Regularly rated as one of Australia’s finest golf courses, Royal Canberra Golf Club has a fascinating history, and now looks to have an interesting future ahead of it.
Royal Canberra is always rated as one of Australia’s best golf courses and I’d been wanting to walk its fairways like some of the world’s best had, for many years. Arnold Palmer reportedly got out of the car when he arrived for the Dunlop Tournament in 1970 to ask whether he was in Australia or at Augusta National, and Greg Norman fired a 62 to shatter the course record when he played and won the ESP Open in 1988.
It was exactly zero degrees Celsius as I approached the tee for my round at Royal Canberra. For anyone that knows Canberra well, this isn’t a surprise but it rattled this golfer enough to fear a disastrous front nine could be ahead as my bones begun to rattle and creak.
It wasn’t the front nine though. This was the first time I’d teed off at the 19th hole. Royal Canberra has 27 golf holes, a third ‘Brindabella’ nine was added to the original 18 holes during a Peter Thomson led redevelopment in the 1980s. It is all part of arguably the most interesting history of any Australian golf course.
I knew a little about the history of Royal Canberra Golf Club including its shift to the present location in the when Lake Burley Griffin was created in the 1960s, but the gaps were filled in by my playing partners as we plotted our way around the newest ‘back’ nine holes.
The original Royal Canberra golf course is now at the bottom of Lake Burley-Griffin and as compensation for this inundation, the Australian government offered to relocate the golf course to the high ground on the site of the Westborne Woods Arboretum – which for among other reasons, was being used to see which trees grew best in the Canberra climate.
This explains the large number of rare and varying tree species you’ll see at Royal Canberra, as well as the guided tours you may see wandering the fairways on weekends. This also explains why Royal Canberra staved off any effect from the most recent drought. With unlimited access to the Lake Burley Griffin water source, the course is always in top-notch condition and the tall pines (that obviously liked the conditions best) give it an unmistakable Augusta National feel.
An additional nine holes were added by Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge in the 1980s while tweaking the original layout. It is often considered the inferior nine largely due to the more modern design, particularly obvious in the links-styled holes, but to disregard it entirely would be a mistake.
The comparison to Augusta National can be a touchy one among members though, with some preferring to not to make comparisons and let it stand on its own. The pines do create a wonderful frame for many of the golf holes. Notably the opening par-5 that you may need to play a few times to get a sense of perspective off the tee, the majestic looking 18th hole and the fantastic par-3 26th hole on the newest nine holes, situated ‘out-the-back’.
The course has some very special dog-leg holes, possibly some of the best in Australia. The long par-4 7th hole requires a mean drive that will still require a long straight approach shot. The sight of Lake Burley Griffin sparkling through the trees behind the green is one of my favourites in Australia. The par-4 ninth is another great dog-leg hole that requires a special approach shot to get close to the pin. Anything else is in three-putt territory.
No one who plays Royal Canberra forgets the par-4 16th hole quickly. Often considered one of the best in Australia. The pines that seem to crowd the narrow fairway to a rise that can be carried by the longer hitters. The undulation is what makes the hole a great one though. The sight towards the green as you come over the rise is stunning.
As mentioned, the third ‘Brindabella’ nine is often considered slightly inferior to the original 18 holes and most course reviews have tended to gloss over this nine. After consultation with a few members, many seem to warm to it the more often you play and I can see why. The opening few holes give no indication that the layout will drastically change until you make your way from the great little par-4 21st hole to the 22nd tee.
The view out over the newer links-styled golf holes is superb. I’m told the cold wind on a winter’s day or the scorching sun during summer can sap any energy out of you on this tee box, but as the sun broke through the clouds on this winter’s morning, it was a wonderful sight. While the holes did seem out of place at Royal Canberra, it would only be a problem if the holes were boring ones. They aren’t. They all require some skilled shot making and have arguably more decision making to be made off the tee than the rest of the golf course.
Dismissing the additional nine holes at Royal Canberra means you are likely to miss out on the lovely par-3 26th hole. Now one of my favourite par-3’s. Here, the Monterey pines frame the hole rather than imposing on it and the numerous bunkers around the green make judging distance to the flagstick a difficult one.
As mentioned, if there is one drawback with Royal Canberra it would be the lack of decision making required off some of the tees. The approach shots to most of the holes though are interesting enough to make one largely forget this minor quibble. But it seems Royal Canberra is well aware of this and have employed a course design team to make some changes.
The Ogilvy-Clayton team have put forward their ideas to the members, which not surprisingly includes pulling out a number of trees. I’m told the chsanges won’t be drastic ones and will generally be a tweak to the golf course rather than a complete overhaul. The inclusion of creeks running through the course will certainly add to the Augusta feel of the place but ultimately, the members will make up their minds whether to implement the changes or not.
No stranger to big golf tournaments in its past, Royal Canberra will again be home to professional golf when it hosts the Women’s Australian Open in February 2013. No doubt it will be a lot warmer than it was a few weeks ago, possibly at least 30 degrees warmer.Irrespective of the temperature, the ladies will be playing a challenging, wonderful golf course that looks set to be one of Australia’s best for many years to come.