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Interview with Geoff Ogilvy - Royal Melbourne, the President's Cup & Golf Course Architecture

By: Jay Flemma


Cybergolf's Jay Flemma recently interviewed Geoff Ogilvy. The 34-year-old Aussie is a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, including victories in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot and a pair of WGC-Accenture Match Play Championships. Also joining the discussion is Mike Clayton, a former player on the PGA Tour of Australasia.

Ogilvy will be making his third appearance in the biennial Presidents Cup when it's played November 18-20 at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia. Overall, he has a 4-5-0 record. Currently 38th in the World Golf Ranking, Ogilvy will be joined on the International squad by fellow Aussies Jason Day, Adam Scott, Robert Allenby and Aaron Baddeley; the latter two are picks of captain Greg Norman.

Here's what Ogilvy and Clayton had to tell Jay during their wide-ranging discussion late last month.

The 7th Hole on the West Course at Royal Melbourne

Jay Flemma: Tell us about the origins of the courses at Royal Melbourne. When were they designed and by whom?

Geoff Ogilvy: It was in the late '20s, early '30s. Most of the courses that existed were built in the city. But then there was a movement out to the sand belt where there was this incredible terrain, native trees and great sandy soil. It was perfect timing for Alister Mackenzie because he came to Australia just as there was a rush to build courses out there and the area blossomed.

Mike Clayton: Right. By the time he came, all the new courses had been built, but he then refined many of them with his partner Alex Russell and the Royal Melbourne greenskeeper, Mick Morcom, who built much of his work.

GO: It's such a unique place, just perfect for golf because usually you have to be on the beach to get sandy soil. If you don't have sandy soil, you have issues with drainage and you can't get the course to play as fast and firm as you'd like. Back then the ground game was still in vogue as well. But Melbourne and Victoria are gifted with great terrain and sandy soil. And then the stars aligned that the great land got a great architect. There was a plan in place for the two courses, but he re-routed them. The West course is especially Mackenzie.

Mackenzie was in Australia for three months, and besides working with Royal Melbourne, he also gave advice to Royal Adelaide, Kingston Heath and Victoria, and these all happen to be the best four of five courses in Australia. There is no place in the world like Royal Melbourne, and it has similarities to Augusta National, St. Andrews and Cypress Point.

JF: What are those similarities?

GO: Like most great courses, there's nothing narrow about it. Then there are 18 astonishingly great greens. The West is the best of the two courses, with large greens that have big slopes, like Augusta. And also like Augusta, if you miss the green on the wrong side even by a little, you've got no chance to recover, but you can miss the green by 30 yards on the correct side you have every chance to recover. Then, if you move the pin 15 feet you have to play the hole completely differently. You can have a pin on the left one day, so then you want to be on one side of the fairway to approach, but then move the pin 15 feet and you have to come into the hole form a completely different side of the fairway. It's creative and interesting and different every time you play it, and every time you play it you find something new, which is really the true sign of a great golf course.

JF: How is it like Cypress Point and St. Andrews?

MC: For me the great similarities are that nothing is dictated to the player. There is space to play the game and the player must decide for himself or herself where to play - and the right place to play will vary depending upon the strengths and weaknesses of the golfer.

JF: Since Mackenzie's day what renovations or restorations have been made since then?

GO: Not much! They've replanted the grasses, but as far as changing the course I can't remember anything in my lifetime. Again, it's like Cypress Point, I don't think the members would tolerate change. They're happy where they're at. It really didn't need much.

MC: Exactly. There are new tees at No. 4 at West, and the fairway was reshaped to accommodate a boundary problem at the adjacent hole, 17 East.

I first saw the course in 1972, and it's pretty much the exact same golf course. The biggest change has come with the ball and how that's impacted how the course plays. Mackenzie would be apoplectic if he had known how the administrators have failed to protect courses like Royal Melbourne.

JF: Then how and why has it been able to deal with advances in technology and distance so well?

GO: Some say it hasn't, but most don't agree. Ernie Els once shot 60, but that was on a perfect day and perfect conditions during the Heineken. But if the wind its blowing 10 mph, like it almost always does, and it's firm and fast, and the pins are tough, that's not gonna happen. A couple under par will be great.

MC: That's right. More and more, it's defense is the wind and the greens, which need to be hard and fast, so no matter how short the club, it still takes a precise shot to get anywhere near the flag. Also, you must be coming in from the right side of the fairway.

GO: It's a little bit short - just under 7,000 yards. What the "composite" course doesn't have really is one real par-5, where it's not a guarantee you'll reach in two. But par matters much less in match play. You're not measuring yourself against another group, you're just trying to beat your opponent. The composite course has three par-5s where we'll hit mid-irons. But even so, it's kept up with technology because from the middle of the fairway it's still a difficult course, even though you're hitting shorter clubs. When you have pros hitting mid-irons into par-5s that's where they do their damage, but not at Royal Melbourne. They could make eagle or birdie, but if they miss they may make something much worse.

JF: And the reason for that is the terrific contours of the greens and the difficulty of the surrounds and the trouble near the green complexes?

GO: Exactly. Also, there are some doglegs and short holes where if we drive too far we can drive into trouble. The greens show the genius of the design. Mackenzie wasn't thinking directly about what technology would bring like we do know, yet the course still defends itself.

However, Mackenzie also said in the book "The Spirit of St. Andrews" - a must-read for any golfer, by the way, everyone has to be careful about the golf ball going to far. It may go 400 yards and that's bad for golf. So perhaps he understood this could happen.

The other thing about Royal Melbourne is that the correct place to be isn't necessarily closer to the hole - driving it further doesn't help you much at Royal Melbourne. Again, it's like St. Andrews. One set of bunkers is in play one day into the wind and other bunkers appear nowhere near play and you wonder what they're doing there. But then the next day the hole plays downwind you're in that bunker! Royal Melbourne has held its own better than probably anywhere else in the world has that hasn't changed their golf course.

JF: What will the routing be for the President's Cup?

GO: This is the first time we've had this routing. It's something Greg Norman and the Tour came up with. The original composite routing was 12 holes of the West course and six of the East, and it started on 1 West and finished on 18 East. That's a cool routing because it comes back to the clubhouse after six holes (in that case, 6 West), then the next six play out to the furthest point from the clubhouse, then you turn and play the next six home.

Now they decided that because the majority of match-play matches finish on the 16th hole of the match, the tours wanted to see more matches to finish near the clubhouse to promote excitement. So one change this year is that where the last hole of the composite course is usually 18 East, that hole will be the 16th hole of this year's composite course. Then they'll play 1 West and 2 West as 17 and 18.

Here is the routing for this year's President's Cup, with the course playing to a par 71:

1. 3 West
2. 4 West
3. 5 West
4. 6 West
5. 7 West
6. 10 West
7. 11 West
8. 12 West
9. 17 West
10. 18 West
11. 1 East
12. 2 East
13. 3 East
14. 16 East
15. 17 East
16. 18 East
17. 1 West
18. 2 West

The 10th Hole on the West Course at Royal Melbourne

They'll all be close enough to each other to create a wonderful atmosphere; I think it's better than the one in 1998.

JF: It comes back to the clubhouse three times - at 4, 10 and 16.

GO: That's right. They wanted that so that it would be more exciting and have a larger number of people around the action.

There is one different hole from the old composite course. They used 4 East, a long par-3. Now we use 16 East, a great little hole, short but much better than the 200-yard downhill hole they used to use. It improves the course.

I have one problem with this new routing - 1 West now plays as the 17th hole. If Royal Melbourne has a week hole, it's 1 West. It's a really good first hole, wide-open like at St. Andrews', no trouble, easy par for any handicap. But it's a horrible 17th hole. In fact, it's only good as a first hole. Number 1 at St. Andrews wouldn't be a great 17th would it?

MC: I agree totally - great first hole, but uninteresting 17th hole.

JF: No, but is it easy enough to be a par-3.5? Will it see swings?

GO: Not really. No one should make bogey, though I'm sure someone will contrive to do it; that always seems to happen. But most guys will hit the fairway, then most guys will hit the green and it'll be 20-footer vs. 20-footer. You hope for more out of your 17th hole. You want some drama at 17. 17 West, for example, is one of the greatest holes in the world.

JF: Then what makes a great match-play golf course and what makes a great match-play hole?

GO: Good question. The one that has the best matches to watch.

JF: And those are?

GO: I don't know - are they ones that change hands and go back and forth? Or are they the ones where there's lots of birdies and bogeys? You don't want to watch guys just grind out pars. You want guys who risk taking shots at birdies also miss and make bogey, so it's a course that has holes that can hand out lots of birdies and lots of bogeys.

JF: How would a golf course architect build a course that would do that?

GO: By designing great golf holes. Few of the best holes in the world are really, really hard where everyone grinds to make par, neither are they the really easy ones.

The best example is 13 at Augusta. An 18-handicap golfer can bump it up the fairway, bump it up further to get into position around the corner, get to a place to pitch on, and try to get up and down and have a putt for par every time. If you do that, you can almost never make worse than six. But the best golfer in the world will make eagle three or double-bogey seven. The more risk you take off the tee the easier the hole becomes. The more aggressive you are getting around the corner, the easier it is to lay up or you can even go for the green The safer you play the tougher the second and third shot.

It's thousands of shades of gray. The braver you are the more talented you are, directly results in your 2d and 3d shots easier . . . the less brave you are, the tougher your approach and layup will be. But then even a terrible golfer who gets in trouble out of position can still recover and find a way to save a par, yet pros will struggle to make birdie. Those are the architectural principles that stand up.

JF: Name a few more great holes like that.

GO: 4 at St. Andrews and 9 at Cypress Point - there is a direct relationship with getting easier the more you take the challenge off the tee. Also 17 West at Royal Melbourne . . .

JF: That will be the ninth of the composite course.

GO: Right . . . good! It's a dogleg left with bunkers on the corner. The closer you are to the bunkers the easier your second shot. You can hit to the right forever, but you'll never get near a right pin. Also, No. 2 at Talking Stick North is great. Anyone can play there for not much money. At that hole the tee and green are against the OB fence. The green has one bunker on the 5 o'clock position, front-right. And that's all there is - an OB fence and one bunker, but the hole has terrific strategy. The closer you play to the fence the more the green opens up to the approach. The further right you play the more you have to deal with a cavernous bunker. Actually six at Carnoustie and six at St. Andrews use OB fences well also, and in a similar way, a way that's actually good. Drive it near the OB and the hole opens up and is easy, but it takes courage and talent to do it. That's golf course strategy 101 - at first glance it's simple, but then you find that you have to get closer and closer to the fence to make the holes easier. Holes that require thinking like that, those make great match-play holes and great match-play golf courses.

JF: Let's discuss more of that in a bit, but first let's talk some more about Royal Melbourne. Why do they always use a composite course?

GO: I think they used to do tournaments in the early days on the West or the East, but not since the '80s. I remember Watson winning the '84 Australian Open and it was a composite. I was seven (years old) I think. But in my living memory, I don't think they've exclusively used the West or East alone for a big tournament with galleries.

The West is clearly better, with much more Mackenzie influence. I think it's as good as the composite. But it does cross a road, and maybe that's the problem . . . and it's not like at Oakmont where they have that giant bridge and it's easy. Here you actually have to cross a road. It's one thing for members dragging a cart to cross it, but for thousands of spectators it's different.

JF: How is the composite course as a match-play venue?

GO: It's a wonderful course. It encourages players to play what I call proper golf. You have to think where to hit your tee shot, where to place your second shot, when to be under the hole, all that. And there are a lot of holes out there - and again, Augusta might be similar - where you have an advantage if you can work the ball both ways. You have to work the ball at Melbourne, and you have to know when to be aggressive and when not, and it changes from day to day. It's so much more interesting to watch pros making decisions and then showing the fruit of their decisions. That's why the Masters is such a spectacle: you get pros making decisions on every hole that they don't want to make.

JF: So what you're saying is the best way to inject excitement into a golf tournament is to make a pro think. Mackenzie said the same thing in "Spirit of St. Andrews."

GO: Well, make him do something out of the ordinary - maybe a low draw instead of a high soft shot. You don't have to play Royal Melbourne like this, but the guys that do score the best.

The 17th on Royal Melbourne's West Course

JF: So the smartest or most creative golfer will win there?

GO: Well, the guys who understand what the course requires. For example, the two captains know it. Freddie lost in a playoff in the Bicentennial Classic in 1988 . . . [Author's Note: That tournament took place on Australia's bicentennial.]

MC: That was to Rodger Davis

GO: Yeah, and Greg Norman owns three Australian Opens. [Author's Note: 1984, 1985, and 1987]

GO: Those two guys are perfect Royal Melbourne players - they move it both ways and they hit it high. A player whose game suits Augusta National will play well at Royal Melbourne.

JF: What are the best holes at Royal Melbourne?

GO: 7 West (5 composite) - A short par-3, a 9-iron in to a small green, but uphill to the hardest, smallest nastiest little green. Short, yet it will be everything a pro golfer can handle.

10 West (6 composite) - A short par-4 that's just 300 yards, maybe shorter. From a high tee you play through a valley. It's astonishing land for a short par-4. It's a dogleg-left with a monstrous bunker on corner. You can try to drive the green but if you miss you might have an impossible shot with no chance to make a three. So you have choice off the tee: risk driver where if you miss you can't get up and down, or you could play hybrid and leave 45 yards to the front, or 3-iron and leave 75 yards. It's one of the best holes in the world and one of the coolest, and again, just because you get closer off the tee doesn't mean you're in a better position. If you miss your drive you have every chance to be in a bad place where you might not make a three. It's great spectacle too - everybody loves par-4s where we try to drive the green.

JF: Maybe they ought to have more of those in major championships?

GO: Yes! I'll pick one more hole. I'd pick every one if you'd let me, but lets do 18 East (16 composite) - A gentle dogleg that plays from right-to-left with a green that sets up for a shot from the left-hand side, especially for a right-hand pin. You have to hit the ball close to the inside of the dogleg in order to have a good chance. Guys will still hit long- to mid-irons in with the Melbourne wind.

JF: Should golf's governing bodies focus a little more on golf course architecture when selecting venues for major championships?

MC: The Open Championship rotation is great and they usually get the set-up right. Turnberry in 1986 and Carnoustie were the aberrations. Augusta is Augusta. Pinehurst is the next U.S. Open that has a chance to show golf can be great without the fixation for defending courses with long grass and narrow fairways. Those who pick the championship courses in America need to show there is another way - and if a course of 7,400 yards cannot defend itself without having to resort to long grass and narrow fairways, it shows what a poor job the administration has done with equipment regulation.

JF: Well then what did you both think of Atlanta Athletic Club for the recent PGA Championship?

GO: Well Atlanta Athletic Club wasn't my favorite. It's difficult just to be difficult in a lot of places and frequently it didn't make a lot of strategic sense.

JF: Explain what you mean by "strategic sense."

GO: Well, for example, the green opens up if you take the Tiger line off the tee, but if you take the safer option the second shot is harder. It's in the way the fairway bunkering and the way greens were set up and working together, like 13 at Augusta. Things like when you take the risk, you have a flatter lie or a better angle and/or a shorter shot in. Atlanta Athletic Club didn't have anything like that. It wasn't interesting to play, there was very little where you had to make decisions and use thought to approach the course. It just asks you execute great shots, but didn't ask you to make strategic decisions. I think people were complaining that although it's difficult because it's super-narrow and super-long, it doesn't hold your interest. There were some interesting short holes, but as a general rule, when they had a choice they just made it long and narrow.

That's where some people get architecture wrong. It's one thing to be hard, but hard doesn't mean good. Look at Oakmont, it's one of the hardest courses in the world but it's also one of the greatest courses in the world.

JF: Is that because of the terrific green contours and fairway undulations?

GO: There's that, but it's also about the angles and coming in from the correct angle is crucial to playing Oakmont. Also, it's all about the short grass around the greens, all those great greenside slopes and contours that allow you to play any number of different recovery shots - putt, bump and run, pitch and check, lob. Golf is more interesting with the short-grass hazard - it may be the most strategic element in golf. Everyone fears that ball trickling back to your feet, or down to the bottom of a hill, or slowly rolling into a bunker . . .

JF: . . . behind you . . .

GO: Exactly. Horrifying. A golfer's worst nightmare.

JF: What about the Ryder Cup/President's Cup venues? Does the President's Cup play better courses than the Ryder Cup?

GO: In recent times, the President's Cup has been played on better courses. Royal Montreal is a great golf course, as was Harding Park. Royal Melbourne will be wonderful. The Ryder Cup lately hasn't showed the best courses each country has to offer. The Belfry isn't the best course in the U.K. - a long way from it actually. Celtic Manor? Not wonderful. Valderrama is fine, but Europe still hasn't shown its best. It has the odd good course here or there.

In America, Oakland Hills was a great course. The others? Not so much. But the Ryder Cup is such a big event the course really isn't the star. At the U.S. Open or PGA, it's about the course and how the players will handle it. At the Ryder Cup, it's about how are they going to deal with the other players and the pressure, but of course it's always a more interesting event when played on a more interesting golf course.

MC: The last Ryder Cup played on a proper course in Europe was 1981 at Walton Heath. Was the last great course to host a President's Cup Royal Melbourne in 1998?

JF: What would be some other great courses to host a Ryder Cup or President's Cup?

GO: Well Royal Melbourne was high on my list and I'm thrilled it will be there. How about a Ryder Cup at Augusta National? Playing Amen Corner with a Ryder Cup on the line would be incredible.

Some of my choices are mere fantasies, but Pine Valley would be great. It demands good players to take on big risks to make birdies and eagles. There would be plenty of birdies and plenty of others, as it encourages aggressive decision-making: "Do you have the heart to take this shot on?" and then "Can you execute?" Pine valley is a fantastic match-play course, and what an atmosphere!

In fact, I'd pretty much list the world's top-10 courses, if you are looking for interesting golf. Chicago Golf Club is a good choice; they played a Walker Cup there. There are no trees and you can see all across the course and feel the atmosphere from several holes away. Players play great holes and have to play interesting shots.

MC: It's not going to happen, but the best Ryder Cup courses in Europe are the Open rotation courses. The best courses are now too short really - they need a modern European course - assuming they don't go to an Open venue, but there aren't many really good ones. Castle Stuart and Renaissance in Britain are great. It would be amazing to play something at National Golf Links of America or Sand Hills - the first truly great American course, and the most recent.

JF: Are you heartened by the way architecture is moving?

GO: It's amazing to see some of the best golf courses in the world being built right now. The last 15-20 years or so we've had Coore and Crenshaw, Tom Doak and Gil Hanse building some golf courses that feel and look like they were built in the Golden Age - rugged and with less earthmoving - places like Sand Hills and Barnbougle Dunes and Old Sandwich and Boston Golf Club. They're not being built to be difficult or to attract pro tournaments, they're just concentrating on designing great golf courses. Bandon Dunes is three hours from civilization and you can't get a tee time, yet back when [Mike Keiser] told people he was going to build out there people laughed at him and said it was crazy. Now there's four courses. This new crop of designers is building modern courses that look like they were built in the '30s.

JF: They also play like the '30s.

GO: Yes, they play strategically. They also got great pieces of land. Like Sebonack, it's much better to give that great land to a golf course and not to houses.

Also with websites like Golf Club Atlas, Geoff Shackelfor's sites, and your websites and writing, there's writers and people getting more and more golfers interested in the subject and they are not only learning about golf course architecture, but getting involved. The Internet really helped. Now, it's not just a friend telling a friend about a great course he played, we can learn so much about so many more great courses at the click of a mouse. Word spreads right away about courses, and we all get brought up to speed almost immediately.

And it was you bloggers and Internet writers that led the mainstream on the issue. You guys led the scene from people lamenting in a room that "there is better golf out there" by writing and greatly increasing public interest and awareness, and the word is spreading into the mainstream and getting out there to the general public.

MC: Also, right now, the golf-design business is moving to Asia and they need to establish a culture of great courses, not simply copies of what they see on television from America. Bill Coore and Tom Doak are doing courses in China right now and those will hopefully show there is another way and open the doors for others to follow.

JF: You raise a great point there. Isn't television right now a problem for great golf architecture because A) everyone wants to copy what they see on TV, B) TV only seems to show length, water, flat greens and ridiculous green speeds, and C) because TV preconditions us by simply saying what an outstanding course everything is, even if it's horrible architecture?

GO: TV can be the enemy - overproduction and over-commenting can be misleading. Look at St. Andrews for example. It looks strange on TV, it looks kind of funny. St. Georges is another where, at least on TV, you don't see the undulations, and also the brown fairways look motley, but it's the best grass to play on. Grass is naturally supposed to have every shade between green and brown. All perfectly green grass is unnatural. Additionally, great architecture is about what's on the ground, and you lose that feel on TV. So people gravitate to courses that show well on TV like Augusta, so everyone wants to emulate it. Plus we all love Augusta.

Take Riviera, one of the best courses we play all year, but on TV Riviera may not look any better than some courses that are nowhere near as good because you only hear the coverage which invariably says they love it and viewers repeat what they heard.

JF: Tell us about how the pros and cons of being a major champion. What was the toughest adjustment and were you ready to handle it?

GO: I used to be able to go to a golf tournament and generally fly under the radar - practice, not do too much media and just go and play and not have a lot to handle. Now there are many more media requests and time management is tougher. That takes you by surprise. I used to get there at nine, play a practice round, hit balls, and be back in the room by two or three. Now that doesn't happen. It's a longer day because of all the extras and a few more duties. It took me by surprise.

As for handling it, I played my whole life wondering if I'd ever be good enough. When I was a 12 handicap, I wondered "could I be a 6?" even when I was a 1, I wondered "am I really good enough to be scratch?" then "am I good enough to get on Tour?" . . . "stay on Tour?" and then ultimately "can I win a major?" And then when I did it, was quite surprising and surreal at the time.

JF: When did it first cross your mind that you could win that tournament?

GO: My approach to 18 went off the green, but I chipped to four feet. If I make it, I'm one ahead of Monty, but one behind Phil, but I saw Phil was way left of the fairway and there was some commotion, so I thought there was a fair chance that if I made that putt, there would be a playoff. So then when I made it, I said to myself, okay this should be a playoff and I walked off the green to go sign my scorecard. As I'm signing, there's a TV in the scorer's hut, and that's when I saw Phil hit the tree. It was very strange.

JF: So other than golf, what's your next life goal?

GO: To be a good parent. That's what I do the most and love the best away from golf - the kids and fatherhood - and I love everything about it. The pick-up and drop-offs, the parties, the family get together, all of it, any parent knows that. That's the greatest part of my life. And occasionally, I mess around on the guitar.

JF: What kind?

GO: I have multiple, but my favorite is a 1959 Les Paul Reissue. I also have a Martin D28 acoustic. I play them both a lot. I am far over-guitared. In fact, I'm a 20 handicap on guitar, but I have the best guitars money can buy, even though I have no intent of doing anything with it. I just love to play in quieter moments: classic rock, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn. I also love to surf. I live in San Diego and surfing to an Australian is like horseback riding to a Texan.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.