Only once in the 36-year history of Australian Golf Digest’s biennial Top 100 Courses ranking has Royal Melbourne not taken top spot. Whether judged as the Composite course, as was the case until 15 years ago, or separately as West and East, RM has sat above them all on 17 of the 18 occasions we’ve published our ranking.

The one blot on its copybook occurred in 2010, when Kingston Heath took top spot during a period when lingering drought and water issues meant Royal Melbourne was not wearing her best dress. She slipped to third that year (New South Wales Golf Club also edged it to take the No.2 ranking) but rebounded in 2012 and hasn’t been headed again.

We earned some scorn from within the golf fraternity for having the perceived audacity to demote Australia’s best golf course, but I distinctly recall forewarning Royal Melbourne’s then general manager, the late, great Paul Rak, with a phone call ahead of the on-sale date to let him know the news.

His response? “I couldn’t believe we’d stayed No.1 last time.”

He knew, as we did, that the West course and the entire property had exhibited some vulnerability at that time and was paying the price for it. However, its brief shortcomings were quickly addressed, the whole place looked incredible just 20 months later when the 2011 Presidents Cup returned and that has remained the case ever since.

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There was an unfortunate incident in January this year when nine greens on the West course were sprayed with an incorrect product. In the broader scheme of things, this was a much more minor slip up and mattered little for our 2022 ranking as the West course increased its lead at the top of the pile, as far as average scores from our panel are concerned.

Nevertheless, it begs the question: does Royal Melbourne own a permanent place at the top of our ranking?

Officially, the answer is no. It receives no special treatment, nor does any course, and we perform no manipulation of panellist scores to allow it to rank as No.1.

Numerically, the answer also looks to be no. Whereas in the past Royal Melbourne has displayed minor weaknesses in the agronomy space, its threat in the modern rankings realm instead comes from outside the gates.

In 2020, it was very close to being unseated. King Island’s Cape Wickham Links, which ranked second then but was narrowly edged into third place by Kingston Heath this year, held the overall lead until the final few votes came in. Only with the entry of the last 15 or so sets of scores – from a panel numbering more than 180 golfers – did the West course usurp its latest challenger.

In previous years it has been Kingston Heath that has threatened. The emergence of the Barnbougle courses has also had a peripheral impact, although neither the Dunes nor Lost Farm have ever cracked the top three despite seemingly ‘owning’ the spots just off the podium. Now it’s the revitalised Peninsula Kingswood layouts – the North course in particular – that have panellists whispering about a potential new No.1.

If it were to happen, recent history suggests Kingston Heath, Cape Wickham or PK’s North course appear most likely to claim the No.1 ranking based on anecdotal evidence and our numbers, with Barnbougle Dunes as an outside chance.

What would such a message send to the global golf community if venerable Royal Melbourne were to be dethroned? Opinions will vary, but the overriding takeaway from any future new ‘monarch’ ought to be this: Australia is home to a lot of world-class golf courses, and if Royal Melbourne isn’t considered the pick of them, then any new No.1 must be something special indeed.

PHOTO: Gary Lisbon