It’s a mere coincidence Royal Sydney Golf Club, at Rose Bay, is located in the Federal Electorate of Wentworth, which played host to one of the most tumultuous evenings in Australian politics earlier this year.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was holed up in his Point Piper mansion just around the corner from the Royal Sydney clubhouse, awaiting the result of the knife-edge double-dissolution election in July. It was several days before we learned he would retain government with an outright majority of just a single seat.
Thankfully, world No.1 Jason Day, past champions Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott and defending champion Matt Jones won’t keep us in suspense when the Australian Open returns to Royal Sydney.
But come Sunday afternoon on November 20, there is every likelihood Australian golf will bear witness to another cliffhanger result.
The past five championships at Royal Sydney have been riveting. Three have been decided by a single shot, another by two strokes while the other required a playoff.
In 2013, Rory McIlroy beat Adam Scott by one stroke, overturning a one-shot deficit on the 72nd tee to claim the Stonehaven Cup by the narrowest of margins. Scott’s approach to the 18th took a huge bounce over the back of the green. When he failed to get up and down, McIlroy grasped the opportunity and holed an astonishing birdie putt from six metres to deny Scott’s quest for Australian golf’s Triple Crown in a calendar year.
The Northern Irishman used the momentum from that victory to launch a watershed season in 2014 when he won two Majors (British Open and US PGA Championship) as well as the money titles in America and Europe.
In the 2008 Open at Royal Sydney, Tim Clark capitalised when New Zealand’s David Smail surrendered a four-stroke lead with consecutive double-bogeys on the 15th and 16th holes on Sunday. The diminutive South African swooped, tieing Mathew Goggin at 9-under par in regulation and he clinched victory on the first playoff hole when the Tasmanian missed a short putt for par.
In 2006, John Senden recovered from an opening round of 76 on the coldest November day in 100 years to shoot 67-65 over the weekend and outlast Geoff Ogilvy by a shot. Senden birdied the final two holes in a phenomenal conclusion. He struck his tee shot to less than a metre of a difficult back-right pin location on the par-3 17th. Then into the breeze on 18, Senden fired an approach to about five feet and sank the putt to thwart the reigning US Open champion.
Who could forget the 1999 Open at Royal Sydney when an 18-year-old amateur stitched up Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman to win his national championship? Aaron Baddeley displayed the fearlessness of youth to edge out Norman and Nick O’Hern by two strokes.
The 1994 Open morphed into a gripping contest between Robert Allenby and Brett Ogle. The occasion of winning the Australian Open for the first time clearly affected both players as they leaked shots over the closing holes. Allenby fell over the finish line with a shot to spare. In fact, you have to go back to 1988 to find a decisive victory when Mark Calcavecchia cruised to a six-shot triumph. It was the impetus for the brash American to break through for a Major title at the next year’s British Open at Royal Troon, breaking Australian hearts when he emerged victorious from a three-way playoff against Greg Norman and Wayne Grady.
But why has Royal Sydney produced such drama and entertainment on Sunday afternoon at the Open?
Perhaps, the setting plays a part. The grandeur of the stately clubhouse reflects the 112-year history of the championship. After all, it was at Royal Sydney where just the third Australian Open was staged in 1906.
The clubhouse has a veritable mystique and appears to cast a foreboding presence over the course more so than any other championship venue in Australia. It stands out like a beacon when competitors reach certain vantage points on the homeward nine: 10th tee, 11th green, 12th tee, 14th tee, 16th green, 17th tee, 17th green, 18th tee and 18th fairway.
With time to pause and think about the consequences of what they’re trying to achieve, it stands to reason that contenders will be overwhelmed – even just a little – by the sense of occasion at this Theatre Of Dreams.
For one reason or another, Royal Sydney has been the venue for a number of very close finishes. The leaderboard at four of the past five Opens at Royal Sydney has been compact with the winning score being single-digit under par. The exception was in 2013 when McIlroy and Scott separated themselves from the field to finish at 18-under and 17-under respectively with a large gap to Senden (11-under). A high-quality ballstriker has won each of the recent national championships at Royal Sydney, including the 2007 Women’s Australian Open won by Karrie Webb. The layout, redesigned by Ross Watson in 2003, places a premium on driving accuracy rather than length.
The playing corridors at Royal Sydney aren’t as wide as other championship venues around the country. Small errors are magnified when a drive misses the fairway and sits down in the fluffy, couch rough. Even more so when there is a bit of moisture on the ground, increasing the degree of difficulty hitting shots from off the fairway.
Royal Sydney is a very precise second-shot golf course. A lot of the greens are relatively small by championship standards. The putting surfaces are firm, quick and surrounded by treacherous bunkering. Wayward shots can get variable lies in some bunkers which have softer sand than others, making for tough up and downs to save par.
Craig Parry has been quoted as saying Royal Sydney is as hard a golf course as there is in Australia from within 100 metres of the green. Being able to put the ball onto the correct quadrant of the green is very important. And there are several holes where the pin placement dictates how the hole is approached from the tee.
The Open at Royal Sydney has never turned into an outright putting contest on greens that hover around 11-12 on the Stimpmeter. However, the tiers and slopes on the putting surfaces make it very demanding, particularly when there is wind about.
And there always tends to be a bit of wind in Sydney during Open week in late-Spring, says long-time Royal Sydney professional Colin Hunt. “I think in four days you can pretty much be assured that you’ll have two days where it will blow fairly hard from the south. You’ve got to get through that first five or six holes in that. You can really blow yourself out of the water right from the get-go if you get off to a pretty bad start through that stretch.”
As tough as it is, Royal Sydney is vulnerable when great ballstrikers are on their game. The course record belongs to a scintillating 10-under 62 by Scott in the first round of the 2013 Open. Starting on the 10th, the Masters champion reeled off six birdies in a row. Then after a sequence of eight consecutive pars, he reignited late in the round with four more birdies from holes 6-9. A look at the scorecard would give the impression Scott made 10 birdies in a row.
Royal Sydney is markedly different from our other championship venues. The Australian Golf Club is more generous off the tee and tends to favour the bomber. It’s penal with water in play on seven holes and is more exposed to the elements with fewer trees to offer protection. However, the bunkering has a more granulated, binding type of sand that is predictable for the pros and a little easier to extricate.
Water is just as prevalent at The Lakes Golf Club. But it’s even more exposed with less shelter from the elements. The greens are more undulating and tournament officials have been conscious of not allowing the greens to become too fast and unplayable.
Generally speaking, the championship courses on Melbourne’s Sandbelt have wider playing corridors and are not as tree-lined. All of which makes Royal Sydney a unique championship test.
Once again, spectators will be drawn towards Scott, Day and Spieth like bees to a honeypot when they converge on Sydney’s eastern suburbs for the 15th Open at Royal Sydney.
What most intrigues Hunt is how the world’s very best players manage the par 3s. Holes 3 (165m) and 6 (143m) are fairly short by modern standards, yet they are fraught with danger.
Similarly, the shortest of the par 4s are compelling. The 1st (274m) and 8th (275m) are drivable and offer birdie opportunities in each round. But they invariably make a bunch of pros look silly.
In the 2013 Open, the sheer power of Scott and McIlroy was on display at the 11th, the longest par 4 on the course.
“I was amazed that Rory and Adam were hitting iron off that tee when it’s a 420-metre par 4. You just can’t imagine they can hit 2-iron, 6-iron.
“Even playing 18, they’ve got so much power at their disposal that they’re hitting iron down there and still getting it around the corner.”
Hunt will also be interested to watch the young American Bryson DeChambeau who will be riding a wave of confidence after notching his first professional victory on the Web.com Tour.
Seeing Ryan Ruffels should be a treat after he tied for 24th as a 15-year-old the last time the Open came to Royal Sydney. So, too, newly crowned United States Amateur champion Curtis Luck as he prepares for a 2017 season when he’ll play three of the four Major championships.
“So those young guys, I think they could possibly contend if they’re in good form,” Hunt predicts.
On a stage where Baddeley announced himself to the world, it would be a touch serendipitous if DeChambeau, Ruffels or Luck could put himself into contention at this Theatre of Dreams.
Hanse Appointed to “Future-Proof” Royal Sydney after this year’s Open
THIS year’s Open will be the last national championship held on the layout redesigned by Ross Watson 13 years ago. Royal Sydney recently appointed American architect Gil Hanse [pictured] to devise a new masterplan for the golf course.
The decision to bring in Hanse is part of a 2030 Strategic Masterplan to ‘future-proof’ the club against a number of challenges. Of particular concern is course maintenance. Royal Sydney has a 30-year-old irrigation system that is approaching the end of its lifespan. The club also wants to address the turf quality on its green surfaces in relation to Poa-annua infestation and shade/lack of sunlight. To deal with these issues, the conversation inevitably veers onto the topic of design.
It is no secret Royal Sydney has challenges with its cavernous bunkers in terms of maintenance and playability. Some older members struggle to physically exit some of the steeper hazards.
Combining these technical issues, it doesn’t make sense to address the irrigation without dealing with the green surfaces and bunkering. Hence, the club embarked on a tender process and the eventual decision to commission Hanse, designer of the 2016 Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro.
Some in the golf industry would perceive the overhaul as a slight on Watson, who withdrew from the tender process once it was made clear the chosen architect would be required for the duration of the 2030 Strategic Masterplan.
“That’s certainly not the case,” says Royal Sydney general manager Paul Hinton. “Ross’ work has proven [to stand the test] in 2006, 2008 and 2013 and will again this year in the Open.”
Work on the course is not expected to commence until 2019. Meanwhile, the clubhouse will also have a facelift. “The current clubhouse was built in 1922,” says Hinton. “The ‘old girl’ is due for a bit of an upgrade in parts, but we’re not going to lose that charm and that façade. Anything we do to the clubhouse will retain the old building and the character which is really important.”