Date: February 13, 2018
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: Pro golf at its best at Kooyonga

Not all of Australia’s best courses are made on a bed of sand, but most are.  Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth have abundant pockets of it and the best of the sand-based courses have advanced the country's reputation as a place offering world-class golf.

In no small way is it because the best clubs are willing to hold the best tournaments, something we take for granted in Australia, but not something all that common on the biggest tours of America and Europe.

Melbourne was fortunate to attract the great course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie to redesign Royal Melbourne and his influence pervaded the whole of the sandbelt.

As a part of his three months here in 1926 MacKenzie ventured west to Adelaide and took up a commission at Royal Adelaide. Just as occurred in Melbourne, his philosophy about how the game was best arranged had an influence on the architecture at The Grange, Glenelg and Kooyonga, the venue this week for the Women’s Australian Open.

As it is on Melbourne’s sandbelt there are noticeable similarities between Adelaide’s best courses but each has it’s own distinct character.

Royal Adelaide, where the defending champion Ha Na Jang finished with magnificent shots into the final two greens, is reminiscent of a links despite being a little too far from the sea to really qualify in the fashion of St Andrews, Prestwick or Royal St Georges.

Grange’s West course is not as undulating as Kooyonga, especially its front nine, and the vegetation is much different with Grange being predominantly pine whilst Kooyonga is more a wide array of trees native to all parts of the country.

The one aspect of Adelaide’s sandbelt sure to be consistent is the presentation of the playing surfaces. With the ideal climate for growing grass but allowing for greens firm enough to present for the type of golf MacKenzie supported and encouraged, the courses are always immaculately presented for big championships.

The playing surfaces this week are beyond criticism as are the ‘mowing lines’, a hugely important and underrated part of golf course presentation.

MacKenzie himself abhorred narrow fairways lined with rough because it encouraged ‘cramped and restrictive’ golf, yet it is the path of the American professional tour because straight driving is seen as a particular worthy virtue.

MacKenzie himself preferred the test of the Old Course where accurate driving to a specific part of a wide space well defended by hazards was the test. Augusta National was his interpretation of St Andrews, his way of asking the inland version of the question posed by the game's greatest course. Royal Melbourne too.

A couple of weeks ago at Torrey Pines where Jason Day won we saw such a distortion of a golf course with disproportionately narrow fairways cut so to blunt the modern power hitters. It’s one way to do it and we saw more of the same at Pebble Beach last week, a course which could look so much better and offer up more interesting golf if only it was presented as Kooyonga is this week.

At Pebble Beach most of the shots which missed the greens finished in the long grass borders of rough separating the targets from the bunkers. This week in stark contrast the bunkers are cut right to the very edge of the greens and all the chipping will be done of short grass. But, whilst the lies will be perfect the shots will be far from easy as the shaved banks carry the ball far from many of Kooyonga’s elevated greens and coming back up the hills is no fun.

Unusually the course opens with two par fives, the first of them a three-shotter and the second an easily reachable hole offering the opportunity for an early birdie.

The difficult eighth with its sloping fairway taking less than ideal drives across and down to where the approach is blind is arguably the best hole on the course but an hour with a chainsaw and it might be one of the best half dozen in the country.

The third front nine par five finishes off the front half and it is followed by one of the best runs of parallel holes in the country from the 10th through to the 13th. Consecutive par threes follow, a short one to a tiny bunker surrounded green followed by one much longer but not necessarily any harder.

To finish off its quirk Kooyonga’s 18th is one of very few short par fours on a championship course in Australia. The irony is the other two are within ten minutes at Grange West and Royal Adelaide.

Too much is made of the requirement to finish off with a long par four and this week the finish offers the chance, with one great shot, at a birdie and equally one poor one or one bad decision and five is more than possible.

Kooyonga mightn’t be the best course the LPGA visit between now and Christmas, but if it isn’t, it is surely in the grand final.