Kingston Heath: the best flat course on earth?

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    The tenth hole is a classic example of Soutar’s innovative use of confined space

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    The same hole in 1937

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    The 189-yard par three fifth hole at Kingston Heath

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    The fifth hole photographed in 1937

By John McLindon

“One of the best golf courses I’ve ever played” said Ireland’s Shane Lowry following his opening round at Australia’s Kingston Heath Golf Club during last November’s World Cup of Golf.

The week saw 56 players from 28 countries walk one of golf’s finest examples of course architecture exactly 90 years since the famed Sandbelt design received its most important international visitor, Dr Alister MacKenzie.

MacKenzie’s trip to Australia in 1926 was primarily to design Royal Melbourne West but, at a cost of £250, the Kingston Heath committee also hired MacKenzie to provide a detailed report for its own bunkering.

Kingston Heath was already open for play when MacKenzie arrived, having been designed and constructed through the vision of three men; course architect Dan Soutar, course constructor Mick Morcom and Club Captain Stanley Dutton Green.

Soutar was an Australian golfing champion, administrator and architect who believed future advancements in equipment would result in the need for longer courses. His view was shared by Dutton Green, who had been studying architecture trends in English and Scottish golf for several years. As plans were being drawn up, Dutton Green wrote to the great Harry Vardon seeking advice. The six-time British Open Champion urged him to build a course long enough to “stand the test of time.”

Despite having just 50 acres of old market land to work with, Souter designed what was considered a monster for its time. The 6,800-yard par 82 was one of the world’s longest courses, featuring six par fives and two par threes.

The routing commenced in the very centre of the property, where Soutar reportedly came to rest after walking the boundary twice, stating: “Here is where we start, an ideal ready-made short hole for the tenth”.

Soutar’s design and Morcom’s construction received immediate attention upon completion. Viewing the course, MacKenzie claimed: “Never yet have I advised upon a course where, owing to the excellence of design and construction work, the problems have been so simple.”

MacKenzie finished his bunkering report within a week. His only design suggestion was changing Soutar’s fifteenth hole from a 222-yard blind par four to an uphill par three, which today stands as one of the world’s best short holes.

Kingston Heath was soon being acclaimed internationally. American Gene Sarazen played an exhibition in 1936, telling the press: “This course provides a true test for the plus marker.” This proved to be an early peak however, as Kingston Heath was soon to be significantly impacted by changes in design thinking following the Second World War.

“The post-war period nearly ruined Kingston Heath,” says former European Tour player turned golf architect Michael Clayton, who first visited the course to watch the 1970 Australian Open. Clayton, who won the Victorian Open at Kingston Heath in 1989, has been the consulting architect to the club for the past 20 years. “It was the same as every other Sandbelt course aside from Royal Melbourne during this period. They planted trees, they filled bunkers in, they didn’t control the growth of trees.”

Prior to World War II Australian courses sought an English feel, so European trees were planted. Immediately post-war, committees began approving the planting of anything native to Australia. “Native was almost as bad”, says Clayton. “You were just transplanting inappropriate trees from hundreds of miles away thinking ‘that’s ok because it is a native tree’.”

Instead of planting vegetation indigenous to the local area, Kingston Heath opted for Mahogany gum trees which were native to Australia’s Gippsland area, 200 miles east of Melbourne.

“That was the eucalypt of choice all over the Sandbelt after the war and it was a disastrous period,” says Clayton. “It was a forest tree, made for a forest... it was totally inappropriate to grow by the water.”

Once ranked a clear second to Royal Melbourne amongst Sandbelt courses, by the 1980s Kingston Heath no longer stood out like before. Clayton, a member of neighbouring Metropolitan Golf Club, recalled a conversation in 1980 with a friend who left to join Kingston Heath. “I said to him ‘Why are you joining there?’ I mean it was good, but it wasn’t any better than any of the other courses.”

Kingston Heath though was about to make one of its most important decisions, headhunting superintendent Graeme Grant from neighbouring Kingswood Golf Club. Grant joined in 1982 and began looking through original maps and photos to convince members that the course had long moved from Soutar and MacKenzie’s principles.

“No one spoke about golf course design in the 70s and 80s, no one wrote about it, there were no books,” says Clayton. “So Graeme dug out all the old photos and said ‘look at all these bunkers that used to be here that aren’t here anymore’.”

With license from the committee, Grant spent the 1980s reconstructing bunkers in MacKenzie’s mould, pulling out the post-war mahogany gums and introducing native couch to the fairways. The extent of his work is highlighted on MacKenzie’s classic par three fifteenth. Originally standing like it does today, it was unrecognisable 30 years ago. “If they’d left Kingston Heath entirely alone and hadn’t done anything to it, then it certainly wouldn’t be in the best 100 in the world,” says Clayton. Grant left Kingston Heath in 1998, and Clayton and his firm – today called Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead (OCCM) – were appointed as consulting architects.

I joined Mike Clayton at Kingston Heath for 18 holes on perfect Australian summer evening in February. His team have spent years working with the club on a modernisation programme that includes extending tees across the course including the first tee which begins at the clubhouse.

Standing on the first you can scan the course and see flags on the first six and the eighteenth holes. This represents a significant opening up from the corridor feel described in the 1970s. The opening hole is a 481-yard straight par four which heads up a small rise. This is one of only three holes on the course which run east, and with the prevailing wind right to left, much of the right-hand side is guarded by bunkers, awaiting golfers who over shift their line.

The 400-yard par four second faces back towards the direction of the clubhouse before a dogleg left which leaves a short iron to the green. Once safely negotiated, the course’s most anticipated par four awaits at the third. Measuring only 294 yards, the third is one of the shortest par fours on the Sandbelt and a fourball group can see four different clubs hit off the tee. This is the first hole which faces south, bringing the breeze into play while seven bunkers surround a small, sloping green.

The fourth is a 415-yard par four which runs parallel to the third. Significant revegetation work has been done to the tee carry area by OCCM, bringing in native heath to hide a previously exposed path.

Many tee carries around Kingston Heath have received similar work, with heath grasses used to both define the property and hide fairway paths behind planted vegetation. This is an example of OCCM’s view that: “It is the off-fairway parts of the course that we think should be the focus of the next twenty to thirty years.”

Kingston Heath’s first par three is found at five, a 189-yard carry with shrubs and rugged sandy grasses between the tee and green. This is just the second hole that heads east and, like the first fairway, five bunkers line the right-hand side to catch overcompensating golfers.

The 443-yard par four sixth returns the course to the clubhouse and runs parallel to the first. As such it also presents an uphill drive over the perfect length rise with bunkers strategically placed to trap anything drifting left or right.

Seven is Kingston Heath’s first par five which faces out to the south of the course. Playing 505 yards, eagles are found, but the hole demands a precise drive to a narrow landing area between the bunkers on the left and the rough on the right.

Eight is a 435-yard par four that runs to the southern edge of the property where it shares a large green with the sixteenth. The opening nine is then completed with a 360-yard short dogleg left par four where anything from driver to five iron can be seen on the tee.

The tenth is where Soutar began Kingston Heath all those years ago. A 138-yard par three in the middle of the property, it is a classic example of how the routing made best use of the confined space. Seven other holes surround this small area, though most golfers only see the large bunkers guarding the front half of the green.

Eleven is a 415-yard par four that doglegs to the right. One of Graeme Grant’s final decisions as superintendent in the late 1990s was to place a bunker in the middle of the fairway, 260-yards from the tee. With bunkers already to the right, and rough to the left, the hazard didn’t last long before OCCM came and filled it in prior to the 2000 Australian Open. “We also got rid of the rough on the left and exposed the sand, so it made it easier for drives to run into the tea tree. If you pull the driver we want the ball to run into that tea tree,” says Clayton. “I actually think the hole is arguably more difficult now the bunker is gone because you immediately think you can take the driver.”

Twelve is a 574-yard par five that again faces south and runs along the course boundary to the left. Kingston Heath importantly retained acres of land alongside the course boundary at a time when many Sandbelt clubs were selling their surplus land for housing. This area now contains water storage and a turf nursery, and allows for future growth.

The thirteenth is a 370-yard par four that heads back inland. Even good drives here can find bunkers down the left-hand side due to the speed of the Santa Ana couch.

The 564-yard par five fourteenth faces south again and commences four holes which play up Kingston Heath’s ridge, the rise which can surprise those expecting a flat course. “There’s flat and then there’s flat” said Clayton. “And this is not a really flat golf course... along with the ridge there are significant undulations that play a part in quite a lot of the holes.”

As with much of the course, significant rough has been removed from fourteen in recent years. The rough eradication program was assisted by a new watering system with part-circle sprinklers. These irrigate inwards to the fairways rather than out into the rough.

Following the famous fifteenth, a challenging blind tee shot awaits on the 441-yard par four sixteenth as you drive up a rise before the hole doglegs right to the green shared with eight. Standing on the tee you are oblivious to the four holes routed around you. Seventeen begins the journey home and is a strong 460-yard par four which Ben Crenshaw described as “one of the best blind holes I’ve ever played.”

A round ends with the 457-yard par four home hole. OCCM extended the championship tee back, but as technology continues to advance the green was nearly driven at the recent World Cup of Golf.

Walking down Kingston Heath’s eighteenth fairway at dusk is one of the most special walks in world golf. As the white single story clubhouse sits illuminated the distance, you track your ball flight against a stunningly blended orange and pink Australian summer sky.

“I’ve never heard a pro that has ever had anything other than the most fulsome of praise for the golf course,” finishes Clayton. “Because of the type of golf it asks you to play, there are a multitude of different shots that the course asks you to contemplate and there are lots of ways to play them.”

John McLindon is an Australian journalist and a member of Commonwealth Golf Club in Melbourne

This article first appeared in issue 48 of Golf Course Architecture