The most recent Australian Open highlighted the magnificence of a layout that’s never looked better.
Photos by Gary Lisbon
She wore her best dress for four days at the start of December, although in truth Victoria Golf Club has been showing off her innate glamour for a few years now. Yet hosting the 2022 Australian Open let the world see the beauty of a course that has blossomed to new levels ever since a significant renovation project began in 2018.
The focus of that work was on the greens and their surrounds, but also included selected tree removal and the re-incorporation of several gorgeous sandy waste areas that make the layout play and look better. Carried out by the design firm today known as OCM Golf, the work brought necessary modernisation to a course that at the time owned the oldest set of greens on the Melbourne Sandbelt.
“There’d been a little bit of pressure building because they were predominantly poa greens,” lead architect Mike Cocking remembers, “and it was that tricky situation where they were the oldest original greens still on the Sandbelt, for the most part. There were probably 12 or 14 greens that were essentially untouched since the 1920s.”
On one hand, there was a desire to not mess with the course too much, but being poa annua greens, in some cases the other surfaces were ‘competitors’ in an agronomy sense. When those greens were in great condition, often the poa struggled, Cocking says. In 2018, under then captain Tony Killen, Victoria was keen to address its ageing and inconsistent greens. The club had also seen the redesign work the firm had carried out at Peninsula Kingswood and how well the Pure Distinction strain of grass had flourished there and wanted a piece of the action.
“If you go through the Sandbelt courses, they’d all pretty much changed their grass during the past 20 years or so,” Cocking adds. “Metro’s done it a few times, Royal Melbourne had changed with the Sutton’s Mix [bentgrass], Kingston Heath 20 years ago changed those greens to Penn A1. Peninsula had done it, Woodlands had done it, so Victoria felt that it was about time.”
Pure Distinction was an ideal and popular choice for Victoria’s new-look surfaces and while they played a shade on the soft side during the Australian Open (due to the extent of the spring rainfall in Melbourne), they were fast and true. The championship was a showcase of the successful redesign, yet the greens tell only part of the renovation story at ‘Vic’.
“The greens were the driver, but then the scope had to be expanded a bit beyond that,” Cocking says. “The irrigation system was quite old, so it needed to be replaced. And then as a consequence of the greens being predominantly poa, all the greens surrounds were poa as well, and a lot of the tees had a lot of poa through them. So we had to look at the areas beyond the putting surface themselves. It became a slightly larger scope, and then over the course of six months we started highlighting a few other things. There was an opportunity to build a few extra tees from a tournament perspective, there was a handful of trees that we thought compromised holes and should be removed, a handful of bunkers that we thought could be improved upon, and we were looking more at the overall green complexes, not just the putting surfaces.”
In reworking the greens, OCM Golf replicated the now very Sandbelt-esque look of taking the greens right to the edges of the greenside bunkers. Metropolitan has had that look for years, Royal Melbourne now does it as well, as does Peninsula Kingswood, while Commonwealth, which is in the midst of a Tom Doak-led redesign, is following suit.
“We felt as though there were some benefits in doing the same,” Cocking says. “And in doing that, the greens tend to get a bit bigger. They get bigger to the edges of the bunkers, but the fronts and the backs of them – where there’s no bunkers – end up getting probably eight or 10 feet bigger. So then there’s an opportunity to gain some extra pin positions.”
That was a key element of the attention given to Victoria’s green complexes. On several greens – most notably the sixth, 11th and 13th – there was a shortage of pin-position options. Each green was sizeable enough, but the cantered surfaces effectively made them play far smaller as parts of them could not be used for a hole location.
The greens at the fifth, 12th and 17th, which had each been rebuilt in the 1980s, also had room for improvement. In an example of old ways meeting new, the firm linked their bobcats with survey equipment that allowed them to restore the contours exactly as they were with only minor, selected manipulations of those original contours.
“As an architect, that was interesting,” Cocking says. “Because the aim was to put all the contours back exactly as they were, more or less, it was almost like you were checking your ego at the door. If you’d had a ‘free hit’, you might have decided to change certain elements, but that wasn’t really the goal. The goal was to faithfully restore them.”
The club ultimately received three new greens built in “more of a Victoria style”, three more where the pitch was changed to allow for extra pin positions and, of the remaining 12, Cocking says half went back exactly as they were, with the rest tweaked simply to better facilitate drainage or add an interesting pin position. All the green surrounds were lifted, the turf removed and new couch grass put in, with the tees relevelled.
“It was an interesting project in that, individually, they may not seem like significant things, but the sum of the parts was quite significant,” Cocking says. “By the time you replicate that across the entire site, and then throw in a few of these other design changes… We did the 11th around the same time. We removed all the trees from the corner and created a sandy waste on that hole and did that to a handful of other areas. The club’s aim was to elevate some of the turf surfaces to something comparable to some of their competitors.”
There was an air of excitement that engulfed Victoria Golf Club throughout 2022. Anticipation of Melbourne’s first Australian Open in 20 years energised a club keen to erase the demons of the past. The 2022 Australian Open finally laid to rest the ghosts of 2002. Any lingering scent of that year’s disastrous three-round Open – when the first day’s play was lost due to the state of the greens – is now a matter for the history books alone.
Victoria is a proud club, a home of champion golfers like Peter Thomson, Doug Bachli and Geoff Ogilvy. It also has a warm and welcoming membership, which is an integral patch in the broad quilt that is Victoria Golf Club, one free of any haughtiness that many people picture of private golf facilities. The good members of Victoria earned the accolades that came their way from the three Australian Open fields. Many of the European players in particular lavished Victoria with praise and you get the feeling they’ll be back – along with an armada of their colleagues – the next time the championship returns.
It was a week of firsts: the first time three championships were conducted simultaneously; the first time men and women played concurrently at a national Open – and for equal prizemoney; the first time two golf clubs shared hosting duties; and the first time the DP World Tour co-sanctioned the men’s event.
If it were possible for there to be an aspect of the course conditioning more consistent than the surfaces, it was the universal praise the presentation received. Whether it was players, officials or the members of the public who flooded in, they all commended it. Praise also came from higher up.
“It was a privilege to welcome the return of our national Opens to Melbourne’s Sandbelt – and your golf course and Victoria Golf Club’s famous hospitality did not in any way disappoint,” James Sutherland, Golf Australia’s chief executive, wrote in a post-Open letter to the club. “Professional golfers from all over the world were in awe of your golf course. It was immaculate in the way it was presented – and offered a standard that many a player had never experienced before.”
There was a magnificent vibe across the course all week. Saturday was billed as a family day, while the gates opened early on Sunday to allow fans to ‘do the double’ and watch the Socceroos’ World Cup match against Argentina on big screens in the fan village from 6am before the three fields teed off.
“Through this major event, we showed how the Sandbelt is our country’s leading golf destination,” said Antonie Els, Victoria’s general manager. “It was a tremendous honour to have played a pivotal role in the successful hosting of Australia’s biggest golf event and to have added a chapter to our club’s remarkable history.”
DID YOU KNOW?
You can stay at Victoria Golf Club. The upstairs portion of the clubhouse features 12 rooms that let you wake up mere paces away from the first tee of one of the great golf courses of Australia. The rooms are single, double or twin-share in configuration and offer views of the course. Stay-and-play packages are available, including meals. Whether you ‘stick to Vic’ or venture further afield to play, it’s a convenient place to stay.
Victoria Golf Club
Where: Park Rd, Cheltenham VIC 3192
Phone: (03) 9584 1733