forever, but Thomson’s essential point was right. Once fearsome championship courses including The Australian, Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Metropolitan and Royal Adelaide are not remotely close to what they were if the irons players approach the greens with is the measure. Elvis well understands the most difficult holes he will play every week are the par-5s where he must make fours is he is any chance to win. In the second round he has just short of the 11th with a 6 iron, on the 15th with the same club and over the back of the 18th with a 7 iron. On the opening day over the Bob Charles course, he was on the 1st and 10th with 6 iron, and if he’d managed to keep his drive out of the fescue at the 5th it’d have been the same. He has barely hit a 3 wood into a par 5 all summer and sometimes I wonder why it’s even in the bag. It’s just a passenger really. How our best players play these courses is not really that important and no matter how short Royal Melbourne plays for tournament players it’s still – and likely always will be – one of the game’s greatest handful of courses alongside Pine Valley, St Andrews Cypress Point and The National Golf Links of America. Our tournaments will always be influenced by the wind and the greens are generally bouncy, but the question is are they asking enough of the home players who are all looking to get onto the big tours in the United States and Europe? And, if you are thinking of coming to Queenstown to play golf you absolutely must play Arrowtown. It’s the craziest course in the world with its holes marvellously winding through rock-strewn valleys to provide endless thrills. There is only one bunker on the course but very sensibly it’s a part of the practice putting green! It’s always good to see a club looking after its members who might occasionally go elsewhere – but if you played at Arrowtown, why would you?

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