The Australian GC has had four homes and six course incarnations since opening in 1882; SAGCA tracks its remarkable history.
As tournaments go the 110-year-old Australian Open is not only the oldest, but also the finest in the country. It is traditionally played on courses amongst the best in the land, indeed highly regarded around the world, and these courses like the event itself are steeped in history. Think of clubs such as Royal Adelaide, Kooyonga, Kingston Heath, Metropolitan, Royal Melbourne, Lake Karrinyup, Victoria, NSW, The Lakes and last year’s venue, Royal Sydney. Only occasionally have commercial forces seen a blip away from the norm, with the likes of The Grand GC and Moonah Links hosting. – Harley Kruse
The inaugural Australian Open event in 1904 was won by England amateur Michael Scott at The Australian Golf Club, the very club (but certainly not the course) where the tournament will be played in 2014. Unlike the relatively untouched fairways of Royal Melbourne (probably the least tinkered of Dr Alistair MacKenzie designed layouts in the world) the Australian Open will effectively be played on a brand new course when it returns to Kensington for the 18th time. The course has had an extensive hole-by-hole makeover and will receive its first tournament test and extensive public showing when players tee off on Thursday November 27.
Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus and his company are responsible for the overhaul; Jack won the first of his six Stonehaven Cups at the 1964 Australian Open at the Lakes GC just down the road from the Australian GC. He would go on to win three at the Australian GC, in 1975, ’76 and ’78. These wins would cement more than a history as champion at The Australian. It would commence a near-40-year relationship with the club where his design company would be involved in two major course reworks.
The simple beginnings of The Australian Golf Club were like many of Australia’s long-standing clubs which experienced early periods of instability. Securing open spaces to play this new game called golf was difficult, as was for this unusual pastime to be accepted into the Australian culture and the broader planning of our cities. Places for golf were never too permanent as expanding cities put competing interests on land use, along with rising property values. Not unlike Royal Sydney’s multiple locations and routings of holes, or Royal Melbourne’s journey from the edge of the City, to Fisherman’s Bend, to Malvern, and eventually its final move to Black Rock, The Australian Golf Club has also had its fair share of homes and courses: In fact, four homes and six courses to date.
1882 – Humble Beginnings
The beginning of The Australian GC was a coming together of likeminded people from the Union Club, a Sydney city-based club who wanted to play golf. CE Riddell, the Secretary at the time and an enthusiast, recorded how the club was able to secure in 1882 the use of part of Sydney Common that had become known as Moore Park. An open stretch of ground extending from Captain Cook Hotel on the corner of Moore Park Road and Anzac Parade (itself a sandy track that wandered over sandy wasteland to the beach). There is no exact record of how many holes were laid out but a common thread suggests six holes “upon which the game did flourish”.
However, this was not to last long and the newfangled sport of bicycle riding, along with the gazetting of Centennial Park and the building of a road through the golf course for the 1888 centennial celebrations, saw what was a flourishing start to the club then languish. A decade of economic prosperity was to come to an end too and in 1891 came the “doleful years”. The economy was poor and The Australian GC no longer had a home. Some enthusiasts would play over at Concord and in 1893 some of these gentlemen decided to organise themselves into the Sydney Golf Club and move to sandy land at Bondi. The Melbourne Golf Club had also been established in 1891.
1895 – Reactivation
In 1895, prominent golfer JW Fletcher decided to reactivate the AGC with the help of Mr GS Yuill who had been the custodian of the club’s assets (an amount in the bank). Thus the “sleeping of The Australian Golf Club” was to come to an end. Wishing to play on land close to the city and back at the Centennial Park area, a meeting in September 1895 saw some 1882 original members plus 11 new members commit to establish an 11-hole course in Queens Park, rent a terrace house in Dennison St for clubrooms, and appoint a Golf Professional-cum-Greenkeeper.
In 1896, a loan from the Union Club allowed the extension of the course to 13 holes. The Cadogan Cup would be played, with 18 holes made up by playing holes 1, 4, 9, 12 and 13 again. A year later a further £25 was allocated for the completion of an additional five holes. Construction of these holes soon progressed – but a big problem loomed. Whilst part of the course was on Sydney City Council land, some five holes were on private land. In July 1898, the owner informed the club that upon the expiry of the lease the land was to be transformed into market gardens.
So with seemingly no record of the entire 18 holes ever being played on, the club decided it had to find yet again a new home. Moving most quickly, two committee members had found new and most favourable land, known as Redman’s Grant at Botany. By early September, four prominent members, including Governor Lord Hampden, had pledged a total of £125, authority was given to borrow £600 if need be, and 15 life memberships of 15 guineas each were created.
1899 – Botany Links
The club indeed moved quickly. In less than five months, on Saturday 18th February 1899, the 18 holes would officially open upon land “adjoining the old water reserve and running from Botany Road by way of Lords Rd down to the shores of Botany Bay” (today occupied in part by Sydney Airport). Scotsman Carnegie Clark would comment most favourably of the sand bunkers, whins, swamp hazards of the seaside course… “Botany was easily the best links in Australia”. The opening with 150 guests took form of a match between The Australian and Royal Sydney Golf Clubs (won by Royal Sydney).
The Sydney Mail newspaper said of the new links: “It has one hundred and sixteen acres of which some one hundred acres is fenced and enclosed and covered with thick couch. A horse mower has been bought and better still there are sheep to keep the grass down. The club has the satisfaction of knowing that it has full control over its improvements which can’t be interfered with by outsiders.”
It was also recorded that: “Scott the Bondi (Royal Sydney) Professional and Taylor the Royal Melbourne Professional expressed their delight with the country and commented on future excellence from a golfer’s standpoint, and generally amateur opinion coincided with this.
The Australian GC became firmly established at Botany; a large mob of sheep were pastured on the course to aid cutting; by 1900, memberships were increased to 200; associate members were being considered; and the rules of The Royal and Ancient GC came into effect. The Australian GC was for the first time a well-established club on 18 holes, and play was busy.
By 1902 however, the security of the club was once again at risk. The Trustees for the owners of Redman’s Grant at Botany would not agree to sell to the club the 99 acres land occupied by the course. Nor would it agree to extend the lease. The prospering club was in a difficult position. It had no real choice to secure its future unless it could find a new home. The search was on – and the preference was to find suitable land closer to the city to reduce the journey.
Suitable land was found at Kensington and inspected by the Captain EJB MacArthur and the Hon. Secretary. A special meeting of members was called in Sept 1903 with the aim to get approval to proceed with acquiring the land “consisting of some one hundred and seventy acres of undulating country with a sand base… the price an astonishing £70 an acre.” The price was negotiated down to £60/ acre and the conditions of settlement were also favourable: 10 per cent deposit with balance over 10 years.
The burden of financing the new land was great and in the end the Kensington Golf Links Ltd was formed with the aim of acquiring the land and selling shares to raise the necessary funds. It was a traumatic time, as the share selling failed and it became the action of one prominent member Dr Ewan Frazer who bought 600 shares and advanced £5500 on mortgage that saw the sale completed. So by the end of 1903 and for the first time in the 25 years, it finally had its own and generous piece of land.
Again the club wasted no time and the experts in golf course design of the day were the club professionals. Jock Hutchinson, Carnegie Clark, and the club’s own professional Mr Martin were each commissioned to submit separate plans for an 18-hole course, with a nine-hole Associates’ course the first of its type in Australia. The winning designer was to receive £5 once the layout was approved and the course constructed. Only three weeks later, on 9 Feb 1904, the submissions were received and Hutchison proclaimed the winner. Some minor alterations to the plans were made before and during construction; Hutchison’s original proposal was for a 5,610-yard 18 holes and 2,030 yards for the inner nine-hole Associates’ course. By the opening of the course for play the 18 holes had been increased to 6,020 yards and nine holes reduced to 1976 yards.
The year of the construction of the new course and clubhouse at Kensington also coincided with the club hosting the inaugural Australian Open Championship in 1904. Dr Frazer was the driving force behind this event and with Kensington under construction, the 5,277-yard course at Botany would host the championship. It was won by English-born amateur Hon. Michael Scott of the Royal Melbourne, Victoria and Drouin golf clubs.
In 1905 the construction of the new course was complete and the Kensington course opened for play. The 1st and 18th holes were up in the very NE corner of the site served from an existing house. The holes went out down the western part of the land to the south and then returned along the eastern part of the site. Essentially on treeless sandy ground with some substantial dunes in parts, the course was an open, treeless links in character although a long way from the sea. It was very popular.
The course would remain essentially this way for the next 35-odd years until member Dr Robert Silverton tired of hot and windy golf and with recruiters to his cause would finally get approval and funds from the committee to plant trees. And plant trees they would! Not a lot would survive the tough sandy conditions; however readily available pines would survive and also give a European look so desirable amongst courses at the time.
Following the 1937 Australian Open, the seventh hosted by the club, there was a call to change the routing from an 18-hole course and nine-hole courses into three interchangeable nines. Alex Russell of Royal Melbourne, much-respected designer for his work on the West and East Courses, was invited. Whilst initial reaction to Russell’s plan was one of disappointment, a revision would see his plan approved in mid-1939. However, shortly after, all moves to implement Russell’s plan were deferred until after the war, although some bunkers were filled in accordance with Russell’s advice. Indeed during the war the Australian military erected gun sites on the short course and the clubhouse had been occupied by the Navy along with American and British counterparts.
With the war over it seems that Russell’s plans had gathered dust and the original intent of his proposed modifications had lost its way. A new committee instead entrusted the club professional W Mackenzie along with Mr J Scott the Greenkeeper at Elanora GC to advise on promised alterations for the courses. In 1947, a special meeting of members was held to consider Scott and MacKenzie’s layouts which made for two starting holes near the clubhouse located on the western side of the course. This was approved along with a new bore which heralded the installation of a watering system for greens and fairways. Now there was a third layout being played at Kensington, although it seems few details of this new course are recorded.
In the 1950s the club entered a period of financial turmoil and focused on the prospect of selling land to assist their financial position. Land along Tunstall Avenue was sold, along with the area of the sand hill on the southern part of the course. This required a redesign of the 5th hole; surveyor and course designer Prosper Ellis was engaged and turned the hole from a par-4 into a par-5. Apart from remodelling numerous courses, Prosper’s career saw him design Federal Golf Club (1946), Belmont Golf Club (1952), Windsor Golf Club (1963), Woollahra Golf Club (1960) and Camden Valley Golf Resort (1964).
Late 1960s – Land for a Major Road
It would seem that Scott and MacKenzie’s design work and that of Prosper Ellis were of creating some realigned holes, new greens and bunkering. Not much would change until 1967 when there was a government instruction to resume land along the western boundary of the course for the construction of what was to become Southern Cross Drive, a major arterial road for southbound commuters and for quick access to the city from Sydney Airport.
Again this called on the need for a course architect to resolve the loss of land and realignment of holes. With previous course designers having retired, or in the case of Alex Russell passed away, the club sought assistance from a new golf course designer. Interestingly the two designers considered by the committee of the day were American Robert Von Hagge, a disciple of Dick Wilson (Metropolitan GC, Blue Monster, Doral) who had been engaged by The Lakes GC for their redesign due to the same road) and New Zealand-born Sloan Morpeth who was Secretary of Commonwealth GC at the time, and considered a keen and practical course designer.
Morpeth was the preferred choice on the rationale that The Australian was an open sandbelt course reminiscent of Scottish links courses. Von Hagge on the other had represented an American style of golf design. By this time it appeared there was already division of thinking behind golf course design which had identified the American design tendency of flattish lies and target golf. Morpeth was also very familiar with the sandbelt courses of Melbourne and the committee felt this approach should continue.
Morpeth’s plans proposed the 18-hole course of over 7,000 yards and the retention of the nine-hole short course. This way, a phased construction plan could also be undertaken without ever sacrificing 18 holes of play. Its completion in 1973 was hailed with great enthusiasm. Alas, Sloan Morpeth died in 1972 before he could see his plan realised.
1976-1980 – Packer & Nicklaus combine
In 1976 came together some thinking of some two very influential men that would change the Australian Open and indeed The Australian Golf Course forever. Jack Nicklaus – the all-time major winner, cemented as the greatest golfer of all-time, had just won the Australian Opens of 1975 and 1976 at The Australian GC. The other – Mr Kerry Packer, a very wealthy club member, benefactor, and head of the family media dynasty. Packer, a big sports fan, saw sport languishing in Australia. There was an opportunity of modernising sports broadcasting and the rewarding of the sporting stars that Australians loved so much. Whilst his focus and success so far had been gaining the rights to cricket, there came a similar opportunity to do the same for golf.
The Packer-owned TV station Channel 9 had the broadcast rights for the Australian Open for four years, starting with the 1975 Open which the Australian Golf Union had scheduled at The Australian Golf Club. Only a few months before the event, the AGU could not find commercial support; this is when Packer stepped in, with The Bulletin as co-sponsor with Wills. Packer had firm ideas on what the event would need to make it a commercial and TV success. He wanted a course that would be a solid test of the game, a course that would look good on TV, a course that would have the room for spectators and all the media and TV requirements to make the game a live spectacle.
After the 1976 Open, Packer had many conversations with his golfing friend Jack Nicklaus and would submit his idea to alter the layout to increase difficulty. The club was assured that the cost of any alterations would be at Packer’s expense and in June 1976 with the tournament only a few months away, Jay Morrish of Nicklaus Design paid a visit and made recommendations of narrower fairways (30 yards) in the landing areas and growing of roughs.
After the 1976 Open Packer and Nicklaus would spend more time discussing the alterations of the course, all with an idea towards television coverage. Packer would seek the club’s permission to redesign the course and for the alterations again be at his cost. Jay Morrish submitted plans which removed the short course to allow for a better 18 holes. Packer needed to move quickly and indicated he would go elsewhere if The Australian didn’t accept his offer to spend a million dollars on modernising the course to plans provided by Jack Nicklaus. By the end of 1976 a special meeting was called for the members to decide on Packer’s offer. Should it be accepted it would see the works completed in (an optimistic) 40 days and also see the ’77 and ’78 Opens being played at The Australian. The board was not unanimous but a vote of members 60/40 in favour of the proposal saw works start immediately.
The 1977 Open was held on the upgraded layout and was well received, but Nicklaus had further ideas regarding the lakes and greens. Nine greens were reshaped and grassed in January 1978 and in April, a Jack Nicklaus visit saw another plan of course alterations submitted for 12 holes to be changed after the 1978 Open; these alterations included a proper full-size practice range. Nicklaus won the ’78 Open and the four-year deal Packer had with the AGU came to an end. Negotiations with the AGU for future Opens fell over and Packer withdrew his support for the Open, with one observer remarking “a golden egg was lost to the golfing world in Australia”.
In 1979 some members at The Australian grew impatient with the continual changes to the course and October that year saw the final variations to some greens. Packer would continue to assist the club with maintenance costs of the course and on March 6th 1980, the redesigned course was opened by the Governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler.
2011: Nicklaus’ Australian dream is complete
As golf course architects we don’t always get it right the first time. We like to dabble, refine, adjust and let time and nature help us along too. Pete Dye would openly admit he got some things wrong or not quite right and would go back and rework holes he designed and built, sometimes years after, until he was happy with them. In 1996 Jack Nicklaus visited The Australian at the time of The Open and he mentioned how he would like a chance to rework some things. Yet he would have to wait 15 years or more for the chance
Circumstances in 2011 would have the US economy and the golf development industry in a slump. With fewer new projects coming through the door it made sense for the Nicklaus Design company to spend some time with their long-term clients around the globe. So Jack (a Life Member of AGC) and his lead designer Chris Cochrane, while on a regional trip, made a visit to a sentimental favourite: The Australian GC.
As with other established courses bearing the Jack Nicklaus design name, his company would prepare a course report commenting on the current status and recommending potential upgrade works and the options for doing this. This was most timely for The Australian GC, as it was looking to improve things. The course had not changed since his redesign of the 1970s and it was felt that with some agronomy issues (greens contamination and shade problems), along with improved club and ball technology, that the course could also be a better test of golf.
Nicklaus and his design company too had another 30-plus years of course design experience under their belt and felt that greens, bunkering, tees and ponds could all be much better than before. Whilst redoing the greens to restore them to pure bent it was a great opportunity to reshape them; then along with this came the opportunity to do new greenside bunkering – and in fact look at bunker and water strategy over the entire course to bring things up to date with the length of shots of the modern game.
And so it was. In June 2012, the Fleming family of Fleming Golf (builders of the course at the Packer farm Ellerston, Vintage, The Grand, The Glades courses) were commissioned and began their work. It would take nine months, during which time the members would use temporary greens. Sean Quinn design associate/project manager for Nicklaus Design was full-time on-site, and Jack himself would make on-site adjustments.
The result is a par-70 tournament layout of 7,245 yards (par 72 for members), considerably longer than the 7,049 yards of the 1977 course. There are 18 new greens which are to be firm and fast. Most notable will be tight greens surrounds (not like typical US PGA tournament set-up) promoting ball roll and rewarding a short game of chipping and putting from off the green. Also, all fairway bunkers were rebuilt and locations adjusted. New tees were built, some problematic trees removed, fairways re-contoured in parts and ponds reshaped and realigned so as to be more in play.
Nicklaus is a powerful man in the presence of people who idolise the legendary player, and consequently he can exhort great influence beyond just course design. Again like in 1977 which saw a natural, open sandbelt course lose its character to his preference of a more US-style and TV-friendly parkland theme – with much tree planting and lots of turf – in 2013 he would promote his idea of a parkland course for the landscape at the Australian. This was the very concept a committee in the 1960s were mindful of when choosing Sloan Morpeth over American Von Hagge.
A US landscape design practice was engaged and a more formal style of parkland landscape and the choice of plants (many non-Australian species such as carpet roses planted in mass formal beds) will certainly make The Australian GC stand apart from other Sydney courses. Whilst built on sand, the standout opportunity could have been low-maintenance, lean sandy roughs and more of a naturalistic approach to the ground plane. However, one can speculate this might have been at odds with membership preferring a more formal approach of planted beds with mown turf. More of a continuation of the ‘70s aesthetic or manufactured urban park style of landscaping that will need its fair share of maintenance, it passes up an opportunity to show off a great diversity of local plants, develop bio-diversity and habitat potential, and provide a long-term, low input, sustainable landscape with a deeper meaning and more soul. That said, the aesthetic may prove popular both with members and also for the TV viewers around the world.
As the oldest golf club in Australia, The Australian GC has had a remarkable journey from its original home in Moore Park just near todays SCG, to Queens Park, to Botany, and finally to Kensington where since 1905 there have been six versions of the course. These past two versions have been presided over by the Nicklaus Design company with Jack’s relationship to the course spanning a remarkable 40 years. By now Jack, whose golf course design practice has spanned nearly five decades itself, will have fulfilled his vision for the Australian GC. There will always be some minor adjustments and fine tuning to be done as is the very nature of this profession, but as the competitors tee off for the 110th Australian Open there will be no doubt as to whose design hand has forged the 18 championship holes that will be the test of some of the world’s best players.
CLASSIC HOLES OF AUSTRALIAN GOLF
Review by Bob Shearer
The 18th hole, Par-5, 475 metres The Australian Golf Club Sydney, New South Wales Course Architect: Jack Nicklaus
The Australian Golf Club’s course at Kensington, designed by Hutchinson, Martin and Clark, was opened in April 1905. Changes were made following Dr Alister MacKenzie’s Australian visit to design Royal Melbourne in 1926.
Jack Nicklaus dramatically changed this famous course with his 1977 redesign. The inner ladies course disappeared and new holes were constructed, lakes were added, while hybrid Bermuda fairways replaced the Kikuyu. The nines were reversed, allowing a panoramic view from the clubhouse of the new 18th hole, set in a natural amphitheatre.
The par-5 18th is one of Australian golf’s most intriguing finishing holes, even though it is only 475 metres in length. It creates a variety of challenges for all golfers. CLASSIC HOLES OF AUSTRALIAN GOLF The 18th hole, Par-5, 475 metres The Australian Golf Club Sydney, New South Wales Course Architect: Jack Nicklaus
A straight tee shot is of maximum importance. A large deep bunker on the right side 233 metres from the tee guards the undulating narrow fairway. A lay-up is the only option from the sand.
If the drive has been struck straight and true, the longer hitter has now to make a calculated decision on whether to attempt the long carry to the narrow, three-tiered green. Water in the front and right of the green and a deep bunker left, make this shot, with a long iron or fairway metal, a genuine test of skill and nerve. To miss to the right is a watery grave, to be conservative and miss to the left the player will be confronted with a difficult bunker shot or a treacherous chip shot to a fast, firm green with the water tantalisingly in view.
The lay-up shot cannot be played without careful calculation. With the water on the right stretching back 80 or 90 metres short of the green, and strategically placed fairway bunkers on the left, the player must also play this shot with precision and conviction to avoid these dangers. This will give the golfer the best line to play a firm pitch to the flag.
There are no hidden obstacles on this fine finishing hole. Golfers can see what is in front of them. So, will their nerve, temperament and skill hold up with the decision they make?
During the 20th Century many Australian Opens, major Australian professional and amateur championships have beeHowever, I am sure there will ben played over The Australian Golf Club’s course at Kensington. Over recent years there have been many memorable finishes on this fine last hole. One that comes to mind is the 1982 Australian Open. I only wish I still had the same nerve now!
However, I am sure there will be more dramatic and exciting finishes on this challenging closing hole in years to come.