Royal Melbourne Golf Club
We played the West Course at Royal Melbourne Golf Club! Oh my god, we played the West Course! It feels remarkable to be able to say that. Especially considering it wasn’t something that we thought that we ever would be able to say! However, they say that good things come to those who wait. And we are living proof of that!
It wasn’t the first time we visited Royal Melbourne. We happened to arrive in Melbourne in December of 2019, at the same time as The Presidents Cup. Coincidence? Well, we will let you decide, but we did not let this opportunity pass us by and attended the event. Because of the tournament, the golf course was closed to outside play. However, we were armed with a plan of traveling Australia for 6 months, and we knew that we would be returning to Melbourne, So, we confidently left the city, unknown to us that COVID-19 would change everything.
After emerging from the initial COVID lockdown of 2020 in July, we started our return to Melbourne. However, the city went into another lockdown shortly thereafter, one that lasted 111 days. Undeterred, we decided to travel and see parts of Australia that we hadn’t planned on seeing and play more golf than we had planned on playing. All while vowing to return to play Royal Melbourne. Little did we know that it would take a full year to return.
It was in early July of 2021, and through the sincere generosity of a member, we received an invitation to play! A plan was made to play in the afternoon of August the first. The tee sheet wouldn’t be open for a couple of weeks, but we eagerly accepted the offer!
However, COVID wasn’t finished with us yet. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and a new variant of the epidemic was beginning to make headlines. On the 16th of July, a snap 5-day lockdown was announced. It was quickly extended to 11 days, and we anxiously held our breath to find out what impact that might have on our invitation.
But fate was in our favor this time, and the lockdown was lifted on the 26th. Our hearts soared, and to rid ourselves of cobwebs that had settled in our swings, we optimistically went to the practice range at Lonsdale Links.
We received a note that tee times on the West Course for August first were full with member play. Since members had been in lockdown and hadn’t been able to play, everyone was eager to get out to the course. But luck continued to be on our side when we received a thoughtful follow-up suggesting that we play an early morning during the week.
Preparing to Play The Royal Melbourne Golf Club
Giddy with anticipation that is normally reserved for Christmas morning, we arrived early and were the first car in the car park. Putu, our amazing campervan, might not have seamlessly fit in with the cars that were bound to follow, but it didn’t matter because today was a bucket list day!
It was a cold morning, and we did our best to warm ourselves on the practice range. The sun had yet to rise, and we were rifling tee-shots with marginal effect, nervous but excited of the round to come. Our gracious host walked up and introduced himself, and we felt immediately warmed by his hospitality.
Designed by the legendary Dr. Alister Mackenzie, the West Course is ranked fifth in Golf Digest’s 2020 World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses edition. Measuring 6646-yards from the Blue tees, and 5677 from the forward Red tees, par is 72 at the West Course.
Due to Club and State measures against COVID, face masks were mandatory on the entire property.
Built on Enormous Sand Dunes
Our knowledgeable host told us that Dr. Mackenzie constructed the 504-yard par 5 fourth hole around one of the enormous sand dunes found on the property. Using the sand dune to his advantage, he routed the hole up and over the ridge. With a trio of fairway bunkers on the left, the tee shot on the uphill dogleg right is blind. If we learned anything during our day at Kingston Heath, we learned that fairway bunkers are key to any measure of success on the Melbourne Sandbelt. Focusing on the bunkers as my target, I hit driver solidly. I watched nervously as it came down right on target, carrying the bunkers and finishing on top of the ridge on the left side of the fairway.
In our golf travels, we have found that Mackenzie typically provides opportunities to the green if you are able to put your tee shot in the correct positions. However, the fourth at the West Course may be the exception to his standard. Because Menekse found the center cut of the fairway but was forced to contend with the 3 enormous bunkers that protect the large green on the right. There is a ridge that almost divides this huge green into two, so be sure to check the pin placement when considering your approach.
The Famous Fifth at The West Course
The 176-yard fifth is the first par 3 on the West Course and is one of the greatest par threes we’ve ever played. Dr. Mackenzie arrived for his productive visit to Melbourne in late October of 1926 and left for New Zealand in early January. Construction had started on the West Course while he was here, but it wasn’t anywhere near complete when he departed. Except for the fifth hole. With his complete trust in Mr. Mick Morcom, RM’s brilliant head greenkeeper, he was confident that they were on the right track, and he boarded a ship heading for Titirangi.
With views of both the West and East Courses, the setting of the fifth tee is striking. That is until you see the green in the distance because that view is an intimidating endeavor. Slightly uphill and surrounded by hazards, the green beyond a canyon appears microscopic!
It was a cool winter August morning, and my back was finally beginning to loosen up. With two bunkers left and three deep bunkers right, I grabbed 6-iron, hesitant in my selection. Picking it clean, I was immediately happy with the solid strike. It was still a little dark, and I couldn’t see it land. We found it resting long of the green and I was left with a terrifying downhill chip that was left short.
Perfectly Positioned Ground Hazards
Royal Melbourne’s website has this to say about the 428-yard par 4 sixth: “The sixth is a wonderful example of how to perfectly position a ground hazard on the inside corner of a dogleg.” Perfectly positioned ground hazards indeed!
Playing from a slightly elevated tee, the perfect target on this dogleg right is the middle fairway bunker. If you are able to clear the bunkers, your tee shot should roll out to the middle of the fairway, leaving a mid-iron to an uphill approach.
The sixth green is one of the more severely sloped greens you are likely to find anywhere. And, since it is Royal Melbourne, you know that it is fast. We were told to never hit your approach past pin high. In fact, our host told us a story when he witnessed Steve Stricker, who is often cited as one the greatest putters in the game, accept par by not even attempting to make his downhill 10-foot birdie putt.
Avoid the Deep Bunker
The entire right side of the 148-yard par 3 seventh green is guarded by a deep cavernous bunker, which makes the green feel like a smaller target than it is. Playing uphill, Menekse hit an incredible 5-wood off the tee that just cleared the crater bunker on the right side!
The green on seven is perched on the cusp of the dune and straddles both sides of the ridge. Half of the putting surface is on the left side of the ridge, while the other half is on the right. With the pin situated on the right, I played towards the safety of the left side of the green, being sure to avoid the deep bunker right. I was relieved when my 8-iron landed safely on the left side of the green. As a result of my efforts, I had a difficult 20-foot birdie putt. I miscalculated the speed and watched it roll a good 7-feet past, leading to my first 3-putt of the day. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be my last.
Looks Wide Plays Narrow
Our host told us about a website where a movie is described in four words. The four words to describe Star Wars, for example, are quite obviously Greatest Of All Time. He told us that his mate applied the same for Royal Melbourne. The four words he used to describe the West Course are Looks Wide Plays Narrow. And it’s remarkable how fitting those concise four words are. The fairways are enormous, the greens are massive, and the bunkers are the size of small countries! That said, due to sloping fairways and strategically placed bunkers, if you plan on scoring well, the landing spots are tiny.
This description is especially apt to the ninth hole. The ideal target off the tee on the 416-yard par 4 is the bunker that resides behind the green. The tee shot is hit up over a ridge, towards a cluster of bunkers that shouldn’t come into play on the right side of a huge fairway. However, the fairway slopes quite severely from right to left. If you can’t hit your tee shot into the small spot on the right, your ball will likely run down the slope and finish on the left side of the fairway, or into the rough. From there you will then need to confront the pair of colossal greenside bunkers that occupy the left side.
Armed with the right target, both Menekse and I hit our tee shots well up the right side. From there, we had unobstructed views of the long narrow ninth green. With 137-yards to the pin, I aimed to the right side of the green. Landing pin high, my approach rolled down the slope of the green to the left side. Looks wide, plays narrow!
Dr. Mackenzie’s Brilliant Use of Camouflage
Twelve is a 476-yard par 5 that played as a long par 4 during the Presidents Cup. There are a couple of bunkers on the left side that appear as though they are a mile away. Our host said that the ideal target is to hit it over the middle-left bunker. With plenty of space right, the fairway slopes from right to left, draining into those left-side fairway hazards. From the tee, I was convinced that the bunkers were well beyond the fairway, and I didn’t think there was any way I could reach them. I was astonished when my tee ball easily carried the bunkers, perfectly on target, and my best tee ball of the day.
Also playing tricks on your eye is the grassy heathland that is short of the twelfth green. From the fairway, it looks like this waste area resides tight up to another large green. However, as we got closer to the green, we could see that this was another optical illusion because there is more room between the tussock and the putting surface than it looks.
We were reminded that Dr. Mackenzie was a student of camouflage, and his brilliance at being able to apply this principle is quite apparent on twelve!
The ground around the 147-yard par 3 thirteenth is flat, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the immediate surroundings of the green. There is one deep bunker on the left, and 3 more on the right. Mr. Morcom utilized the dirt that was dug out by hand to build the green, creating an extremely undulating surface.
While the thirteenth may just be a short iron from the tee, the green has a high center that slopes down towards the perimeters. This makes the putting surface much smaller than it is. I hit a good 9-iron that landed pin high but tricked off the steep back. As I made my way around to the rear of the green, I was confounded with a difficult decision. Faced with a shot that had to travel up the steep slope, I would then need to stop it before running past the pin and down the other side. I settled on putter. Worried about running my ball past the hole, I didn’t even make it to the top of the crest. From nearly the exact same location, I made sure my next shot did but walked away with double.
The middle of those bunkers defending the right has a skull-like appearance. Not wanting to make the same mistake I did, Menekse clubbed down. We watched her 6-iron fly the first bunker, but land dead center into the skull bunker! With an uphill shot, she laid open her sand wedge and scarred the face of the skull with a slash of her wedge. Her ball popped up, flew the tall lip, and sat on contact. It was a great shot, and she was happy to escape danger!
The Incredible Sixteenth
I hit what is probably the greatest 5-wood in my life to 15-feet on the par 3 sixteenth! At 221-yards, sixteen is the longest par three on either course at Royal Melbourne. The surprisingly small green is protected by a plethora of bunkers left, and a large bunker right. Similar to thirteen, anything long here will roll off the back of the green.
Knowing that one of the many troubles on sixteen will certainly catch anything but your greatest efforts, Menekse rocked her tee shot over the left-side bunker short, coming to a stop before reaching the right-side hazard. With a clear path to the pin, she pitched up to 10-feet, setting herself up for an easy four. We happily walked away from the incredible sixteenth, both with net birdies!
The Ultimate Strategic Golf Hole
We have great memories of the 439-yard par 4 seventeenth. It was where we saw Tiger Woods during the Presidents Cup. Seventeen played as the ninth hole, and the crowd was swelling. He wasn’t playing, but rather was walking with Matt Kuchar down the fairway in his capacity as Cup-winning Captain.
The seventeenth on the West Course is the perfect strategic golf hole. A pair of fairway bunkers on the left defend the best angle to approach the green. And the furthest of those bunkers is hidden from the tee. There is an abundance of room right, but, of course, the right side will bring the greenside bunkers into play. I hit a solid tee shot to what I thought would be the middle of the fairway. However, the dogleg left fairway slopes significantly from high left to low right, and there was no Titleist in the middle of the short grass. Rather, there I was, down in the first cut of the right-side rough.
The approach on seventeen is then played across a valley. I still had 199-yards remaining to the pin, but because of the depression, it looked much farther. Weary of the bunkers which now lay directly between me and my target, I hit a poor approach left of the green. It ended up not being a bad miss, and I finally made a decent pitch and was able to save par!
Great Finishing Hole
The short 433-yard par 4 eighteenth is a great finishing hole. The uphill tee shot on the dogleg right is blind. Once you reach the crest, the fairway then slopes from right to left. Our insightful host pointed out what appears to be a small pathway that meanders through the bunkers. Take it directly over that pathway, he said, for the perfect target. Grabbing 3-wood, I was able to fly it precisely over the pathway, but I pulled it slightly. My tee shot took the slope and came to rest on the far-left side of the fairway.
Closer to the bunker, but also slightly left of the target, Menekse’s ball was above her feet on her approach. Expecting it to draw, she was surprised to watch it fly straight to her target, a bunker on the right side of the green. Luckily for her, the bunker is well short of the green. Visual camouflage, Dr. Mackenzie’s favorite!
Immersing Ourselves in the Experience
After golf, we sat and enjoyed a light lunch in the Russell Room. The room is named after Alex Russell, designer of the East Course. We had come to admire Mr. Russel’s brilliance when we played Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club in New Zealand.
A knowledgeable connoisseur of the game, and especially of his Club, our host gave us a tour of the stately Clubhouse after lunch. We were awed by the Mackenzie Room and took our time examining the many old black and white photos, as well as the original Alister Mackenzie drawings of the West Course. Lining the hallowed hallways are old square toe vintage clubs, mementos of the Club’s extended history, and countless other treasures that would make a golf collector blush, and we fully immersed ourselves in the experience.
Known as the Cathedral of Australian golf, Royal Melbourne is, without doubt, THE premiere Club in Melbourne, and one of the most prestigious Clubs in the world. It has a pedigree that most Clubs would be envious of.
Everything about Royal Melbourne is on a grade scale. The scale and sense of magnitude are overwhelming. Large fairways, large greens, and even larger hazards. The West Course is a timeless masterpiece that asks a player to find the best angles and requires a precision that we do not possess. And, on some of the greens, a 3-putt felt like a heroic effort!
We were simply in awe playing the gem of the Melbourne Sandbelt. There was a smile on my face, and sparkle in my eye that comes with persistence. We must admit that we didn’t play great, but at the same time, we didn’t play bad. But who cares!
Dreams Do Come True
After 18 months traveling throughout Australia, multiple visits to Melbourne, and numerous COVID lockdowns, the West Course at Royal Melbourne Golf Club was a true privilege and was worth the wait!
The West Course is the ultimate on any golfer’s bucket list. And it easily was the golf course in Australia that we had wanted to play the most. It is the crown jewel in our golfing adventures. As we drove Putu out of the car park, we turned on the radio to hear the news that as of 8:00 pm that day, Melbourne would plunge into another lockdown. It is a lockdown that the city is yet to emerge from as I write this a full 9 weeks later. However, the horrible news on the radio didn’t damper our spirits and had no effect on the huge smiles on our faces. Because our dream came true, and we fulfilled the ultimate goal of our golfing travels in Australia. We played Royal Melbourne!