WINE, GOLF AND SONG
(in the print article headline the word WOMEN was crossed out and replaced by GOLF)
Ordinarily, I end my Australian tours in Melbourne, stay on a week or so and play golf in the best golfing city in the world. Last November, though, as I was beginning to put this year’s schedule together, The Hawke Institute at the University of South Australia contacted me and asked if I might consider becoming a visiting fellow, to talk rather than sing, to walk across the greens of Adelaide and perhaps sample a local red or two along the way. I e-mailed Mike Clayton: “Fancy a few days of golf in Adelaide? And could you bring the clubs I left in your office?”
Thus began Mike and Lloyd’s excellent Adelaide adventure.
When I first encountered Adelaide as a solo performer in 2000 it could politely be described as sleepy. Its chief selling point to the visitor was that it was small and walker friendly. Only a vibrant Chinatown caught my eye, and the locally-brewed Coopers, of course. Things have changed, and some.
More than a billion dollars have been poured into the Riverbank precinct – the Adelaide Oval and Convention Centre expanded and modernised, and the casino is following suit. A vibrant small bar scene has emerged and there is an embarrassment of riches for diners. The Victoria Square project has revitalised the CBD, transforming the existing architecture with the magic of open space. Stand in the square on a clear night and look around – the city shines. Nineteenth century sandstone juxtaposed with towers of glass, ancient trees with intelligent fountains. The old town embraces the new … the new town embraces the old.
I meet up with Mike at the airport – I’ve flown in from Brisbane with my giant suitcase, synthesiser and the usual two guitars – exhausted after a seven-week tour, and frankly a little reticent about playing 90 holes in three days. Mike has come from Melbourne with the clubs and no rain gear. It’s late June, chilly and damp. Our hotel is the Adina, in the old Treasury building just off Victoria Square, about five minutes’ walk from the vibrant Gouger Street, Chinatown and pretty much anything one might need after a full day of golf. On the first night we take the advice of my food critic friend, John Lethlean, and visit Park Lok, two blocks removed from the bustle and a spot few, if any, tourists would stumble upon. We dine excellently and talk LPGA and golf design in a serenity most welcome to my aching body and psyche. Back at the Adina I’m pleasantly surprised by the Treasury bar – it’s cosy with old wood and well worn red leather, excellent staff and bourbon selection – the opposite of your typical hotel bar. We have indeed lucked out.
I say “we” … Mike has gone to bed. I nurse a nightcap and consult
Four clubs sit above all the others in Adelaide – all are on the same strip of sand, ideal for golf, which runs parallel to the coastline and close to the airport. All are within a kilometre or two of the ocean, none is more than 30 minutes’ drive from our hotel in the CBD. And we can thank one man for all of them. Without “Cargie” Rymill there is no Adelaide golf, as we know it today.
And you’ve never heard of Cargie, have you? I certainly hadn’t … Herbert Lockett Rymill was born in Adelaide on August 19, 1870. Circumstances could easily have consigned him to an easy life among the idle rich, but at the age of 32 he was saved from croquet and shooting when he caught the golf bug. He immersed himself in the game and became a keen student of course design.
By 1904 he was chairman of the greens committee of the Adelaide Golf Club, then based in Glenelg but looking for better land. Upon inspecting the Seaton sand dunes which would soon become the new course, he said: “I have never seen St Andrews, but if it is like this – buy it!” The current layout at Royal Adelaide, as it is now known, is still based on the routing submitted by Cargie and club captain Dr Harry Swift, and agreed upon by the committee. His influence grew, on the course and within the club, and he was all but the autocrat of his ambition until he overstepped in 1911. A bunker too far. Ousted from absolute power, he resigned. Not a team player, but by no means finished either.
If the Seaton course was Cargie’s first love then Kooyonga would be his life love. He stumbled upon the sandy tract of land, fortuitously for sale, hastily established the club to buy it, designed the course, and moved house to be next to it. In 1923 he travelled to Britain to study the great links and to consult with a prominent course architect, likely Herbert Fowler of Walton Heath fame. By 1924 the full 18 holes were in play but Cargie continued to fine-tune the design, adding land, lengthening the course and planting trees. He never stopped, until after ten years of rule and devotion, he was again ousted by the club committee.
In 1926, Cargie was contracted by the nascent Grange Club to design what would become their West course. Much of his routing still remains. The same year he produced a plan for the Glenelg Golf Links Ltd. The relationship was short lived, but much of his intent seems to have been implemented, more or less, for the front nine.
It’s at Kooyonga Golf Club that we begin our golf, on a cool grey Monday morning and with one look at the property it’s easy to feel Cargie’s excitement. This is ideal golfing terrain, if not technically linksland, then for all intents and purposes it offers the same opportunities for golf. The elevation changes are seldom extreme, but always creating nuance and challenge, and as the round progresses it becomes clear that when it comes to sites, Kooyonga is on a par with any club in mainland Australia.
The course opens with back-to-back par-5s, the second of which is a real beauty, snaking through the dunes. In the 1965 Australian Open, Gary Player started 3, 3, shooting 62 en route to victory. The tournament was held at Kooyonga five times, the last in 1972 with Peter Thomson the champion. After a few holes it is manifest that today’s professionals with the modern ball would not be adequately tested, but there is plenty to test the rest of us, the examination peaking on the front at the wonderful 8th hole – a dogleg par-4 with a severely sloping fairway. Only a well-struck drive up the left will leave a view of the green, anything else will fall to the right leaving a longer, blind shot to a well-bunkered green with drop-offs all around. From this, the apex of the property and the design we can survey the course, and what we see is fabulous land, and a lot of trees … an awful lot of trees. Mike and I spend a few extra minutes here wondering how great this hole, and the next, would be if these trees could be removed … a huge sandy crater would remain. How much fun would that be to hit over? This conversation is extended over the remainder of the round, applied to hole after hole.
In 1972, these trees would have been tall and proud, but they would not have choked the course, as they now do, in places. There is only one glaringly poor hole at Kooyonga today – the botched redesign of the short par-4 5th hole, which could be easily fixed. The rest are fine holes and great ones. Mike singles out the great variety found in the 10th through the 13th holes. Back-to-back par-3s to follow add a charm, quirk and no mean challenge. Still, there are at least half a dozen holes that could be improved with better tree management.
This is the one caveat when it comes to playing with course architects – they cannot fail to see how a course could be improved, and often the focus is on the negative; the positives don’t need fixing and are simply enjoyed. There is much to be enjoyed at Kooyonga – the land is great, the routing is great, the turf is great, the bunkering is great. It’s a great course … that could be really great, really special, as it once was. Maybe the greens committee will look at the photos of the course hanging in the clubhouse taken in the 1920s. It looked amazing!
Cargie’s Rymills were the preeminent family in Adelaide golf in the first half of the century, but since World War II it’s the Crafters who have taken that mantle. Murray and Brian won numerous state Opens and PGA titles between them. Murray’s son Peter is a golf pro and Brian’s daughter Jane is arguably the best golfer South Australia ever produced, male or female. It’s her brother who greets us at Glenelg Golf Club and will partner us in the afternoon.
No slouch himself – a four-time state amateur champion, Neil represented Australia in the Eisenhower Cup and since 1980 he’s been a golf architect, like his father and uncle were. The Crafters have been part of the Glenelg club for more than 50 years, and hands on with the course design and upkeep since 1981, so it’s not surprising that we find a consistency of philosophy and aesthetic throughout the property. The routing weaves through dunes and wetlands with the initial gentle terrain giving way to bolder contours, particularly the run of holes from the 8th through 12th offering magnificent grand-scale golf. As Mike puts it, “One of the best runs of holes in the country that isn’t Royal Melbourne or Barnbougle.”
Neil singles out the skyline green one-shotter 3rd as a personal favourite. The green is large but the middle is the play, such is the potential for disaster for the short-sided miss. It’s 200 metres uphill and into the wind as we played it. The proper golfers hit 3-woods, I hit driver and made an improbable ‘sandy’ from the dastardly front left trap. The 7th was, until fairly recently, a marginal short par-5. Now it’s a testing par-4 that Neil is particularly happy with. The idyllic greens complex and surround bring to mind Birkdale, or Nairn. The feel is completely natural, but in fact these dunes were man-made and also function as screening as the course border lies just beyond them.
I wasn’t going to single out any holes myself as my lasting impression of Glenelg is one of a project which has maximised its potential. It’s hard to imagine the course much better than Neil and his cohorts, over the years, have made it. But I must mention two. The opener is an elegant delicate hole, with water short left and long right but neither should trouble a decent shot. It’s a drive and a pitch, or a long iron then a short one. The green is nestled below a pair of dunes to the left with bunkers and a pond right. All I will say about my performance on this hole is that I’m not drinking red wine with lunch and then trying to play golf directly afterwards ever again. Coming up the home hole I was swinging a little better, I’d lost – Mike had put on a shot-making clinic, as usual – and it had been a real privilege and insight to play the course in the company of its guardian.
Neil’s bunkering needs mentioning. All 93 are revetted-edge style – like the Old Course – but shaped more in the Alistair MacKenzie sandbelt style. No hole showcases them better than the 18th. A stunning array of them, cut into a large dune with the clubhouse above, must be negotiated if the long hitter is to reach this par-5 in two. For the rest of us they frame our lay-up magnificently and should we misjudge or mis-hit, the dreaded pitch from sand remains, with a lake lurking long. Up the hill to the locker room and back to the hotel, we’ll meet Neil for Chinese food in an hour or so.
Gouger St is busting out all over. Cheap Asian joints are filled with kids, wine bars with the well-to-do. Wah Hing sits right in the middle of the melee, offering relative tranquillity and great salt and chilli dishes. Neil chooses a local wine and I order for the three of us. You wouldn’t cross the planet to eat here, but it is fine food. We talk golf. Tasmania (the future), club politics and Kooyonga … are its best days consigned to the past? It should be a better course than Glenelg, if we must rank them, but it isn’t and there’s a simple solution: cut down the problem trees. But will they? Good news – Neil has just been appointed as consultant. I’m sure it’s softly, softly for now, but fingers crossed, in a few years I might be writing the “Kooyonga is back!” article.
It’s still dark and drizzling when we arrive at The Grange Golf Club. Tuesday is ladies day and if we are to play all 36 we need to get out before them. We waste no time and drive off on the East course. Mike still has no waterproofs, I’m not sure if he owns any, but has at least added a layer, admitting a day later that he was a little chilly yesterday.
It’s a wide welcome Norman’s team offers us on the East and as we leave the 1st green I’m already most impressed with the shot options and the contouring of the green complex. The land on which the first six holes are laid out is far from ideal: flat, bordering marshland, and yet there isn’t a dull hole and we are enjoying having the course to ourselves. I’m particularly impressed by the short 4th, a dogleg around the marsh followed by the demanding long one-shotter to follow. There are no trees anywhere near these holes so the wind will always be a factor. Mike notes that in the previous incarnation of the course the 4th was a rather dull par-5, so hats off to Norman’s team for turning one poor hole into two excellent ones!
As we work our way back towards the clubhouse, the terrain becomes somewhat more interesting. The 9th hole is a par-5 with a ‘Cape Hole’ drive, one which Greg I’m sure would relish. There’s plenty of room to play safe, but you won’t get home in two from there. Bite off too much and you’re in the wetlands … great stuff.
The back nine is on much better land, higher up the property and the course takes on more of a heathland feel as the scale of the course goes up a notch. What was already a serious test of golf becomes downright difficult, almost relentless. But the course remains wide. Errant drives are not often in the woods, merely in the wrong place to attack the greens which, more often than not on the back nine, are perched above swales and bunkered on the low side.
This is a course you’d love to play on a sunny day when your game is on, and even in the drizzle, getting thrashed again, I’m not blind to its quality. It should be noted that the East can be played at a length that would test today’s best golfers. If professional golf should return to Adelaide, this would be an ideal course. And the hole that would polarise and perplex them the most? The impish par-3 15th hole. I adore this hole. After hours of struggling to hit it far enough, we are asked to hit a half-wedge. If we want to pick hairs, to find fault with the East course, it would be that the bunkering, while excellent, is a little predictable. Their shaping is so perfectly Royal Melbourne-ish that it feels a little computer generated, as I’m sure today it must be, and their placement becomes less surprising as the round progresses. Still, this is minor, and as we will see after the afternoon round, Norman’s East course makes an excellent foil to Mike’s West.
In the 1950s the Grange hired Vern Morcom to redesign its course. The club was so happy with his work that in the ’60s they brought him back to build another one. And that was pretty much the story until 2005 when Mike’s design company was engaged to rework the old course, by then known as the West. The assignment was to place a premium on strategy and this was done by repositioning bunkers, re-orientating many of the greens and adding width to the fairways. Apparently some of the members think he made it too easy. They probably rue the passing of steeplechase bunkers, too. Mike also sides MacKenzie when it comes to the weak players – there is no need to punish every bad shot. The game is hard enough when you’ve just hit a weak slice or a pull hook. I can vouch for this.
If Norman’s course is bold, maybe a little flashy, Mike’s is restrained, demure. The edges are less defined, rough fades into sandy waste. Trees frame, but at a distance, rarely coming into play. Bunkering is far more random seemingly, in shape and placement, and the greens are gentler in contour, in keeping with the terrain which has less of the extremes of the East. The West is never dead flat, but rarely are the contours bold. The Grange is very lucky to have two excellent courses with such distinctly contrasting characters.
The West’s tone is set beautifully on the 1st – a short par-5 with trees left and sandy scrub along the right. A good drive and a well-struck second could get you there or thereabouts but the green is well-guarded by a front bunker and falls away to the right. The shorter player, or if maybe your first drive wasn’t perfect, will lay-up and will certainly be intimidated by the gigantic bunker lurking just to the right of a wedge shot. The short par-4 2nd is a birdie hole, but with bunkers placed right where the longer and shorter hitter would drive to, caution and accuracy are required. From the 3rd hole, the West shows its teeth and the better player will be happy to make pars.
Respite comes at the 7th, shortened by Mike and driveable for the long hitter, but again, very cleverly bunkered. If you were just off your game playing the West, you could find yourself faced with a lot of those tricky length sand shots. The beautifully natural looking 8th is only a short iron over sandy waste scrub and fescue but the target is small and any miss other than short right is likely bunkered.
Continuing the round the severity of the test ebbs and flows. The walk is easy, the turf springy; it’s no pushover but it’s a course you could teach your kids on or play with your father. You wouldn’t want to try that on the East. The finish is strong – the 16th is long and demanding and the 17th is Mike’s choice as the best hole, across the most interesting terrain on the West. Placement of the drive is critical as anything left or right will have a blind second shot to a raised green guarded by a hollow short and a deep bunker to the right. The 18th is a drive and pitch to an undulating green where pin placement is key to the decision on the tee. It’s not unlike the home hole at a certain old course in Scotland.
For dinner we meet up with our mutual friend James Bennett, a Golf Australia magazine ranking panellist who I played Glenelg with some years ago and who knows absolutely everything about Adelaide. Over fish and chips, it’s a great catch up with James, who on the previous visit had taken me for excellent Indian food at Jasmin on Hindmarsh Square, a short walk from our hotel. He’s a member at Royal Adelaide these days so we head back to the Treasury well prepped for our final match.
We drive to Seaton on a bright, misty morning for our final round of the adventure. Royal Adelaide Golf Club is unquestionably the premier club in town, having hosted numerous national opens, professional and amateur championships, and for many years would have been ranked only behind Royal Melbourne’s West course when listing Australia’s best courses. It’s the only course in Adelaide that can claim the MacKenzie signature, but the evolution of the course has been far from simple and to properly detail it would require another article altogether.
In short, in 1926 the ‘Good Doctor’ was enlisted to overhaul the Rymill routing. Eleven new greens were built, penal bunkers were filled in and several of the new holes were routed boldly through the dunes rather than, as previously, around them. Now there were natural sandy amphitheatres and heroic carries through the pines and over craters. But many of his recommendations were received by the membership with considerable vocal hostility. Many were rejected. Work on the plan ceased in 1929 and today much of MacKenzie’s vision remains only on paper. The map of his proposed course is framed and on display in the clubhouse.
In the ’50s and ’60s, for course improvements the club consulted Vern Morcom, then Sloan Morpeth and from the ’70s onwards Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge. New greens were constructed, mounding and additional bunkers added. Most significantly, the course was lengthened considerably. It was a severe test the players faced in the 1998 Open. Greg Chalmers won with even-par. Maybe that was the goal. By 2008, when Mike’s firm was asked to submit a masterplan, the course read like a great novel rewritten by half a dozen fine authors and edited by committee. Mike’s idea was to hark back to MacKenzie’s plan, to restore and renovate the course in a manner true to his vision, but also accommodating the modern game, and to establish a cohesive aesthetic throughout the course.
Much needed to be done, this was clear, but somehow or other, it was agreed that they would enact the most radical reworking first, the now infamous 17th. The hole was remodelled, the membership mostly hated it, and the plan put on ice. It sits now, on the wall, just along from MacKenzie’s. American designer Tom Doak was hired to ‘fix’ the 17th. It still isn’t right. There is, as of writing, no Doak plan for the whole course. But if the club can entrust the course to Tom and his team, and leave him to it, I’m sure he can restore its greatness and more still … but will they?
The land at Seaton is mostly wonderful. To quote MacKenzie: “Real links land … a most delightful combination of sand dunes and fir trees.” But there are also flat heavy paddocks and it’s across one we drive on the 1st, an excellent opener, a shortish two-shotter with bunkers on the right guarding the ideal line to a tricky, almost Redan-like green. A par-5 gets us up the hill to where we need to be to play the famed 3rd. I could play the 3rd all day. The short par-4 is the only hole remaining exactly as MacKenzie intended, its mutton leg-shaped green is guarded by a ridge to the left and a dune to the right. Quite beautiful and inviting like a siren … once we know the hole, that is. The tee shot was originally completely blind but now a tall flagstick lets us at least know where the cup is. With driver in hand Mike assures me that in all his years playing tournaments here he never chose this club – it’s too risky. He proceeds to hit a perfect little draw just short of the green. I pull hook into the trees. We halve in pars. It’s that sort of hole. Eagles can’t be that rare, and Monty’s score is the most famous but he is certainly not the only one to have carded an eight here.
The next hole presents the first of MacKenzie’s heroic drives, blind between firs and needing a decent hit to carry a large crater. Better players will think that the crater is purely cosmetic, eye candy, maybe a test for kids. I can attest that it isn’t. The middle holes on the front are strong but not among the more memorable. But things are looking up – I’m not three down yet and for the first time on our visit the sun is out, and it’s a beautiful day.
The first par-3, the 7th, is an old-school beauty – a mid-iron slightly uphill to the only square green remaining from Cargie’s days. Deep bunkers guard the front and sides and through the back the ground falls away steeply into unwelcoming brush. The pavillion greets us by the next tee. No halfway hut this, it has all mod cons and a plaque commemorating the very generous benefactor we have to thank for it. Unfortunately, to my eye it looks like something one might find on a Donald Trump course, next to a fountain. It is fully at odds with the wonderful natural looking holes it overlooks. The next of which is the exquisite ‘Crater hole’, the 11th. The fairway tilts right to left but is blind from the tee and it’s another heroic carry over a bunker set in the face of a dune if we’re to find it. After a good drive it’s a short iron to one of the most idyllic greens in all the world – set in a wide hollow in the shade of a huge pine-covered dune. I climb the dune to the 12th tee with the perverse sadness I sometimes feel leaving great holes. The members will play it again tomorrow, but when will I?
It’s a long downhill par-3 that awaits, which plays and into the prevailing wind to a small, upturned saucer, Donald Ross-style green. It’s a tough hole asking for a crisp baby draw. Mike duly obliges with his persimmon 4-wood. Thirteen is a fine strong par-4, the entire hole falling to the right. The approach from the left is shorter but the angle worse and it is semi-blind; from the right it’s longer but the contours short and left can feed the rolling shot onto the green, as I found out with my best 3-iron in years after a poor drive. The run of fine holes crescendos at 14, one of the very best really hard holes. Another bold carry is required to reach a plateau from which we are asked to play a very long shot, between framing pines, to a very small green well bunkered with a swale short. We both hit what we thought were good second shots and both wind up in the swale.
The 15th is a craftily bunkered short par-5 and a lesson for designers in how to make use of flat land, 16 is a fine long iron par-3, and then there’s the notorious hole. It’s a long, strong par-4, for sure. But it seems to me that it’s Doak, this time, who has gone a bunker too far. The cluster short and right of the green looks awfully busy to me, and I can actually hear detractors saying it doesn’t look like Royal Adelaide and sympathise, well almost. What does Royal Adelaide look like? There isn’t a cohesive look or feel. Just lots of great holes.
The 18th, in what seems to be the Adelaide tradition, is a drive-and-pitch to a green separated from the practice green by a bunker then a ditch. Great fun can be, and I have heard, has been had with a right-to-left wind as the clubhouse is in play! And it is a beauty, a large, low white-roofed brick affair with exactly the atmosphere you’d hope it would have. Only a tiny bit stiffer in the collar than its neighbours,
but certainly very welcoming to the writer and Mike, who still seems to be on perfectly good terms with the club. I didn’t dig any deeper than that.
The cheese was excellent, the red wine sublime, and, full disclosure, it was every day, courtesy of Four Reds (see story on page 119). Mike is off to the airport and I’m back to the hotel to pack and make notes for this article.
After dining alone, I’m back at the Treasury with a Cooper’s Green and my notebook. Conclusions: all five courses are worth going out of your way to play. All four clubs present their courses in excellent condition – couch fairways, bentgrass greens, fescue/couch mix for rough and marram grass and scrub keeping the dunes from drifting. The putting surfaces are all true, all play at a decent pace (faster in summer, I’m told) and all require well-struck shots to hold. There is nothing between them in terms of conditioning and upkeep, with one exception, the tree management is excellent everywhere except Kooyonga. So, if we are to judge them, it’s down to design and its implementation, how the clubs have managed their charge. Both Grange courses and Glenelg do a fantastic job of making the very most of the land they are on, they have hired good people and they have trusted them. The various restorations and renovations have left all three with a distinct look and feel consistent through 18 holes. I can’t separate them. If I was to be a member of a club in Adelaide I’d probably choose Glenelg, if they’d have me, then I could needle Neil to get out and play more.
If those clubs are punching above their weight, then Kooyonga is doing the opposite. It should be the second best, and, depending how things go at Seaton, it has the potential to be the leading Adelaide course. But it realises only a fraction of that potential, and should currently rank lowest of the five. Neil is there now, but will they trust him to do what needs to be done?
The best course is at Seaton, but it should be head and shoulders above the rest, and it isn’t. It’s a course of great holes on great land with no defining identity and that is why it’s not sitting next to Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in the rankings. In Cargie’s personal copy of MacKenzie’s The Spirit of St Andrews, the following passage is underlined: “The history of most golf clubs is that a committee is appointed, they make mistakes, and just as they are beginning to learn from their mistakes, they resign office and are replaced by others who make still greater mistakes, and so it goes on.” In the margin he wrote: “They still haven’t learned this at Royal Adelaide.” Hopefully I won’t be blacklisted by any of the clubs for writing it as I’ve seen it.
Regarding our matches there isn’t much to report. Mike’s game is dull. OK, he carries a 1950s MacGregor 4-wood and hits it beautifully, no need for a hybrid. But other than that nothing special – he hits it in the fairway and then on to the green. Sometimes he three-putts, sometimes he one-putts, mostly he two-putts. My game is far more interesting – sometimes I hit the fairway but often I’m in the rough or the trees and then a bunker, sometimes two. Often I’ve lost the hole before I putt, but I get far more value from the courses than he does. He gives me eight shots, wherever I want them, which is how he lost a par-3 with a birdie. Going into our final match at Seaton 0-4, I needed a win to avoid a whitewash. Did he go easy on me? I don’t know, but I did make par from the trees on the 3rd hole and again from behind a tractor on 16 to win, so I slept a little better.
Publication: Golf Australia
Publication date: November 2014