Eighty years after Alister the Great made his historic visit to Australia—creating Royal Melbourne, among other classics—another artist appraises the architect’s work
The bartender at the Prince of Wales looks like Ray Davies wrote “Lola” for her: She has clearly not always used the Ladies. At six-feet tall and with bleached-blond hair, she cuts a striking figure, and in a voice that is indeed a deep dark brown she tells me they are all out of Coopers Red.
All right. I’ll take a VB, then.
I’m in St. Kilda, Melbourne’s seaside suburb, five miles southeast of downtown on Port Phillip Bay. I’ve just completed an Australian music tour—just me, my guitar and my songs, old and new. It’s been twenty years since my former band’s only tour down under, when, with just two albums to our name, we were bona fide pop stars. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions played three big sold-out shows in Melbourne, but we didn’t much care for the place, particularly the deathly dull Central Business District (CBD), where we were put up. If only we had done our homework: We were just ten minutes by cab from St. Kilda, which in the eighties could give Hell’s Kitchen and the East Village a run for their money.
It’s been cleaned up over the years—the hookers and junkies are long gone, and the hipsters have left for the now-vibrant CBD, replaced by tourists and the young well-to-do. Today’s St. Kilda offers a wealth of bars and restaurants, as well as the beach. Still, I wouldn’t quite call it gentrified, and many locals remain, as do stalwart landmarks like the Prince of Wales.
Over the years, I’ve often carried a set of clubs along with my guitars, but as a rule the world’s great cities present few opportunities to balance the golf life with making a living. Take New York: The courses you want to play—Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot and the rest—you can’t. Most clubs around London accept visitors, but you can’t play Sunningdale in the morning and make lunch in Piccadilly, at least not without a helicopter. In Melbourne you can essentially do just that—play Royal Melbourne before lunch, Kingston Heath after, and be back at your hotel for a walk on the beach before dinner.
This is pretty much my plan for the next five days. I’ve chosen St. Kilda as base camp because on top of everything else, of all the “inner city suburbs” it’s the closest to the golf. Sipping my Victoria Bitter, I reflect that the life of a not-quite-washed-up songwriter isn’t so bad. Especially when it brings me to places like this—the most cosmopolitan of Australia’s major metropolises, and the perfect golf city: Melbourne.
There was no Augusta National and no Cypress Point in 1926 when, acting on advice from the R&A, the Royal Melbourne Golf Club brought Dr. Alister MacKenzie halfway around the globe to redesign its course. And yet in three short months, his presence would elevate design standards to dizzy, unforeseen heights, and then inspire and invigorate an entire golf nation. Really.
To offset expenses, MacKenzie’s hosts brokered his services to ten other clubs, including Kingston Heath, Victoria and Metropolitan. They also arranged for the architect to be assisted by 1924 Australian Open champion Alex Russell and greenkeeper Mick Morcom. They made a perfect team: Morcom, a kindred naturalist spirit, applied his wild, rugged aesthetic to the course construction, one that makes MacKenzie’s bunkering in Melbourne quite distinct. Russell, for his part, simply “got” MacKenzie, who promoted him almost immediately to design associate in Australia. Russell is credited as co-designer of the West Course, and he laid out the East in 1932, with Morcom again constructing. There are highly regarded courses in what has become known as the Sandbelt that do not bear the stamp of MacKenzie, Russell or Morcom, but not many.
Precisely defining the Sandbelt today would require its own essay, and it would inevitably be a controversial one. There is no consensus as to its borders, and what local club wouldn’t want to claim to be a part of it?What it is, though, is quite simple: an area of land southeast of the city blessed with sandy soils that are ideal for golf. Terrain varies from boldly undulating to utterly flat. None of the Sandbelt courses are oceanside, but none are more than a couple of miles inland. Royal Melbourne is ten miles from St. Kilda, and Peninsula is twenty. Golfers who take my advice and book rooms in the city will not be troubled by commuter traffic: Cars will be bumper to bumper coming into town when you are striking out.
We head out in my friend Don’s car around 6 a.m. on a dreary Sunday morning. There will be no fair-weather players at Royal Melbourne today. I’m not bothered by a little rain, and there is no need to worry about Don—he’s the maddest golfer going. He claims to be gainfully employed, but he logs more course hours per week than anyone I know back in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s been four years since I last saw him, rather worse for wear, with his perfectly sober girlfriend in a hotel bar after the final concert of my tour. He had read in the local press that I was planning to play golf while I was in town and offered to host me at his club, Metropolitan, while his mate Wally would do the same at Royal Melbourne—saving me about five hundred dollars. As that night wore on he went from describing my concert as having been a “beaut” to a “cracker” and eventually, when he could barely stand, it had been “absolutely ripper!” I worried that our night out had jeopardized his then-nascent romance, but what do I know?They’re engaged now. He’s got it made. He’s also got my number: To date I’ve never beaten him, a fact neither of us forgets.
Wally, who is hosting us again, meets us in the pro shop, and under umbrellas we make our way to the first tee of the West Course. It’s an unassuming opener for what Nick Faldo has said “might just be the best golf course in the world.” Almost as wide as the first at the Old Course, you’d have to be Ian Baker-Finch circa 1997 to lose a ball here, but the green falls away from the player, so it’s no easy par. Today, nothing is an easy par for me, and bad golf being infinitely more tiring than good, it’s an uphill round.
Despite my game, despite the weather, MacKenzie’s masterpiece still shines. This corner of the Sandbelt was originally called Sandringham. Sadly, most of the native vegetation was wiped out by development: roads, houses and, ironically, golf courses. Only Royal Melbourne chose absolutely to embrace what nature presented. Everything in sight is indigenous—I can’t think of an inland course that seems so completely natural. And the golf is glorious fun: undulating terrain on a grand scale; turf firm and fast with the spring of a dance floor; immense, immaculate greens; and cavernous bunkering at once rugged and artful.
Even given its generous width, Royal Melbourne is not an easy course. Few holes reveal their secrets to the debutant. Take the short par-four tenth: The green is drivable, but it’s blind. Wally hits a three-iron to lay up and seems happy with it. He’s longer than I am, so I hit three-wood on the same line and, for once, stripe it. Bad idea. Wally has a full wedge, but I find myself too close to the green to hit a spinning shot. There is nothing on the tee to tell you which shot to hit. Yes, the bold golfer is rewarded here, if he can execute. But the reckless player, while he may not lose his ball, will not win his match. On this day I lose, but I will be back. And I agree with Faldo: The West is really something. Don’t come all the way around the world to play it just once.
In the afternoon, the sky having brightened to a slate gray, we play the East Course, which has some great holes of its own, the best of which are integrated into the composite course that’s played when the club hosts the pros. The land, however, is clearly the second choice on the property, and the surrounding neighborhood can obtrude uncomfortably. Nonetheless, some regard Royal Melbourne East as the second-best course in Australia, and it certainly is a must-play, though on this trip once will be enough for me. After thirty-six holes, I’ve taken quite enough of a beating for one day.
All bets are off at Metropolitan Golf Club the next morning, my innocent nightcap having metamorphosed into an all-hours poker game with seven charming strangers. I feel like a zombie and am unable to muster even a practice swing, so naturally I smash my first drive straight down the middle of the fairway. Stupid game. Unable to think, I am unable to overthink, and I become a par machine—three up on my nemesis after nine, at his home course.
Metro is known for its difficulty. Rightly so, but although it is a long, strong course, it is also flat, and because of the inordinate amount of roll, yardages don’t play anything like the numbers on the card. MacKenzie was consulted on the design and he did submit a plan, but what was and was not implemented remains very much a gray area. Much of the course dates from the early 1960s, when half of the original land was lost to city development and Dick Wilson was brought over from America to create a new nine. Still, there is plenty of width to reward thoughtful play, and to be honest, for “sneaky short” players like me, it makes a pleasant change to see your drive careering out there far closer to the green than you have any right to expect.
It is the green complexes, though, that make Metro worth a visit. They are exquisite, with deep bunkers that look like Matisse’s jazzy lithographs and cut right into pristine putting surfaces that are kept firm enough to reject anything other than well-struck shots. Most are raised somewhat and surrounded by closely mown swales, creating the impression of more elevation change than is really there. Lob wedges did not exist in MacKenzie’s day, but I’m sure he’d find repeated reliance on them just as uncouth as he did the pitch shot. It is no surprise that Victorians like Stuart Appleby and Geoff Ogilvy are known on Tour for their short games: Growing up here, you need all the shots.
As I awake from my reverie and revert to my usual game, Don inches his way back into the match. I find myself one up going to the eighteenth hole—an uphill par four. No amount of Metro roll could make this one anything but a brute. A gargantuan bunker protects the front left of the two-tiered green, making the approach, a long iron at best, a far more attractive prospect from the right half of the fairway, which is bordered, quite correctly, with more bunkers. Not for the faint of heart. After two surprisingly good hits and an awfully weak putt, I have five feet left for a par, a half, and the match. The ball goes in. The monkey is off my back, and Don is off to work (apparently he sells software). For me, it’s a meet-up for lunch with “Clayts.”
Born and raised in the suburbs of Melbourne, Michael Clayton played the Australian and European tours from 1982 until 2000, winning the prestigious Heineken Trophy in 1994. The next year he started his own course-design company. It’s done well, the highlight to date being Clayton’s codesign with Tom Doak at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania. Clayton is also retained by Kingston Heath, Victoria and several other Sandbelt clubs, and is widely considered to be the preeminent authority on these courses. With an eye on entering the Senior British Open in a few months, Clayts wanted to brush up on his game, and I want to tag along and pester him.
He’s also a member at Metro, so I ask him what exactly it was that MacKenzie did there. “I don’t think anybody really can point to anything specific,” he says. “He was very complimentary about the course. The real influence of MacKenzie was to alter the way people thought about the game—and that it wasn’t about punishing every bad shot.”
After lunch we head to Victoria Golf Club, where in 1954 the trophy cabinet displayed both the Claret Jug and the British Amateur trophy, after Peter Thomson and Doug Bachli brought them home. It has maintained its reputation as the local players’ club—2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy is the current star member. It is a burly, man-size course with a clubhouse to match and, bordering Royal Melbourne, its terrain is similar to that of the West Course.
By 1995, however, much was amiss. What had been a wild, exhilarating challenge for its first forty years had been systematically tamed. Against the advice of Thomson, trees had been planted and they had slowly choked the course of its indigenous heath and bracken, its width and, ultimately, its identity. Further “beautification” undermined the design intent and the course’s integrity. To restore this lost character, Clayton’s company was brought in. His team set about rebuilding the dramatic MacKenzie/Morcom bunkers to the original specs—vast and brutal. Waste areas were reinstated, rough was replaced by short grass, and trees were removed—not enough of them, if you ask Clayton, but it was still progress.
Playing with the resident architect is entertaining, illuminating—and difficult. An inch or so over six feet and solidly built, Clayton looks comfortable in his own ruddy skin, as if he’s been outdoors in a V-neck sweater most of his life. Which he has. He plays from the tip of the tips and sometimes even beyond them, from where he tells me the tee should be. A true golf obsessive, not even slightly jaded, he remains in awe of great design and freely fires off endearingly salty tirades against those who subvert it. His enthusiasm is infectious. Ogilvy, for one, is now a keen student of golf architecture, crediting his interest to rounds played with Clayts. That makes sense to me: After just a few hours on the course with him, I feel as if I’ve attended a seminar more valuable than all of the design books I’ve pored over. But I’m not overwhelmed. He keeps it simple and trusts his instincts; I’d call his design philosophy “pragmatic minimalism.” He emphasizes the importance of routing and green complexes and believes that if these make the best use of, and blend in with, existing contours, then there will be less need to bulldoze. Works for me.
Clayts hits it only a club or two longer than I do, but his score is rather more than one or two better. What I learn is that good players don’t need the bombed drive or the forty-yard cut shot, because they almost never put themselves in a spot that calls for heroics. It’s a baby draw most of the time, or a hint of a fade if the wind, the angle or the green demands it. It’s strategic golf, and you need that around here, but it’s not nuclear physics. What’s the secret of Victoria’s great new first hole?“Hit it down the left,” Clayton says. “Unless the pin is left, then hit it down the right.” Not much to that, is there?But it’s a darned sight more interesting than the hole’s previous stratagem: Bomb one into the bunker guarding the green.
The restoration here is gradual, definitely a work in progress, but the improvement is already huge. Clayton might call my praise premature, but I’ll go on the record: Victoria is a great course again. And his work is not going unnoticed. Rival clubs that only recently dismissed him as more of a deforester than a designer now seek his advice. Sandbelt golf was already great, no doubt. Thanks to Michael Clayton, it’s getting better.
I am up before 6 a.m. the next morning to take a taxi to Clayton’s house, and from there he drives us to the Peninsula Country Golf Club. The name is quite a mouthful, but the club lives up to its moniker, boasting as it does four hundred acres of grass tennis courts and bowling and croquet lawns along with thirty-six holes of golf. Mike’s complete redesign of both courses has transformed Peninsula from an also-ran to a frontrunner that can now claim, along with Royal Melbourne, perhaps the most authentic and ideally contoured golf grounds in the region.
The North has grown in over the last few years and continues to garner praise. Work on the South has only just been completed. It was over this longer, tougher eighteen that we ventured forth. Peninsula South is a course that puts your manhood to the test, and given that my golf today is barely preteen, I get beaten up pretty badly. But I get to watch Clayton make it look simple enough. The course offers up all the usual Sandbelt suspects: great turf, devilish bunkering and a real variety of green complexes, from the simple to the roller-coaster. The fairways offer plenty of width, but precision and shot-shaping are prerequisites for scoring, notably on the reachable par fives, where a drawn ball can be fed onto the putting surface by the contouring of the surrounds but any misjudged shot will stop short or find one of the bunkers.
That afternoon, Clayton drops me off at Kingston Heath Golf Club, where I’m joined by my Internet buddy, Rich. We “met” at an online golf forum, so I know he knows his architecture, but as for his game, I have no idea—we’re meeting in person for the first time. I’m one of those people who believes you can tell a lot about an unfamiliar playing partner by looking at the clubs in his bag. Rich’s are new, high-tech and very clean. If he had used iron covers I would have suggested a wager right then and there. He addresses his first tee shot looking stiff and tense. His backswing is overly long and his right elbow flies out, but somehow he returns the clubhead to the ball with considerable force and precision, sending it some three hundred yards down the middle. My weak, heeled fade is barely within sight of it. “We should have a match, don’t you think?” I squeak. “What’s your handicap?”
I can’t think of another instance in which a one-handicap golfer so fully deserved to be called a sandbagger—or a bandit, which is the term we prefer in the British Commonwealth. Rich shot an easy sixty-nine, and the generous six shots I received were not nearly enough. Nevertheless, Kingston Heath is a course that can beat you without precipitating tears. It is simply a joy to play.
When MacKenzie came to Kingston Heath, he saw the genius of the existing routing and was smart enough to leave it well alone. He bunkered the course—famously, beautifully—and this does provide the primary defense to scoring. He added only one original hole: the fifteenth, an uphill par three over a sea of bunkers to a treacherous reverse-L-shaped green. It’s only a mid-iron, but the wind is always a factor, and the seemingly safe play from the tee leaves the player above the hole, on a green where one simply can’t afford to be there. Only a perfect shot is rewarded and, against all odds, that’s just what I hit. Our match being already over, I was playing for pride, and I cut a choked-down five-iron into the wind and watched it finish ten feet from the cup. Of course I missed the putt—my stroke was long gone by then. The fifteenth may be the only world-class hole on the course, but it is the consistent quality and strategic challenge of the other seventeen that make the Heath one of the best courses on the planet. Whereas the West Course at Royal Melbourne will bowl you over with its beauty, floor you with roundhouse after roundhouse, Kingston Heath gradually seduces you—by its grace, its elegance and its sophistication—into a submission equally inevitable.
The club couldn’t be friendlier, the white brick clubhouse charming in a way no modern structure seems able to be (I’m sorry, modernists, it’s true), and there is an inclusive atmosphere that I wish the grand British clubs could emulate: Casual attire seems equally as acceptable as formal wear. Furthermore the bar serves Coopers Red. If and when my wife agrees that we should move to Melbourne, this is where I’d like to be a member.
Back at my hotel, exhausted, I start packing. I know I’ll be in no state to do a decent job of it after dinner at the Press Club. Modern Greek is not a cuisine that one hears much about, but in Melbourne, which has the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Athens, it is all the rage.
We’re seven tonight: Don and his fiancée; Clayton and his wife; and two other friends, Helen and Susan. The mood is festive. It’s goodbye to me, but I’m not going out with a whimper. The options are overwhelming us, so we agree to share a tasting kerasma menu—a Greek word that means, we’re told, “to treat.” Wave after wave of delicacies arrive, filled with surprises. The meal culminates with the roast meats, the pig sending Helen into paroxysms of pleasure reminiscent of Meg Ryan at Katz’s. When the feast ends, we can barely move. Still, we manage the short walk to a favorite dive, Cherry Bar, for a nightcap. Clayts and I look like pathetic undercover cops, but we don’t care. After a couple of Maker’s Marks and twenty minutes of unsuccessfully trying to have a conversation over the jukebox, we concede defeat and the old folks are off to bed.
In the morning my taxi gets me to the airport with time to spare. I check in and make my way though security to passport control. The young inspector looks over my papers and, with a sober countenance, informs me that my visa had expired the day before. I swallow. “That’s not good, is it?” I bark, unable to offer useful comment. “No sir, it’s not,” he replies, before adding with a smile: “No worries, mate. Enjoy your flight.”
While there is no nonstop service to Melbourne from the U.S., direct flights via Auckland are sixteen hours (minus one day). Golf is played year-round in this mild climate, but remember, our summer is the Australian winter.
Where to Play
Kingston Heath Golf Club (5 stars)
Kingston Road, Cheltenham.
D. G. Soutar, 1923; Alister MacKenzie, 1926.
The Royal Melbourne Golf Club
West Course (5 stars)
East Course (4 stars)
Cheltenham Road, Black Rock. Architect: Alister MacKenzie, 1926 (West) and 1932 (East).
Victoria Golf Club (4 1/2 stars)
Park Road, Cheltenham.
William Meader, Oscar Damman, 1925; Alister MacKenzie, 1927.
011-61/395-841-733, victoriagolf.com.au. Rooms available.
Metropolitan Golf Club (4 stars)
Golf Road, South Oakleigh. Architects: J. B. MacKenzie, 1908; Alister MacKenzie, 1926; Dick Wilson, 1961; Michael Clayton, 2006.
Peninsula Country Golf Club
South and North (4 stars)
Skye Road, Frankston. Architects: Gordon Bernard Oliver, 1925; Michael Clayton, 2007 (South). Sloan Morpeth, 1965; Michael Clayton, 2004 (North).
011-61/397-892-222, peninsulagolf.com.au. Rooms available.
Where to Stay
Everything about it is, as Kipling might say, “just so.” Service is attentive but not intrusive, the decor is stylish and, although the rooms are on the small side, St. Kilda’s many enticements ensure that you won’t spend too much time indoors. 2 Acland Street, St. Kilda.
The place to stay in the Central Business District. It offers a tastefully lit club atmosphere featuring dark woods and muted colors. 26 Flinders Street, CBD.
In lovely South Yarra, this small boutique hotel and spa on a quiet tree-lined street is just a short walk from the Royal Botanical Gardens. The hotel of choice for visiting celebrities. 14 Murphy Street, South Yarra.
011-61/ 398-688-222, thelyall.com.
Where to Eat
Melbournians love to eat out. Pick up The Age Good Food Guide, co-edited by John Lethlean, who gave me a crash course in the city’s culinary history. Here are a few of his favorites.
(Mediterranean) This converted beach shack serves fish and chips and pizza downstairs, high-quality cuisine upstairs. 30 Jacka Boulevard, St. Kilda; 011-61/395-255-555, stokehouse.com.au. $/$$$
Lau’s Family Kitchen
(Chinese)For the brave and timid alike. Try the hot and spicy Singapore noodles. 4 Acland Street, St. Kilda; 011-61/385-989-880, lauskitchen.com.au. $$
(Contemporary) For my money, maybe the best brasserie in the world, Paris included. 169 Domain Road, South Yarra; 011-61/398-207-888, thebotanical.com.au. $$$
(Modern Italian) A CBD treasure. Pair the whole grilled fish with a South Australian riesling. 11-25 Crossley Street, CBD; 011-61/396-633-000, becco.com.au. $$$
Rockpool Bar & Grill
(Contemporary) In a casino, it’s the place for a wagyu-beef burger. Crown Complex, Southbank; 011-61/386-481-900, rockpool.com.au. $$$
(Modern Japanese) Barbecue, sushi, low-table dining and karaoke. 25 Market Lane, CBD; 011-61/396-500-848, shoyamelbourne.com. $$$
The Press Club
(Modern Greek) Chef George Calombaris’s latest venture. Reservations essential. 72 Flinders Street; 011-61/396-779-677, thepressclub.com.au. $$$$