Friday, 22 February 2013

Portsea Golf Club

In early 2006, I spent a few months travelling in Australia, with the first month dedicated to sampling the very best golf architecture the country has to offer.  The usual suspects of the Melbourne Sandbelt - Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria - featured prominently on the itinerary, and rightfully, should not be missed.  However, local golf architect and former European PGA Tour player Michael Clayton advised me to visit a number of golf courses of surprisingly high quality that are likely skipped by most venturing Down Under to play golf.  Today, the focus of the blog will be Portsea Golf Club on the west end of the Mornington Peninsula.  The next two course reviews will feature equally unheralded courses in Melbourne, Woodlands and Peninsula County.

Portsea Golf Club is routed over terrific golfing country, featuring wonderfully undulating terrain and a good sandy base.  There exists a beautiful simplicity to the design at Portsea, and the fresh breezes blowing off of Bass Strait ensure a nice test of golf over a relatively short course.  The golf course started as a nine-hole affair back in 1926 and was finally expanded to a full eighteen from twelve in 1965 by Sloan Morpeth.  As golf spread rapidly on the Mornington Peninsula, and competition for rounds increased, Portsea Golf Club endeavoured to improve their course by hiring Michael Clayton.  In keeping with his design philosophy, Clayton removed a lot of excess tea-tree in order to widen playing corridors and give golfers greater freedom to play.  Strategic bunkers were added and a number of tees were shifted and lengthened to provide a more thorough and rewarding test.

The first hole offers an inviting drive to a wide fairway to help get players away.  A longer drive will catch extra roll down the deep undulation in the fairway, however, sacrificing a clear look at the green.  
A solitary bunker guards the front right of the second green, meaning a drive challenging the steep drop-off bordering the left side of the fairway is the ideal line from the tee.
The third plays downhill to an green set within an amphitheatre.
The fourth hole plays through a gentle valley.
Not only is the drive on the fifth hole blind, but the green is completely obscured on the approach by a pair of bunkers set into a ridge short of the green. 
Originally, the entire hillside immediately beyond the golf bags was covered in tea tree.  Removing the tea tree opened up a lovely vista and the new fairway bunkers provide a heroic carry for those trying to shorten the length of the hole.
The seventh plays across a deep gully to a green set in a bowl.
The tee shot at eight is unforgiving for those whose drives stray in a strong crosswind, but nestling up close to the fairway bunkers gives an advantageous angle for attacking the par 5 into two strokes.
The dogleg right ninth is a demanding finish to the outward nine.
The tenth green as seen from the crest of the hill that creates a blind drive.
The eleventh plays down into a valley and then to an elevated green with a false front.
The twelfth plays downhill to a green surrounded by deep bunkers.
The driveable thirteenth plays only 267 yards along a ridge.  Thoughts of eagles or two-putt birdies need to be weighed against stray drives careening further off-line into deep bunkers.
Simple, attractive bunkering guards the green at fourteen, a short par 5.  The slope in the foreground can be used to run the ball onto the green around those left side bunkers.
A drive carrying between 205-240 yards at fifteen will catapult off a downhill slope into the lower portion of the fairway. 
The sixteenth plays slightly uphill to an angled green benched into the hillside.
The seventeenth was created when Clayton shifted and pushed back the tees, creating a long, downhill two-shotter.  The blind drive needs to challenge the left hand side fairway bunkers to open up the green.
The final hole plays through a valley and finishes below the clubhouse.  The second shot on the par 5 is complicated by two fairway bunkers residing 40 to 60 yards short of the green.
Portsea Golf Club is a quaint facility featuring subtle green contours, a restrained bunkering scheme and a number of elevated tees that provide spectacular views of Bass Strait, Port Phillip Bay and Point Nepean National Park.  The rolling terrain is very appealing as a lot can happen to the ball after it lands, both good and bad.  I have fond memories of my day at Portsea, and hope that those traveling to golf in Australia give it due consideration.

Post-Script:  Since playing Portsea in 2006, the club has sold off the land that used to house the ninth green and tenth tee, and according to Michael Clayton (no longer the consulting architect), this has been a detriment to the quality of the golf course.  The existing clubhouse is being abandoned, and a new structure is being build behind the existing fifth green.  Sadly the club has abandoned the back tees on No. 6, and turned it into a straight away par 4 that will in the future serve as the first hole, rendering the fairway bunkers obsolete (thankfully they come into play on No. 5, which will become the final hole).  It is a real shame to lose this exciting shot, I am glad to have experienced it.  I'm not sure whether these changes will affect the current first and eighteenth holes, which will soon feature a long, dis-jointed walk between green and tee.  Further, the current seventh, a one-shotter will now play at the second, a scenario that has a bad habit of slowing play early in the round.  I wish them success, but fear my return visit will not be as rewarding an experience.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The First Hole

The term "gentle handshake" has often been used to describe an ideal opening hole and there is a lot of merit in this approach.  Much like placing golfers on a stage with an exposed first tee, an overly difficult first hole can induce psychological trauma in many golfers before the round begins.  Golf is a difficult sport, and people play for recreational enjoyment, and there is nothing more frustrating than destroying the prospects of a good round after only one hole.  (The same consideration should be given to the tenth hole as it is often used as a starting hole when golf courses attempt to maximize early morning weekend tee times).

The first hole need not be mundane and devoid of hazards or strategic elements, in fact, it should inspire your golfing spirit by introducing you to the type of architecture you will confront throughout the round.  Avoiding out-of-bounds, dense bush, deep fescue rough, blind drives and the possibility of an abnormally high score is however, a good starting point.  I believe Nick Faldo once defended his propensity for tough first holes as giving an advantage to those (like himself), who arrive early and put in the necessary practice to hone one's swing.  However, with time becoming more valuable in the modern world, asking typical weekend golfers to spend an additional half hour or more to practice before a round is not realistic.  We want golfers to feel comfortable on the first tee, especially if their swing isn't.  Knowing they can miss the fairway or hit their opening drive less than solid and still manage a heroic par or bogey is a pleasant way to start the day.  Playing a provisional or hitting three from the tee is not, and golf architects are not out to embarrass anybody.

The tenth hole (a likely starting hole on weekends) at Firerock GC in Komoka, Ontario presents a blind drive, with the ideal line of play defined by the pole well left of the fairway over the bunkers.  This scenario has the potential to back-up play right away, and adds great discomfort to those new to the golf course.
From the standpoint of course management, allowing players to get away comfortably means limited back-ups early in the round and improved customer satisfaction.  Therefore, starting with a par five is not ideal, as some players will be in a position to reach the green in two strokes causing delay for those waiting to start their round.  The same can be said of reachable par fours, especially under certain wind conditions.  A mid-length to longer par four (390-430 yards) is good, as it enables players to play two full strokes to help loosen up and avoids major delays.  Like everything in golf course architecture however, these are not un-breakable rules, as the land will often dictate a less than desirable opening hole type, perhaps even a one-shotter - that owing to the precise demands of the hole - traditionally falls later in a routing.

The first hole at Portsea GC in Australia presents a comfortable start, playing approximately 400 yards to an undulating and inviting fairway.
Stray drives on the first hole at Portsea may end up in the driving range right or the 18th fairway left, but the chances of losing a ball and slowing down play is slim. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Another rule of thumb when routing the first hole is to avoid playing in an easterly direction.  I played much of my junior golf at a course with such a set-up, and nothing is more frustrating and unnerving than hitting the ball solidly and losing track of it due to the rising sun!!

I'll end with one final and entertaining quote from the great Donald J. Ross pertaining to opening holes;

"It's a beastly nuisance, when starting off play and before getting limbered up, to drive a ball out-of-bounds.  It generally means delay, loss of a ball, vexation, and even profanity."

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The First Tee

Golf course architects either inherit a clubhouse location or advise clients on a preferred spot.  Regardless, this becomes the starting and end points of the golf course routing.  Locating the first tee requires several important considerations to be weighed in order to ensure efficient management of the golf experience and provide a relaxed atmosphere to the start of a round.  More often than not, golf courses feature returning nines, meaning the tenth tee must also weigh similar considerations as it will be often be used as a starting hole, especially during weekends, when golf courses attempt to maximize early morning tee times.

In order to provide an efficient operation, it is important for proshop staff to have direct visual contact with the first and tenth tees, allowing them to monitor progress and relay relevant information to members or public players and limit confusion.  A smooth start to the day leaves a good impression, and that helps generate repeat play and member retention.  An additional benefit to the close proximity between proshop and starting tees is eliminating the need for a starter and their designated hut, which is good for the bottom line.

Another thing to consider when locating starting tees are circulation patterns around the clubhouse and proshop including cart staging and washing areas, practice facilities, parking and entrance road traffic and other country club amenities such as tennis, swimming and outdoor event facilities.  The flow of traffic around this busy area needs to be understood to ensure that those playing golf are not distracted, and golfers do not pose a safety risk to those using adjacent club functions.

This photo was taken from a deck overlooking the first tee at Capilano G. & C.C. in North Vancouver, BC.  In major tournaments, the practice green in the foreground is used as a back tee and places golfers on a stage.  The members tee however, is nicely concealed by some plantings and a drop in elevation and is less likely to cause nervous swings out of the gate.    
When the above issues have been properly addressed, golf course architects need to think about the psychology of the opening tee shot.  Golf is an extremely difficult game, and the prospect of hitting a shot in front of numerous onlookers can wreck the nerves of many players.  Therefore, I am not a champion of placing golfers on a stage, especially on the first or tenth tee.  While tee boxes located steps from the practice green or veranda look good on paper, they can instil fear to those who don't make a living playing the sport.  There is no more disheartening way to start a round of golf than by hitting an embarrassingly poor drive, as it can lead to a big number right out of the gates and that can ruin confidence, wreck a scorecard and diminish a golfers overall enjoyment of the game.  Balancing the desire for visual contact between proshop and starting tees while maintaining a level of isolation for golfers is important, and can be achieved by prudent planting such as hedges to create partial visual separation or the use of mounding to create physical separation.  Golf is meant to be enjoyed, and setting golfers at ease to start a round can make a difference in whether a player has fun or finds frustration early and often.