Words by Geoff Ogilvy
Photos by Stephen Denton
Art by Thomas Young
Light / Dark
It’s a rare gift to play event one of the world’s most-renowned par 3s during a round. Kingston Heath offers two on its back nine. The acclaim for No. 15 is universal, with everyone from architecture critics to players like Adam Scott recognizing its simple brilliance. But No. 10 is in the same class: In 2010, Rory McIlroy called it the best par 3 in the world. Which hole is better?
Seat at the table
There are some courses that just grab you as soon as you drive through the gate. It’s a feeling. It captures your attention as soon as you arrive, and you know it’s going to be a good day. Kingston Heath is one of those courses for me. There is an understated elegance, a feeling of class that just makes me want to play golf.
The course is a delight to play and always reminds me why I love the game. While Royal Melbourne’s West Course has always been the highest ranked on the famed Melbourne Sandbelt, the Heath is often higher in golfers’ personal rankings. With pros and regular Joes coming from around the world to play in Melbourne, the dinner-table debate usually turns to comparing the merits of each—and I can report that the Heath often wins many hearts and Minds.
While Royal Melbourne sits on one of the best bits of land for golf in the world, Kingston Heath is on a small, relatively flat property. So the achievement of creating a course that’s even in the debate is almost miraculous.
The 1920s saw several Melbourne golf clubs flee from the city to the Sandbelt. When Kingston Heath moved from Elsternwick Park to its current location, Melbourne solicitor and club captain Stanley Dutton Green wrote to Harry Vardon asking advice about the new course. The six-time Open champion urged Green to use developing advancements in equipment to build a course “to stand the test of time.”
Australian designer Dan Soutar was given the reins, and his routing made good on Vardon’s request. Upon viewing the course during his famous 1926 consulting visit, Dr. Alister MacKenzie claimed, “Never yet have I advised upon a course where, owing to the excellence of design and construction, the problems have been so simple.” MacKenzie came up with his now-legendary bunkering plan within a week. His only design suggestion: Change No. 15 from a blind, short par 4 to an uphill par 3.
Green, Soutar and MacKenzie are not the only ones who should receive credit for Kingston Heath. Mick Morcom—whom MacKenzie called “the finest greenkeeper I have ever come across”—built the course. According to legend, he would do the job only if he could vary MacKenzie’s concepts where he felt necessary. The result is that many bunkers are positioned differently to where MacKenzie had suggested. But the two got to know each other well during MacKenzie’s stay, so Morcom presumably understood MacKenzie’s thought process.
For the following 46 years, Mick’s son, Vern, was the course superintendent, and he would implement many changes to the design. Bunkers were split into two and three to help reduce erosion, many others were added and a number of greens were changed. Graeme Grant, the course’s superintendent in the 1980s and ’90s, also deserves some credit for the current state of the course. He embarked on a restoration during his time at the helm, bringing it back to the 1940s version.
Danger at the Turn
The story goes that, before he initiated his routing, Soutar walked the grounds for a while before settling somewhere near the middle of the property and announcing, “This is where we start: a short par 3 for the 10th.”
Always one of my favorite holes to play, the 10th is a highlight in a round at the Heath. At 138 yards, it’s never more than a short iron or wedge, but always demands full attention. The green is narrow at the front and widens at the back. While the front half is heavily bunkered, the slightly raised green is surrounded by short grass at the back. The challenge at the front is obvious, with the great Melbourne bunkers standing sentinel. But any pin placements toward the back can create even more issues, with anything off target running well off the green, down the short-grass slope.
During his mission to return the course to its original vision, Grant cleared much of the vegetation that had enclosed the 10th hole. He also added a small section to the back of the green, which now extends like a plank, creating another element of interest and making the short grass at the back a real hazard.
Sitting in the middle of a round, a short par 3 usually provides an opportunity to start the back nine off well. A wedge from a perfect lie: What could go wrong? Plenty. Many a confident golfer has notched a massive number on the card after watching in agony as even a slightly mishit ball trundled off the back of the green, then suffered further as a chip rolled back to their feet, or over the other side of the green. What an adventure.
The 15th is the more famous of the two one-shot holes. Again quite short by modern standards, it measures in at just 156 yards. But it provides as much challenge as one could ever ask for, played slightly uphill to a lamb-chop-shaped green, narrow at the front and wide at the back, surrounded by some of the most dramatic bunkering on the Sandbelt. Nothing but a high-quality shot will end up in a good spot. Big Bertha, the deep front-left bunker, is the scariest of those surrounding the green, but make no mistake: There is nowhere good to miss this green.
There are great pin placements all over it, with the back left of the green perhaps the most thrilling to hit into, but the front one in the narrow neck is probably the most difficult. The number on the tee is always the one to carry over Bertha. Trying to hit close to the narrow front pin is risky, as the up-and-down can be close to impossible. In the final round of the 1995 Australian Open, Greg Norman all but sealed his victory with a gorgeous mid-iron close to the hole. Great holes always seem to provide the best platform for the best players to prove it.
The green and surrounding bunkers at No. 15 haven’t changed a great deal since the 1920s, but Grant again deserves credit for the current look. By the ’80s, trees had enclosed the hole to the point where some of the bunkers had been lost. He again cleared the majority of the vegetation and reworked the hazards to their current form.
From the tee, I really like how the small sliver of sand now visible for Big Bertha belies the trouble that awaits. It lulls you into thinking that it is not a bad miss.
No. 15 also sits in a perfect place on the course. Three relatively easy holes—two par 5s and a short par 4—come before it. The run home of three long par 4s is possibly the most difficult stretch on the course. No. 15 becomes an important turning point: It is either another chance for a birdie before the tough slog home, or just the beginning of your troubles. Better flush that tee shot.
Like Norman, I also birdied No. 15 in the final round of the 1995 Australian Open. Playing in my first national open, paired with reigning PGA Championship winner Steve Elkington, I remember hitting a great shot close to the hole for a tap-in birdie. I shot 72 in that round and finished in 15th place to earn leading-amateur honors. It was a big week for me; it proved that maybe I was OK at this game, and perhaps had a chance at the higher levels. I have forgotten many details of that round, but I will always remember that Sunday birdie on No. 15.
I’m not the only one: Nos. 10 and 15 regularly provide memories both wonderful and frightening. They’re standouts that almost always come up in those post-round dinner debates, with No. 15 very often talked about as the best of all.
Geoff Ogilvy is a native Australian and an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 2006 U.S. Open. He isalso the “O” in the widely respected OCCM Golf Course Design firm, which is the consulting architecture firm forKingston Heath.