The roll call says it all. Gene Sarazen. Peter Thomson. Norman Von Nida. Kel Nagle. Jack Newton. Rodger Davis. Brad Faxon. Lee Westwood. Steve Stricker.
All have left Metropolitan Golf Club in the Melbourne suburb of South Oakleigh with a prestigious title in tow because like so many of the great golf courses of the world, Metropolitan rewards the finest players who execute the oldest tenets of the game with unerring precision.
It is not a course that can be overpowered; one where the risks are more subtle but no less terrifying. It elicits a style of golf that many modern players are unfamiliar with and which rewards brains rather than brawn. What defines a good shot is very much dependent on the shot that came before it, and the bunkers that bite into the edge of the immaculately presented putting surfaces are ready to swallow even the slightest miscue.
“It’s fair and tough,” explains Rodger Davis, the 1987 Australian Open champion at Metropolitan. “When they have the greens really firm, it’s one of those courses – like Royal Melbourne – where you have to get your angles right coming into certain flags. Because if you don’t, you’ve got to run for cover and then try to two-putt from somewhere. You’ve got to play a different type of game there.”
Nick O’Hern’s affinity for Metropolitan stretches back to the 1997 Australian Open when the unheralded left-hander announced himself as the tournament leader through 36 holes and continued at the 2001 WGC–Accenture Match Play when he was the sole Aussie to advance to the quarter-finals. A two-time World Cup representative for Australia in 2004 and 2007, O’Hern told Australian Golf Digest that those who don’t respect the fine margins that Metropolitan plays on will pay a hefty penalty.
“It will be fun to see the internationals and how they approach Metro, especially when they short-side themselves and how they get out of that,” O’Hern said. “That’s one thing you can’t do around Metro. I’ve done it many times and it’s not pretty. You’d rather be in the bunker on the right side of the hole than 30 feet above the hole sometimes. If they want to tuck the flags at Metro, you take them on at your own risk. You’re going to have a lot of 20 and 30-footers for birdie if you play smart.”
Perhaps no one knows the nuances of Metropolitan better than Mike Clayton. Taken to watch Peter Thomson play in the 1967 Australian PGA Championship by his father at 10 years of age, Clayton was runner-up to Faxon in the 1993 Australian Open and the course’s consulting architect up until 2014. He says the players who can control the trajectory of their approach shots into the unrelenting greens will be the ones who will avoid too many precarious predicaments.
“They’re going to have to think about where they land the ball and have it finish in a completely different spot. It’s good in that sense,” Clayton offers. “Often you’ve got to land it in the front third of the green to finish in the back third. When the greens are hard it’s a matter of hitting a lower, more controlled shot and bouncing it back to the flag. It’s Ben Hogan strategy 101.
“The trajectory of the shots that you play into the green is what’s important, if you want to get it close. You can hit a high shot that lands in the middle of the green and stops, but you’re going to be putting from 25 feet to the back pins all the time. The only greens they will have played like that all year are the ones at Augusta National.”
Of course, for Metro’s greens to push players to the edge they will need course superintendent David Mason and his team to be given the freedom to present firm and fast putting surfaces. Wet conditions during the week took some of the sting out of Kingston Heath’s greens in 2016, but in consultation with senior vice-president of PGA Tour Design Steve Wenzloff and the PGA Tour’s senior vice-president of agronomy Cal Roth, Mason intends to show the Sandbelt at its exacting best.
“We saw it to an extent at Kingston Heath in 2016 when the greens were running at probably 11 to 11.5 on the stimpmeter and not really representative of what Kingston Heath should be,” Mason said of his desire to deliver faster greens for the 2018 World Cup.
“We’re conscious of the green speed and firmness, but they’ve agreed that we’ll be right to move to that 13-foot mark if we need to. That’s great for us because we felt if we stayed at that 11 mark it was not really going to give them a true test of what we know the Sandbelt clubs can be.”
For the first 46 years of the World Cup of Golf, the format was one of strokeplay involving two-man teams, played over 36 holes in 1953 and then combined scores over 72 holes until 1999.
In 2000 it changed to alternating rounds of four-ball and foursomes competition, reverted to strokeplay when Adam Scott and Jason Day won Australia’s fifth World Cup crown at Royal Melbourne in 2013 and then returned to four-ball and foursomes in 2016 when Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and Thorbjorn Olesen triumphed at Kingston Heath.
That format has been retained for the 2018 edition, with foursomes on Thursday and Saturday and four-ball on Friday and Sunday, retaining the element of teamwork that separates such events from regular individual strokeplay tournaments the rest of the year.
“It’s a totally different type of pressure. It’s quite hard to explain,” says Davis, who represented Australia in four World Cups and six Dunhill Cups.
“When we played, it was 72 holes of strokeplay so you didn’t want to let your mate down because it was aggregate scores. It was a little bit like the Dunhill Cup. If you lost your match in the Dunhill Cup and the team lost 2-1, you were gutted. Especially if you thought you should beat the bloke.”
For O’Hern, representing Australia in the 2000 Dunhill Cup, 2004 and 2007 World Cups and the International side twice in Presidents Cup competition, there was no pressure like it throughout his career.
“The big part about representing your country in a team event is that you don’t want to let your teammates down,” O’Hern says. “That’s the overwhelming emotion. I don’t want to screw this up for the other guys. And that motivated me to play even better.
“The Dunhill Cup in 2000 was at St Andrews and it was me, Peter O’Malley and Stephen Leaney and we played America in the first round. I played Larry Mize. I shot 65 and had it on a string but that morning I stood on the first tee and wondered how I was going to get it on a fairway that’s 150 yards wide.”
The 2005 Presidents Cup in Virginia at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club brought a type of focus that one member of each of the 28 teams taking part at Metropolitan will experience on Thursday; the opening tee shot of a foursomes match.
“It’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been on a golf course,” O’Hern recalls. “Tim Clark and I worked out on the range which holes suited who and as I was walking to the first tee I realised I had to hit the first shot because I had odds. I walked through the mass of people and got to the tee and there was President Clinton and George Bush Snr and then there’s our captains Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus and all I can think is, What the hell am I doing here?
“I could feel my knees starting to shake and there were people lining both sides of the fairway that I thought were in real trouble. I had to collect myself and managed to hit one of the best tee shots of the day. It was just pure adrenaline.”
Keeping the ball in play and your partner in good position will be key in foursomes, but Clayton warns that even in four-ball discretion may be the better form of valour at a course such as Metropolitan.
“You don’t want someone doing something reckless in four-ball because it’s always better to have two guys in the hole,” Clayton reasons. “Trying something reckless and expecting your partner to clean it up is not really the way to go. You’re much better off having two putts at it than just one. Having two guys in play with a putt for birdie far outweighs someone hitting a safe drive and someone trying to hit a drive close to the trouble or extra long. Ultimately, I don’t think that type of approach works very well on the Sandbelt.”
Not since Fred Couples and Davis Love III won four straight World Cups for America from 1992-1995 has a pairing successfully defended their title, but Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and Thorbjorn Olesen can create their own slice of history.
Denmark, New Zealand (Ryan Fox and Mark Brown), China (Haotong Li and Ashun Wu) and Wales (Bradley Dredge and Stuart Manley) are the only unchanged teams from those that took part at Kingston Heath two years ago, while Marc Leishman has invited Cameron Smith to form the home team carrying the hopes of a nation.
Denmark’s four-shot win in 2016 was set up by an astonishing four-ball score of 60 in the second round. Kjeldsen’s smarts and Olesen’s elevation into the European Ryder Cup team makes them a definite threat to record a rare repeat win.
“Kjeldsen was the shortest hitter at Kingston Heath, but on the second day in the four-ball he drove it closer to the third green than anyone,” says Clayton. “He ripped it right up there, just short-left of the green and pitched it up. That was a good example of a team using its strengths.
“Kjeldsen is a clever player and Olesen just smashed Jordan Spieth in the Ryder Cup, so he’s a really good player. The American team might not be particularly exciting but Matt Kuchar and Kyle Stanley are both really good players with experience playing in Melbourne. Belgium’s got a good team [and Ireland’s] Shane Lowry’s a very good player.
“People will get to watch interesting golf on a really good golf course and there are a bunch of really good players. I just hope we focus on who is here rather than moaning about the ones that didn’t come.”
A good friend of Kjeldsen’s, O’Hern knows the regard for which the Dane holds Australian golf but believes home-ground advantage will sway the odds heavily in the favour of Leishman and Smith.
“You’ve got to favour the Aussies. Marc and Cam should be favourites,” O’Hern says. “They just know that style of golf course better than anyone. They just have to get their games in good enough shape that particular week. Marc will know that golf course well and I’m assuming Cam does as well. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them hold the trophy at the end of the week.”
Leishman finished ninth alongside Adam Scott two years ago and doesn’t need to be reminded about what it would mean to record a win for Australia on home soil.
“Anytime you can represent your country at any level it’s an honour and you want to do your country proud,” Leishman said. “To play a team event and win it, I’ve never done that as a pro. It’d be nice to win an event and have a mate to celebrate it with, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that. There are a lot of great players playing but there’s no reason it can’t be us lifting that trophy at the end of the week.”
Smith’s sole win on the US Tour to date was partnering Sweden’s Jonas Blixt at the Zurich Classic last year and is confident the World Cup format will bring out his best.
“Playing the Interstate Series and local pennants golf always fired me up,” Smith explained. “Whenever I’m in a team environment I always seem to step up a notch. There’s just something inside me that changes. Being in Australia would just make it even more special if we could knock it off.”
Metropolitan’s earliest influences belong to a pair of unrelated MacKenzies – first engineer member JB in 1906 and then his more famous namesake, Dr Alister MacKenzie some 20 years later. But the most significant change to the Metropolitan layout would come in 1959 when the government compulsorily acquired a large portion of land where the back nine sat to build a school. The club engaged American architect Dick Wilson, who was given the task of replicating the style of the front nine as best he could on land that had previously been used as a market garden.
“The new holes were crafted on land previously used for growing vegetables, and no one in Melbourne has ever seen vegetables grown on anything other than dead flat land,” Clayton bemoaned in 2012.
Wilson received high praise for his work but the course has continued to undergo minor alterations. Clayton himself oversaw construction of a new par-3 13th hole after continued complaints from neighbours regarding wayward tee shots, the changes necessitating adjustments to both the par-4 12th and the opportunity to lengthen the par-5 14th.
The team of Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford were appointed consulting architects in late 2014 and the most significant changes since Nick Cullen won the 2014 Australian Masters at Metropolitan include new tee complexes at the 10th and 17th holes that have added 20 and 30 metres, respectively.
In addition to the extra length, the 10th – which will play as the 11th hole during the World Cup – has had the dogleg softened, a fairway bunker added on the left 265 metres from the tee and a new approach bunker built 40 metres short-right of the green.
The new championship tee at 17 makes the carry of the fairway bunker on the left about 250 metres and with the famous swamp cypresses that cut in on the right side now at 330, Crafter and Mogford hope to see more use of driver and thus introduce greater risk.
The major change to the routing for the World Cup will see the par-3 13th replaced by the 163-metre par-3 19th hole that will fall into the rotation as the sixth hole, making the course’s regular sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th holes play as seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 and 13 during the tournament.
One thing for certain is the immaculate playing surfaces the course is renowned for the world over will ensure that by Sunday two new worthy champions will be added to Metropolitan’s impressive honour roll.
“When we played the Match Play there in 2001, I thought it was the best bunkering I’d seen anywhere in the world. It was phenomenal,” O’Hern says. “I spoke to Steve Stricker about our quarter-final only a few years ago and he said they were some of the purest greens and most perfect fairways he had ever seen.”
The 56 players taking part this November 22-25 should expect nothing less.