Two decades ago, just before he built Moonah Links, Peter Thomson made an observation worth revisiting. He suggested Australia didn’t have a championship course the likes of Carnoustie, Muirfield or Royal St Georges — all courses capable of testing the finest players in the world.
His plan was to make his course on the Mornington Peninsula the equal of anything in the world if difficulty was the measure.
As was usually the case, I disagreed with the great man, reasoning Australia had some of the very best courses in the world. With seven courses in the recently-released world top 100 list, it’s clear top class golf architecture is well to the fore in Australia.
That elite list includes the aforementioned great Open Championship venues and brutally difficult courses like Pine Valley, Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills and Royal County Down. Also making the list are courses most pros would classify as ‘easy,’ the likes of Swinley Forest, Cypress Point and ancient Prestwick on the west coast of Scotland.
The latter three have no ambitions of hosting professional tournaments, despite Prestwick hosting the first dozen Open Championships. They don’t have to keep up with modern technology and can exist entirely as delightful places for their members to play.
In Australia our leading clubs — Royal Melbourne, Victoria, Metropolitan, Kingston Heath, Royal Adelaide, Kooyonga, Lake Karrinyup, Royal Queensland, The Australian and The Lakes — were designed as courses to be played by members but also to test the best amateur and professional players in the country.
They were the top courses in the nation, designed for the holding of state and national amateur championships and big professional events.
What they did brilliantly was ride the line between being wonderful courses for amateurs while still being well capable of testing the best.
As importantly, they were full of holes likely to stimulate ambitious players to add to their repertoire of shots and, thus, improve their games.
The modern era equipment revolution, the most significant change to the playing of the game since it moved from hickory shafts to steel, has rendered these brilliant courses almost obsolete if the measure is how they were designed to play by their architects.
Saying they are ‘obsolete’ is in no way a comment on the quality of the architecture or their worth as golf courses. There is no correlation between difficulty and quality. There are great, difficult courses but just as worthy are the great ‘easy’ courses.
I first played The Australian in an Open in 1978 and played again in 1982, 1990 and 1996. It was always the most difficult championship course in the country, one where par rounds were worthy and well earned.
This week, caddying for the Australian junior champion Elvis Smylie, it struck me just how short the course has become. Of course it’s not actually shorter; indeed it’s longer with new tees at the second, fourth, eighth and ninth holes. But the distance the best players drive reduces formerly long and feared tests down to holes played routinely with drivers and short irons.
The scores are unimaginably lower, breaking 70 is common and the cut is under par.
Fortunately, those who arrange the course haven’t resorted to distorting the dimensions of the course to manipulate the scores. They could do so by narrowing the fairways, growing long grass both along the fairways and around the greens and running them at crazy speeds.
The scores would be higher but it’s not the golf anyone, aside from the sadists, wants to watch and on a windy site, narrow fairways are an unwise way to set the test.
Thomson saw it all coming and beseeched the authorities to do something. But thus far, there has been no movement on the regulatory front in an attempt to resurrect the challenges of the Nicklaus era.
It’s a pity. Unlike Augusta, we don’t have the money to buy up surrounding houses and roads to extend tees. Nor can we do what the R&A do to the Old Course at St Andrews and use adjoining courses.
Lest you think that a joke, at the 2015 Open Championship the second tee was on the Himalayas putting green, the ninth tee is on the New Course, the 14th tee on the Eden and the 17th tee was on the driving range across the old road from the original tee.
If it sounds silly, it is, but no one is building new championship courses, and unless something changes, we’d better get used to it.