MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA | Leave it to my Australian taxi cab driver to sum up the charm of Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
“It can be as soft and cuddly as a koala bear and jump on your back like a kangaroo the next minute,” said Michael O’Shea with an impish grin.
At Tuesday night’s gala dinner, International team captain Greg Norman offered this saltier description: “Royal Melbourne will give you a look up her skirt and shut you down very, very, quickly.”
Norman’s eyes light up when he talks about Royal Melbourne, the grand old lady of Australian golf, a course he’s played more than 200 times since 1977 and touts as his favorite in the world.
“You can shoot a number here if conditions are benign,” he said before the start of the Presidents Cup. “But you don’t want to be above the hole at Royal Melbourne. You’d rather have a 30-footer uphill than a four-footer downhill. Balls aren’t rolling out as they normally will just yet.”
Emphasis on “yet.” That would come. Royal Melbourne is regarded as one of golf’s holiest grounds, and it is by no means hearsay to call it the best in the world. It will expose your flaws, but it will give you every chance to recover. There is no water or out of bounds. The fairways aren’t narrow. The rough isn’t thick. It measures in slightly under 7,000 yards. A breath of fresh air, you say? Yes, but when the wind blows, look out.
“You’ve got nothing like Royal Melbourne,” my cabbie boasted, “Not even your great Masters.”
I was tempted to demand he pull the vehicle over. After all, those were fighting words. Instead, I nodded along to his history lesson on how during Alister Mackenzie’s one and only visit Down Under in 1926, the celebrated Scottish golf architect, who later designed Augusta National, laid out Royal Melbourne’s famed West Course.
“You know Mackenzie did Yarra Yarra, Metropolitan, and Kingston Heath, too,” my cabbie said. He proudly announced he had played them all, and caddied at Royal Melbourne, for good measure. “We call it the Sand belt, and it was meant for golf,” he added.
Then he asked me if I had been to the Presidents Cup yet. I said I had walked her fairways on Thursday when Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson poured in seven birdies in 16 holes in mild, spring-like conditions. Royal Melbourne, a course Norman promised, “will eat your lunch,” was just whetting its appetite. On Friday, a hot, northwestern wind whipped to 35 mph. Greens baked by the 90 degree heat rolled 14-plus on the Stimpmeter. It felt like summer.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, this was an 11,” Norman said.
Royal Melbourne played fast and firm. Players were forced to putt defensively, and even then they paid the price. On the fourth green, Watson faced a 48-foot downhill putt. He and Simpson lined it up. They couldn’t agree so Watson went with his read. Bad idea. His next shot required a wedge from 50 yards off the green. What was it Norman said about staying below the hole?
It’s not often you see elite players reduced to hit and hope. On a day when there was no room for error, 13 holes were won with par. On two occasions, a hole was halved with bogeys. This was in the best-ball format, mind you. As the greens dried out, they verged on unplayable.
“Crazy tough conditions,” said Phil Mickelson. “But I’ve never seen anything quite like today … You actually had to read the wind on the putts.”
As if he was conducting one of those Bounty paper towel demonstrations, Norman poured water on Royal Melbourne’s 18th green and none of it absorbed into the green.
“There’s probably nowhere else in the world where that would happen,” Norman said.
And to think they moved the tee times up to avoid the worst of the weather. Almost on cue, storm clouds massed over the course. Less than a half-hour after play was completed Friday, rain fell in buckets. On Saturday morning, play began in a warm breeze and rain. Couples compared these fall-like conditions to the Seattle weather where he grew up. By the afternoon, temperatures dropped. Winter had set in. The greens softened, but the wind switched directions. Hunter Mahan was reminded of the British Open.
Ernie Els has won three tournaments at Royal Melbourne. He once shot 60 on a windless day. He thought he had seen it all. “I’ve played the north breeze and the southwesterly. But today was quite amazing. It blew from the north, and then it turned around and came from the south. We’ve had it all this week.
“Yesterday it was rock hard … and today it was almost blowing like in Scotland.”
On Sunday, the sun shined almost as bright as Royal Melbourne itself.
As I handed my cabbie payment for the ride, I mentioned that I had a Monday tee time on the grand old lady.
“Enjoy one of the great walks in golf,” he said. Then after I tipped him, he leaned out the window and added, “You’ll be lucky to three-putt.”
Funny, he hadn’t even seen my game.