Date: September 22, 2016
Author: Martin Blake

A fitting venue for a great championship

This is the 15th time Australia's national Open has gone to Royal Sydney, the jewel of the inner east of Sydney, just a short iron shot away from the magnificent harbour.

Carnegie Clark, who was the professional at Royal Sydney, won the first Open at the club in 1906 just two years after the championship had been inaugurated, and again at Royal Sydney in 1911, the first two visits of the Open to Rose Bay.

Clark is a legend of Australian golf, born at Carnoustie in Scotland, he became known as the father of professional golf in this country. He was crucial in the setting up of the PGA in Australia, serving as president of that organisation for 20 years, as well as winning three Opens himself.

Built on sand, Royal Sydney was originally a links course, treeless and heavily-bunkered. Between the formation of the club in the late-19th century and 1909 there had already been four courses, all in the vicinity of the current site at Rose Bay. In 1922, there were more than 360 bunkers on the course, a fact that disturbed Dr Alastair Mackenzie, the famous Scottish golf architect who had a look at Royal Sydney in 1926.

Mackenzie was often credited with designing Royal Sydney but this is incorrect; in fact he laid some bunkering and made some notes, calling the ground "adaptable to the construction of holes, which should compare favorably with the best championship courses in Britain".

But the great architect said the course was too penal. " The course however, suffers from similar defects to those which are almost universal in Australia and these are due to the fact the design and construction has been done from a penal standpoint instead of strategic one. Few bunkers are of any interest… bunkers on the sides of the fairway are not only little interest but actually create bad players owing to their cramping effect.

"Three quarters of the bunkers at Rose Bay should be converted into grassy hollows. "I am suggesting a completely new scheme of bunkering, which will have the effect of giving alternative routes to every class of player and thus providing enjoyable golf to everyone."

Over the years, Royal Sydney changed dramatically. From 1980 to 1986 there was a redesign performed by Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge where all the greens were changed, and then later Ross Watson was engaged to change some more holes. The process continues; the American architect Gil Hanse has been hired to remodel the course again over the next few years.

The old course has seen some mighty players and great winners. Gary Player, South Africa's hall-of-famer, won by a shot in 1969, his fifth Open win on his way to a record seven. Player led throughout and held on to beat Guy Wolstenholme on a tough final day when the scoring soared. In modern times, two Royal Sydney Opens stand out: Aaron Baddeley's incredible win as a teenaged amateur in 1999, and Rory McIlroy's titanic tussle with Adam Scott in 2013, a head-to-head duel between two of the world's hottest players that drew comparisons with the Nicklaus-Player contests of the 1960s.

Baddeley, a Melburnian,  had been born in the United States where his father Ron was a Formula Ford racer who headed the crew for the legendary Mario Andretti's team before settling back in Australia. He was just 18 when he stepped up at Royal Sydney in 1999 in a field that included Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie and all the best Australian professionals.

He had enjoyed a fine amateur career, representing Australia at the Eisenhower Trophy and winning the storied Riversdale Cup in the same year as he played the Open for the first time. But nothing could have prepared the public for what happened.

Baddeley went 67-68 on Thursday-Friday to take the lead, and would not wilt. He was bulletproof, seemingly impervious to nerves. His putting stroke — done in just nine seconds over the ball — was incredible. Norman challenged him on the final day but the Victorian matched the Shark's 69 and won by two shots.

A new star of Australian golf was born, the youngest-ever winner of our No. 1 tournament and the first amateur for 40 years . "I remember hitting the ball well but I putting really well,'' Baddeley told Golf Australia on a return to Royal Sydney for the 2013 Open. "Then coming down the stretch on Sunday I hit a lot of good quality shots especially at 16, 17 and 18. So it was big week for me emotionally and career-wise, but then I didn’t realise how big it was at the time. The goal that week was just to play well. I thought it would be great if I could win, but then didn’t realise how big the win actually was.''

The 2013 Emirates Australian Open at Royal Sydney represented a watershed for the tournament after it had declined for a few years from the halcyon days of Nicklaus, Player, Palmer and Thomson. Adam Scott returned to his home country as one of the premier players in the world, having broken the infamous Australian drought and winning the Masters tournament at Augusta National in April of that year.

Golf Australia and its partners managed to lure Rory McIlroy, who at 24 had already won two majors before a slight lull. The scriptwriters had this pair going at each other on the final day, and Scott played his part, winning the two lead-up tournaments, the Masters and the PGA Championship, so that he was in line for the so-called Triple Crown.

The Queenslander delivered on promise with an opening 62, a course record that set the town talking, taking the old course apart with his length and precision iron play. He was not headed until the 72nd hole of the tournament, and it was McIlroy who made it happen in the most dramatic finish to the Open in recent times.

The par-four 18th at Royal Sydney is the best ampitheatre in Australian golf. It turns left at halfway and heads up to an elevated green with the backdrop of the wonderful, old clubhouse. On that afternoon, there were tens of thousands of fans around the green to see if Scott, four shots ahead at the start of the day and still one ahead as he stepped on to the 18th tee, could hold on.

But the homecoming hero could not. His eight iron second shot landed on the green but with the pin cut back, it bounced hard and ran into a swale behind the green. With the door slightly ajar, McIlroy hit a beautiful short iron to five metres, rolled in the birdie for a closing 66, and Scott could not get up and down to force a playoff.

While the result was not what most of the crowd wanted, there was new-found respect for McIlroy who would soon launch into a world No.1  position and win multiple majors. But the result was immaterial anyway. The Open  was back to its glory days.

Royal Sydney Open winners:

1906 Carnegie Clark
1911 Carnegie Clark
1922 Charles Campbell
1928 Fred Popplewell
1934 Bill Bolger
1946 Ossie Pickwroth
1956 Bruce Crampton
1969 Gary Player (South Africa)
1988 Mark Calcevecchia (USA)
1994 Robert Allenby
1999 Aaron Baddeley
2006 John Senden
2008 Tim Clarke (South Africa)
2013 Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland)