The sandy dunes of Seaton in Adelaide’s west have tested golfers at ten Australian Opens. And although only one of those Opens has been for women, it’s that 1994 edition of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open which sits comfortably as the most historically significant week of golf in the 125-year history of the Royal Adelaide Golf Club.
It was the week when young Swede Annika Sorenstam shone the light on her extraordinary talent with the first of 93 victories in a career hailed by many as the greatest ever in women’s golf.
Adding significance to the 1994 event was the first professional appearance of a Queensland 19-year-old, Karrie Webb, who would become Sorenstam’s greatest rival and, with a record five Australian Open titles, leave her own indelible mark on her nation’s golfing history.
But Webb’s introduction to professional golf was hardly a guide of what was to come. She shot 81 around a hot, dry, penal Royal Adelaide in the first round, 13 shots worse than Sorenstam and Victorian amateur Kate MacIntosh, who led the field with course-record six-under-par 68s.
Although she improved ten shots the next day, Webb was never in contention and finished tied 28th as the 24-year-old Sorenstam led by three shots at the half way mark, took a six stroke lead into the final day and ever so calmly strolled to a five shot win over another emerging talent, 22-year-old Australian Rachel Hetherington.
The Royal Adelaide of 1994 was a somewhat different course to the one which will enthral players in 2017 – and not just because it played as a par 74 compared to the par 73 of this year. In 2013, the pre-eminent American course architect Tom Doak was empowered to give a subtle face-lift to what has always been a wonderful, world-class course.
The results have been acclaimed by members and course ranking experts alike and while he is not finished yet, any further renovations have been put on hold for 2017 while the club celebrates its 125th anniversary year, with the 26th Women’s Australian Open the biggest party of all.
Playing its first event on October 8, 1892 and moving to its current site in Seaton in 1905, Adelaide became Royal Adelaide in 1923. But the most significant year in its early history was 1926 when the club engaged the celebrated British golf course designer Dr Alister MacKenzie to make recommendations for improvement of the course originally designed by members.
Contrary to popular belief, not all of MacKenzie’s suggestions were immediately welcomed but as time proved his genius, more and more of his suggestions were implemented. One idea immediately adopted was the third hole, considered one of the best short par-4s in the world – drivable, not a bunker in sight, yet one of Australia’s greatest golfers, Norman Von Nida, once took nine there in an Australian Open.
MacKenzie was also responsible for altering the layout to play through the many sand dunes rather than around them. The blind teeshot on the fourth, the approach over the crater on the 11th, and the charming 14th have become iconic par fours. And from the tee, the par-3 seventh presents one of the most daunting sights in golf, six bunkers in a semi-circle at the front of the green.
The 7th is the only hole Doak has not yet touched but apart from a re-design of the 17th, most of the other changes have been in keeping with the US architect’s minimalist approach. The removal of some excess fairway bunkers, a changed tee-line here, a widened fairway there.
Over the years, like all courses, Royal Adelaide had been altered to adapt to the modern game but with different design consultants came an eclectic mix of styles.
“Doak is not necessarily taking it back to what MacKenzie wanted,” Royal Adelaide General Manager Andrew Gay said. “But he is giving us more consistency with the style of bunkers, getting more sandy waste across the course, and we have gone back to connected fairways. The rough is longer but the fairways are wider. Not necessarily the MacKenzie style but a more traditional style.”
The par-73 layout for the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, played predominantly from the men’s tees, will be an imposing challenge for this magnificent field. And spectators can delight in its variety and versatility. Even without a railway line running through the course and a driveway crossing the 18th fairway, Royal Adelaide is a memorable experience.