Well that was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Today we played one of the most revered golf courses on the planet - Royal Melbourne (West). Depending on who you're talking to, it's the best in Australia and among the top 20 tracks in the world. Putting the politics of rankings aside it's one hell of a golf course; one you'd never tire of playing. Dr Alister MacKenzie - once you're finished your drink - take a bow (apparently he was partial to a tipple).
It's hard to describe a place like RM. First you've got to separate your own experience from the preconceptions, expectations and prejudices; then you've got to find the appropriate words. What I was most taken with were two things: first, the luminescence of the grasses (the fairways being a rich forest green, the greens being a glowing olive colour); second, the design of these magnificent 18 golf holes. Stunning stuff.
We were due to tee off at 7.30am, which is early by any standards but becoming the norm for us. We were meant to be playing the East Course too, but due to a happy series of events which I'll soon share, we ended up playing the more famous West course. What a treat. It was dark when Mike & I pulled up and met Bill - Michael's dad's mate whom we played with yesterday at The Heath - in the carpark. Bill was like that relaxed kid that lived right next door to school, in the sense that he'd stayed as a house guest the night prior at Victoria GC (see Day 77), a couple of hundred metres round the corner. We'd risen a good hour and a half earlier. And were a bit dusty.
Once we navigated the locked gates and fingerprint ID entrance, we came across the Head Steward (whose title was printed proudly on his RM standard issue bomber jacket - very suave). The chap wasn't too enamoured with Goldy's jeans and t-shirt look (unsurprising), so we asked him where the locker rooms were. To his credit he did well to hide his suspicion and courteously pointed us in the right direction. Sunscreen and mozzie repellant were diligently applied - as per our daily routine, safety first - before we made our way into the pro shop to meet John, a charming chap who was doing well to manage the increasing flow of traffic through his shop. John sorted us out with cards, maps, and got us to sign the visitors' book - a ritual that makes you feel like you're part of something old and cool. Or like you're staying at a friend's holiday house. Already the atmosphere of the place was giving me the warm fuzzies.
Being so early in the morning we took John up on his kind offer of a bucket of balls, and loosened up our stiff-as-a-tax-lawyer bodies before the Main Event. I thought my wrists were going to break after my first practice swing. Fortunately they didn't.
When we eventually reached the 1st tee (East) after an hour of messing 'round, a party from Mudgee (NSW) had beaten us to it like Amundsen pipped Scott to the South Pole. How disappointing. These fullas were a 14; we were a 3. At the time I thought they might be gracious enough to let us sneak away, as of course we wouldn't be holding them up. No such luck. They had to be at Kingston Heath by lunchtime, to play their second round of the day, so wanted to get off without delay. Fair enough, I suppose. At this point a very nice gentleman by the name of Peter - down from Royal Canberra for a conference - cheerfully told us that our 3 ball was now a 4, and we were only too happy for him to join us. Only problem was it was shaping us a slow round, something that could tarnish a much anticipated experience.
So we did what we are prone to doing and pushed our luck - by asking John the pro very politely in our best'est schoolboy tone whether, in light of the circumstances, we might be able to play the West instead. The course has just recently been brought back into play, after a number of fairways have been relaid, so John kindly obliged subject to the caveat that we wouldn't see it in its full glory and therefore any opinions formed should be done so with this in mind. Fine by us; we'd appreciate the design of the holes all the same.
With a spring in our step we marched back to the 1st tee (East) and let Bill & Peter in on the change of plans. They were thrilled. As you would be. And so we stepped onto what must be one of the most famous 1st tees in world golf (pictured above). As John said you can land 2 jumbo jets on the 1st fairways; it's almost wider than it is long. It won't surprise you to hear though that I missed it (by a couple of inches, but a fairway missed all the same - March being stats month and all). I think it could have been twice as wide and I'd still have missed it, the occasion of the shot getting the better of me.
Above is a picture of the 2nd green, which I think illustrates nicely the character of the place. RM while iconic doesn't have the gargantuan features that other famous courses have. Its features are confronting yet subtle; although I'd love to play the course again to get a second take and maybe pick up on a few more idiosyncrasies. And just to play it again. Because it's no less than other wordly.
Take the 3rd green (pictured below). The hole is a short par 4, which doglegs left from a slightly raised fairway. I hit 2 iron to the right hand side of it, and had a 9 iron in to a back middle pin. My ball pitched pin high - coming from a decent height - but still rolled off the back. When I got there to put my bag down I looked back past the pin, and noticed the green slopes front to back. Had I known from the fairway I would've taken one club less and chased it up there, but you don't notice first time round. Never mind - I chipped it in for the first birdie of the day! And the subtlety of MacKenzie's design wasn't lost on us.
The 5th hole is a famous par 3, and I can see why. You play a 7 iron or so across a gully to a raised green surrounded by what must be half a dozen deep bunkers. Behind the green is ti tree; short of it a Valley-of-Sin-like swail gobbles up anything hit less than flush. God forbid you hit it to the back of the green and have a 30 footer down to the front pin, as I did - a putt that would have been even more daunting had the greens been tournament speed. 2 putt was a relief.
The 6th hole (pictured below) is one of my favourite par 4s we've played this year. That and the 3rd at St. Andrews Beach (down on the Peninsula) stand out in my head, along with a couple at Kingston Heath and the 5th at Kinloch back in NZ. Oh and the 18th at Private Course X in Sydney. Then there's 16 at Kauri Cliffs. Whatever. Anyway, the 6th. Fairway snakes left to right, and you can bite off as much as you can chew over the dogleg, hoping like hell you don't end up short in the heather. There are bunkers between said heather and the fairway for good measure. Fortunately I got all of my driver and flew it 270 or so - with a slight block - onto the carpet, leaving a full wedge in to a raised green. It's just a beautiful golf hole.
The next was an uphill par 3, again over the heather. Both mine and Peter's shots landed and halted a few centimetres over the front bunker, leaving tricky stances over our birdie putts (see picture below). Happy to 2 putt, again. Bill the sidewinder that he is guided a gentle fading 6 iron in to 5 feet and rolled in the putt for birdie. Casual as you like. After bolting out to a seemingly impenetrable lead Michael and I now found ourselves well and truly in a match. Young Guns versus Old Boys.
Meandering through these golf holes one can't help but feel part of something special. Who knows whether the aura that grips you fades as you play the course more and more - I'll ask a member when we meet him for dinner tomorrow night. I doubt it's something that gets lost on you. The colours, the variety, the surrounds; really it is inspiring stuff. Four par 5s; four par 3s; strong par 4s; short par 4s; elevated tees; elevated greens; pot bunkers; waste bunkers; dogleg lefts; dogleg rights; back right to front left sloping greens; front to back sloping greens; upturned saucer greens - RM West has it all. It's the goods.
The 12th (pictured below) was one of the most majestic par 5s I've ever played. It has some similarities to the 3rd, in that it's a dogleg left played to a raised fairway. Bunkers off the tee sit there asking to be carried - very much a case of bite off what you can chew. Unfortunately I had one of 3 consecutive shockers and didn't get to play the 12th as it should be played. But I managed to stand back and appreciate (and photograph) one of golf's greatest sights. Looking from the fairway over the heather to the green tucked away in a cranny, your heart jumps a beat. Mine jumped a few when I hooked a 3 iron into the ti tree. Standing on the 10th green in regulation I was even with the card; standing on the 13th tee I was 5 over par, after a 3 putt, a loss of concentration on the strong par 4 11th and a debacle of a performance on the 12th. Fortunately i managed to play the remaining 6 holes in level par, for a 77. Mike played some good golf but let a few get away, and ended up with 82.
Most importantly the match with the Old Guard was halved - after Peter chipped in for birdie on 18 to trump my par! Jammy rascal. To be fair Peter had been quietly and patiently rolling the ball past the edge of a few cups on the day (he's a very competent 9 marker), so it was about time that one dropped for 'im. Probably a fair result in the end.
It's beyond my capabilities to do RM justice by written word. You'll just have to take what you can from our amateur photography, and perhaps even refer to the RM website for the official spiel. If you ever get the chance to visit, jump at it. Hallowed ground like this humbles and thrills you at the same time, no matter how your golf is. The members here are lucky folks indeed.
It'd be remiss of me not to mention the club sandwich that Bill kindly shouted us in the opulent sheds afterwards. Such is my tendency to get preoccupied with trivial matters. I'm not sure whether Dr Alister MacKenzie the man himself designed these sandwiches too, but they're a work of art. A part of me died when the sandwich was finished, because by then there were no more bites to look forward to. As usual I digress.
Poor Peter had to hurry off to a meeting, as most businesslike people do. Ditto with Bill, who had a presentation to deliver to Fosters (about the latest trends in New York cocktail bars - he has a glamourous job). Mike and i just went out onto the practice green for a few more putts, taking in the atmosphere and trying desperately to prolong what will no doubt be a long cherished experience. Then we did our usual shower / bryl cream routine and moved on. (Yes, we're becoming old men, hanging out in these traditional golf / gentleman's clubs).
Back to Kingston Heath went. Of course. With a reason, i might add. Walking the fairways there were a few American chaps, and Mike Hauser our pal from Tourism Victoria. The tourists were John, Chris & Tom, from New Jersey / New York. John (Sabino) has an interesting story to tell, and that's what drew us to go see him. His goal is to play the top 100 courses in the world (rated as at 2003). His quest began 14 years ago, and today he was ticking off number 90! Which means before today he's played 89 of the top 100 courses in the world...and paid for it! Chris & Tom are on the same mission, but aren't quite as far down the track as John. John's blog, by the way, is here.
The three of 'em were relaxed as you like, American gentlemen. Spending an hour or so walking some of the holes with them that we'd hacked it round yesterday, we got the sense straight away that golf for these high fliers is just as fun on 22 March 2010 as it was when they were kids. No grimaces; no swear words - just smiles, banter and mutterings about Tom's hankering for "Boags" (as in the Tassie beer, which apparently he's been wolfing down in the past few days).
Anyway. We swapped a few war stories with the lads, exchanged business cards and wished them well. John & co have kindly offered to help us out Stateside, and invited us to stay with them at their homes (or at least John did; Chris' invitation came courtesy of John, who instructed Chris he should be extending the same courtesy as John himself had!). Looking forward to meeting up with them on their home turf, and will have to give them a few tips about Kauri Cliffs - one of John's last 10 to play - before he heads there next year.
Our amazing day - Day 81 that is - continued along the same path when we met our hosts for the next 2 nights, Stu and Tania. Stu had contacted us out of the blue recently, after seeing our segment on Fox Sports, and invited us to stay with him in Berwick (outer eastern Melbourne suburb). Needless to say we took him up on his kind offer and here we are, sitting in his lovely 3 storey house, sipping a few glasses of the fine wine he distributes with his brother-in-law - Massoni. Beautiful chardonnay, for you wine lovers out there. Sangiovese and shiraz were pretty approachable too! Combine that with good conversation, his freshly made spaghetti and a comfy double bed - and we've had a sparkling evening.
P.S - for those new followers, check out some of our videos (also linked through prior blogs) on youtube under puregolf2010
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