The Royal melbourne golf club, west course - 18 POINTS
The West Course at Royal Melbourne Golf Club is one of the most venerated, and highly ranked, courses in the world and, of all the courses I was looking forward to on our trip to Australia, it was at the top of the list.
The story of the creation of the West is established in Australian golf folklore. Alister MacKenzie spent a couple of months in Australia in 1926, consulting on many projects over that period. At Royal Melbourne he conceived the routing for the course and then tutored club member and Australian Open champion Alex Russell in how to build the course to his specification. They produced one of his very best golf courses anywhere - and let’s not forget MacKenzie is the man who brought us Augusta National, Cypress Point and the Number 1 course at Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen!
I am not going to do a hole by hole guide to the course. More qualified people than me have done that already. Graylyn Loomis’ guide commentary here does a great job.
Instead here are some observations on what to expect if you are lucky enough to tee it up at this wonderful course.
Spend some time in the clubhouse
We arrived for a very pleasant lunch in the lovely clubhouse. Do make sure you take some time to explore the clubhouse. There are pictures from the original club course - some 15 miles away - and memorabilia galore. The President’s Cup was on display when we were there, just along from the clubs that Adam Scott had used to win the Masters in 2013. A real treasure trove.
Wide off the tee, but choose your lines carefully
For some reason, I was expecting Royal Melbourne to be a relatively tight course but it wasn’t. The whole thing is on a grand scale but you will rarely be intimidated from the tee, with wide fairways in front of you. You will soon realise though that you need to be in the right spot if you want to give yourself a chance of being on the right side of the pin with your next shots. There is significant elevation change over the property and hitting the right lines is often key.
Perfect lies, little rough and fescue collars
The conditioning of the course was great - and that’s the norm these days I understand. A few years ago, Kingston Heath had taken the number 1 course mantle according to one golf magazine, and that was enough for the club to do something about the deteriorating condition of the course. They changed the grass on the fairways to the more resilient Legend Couch - you can read details here
This grass is very resilient in the hot Melbourne summers but that means that the ball won’t run as fast here as you will see at other courses and you won’t get a really firm and fast experience. But it is great to hit from. The ball presents itself wonderfully, just sitting up and asking to be hit! If anything, it’s a little too perfect for some but I’ll take it every time.
Around the greens there is a fairly wide collar of fescue grass to stop the couch encroaching on the green. It does make for a rather unusual look and means that you won’t be able to play too many 50 yards bump and run ons.
Like all sandbelt courses, you won’t find yourself looking for too many balls in the rough. The fairway blends into the scrubby sand and you’ll be able to march around here in no time without bothersome searches for balls! Geoff Shackelford visited the area in 2012 and expressed some concern that the sand was leaving the sandbelt and courses were becoming too green. Whether or not as a result of that intervention, things are a changing and the sand is coming back to the sandbelt (although actually Royal Melbourne was maybe a little greener than Kingston Heath and Victoria). Tom Doak is on the case and has been consulting on some subtle but important changes to keep the course at the very top of the rankings.
This was my first introduction to sandbelt bunkering and it is quite something. They are generally firm-faced bunkers, often tight to the green, with variable depth of sand awaiting you. It takes a little time to get used to the grey sand in the bunkers at Royal Melbourne and other courses in the area but I can categorically say I have never taken as many photos of bunkers as I did on this trip!
Be ready for the greens
Before our arrival we had heard that the greens were running very fast (we heard tales of 15 on the stimp) and the practice green did nothing to dispel this fear. It was an overcast afternoon and the wind was really blowing, taking some putts many yards from their intended destination.
However, when the wind dropped after a few holes the greens weren’t too unplayable. Without any doubt you would benefit from knowing which side of the hole to be on pretty much every green. The ball seemed to run forever coming downhill but you could have a bit of a rap at it up the way. The slopes and contours really got the mind working overtime but they were incredibly true and a real delight to putt on, if slightly scary at times.
All in all, the West Course at Royal Melbourne was a wonderful experience. I have scored it as a very high 18, which puts it in tremendous company. I rated both Cape Wickham and Kingston Heath just ahead of it which may be controversial, but at this level I really am splitting hairs. I just felt that Cape Wickham was close to perfection and Kingston Heath maybe a little more enchanting than Royal Melbourne. However, if you ever get the chance to tee it up here - grab it with both hands, it’s a very special place.
When I return to Melbourne one day, the first thing I will try to do is head back to Royal Melbourne and I am sure my appreciation will only increase with every play.
BOOKING THE COURSE
There are three one hour windows where unaccompanied visitors can play the course - Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings between 10:30 and 11:30am. There is a form on the website you can fill in to check availability. This is a course that doesn’t want too many visitors! It is a real shame that it isn’t possible, as a visitor, to play the West and East courses on the same day. So many people say that playing both courses is the best day in golf, but it’s one that visitors don’t get to experience.
You will need to email the club and await their response regarding tee times, which may take a little time. There is nothing on the website about green fees, this will follow in the email. Hold on to your hat though as it is a pretty breath-taking expense! As an overseas visitor you will play A$750 for the West Course or $550 for the East and then you MUST take a caddy at another $140. So you are looking at A$890 (roughly £500) to play this course. That is quite something - it’s the most expensive tee time of the top 100 courses (of those you are allowed to book as a visitor).
We chose to stay in the centre of Melbourne and travel out to the courses every day. It wasn’t much over 30 minutes and a very easy drive. Melbourne itself has a lot to offer and while we could have stayed closer to the courses it feels like it was a good decision. Melbourne has some amazing restaurants, and phenomenal golf. The other must-play course is the nearby Kingston Heath but, beyond that, there are so many sandbelt options. You are so spoiled, with so much amazing golf to choose from, that you could easily stay here for 2 weeks and play a different course every day.
We also headed just over an hour south to Cape Schanck where the National and St Andrew’s Beach offer something really interesting too.
One other thing I would say is, if possible, make sure you have some spare cash for the pro shop at Royal Melbourne. They have a really good range of swag and this will be one golf course logo you will want to flash around!
For more details of our trip you can check out my blog post here.