There’s a good reason many golf architects are embracing the idiom “everything old is new again”…
“Why would we want to restore those bunkers? Do we all want to go back to driving 1930s cars? – Michael Clayton
The centre of the discussion culminating with the comment was an old black-and-white photo of Victoria Golf Club from the 1930s showing off as bold a bunkering scheme as Australia had seen. Has seen, probably.
In the past 30 years the restoration of lost features has become something of a populist movement amongst architects and the clubs that have features and character worthy of restoring.
Before it was fashionable (and likely before anyone had even given the movement a name) those responsible for Kingston Heath in the early 1980s began putting back long-lost bunkers either covered over by man or smothered by invasive ti-tree.
In the case of the famous short 15th, the bunkers running from the front of the women’s tee up towards the green disappeared, presumably falling foul of those suggesting they were “only affecting bad players” and “slowing up play”.
On a superficial level these were presumably easy arguments to win for those with little respect for, or knowledge of, the contribution of the original architect.
Given it was Alister MacKenzie it would seem to be a foolhardy and shortsighted choice to remove his work and whilst not emasculating the hole, remove a critical component of its character.
Those dramatic bunkers of his were an awesome presence, as were the bunkers lining the left side of the long second shot at the 12th, but they were, for decades, smothered under cascading ti-tree.
And just maybe it was a thrill for a sporty, short hitter to carry a tee shot all the way over the far line of the bunkers on the 15th, or to skirt them with their third shots on the 12th.
The problem is the opinions of the ‘sporty’ high markers are always going to be outnumbered by those who prefer a clearer path to the hole, or those who mistake ‘playable for all’ as meaning every shot must be playable for even the poorest of players. St Andrews is the model – but can ‘all’ escape Hell, Strath or the Road Hole bunker in fewer than a handful of less than competent swipes? In years past Tommy Nakajima and David Duval took multiples of shots to escape that pesky bunker defending the Road Hole, while Jack Nicklaus had his own nightmare in Hell at the 1995 Open.
A few years before Kingston Heath set about their restoration project, The Australian Golf Club and Nicklaus took a different path, a path very much in the fashion of the time.
Kerry Packer and Nicklaus combined money, influence and power to alter the original character of the open, links-like, MacKenzie-influenced course and make replicating the features popularised in the United States post-World War II.
What happened in Sydney perhaps subliminally encouraged some of Melbourne’s sandbelt courses to consider their own heritage and determine to both preserve and restore it.
Either way, as fledgling architects, Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead saw the success of the path Kingston Heath had taken and pointed the committee at Victoria (our first ever client) in the direction of the amazing 1936 aerial photograph, suggesting it was worthy of study. That it had hung for years on the wall behind the old snooker table in the dark downstairs spike bar didn’t mean anyone studied it as they waited to shoot or looked on it as anything other than a curiosity from an era long past.
The analogy with 1930s cars was an apples and oranges argument, I thought – unless you want to talk about Mercedes and Bugattis from the ’30s now selling for $10 million. Given a choice between either, or a mid-1960s Holden, it’s a pretty obvious decision.
THE BOLD & THE BEAUTIFUL: Elaborate bunkering at the Victoria Golf Club, seen from the air in this iconic 1936 photo. For decades the image was considered nothing more than a curiosity from an era long past –but it reveals so much of the Sandbelt layout’s original intent.
The routing aside, an important part of Victoria’s character, feel and look had clearly been lost. The reasons were likely barely understood; it had transpired over at least three decades, and who complains if the committee is planting trees, filling in annoying bunkers and generally making it easier to play to one’s handicap?
The emasculation of the MacKenzie-inspired bunker scheme was clearly a mistake if you study the comparative pictures from 1936 and the mid-’70s – but it wasn’t as though Victoria was a bad course in 1975. It was a terrific course because it never lost the values of the questions the holes were asking or the type of golf it took to play it well. It just wasn’t what it had been and restoring its essence was clearly the right choice.
Restoring the original flora too was, and is, just as important as restoring the man-made work.
Everyone would agree a golf course should feel natural yet the surest way to make it feel unnatural is to plant it with things foreign to the site. Far-sighted clubs are restoring indigenous flora because ultimately it’s the right thing to do.
As clubs face the issue of the senescence of their European trees planted almost a century ago, they are going to have to plan how best to replace them.
The other factor clubs and superintendents ought to consider restoring are green speeds. Melbourne especially was famed the world over for greens where the prevailing view was it was impossible to make them too hard or too fast. Of course, it was a prevailing view amongst those who never had to play a fired up sandbelt course on one of the furnace-like days when the wind blew from the north in a big championship. There may have been a sense of schadenfreude in the viewing but there wasn’t much joy in either the playing or the time it took to get around.
Given that the fastest greens in the United States in 1977 were the 9.7 offered up at fearsome Oakmont, it would seem 11 or 12 is fast enough… and 13 or 14 or even 15, an overkill.
One wonders if MacKenzie and his contemporaries ever saw their greens running at anything like today’s speeds. Probably not is a good guess – and at a time when play is slow enough, nothing slows it more than exceedingly fast greens.
All of the best new courses of the modern era are throwbacks to the 1920s and 1930s, as architects try to capture the essence of what made the work of MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Harry Colt, C.B Macdonald, A.W Tillinghast and George Thomas so compelling.
Maybe the Restoration movement is a fashion; and the nature of fashion is its transience. Who is to say architects in the future won’t be restoring the work of Robert Trent-Jones, Dick Wilson, Sam Berriman or Vern Morcom?
I wouldn’t bet on it… but no-one was talking of restoring MacKenzie in the 1970s.