Golf Australia

CLAYTON: Beauty and fun in width

Yarra Yarra
The width of a rejuvenated Yarra Yarra is both aesthetically pleasing and a tactical challenge unseen to its critics.

In the past week I’ve seen a couple of magnificent courses deemed by the critics of recent renovations to be both “too easy” and “too wide” and something allowing you to “drive it anywhere”.

It’s a typically Australian thing to equate the worth of a golf course with its difficulty and it’s not helped by a leading local golf magazine including “resistance to scoring” as one of several criteria for measuring a course’s merits.

So many golfers seem obsessed with the notion every bad shot should be punished, yet lining fairways with water or impenetrable bush is a sure recipe to make golf slow, less enjoyable and more expensive.

It was the great architect Alister MacKenzie who pointed out the folly of attempting to punish every errant miscue, arguing it is an impossible and unworthy ambition. Those who would have every bad shot punished would likely also argue for 25 fielders on a cricket oval. They fail to understand luck – both good and bad – is a critical element of both games and how one deals with it is the great mental challenge of it all.

The irony of it is the course regarded as the best in the country, Royal Melbourne’s West, is also arguably the easiest course among the best 50, both to par for a scratch player and for an 18-handicapper to play in “even fives”.

Yarra Yarra, one of the two aforementioned criticised courses, employed the American architect Tom Doak to regain the brilliance of the course Alex Russell – MacKenzie’s Australian partner – left the members in the early 1930s.

Along with almost every other club on the Sandbelt, the early members at Yarra Yarra made the quite predictable – understandable even – mistake of importing both European and “native” vegetation on to the largely treeless original course. Almost a century on, the committees and consulting architects are left to deal with the mis-steps of the past. 

Nor was the mistake limited to golf courses. The Englishman who brought out two dozen rabbits hardly did anyone a favour. He just didn’t know any better.

The mistake was a failure to understand the indigenous plants – the ones which over centuries had best adapted to the site – were the only way to plant out a golf course and have it feel completely natural. Ask the critics if a golf course should feel “natural”, and the answer will be 100% “yes”.

Either way, Doak is taking out several hundred trees and the cries from the critics of the work that are sure to transform the course and resurrect the club’s reputation is, “you can drive it anywhere” and “it’s too easy”.

For me it’s neither harder nor easier, but only because I rarely miss a fairway – if you’re short, you’d better be straight! Instead, it’s about the questions the course asks of golfers and how it plays is barely altered.

There are now beautiful long views so characteristic of almost all of the game’s best courses. The work has completely changed the look and feel of what had become a terribly claustrophobic golf course. The upcoming phase will enable Russell’s genius to be regained after years of tinkering unworthy of his legacy.

Maybe the course will be easier – but does that matter, even one dot, if it’s better?

“Better” is, naturally, subjective. But let there be no doubt that in no time the praise will overwhelm the criticism.

You can get away with more off the tee, but what a joy it is not to be hunting for errant balls – especially someone else’s – an annoyance MacKenzie identified a century ago and studiously avoided building golf that was likely to create that problem.

The second criticised course was the recently rebuilt Gunnamatta at The National. I’ve repeatedly heard the “too easy” and “you can drive it anywhere”, criticism but having walked the course numerous times during construction, I knew those accusations to be far off the mark.

Sure enough, the new holes, as well as the revisions of the originals, are brilliant. The course is wide off the tee, but you have to drive the ball more than competently through the ever-present seaside winds and the width means players of all abilities can chart their own path to the hole.

The brilliance of the course is there is no right or wrong way to play it and this principle is the genius of the game’s best course, The Old at St Andrews.

Width, well used, gives the average golfer space while at the same time luring better players into a false sense of security in which they are likely to find driving into open spaces leads to a more complicated approach – either longer or played from a poorer angle.

The thinking player will figure it out and the rest will leave confused as to why they can’t score lower.

It’s a lesson the lovers of hard golf would do well to understand because the best courses are encouragers of good play and not promoters of suffering, hacking and ball-searching.


Posted by Bob at
09/11/2019 07:48 PM
Doaks work @ Yarra Yarra and Gunnamatta, are consistent with less stress involved in positioning you drive, due to the wider fairways. Picking your lines better optimises your chances of a better approach option. Tha 3rd hole at Gunnamatta, the first time I played it, showed me just that. Golf is a code and Doak give you a chance to crack it, with (I repeat) good lines. There4 I’m happy with Yarras changes and Gunnamatta’s re originality, where I’m a member of both. Bob
Posted by Robbo at
23/10/2019 09:46 PM
I concur with you Michael. I'm a member at Mornington on the peninsula which is currently undergoing a renovation to make the course more playable & hopefully more enjoyable for the bogey golfer. The slope of the course, built mostly on the side of a hill, makes the fairways narrower & therefore unfair. Darius's long term plan is to resurrect some of the unfortunate mistakes in course design over the years to eventually make it playable to all golfing standards. A long haul but it will be worth it.
Posted by Nobby at
10/10/2019 08:23 AM
Get real, you wingers. I am still playing after 55 years of loving the game. I say again, the GAME. That is what it is. I play at Cheltenham in Melbourne where the fairways are 2 feet wide. Playing on a wide course is just beautiful.
Posted by Simon Tyndale-Biscoe at
10/10/2019 01:06 AM
Thank you Clayts for another well written article about golf course design. To those who disagree with his opinion I put forward the following: Good design leads to enjoyable golf which leads to more people playing which leads to a healthier industry. Golf is hard full stop, if your enjoyment is garnered from shooting 10-15 shots over your handicap, go play most golf courses off the back tees, it’ll deliver that sort of scoring in spades. If losing golf balls and 5 hour rounds is your thing, you’re in the minority I’m afraid. Using ones mind to work out how to play a hole and then doing it is much more satisfying than having to hit driver, 3 wood 40 meters short of that over length par 4 and when you don’t quite hit it right you’ve got a 160 meter 3rd shot! Keep up the good work Clayts and thank you for the article.
Posted by Beaumik at
09/10/2019 11:44 AM
a course that challenges every aspect of your game is a great course,a course that does not challenge every aspect is not .yes can be fun to play and u get around in under 4 hours ,unfortunately yarra yarra has been vandalised imho
Posted by Scott at
04/10/2019 04:37 PM
Great Article. The most basic requirement of a golf course is to separate good and bad golf and you don't have to torture players to do this. A small mound in front of the green will do it. It's also best done over a number of holes like a good test bowler trying to seduce the batsman out of their crease with a variety of playable deliveries. The 8th at Huntingdale is a case in point. Short par 4 of a driveable length for most tour pros with a green surrounded by bunkers. Yet I stood behind the tee one day of the Masters and not one player tried to reach the green. The hole just screams penalty but if you filled in a few bunkers at the front some of these players would have had a crack. Now you have a fun golf hole.
Posted by Greg K at
02/10/2019 05:25 PM
some of the best games I have enjoyed are when the wind howls the rain buckets down and I score a miserable 20 odd points, I walk away thinking damn that was tough, but I drive all the way home delighted that i played golf. No matter how hard or easy it is the fact that I love to play golf and feel lucky that i still can. I detest players that want it easy just so that they can keep what they think is a respectable handicap. The best part of golf is the handicap system, it creates the level playing field and allows me to compete against a scratch handicapper, or recently a young boy off 36 beat us in the match play semi finals, it was fantastic to see his delight and enthusiasm. I am in the vet category but it is often the more mature that I listen to always complaining about the conditions. Make the course harder and let us realise how poorly we do play this wonderful game.
Posted by Tony at
24/09/2019 08:32 AM
If there is one thing that I detest, it is the blind shot - drive over the hill, hidden bunkers, etc. ... Mornington Peninsula has the enjoyment of so many erstwhile lovely courses ruined by this silly need to trick and no treat.
Posted by Adam at
19/09/2019 07:34 PM
Can't believe the comments about Gunamatta, too easy it is not. A 208m par 3 into the prevailing wind? Two or three par 4,s of significant length also into the prevailing wind? Many green complexes have gentle tricky undulations and thought is required about what type of shot is needed to get the best result. Hmm doesn't seem too easy to me sure there are some shorter holes which look easy but can easily be butchered especially if your short game is lacking. This course will rarely be played in still conditions so factor that in as well. If anything I think the slope rating is way too low but that's a discussion for another time. Not sure about the course yet but as a 5 handicapper it's definitely challenging enough, but is it fun? Time will tell.
Posted by Joe Bauman at
19/09/2019 05:44 PM
I am a National member and played the Gunamatta for the first time today. The wind was a howling northerly of at least 40 km/hr if not more. Strong winds are the norm at Cape Schank so to say that the course is to easy because of its wide fairways is way off the mark. I am an 11 H/cap player and found the course very difficult today, placing the ball in the right place is critical for the next shot. There is a 208 mtr par 3 which could not be reached with a driver today. Sure down wind holes appeared easy but again the wind played havoc and if you attached the pin there was no stopping the ball, play short and there is a false front to pull your ball up.
Posted by Andrew at
19/09/2019 02:51 PM
Thank you for your comments Mr Clayton. As a member of Yarra Yarra I for one am absolutely loving the restoration that the course is going through. It looks far better to the eye, with stunning vistas across the course and is still just as challenging (if you put the ball in the wrong spot you are still in a world of trouble).
Posted by Richard at
19/09/2019 01:25 PM
As usual Mike provides a really good article. Some highlights for me: wide fairways are good, with reasons; the point that every miscue should NOT be punished is not well understood or accepted by many people.
Posted by Stan Conner at
18/09/2019 08:38 PM
The first rule of golf introduces the central principles of the game, including: Play the course as you find it and the ball as it lies Play by the Rules and in the spirit of the game Nobody understands these principles better than Michael Clayton. Congratulations on another fine piece.
Posted by Roger at
18/09/2019 05:51 PM
Could not agree more with Mr. Clayton's comments. My home club (Killara) has just fully re-opened after a major project. Course architect Harley Kruse & our Club Project Team have done a great job in removing over a 1000 trees, opening up beautiful vistas across the course, reshaping ALL the tees & many of the holes, so that now (after only 3 weeks of play) we have holes that are much wider & open off the tee, but much more dependent on well-placed tee & second shots, to ensure the approach to the green is at the right angle, whether over bunkers or not. An old-style, tree-lined course is now transformed visually & strategically!....but actually LOOKS easier!!
Posted by Robert lowe at
18/09/2019 01:21 PM
Well done Mike Yarra looks as good as the Easter open we played in during the sixties.
Posted by Billy Cunningham at
18/09/2019 12:20 PM
I think the Gunamatta course misses the mark off the tee, much like St Andrews beach does. It’s not challenging enough, which leaves a empty feeling when playing the course. It’s nice to be challenged by a well placed bunker or hazard and have to negotiate them successfully or make a decision to avoid them. I think there is little decision to be made on too many holes on both courses. Successfully overcoming such obstacles and be challenged to think more is what brings fun when playing IMO. But love to get your thoughts on this Mike?
Posted by peter at
18/09/2019 11:54 AM
played Yarra Yarra 2 weeks ago--course is in great condition and once the last few holes are renovated-believe it will be a top 10 course--the fast greens are probably the best on the sandbelt
Posted by Kevin Nolan at
18/09/2019 11:21 AM
This thinking is needed at my course Ranfurlie, a Clayton Course, too many people visit it and think it's long and straight where that is far from the truth. So many people drive it 'down the middle' on 10 and find themselves either in the right rough or just off the fairway and cant work it out. The times I've heard "You can hit it anywhere" from someone who has just had 25 points almost makes my head explode.
Posted by Edward at
17/09/2019 10:41 PM
Bloody touch screens! I need to finish my post properly! Sorry guys 😡
Posted by Edward at
17/09/2019 10:38 PM
We'll said Mr. Clayton as always. Wonderful to know Yarra Yarra is being treated to a trip back in time. Treasured courses liked this are museums really of an incredible time of GCA and must be preserved to display both the tactical wonder if the designer along with his brilliance of blending it all seamlessly into the natural landscape. Golf is then fun for all and fun in a sense of shot making, shot shaking,
Posted by David Pryde at
17/09/2019 09:45 PM
Michael, in your numerous podcasts etc. you have pointed out the importance of driving your tee shot to the best position on a wide fairway to enable the best angle into the green - a concept many/most do not consider ( including myself ), when we are happy just to be on the fairway. Who wants to be frustrated by tight narrow fairways when playing once a week for fun. I felt your article didn’t emphasise how much the position for the second shot determines your scoring ability no matter how wide the fairway. Well, not as much as you would have liked. The 10th at Metro is a classic example of a wide fairway where ball position determines an iron to the pin or a wood. Cheers.
Posted by Ian Dunn at
17/09/2019 05:26 PM
Terrific, perceptive comment . Played Yarra Yarra recently, it's a far better course.

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17 September 2019
While critics bemoan wide courses as "too easy", MIKE CLAYTON argues that it opens up so many more pleasing aspects of golf, whether aesthetic and ... Read more
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