Royal Melbourne's 6th hole - "How good are you?"
The celebrated courses of the Melbourne Sandbelt may as well have been on another planet for a 10–year–old in the 80s at Maitland Golf Club in the Hunter Valley.
But I did have one tenuous connection with those fabled layouts; my dad had played them on golf trips with his mates. He’d recounted those experiences many times but I would still ask the same questions again and again hoping to uncover some new insight:
“Are Metropolitan’s fairways really as perfect as you say?”. “So there’s just sand under the ground when they dig?”. “When you say the greens are like putting down a marble staircase, that’s just a metaphor right?”
But one question in particular held special fascination, because I couldn’t quite believe that my own dad had experienced this:
“Tell me again… what was it like to play Royal Melbourne?”
Dad would sit back, get a faraway look in his eye and reflect on how Dr Alister MacKenzie’s Australian masterpiece had affected him.
He had his own way of expressing this feeling that he hadn’t read in a book or heard in a podcast. It was a simple combination of words that fused together in his golfing brain when presented with great golf architecture. He’d say a course like Royal Melbourne poses you a question on every shot, it asks you this:
“How good are you?”
How good are you? I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. When I stood on a tee at Maitland, the course wasn’t asking any questions, and if it was, I wasn’t listening. I had my hands full getting the ball airborne and moving it down the fairway straighter and further than the last time I’d played.
But my path to enlightenment came gradually and I started to notice subtle cues. I often played at nearby Stockton (Newcastle Golf Club); a world–class golf course. There I noted how the holes seemed to open up if I was playing well off the tee. I got to play some courses in Sydney that were wider and bigger than what I’d grown up on. I started to understand about choice and width and strategy.
I also read books about great courses. I wore out my copy of Pat Ward–Thomas’ World Atlas of Golf, spending days studying and redrawing hole diagrams, and one hole that completely captivated my attention was the par–four 6th on Royal Melbourne’s West Course.
I imagine this is the hole that truly consolidated the question in dad’s mind, as there is perhaps no better example of a hole that asks “how good are you?”.
The 6th is part of an exquisite mini–stretch of holes that begins with the 4th which is wonderfully routed over and around a massive sand dune on the eastern side of Royal Melbourne’s main paddock. MacKenzie was clearly homesick for Scottish links when he created the delightful blind drive over an imposing cluster of bunkers set into the top of the hill. The 4th has been played as a long par–four or short par–five but irrespective of par, there are countless ways to play it and any score from two to ten seems possible.
Then comes the 5th which is rightfully regarded as one of the world’s great par–threes. It is perhaps the quintessential prototype of a short hole played from atop one hill across a valley to a green on another hill. MacKenzie himself was present to oversee the construction of this hole and was moved to report that it: “…will certainly be better than any short hole south of the Equator”.
Then there is the 6th with its myriad choices. The hole sweeps downhill from the tee, then doglegs to the right and back up a hill to a pretty green set in a wonderful natural amphitheatre. Looking down from the tee there is a wide expanse of short grass to the left, but any self–respecting golfer is drawn like a moth to the graduated carry on the corner of the dogleg.
The view from the 6th tee is split down the middle; To the left is the safe path – a vast plain of manicured short grass – while the right is unambiguously dangerous – a nightmarish tangle of low sandy scrub ending in a beautiful angled row of classic MacKenzie bunker shapes.
The choice is clear, how good are you?
For my dad with a balata ball and a persimmon wood in his hands, the graduated carry was right in that sweet spot of needing to hit one flush. You could aim at the first bunker on the corner and tell yourself if you hit a bit of a push you might still be safely over.
Or you could take on the farthest bunker to the right where the only safe mishit is a quick hook.
Or you could safely knock a shorter club down the left, and quietly come to terms with the fact that your cowardly bail out has all but taken birdie (and maybe par) off the table.
These days with the modern ball and oversized drivers, the 6th’s choices are more or less preserved mainly because driver – for longer hitters – is the wrong club. The drive on the 6th doesn’t require raw length off the tee it requires precise length. A big hit with modern equipment on any sensible line will run through the dogleg into tall rough. And on a ridiculous line to the far right, the fairway narrows to a severe bottleneck – there lies madness. The correct play is a 3–wood or rescue which maintains the hole’s original strategic challenge.
Mike Clayton is fond of saying “the middle of the fairway is rarely the best position at Royal Melbourne” and that is true for the 6th where the best position is close to the right edge of the fairway - just over the diagonal of bunkers.
But Clayton also advises that, at Royal Melbourne, where your ball lands and where it ends up are two quite different things. The 6th fairway slopes off camber from the corner bunkers towards the outside of the dogleg, so the best shot is one which just carries the bunkers and holds the right half of the fairway leaving the best angle to the challenging green.
And here is another of the 6th’s subtle challenges, the fairway’s slope ensures the ball will be played from a downhill, sidehill lie. A shot that’s easily tugged left, where you now confront the spectre of the enormous hourglass bunker guarding the front left of the green. It’s as if it’s beckoning… how good are you?
Royal Melbourne’s greens have an unmistakable character courtesy of their unique Sutton’s Mix covering. When baked solid by Melbourne’s hot northerly winds they can look – and play – like they’re carved out of massive slabs of dark wood dusted with a token sprinkling of green grass cuttings.
The 6th, with its back–to–front tilt and big false front is perhaps the most severely sloping green on a course famous for its severely sloping greens, although the right side has been flattened slightly in recent years to accommodate a wider variety of possible pin placements, it’s still a fearsome test. It’s receptive to a well struck short iron but it’s surprisingly shallow, so any miss long leaves a dire recovery.
As with many approach shots at Royal Melbourne the player must demonstrate some degree of imagination – aiming away from the flag and judging what the ball will do on the ground and the cardinal rule at the 6th is to keep the ball below the hole. A longer uphill putt can be preferable to a shorter downhill slider.
After four–putting the 6th in the 1972 World Cup, Tom Weiskopf said: “It’s the only green I ever four–putted when I was trying on every putt”.
Later, in the 1974 Chrysler Classic, Lee Trevino stalked off the 6th green and singled out a clutch of neatly–dressed bald men standing in the gallery stating that he knew they must be members because they “lost their hair putting on these greens”.
I like to think the 6th is the hole that put Trevino in a mind to make his infamous declaration: “take a picture of me going out the gate because you won’t ever see me coming back in.”
Like the best golden age layouts Royal Melbourne is a course for everyone. It’s a nuanced mix of subtle mind games and conspicuous challenges. It demands that skilful players prudently consider their options but remains eminently playable for the average golfer.
My 10–year–old self would be amazed that I’ve had the good fortune to play Royal Melbourne a handful of times now, and the 6th on the West course is truly a hole that poses the question “how good are you?”. I’m sure dad would agree.