01 Nov 2020 | Clubs and Facilities | Industry news | Feature stories |

Vern Morcom: A life in golf

by Mike Clayton

Spring Valley golf club image
Spring Valley in Melbourne is one of Morcom's finest courses. Photo: Spring Valley GC

Golf course architecture has always been a tenuous way of earning a living.

Alister MacKenzie and A W Tillinghast, two of the greatest, died with amazing legacies but not a lot of money. MacKenzie, himself, was pleading at the end of his life for monies due from his commission at Augusta National.

In Australia, Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge were probably the first architects to create a financially viable business as a primary source of their income. Alex Russell, in contrast, accepted a bottle of whisky for his work at Yarra Yarra.

It was a fair indication of his independent means and that he worked for the pleasure of making good golf. It was MacKenzie, of course, who transformed golf in Australia when, in 1926, he came and showed us what first-class golf looked like and how it played.

He left behind his partner Russell to make Yarra Yarra, Riversdale and Lake Karrinyup but it was a less well-known father and son duo, Mick and Vern Morcom, who carried the architectural torch forward and bridged the gap between MacKenzie, Russell and Thomson.

For both Morcoms, architecture was almost a sideline but with the security of the two best greenkeeping jobs in Melbourne, they were able to pursue their passion for design and construction.

Mick, the greenkeeper at Royal Melbourne, was charged by MacKenzie and Russell to build their work. Almost a century later the dramatically shaped, flashed sand bunkers and one of the best sets of greens in golf still captivate members, visiting players, pilgrimage-making architects and worldwide television audiences.

Vern kept turf management in the family when he took the reins at Kingston Heath in 1928 and the legacy of both men is that these remarkable, but quite different, courses remain the finest in Melbourne.

Vern was a prolific course architect in the decades after the Second World War. Designing primarily, but not exclusively, in Victoria he took his talents to golf courses as far apart as Anglesea, Kyneton, Leongatha, Trafalgar, Curlewis, Lakes Entrance, Point Lonsdale and Rosanna.

In Adelaide, he designed the East at The Grange, a course famed for Greg Norman’s first professional win and in Tasmania his Royal Hobart hosted the state’s only Australian Open in 1971.

The great Jack Nicklaus triumphed and anointed the championship as the game’s ‘Fifth Major’. Probably his best work was closest to Kingston Heath at Spring Valley. Built on a similar bed of sand to Kingston Heath, the site was ideal for the construction of beautiful sandbelt greens and he had to drive only a few miles to supervise and build the work. Vern laid out a fine set of holes, well-suited to the equipment of the day and his original green complexes are some of the very best on the sandbelt.

With time and the longer ball, his dogleg holes very often made for tee shots played with irons to stop from running through the fairway and into the trees. It was a criticism well made by Tom Doak in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses and it was a thrill for John Sloan, the late Bruce Grant and me to have been able to move some tees around and, hopefully, make even better golf.

Likewise, at Rosanna, I had the chance to move a number of Vern’s original tees but the quality of the greens make them unmistakably Morcom’s. I was also entrusted with making Metropolitan’s par-three 19th on the site of a ‘lost Morcom’ hole. When the course was rearranged in the very early 1960s, American architect Dick Wilson was told the road between Metropolitan and Huntingdale would be widened. Morcom’s hole suffered the unnecessary fate of turning into the club’s tip site.

It was an excellent location for a short hole and the new hole captures the essence of Morcom’s beautiful par three. My favourite of Morcom’s holes? It’s a difficult question but I’ve always loved the third at Curlewis. A short par four, sliding from left to right, it plays over a perfect piece of land just undulating enough to make it one of the best short 4s in the country.

It is made unique in Australia because of Morcom’s inspired use of the most penal hazard of them all. An out of bounds line all the way along the left threatens the overambitious player who tugs a tee shot to the left. A long iron likely won’t reach the fence but those longer hitters trying to drive it up around the front of the green better beware of even the marginal left shot.

Boundaries are an important part of the game in Great Britain — see the Road Hole, Carnoustie’s sixth and the opener at Prestwick — and Vern’s hole shows off the principle better than any other in Australia.

Toby Cummings' book perfectly chronicles the importance and breadth of the Morcoms’ work. They were a remarkably talented family, one which literally shaped golf in the southern states of Australia, and they left the game much better than they found it. The Golf Courses of Vern Morcom is published by Ryan Publishing in Melbourne. It was written by golf enthusiast Toby Cumming.

Vern Morcom image
Vern Morcom was one of Australia's best architects.

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