Royal Melbourne stands as difficult test
The site of this week's Presidents Cup is generally regarded as one of the finest courses in the world, the work of Alister MacKenzie, whose famous designs include Augusta National and Cypress Point.
Known as the Sandbelt, courses in this part of Melbourne are akin to those sand-based links in Scotland -- sans the bad food. Call it a cross between an inland American course and a links, with extremely hard greens.
"Royal Melbourne is my favorite golf club in the world,'' said Australia's Robert Allenby, who grew up in the area and still has a home here. "The first time I played [here] I was 12. I think I've played it more than 1,000 times. I know it like the back of my hand.
"It's just one of those golf courses that you have to see first and learn how to play it second. You can't play the course blind. You have to know it. The Composite Course is a golf course in strategy. I know you need strategy on all courses, but on the Composite Course, if you get too aggressive, you can make a double-bogey or a triple-bogey in a heartbeat. Even when you hit a good shot.''
That gives a decided advantage to the International team, which won the Presidents Cup for the only time when it was last played here in 1998. Five members of the team -- Allenby, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Aaron Baddeley and Geoff Ogilvy -- are from Australia.
Allenby, Baddeley and Ogilvy have extensive knowledge of the course. Scott has played it plenty of times and Ernie Els once shot 60 here in a European Tour event.
MacKenzie first came to this area in 1926 and laid out the West course at Royal Melbourne in less than three weeks. Another course, the East, was handled by Australian golfer Alex Wilson.
The course has unique bunkering and the fairways are framed by sand dunes and dense shrubbery. The Composite Course came into being in 1959, and is made up of 12 holes from the West and six from the East. That allows organizers to give it more length, although the real teeth of the layout comes from the greens. It measures less than 7,000 yards.
"The golf course is defenseless if there's no wind and a little bit of moisture in the air or on the ground,'' said Greg Norman, the International team captain who is another Royal Melbourne expert. "And then if the wind gets up, which it's predicted to be on Friday, up to 30 mile an hour winds, this place will eat your lunch.
"For a golf course with no water on it and no out of bounds, you can be intimidated by some of these tee shots, I don't care how good you are. So it's always got you a little off balance, unless it's dead calm and soft.''
Norman said Royal Melbourne is a course you have to play backwards. Find out where the pin is, figure out where you have to play from the fairway to go at that pin, then figure out how to get the ball to that spot in the fairway.
"You wouldn't consider it one of the most difficult golf courses in the world anymore, but it's definitely a golf course that rewards local knowledge,'' said Ogilvy, who grew up 400 yards from the course. "There's a lot of places on the golf course that are bad to hit it, and there's a lot of places on the course that are good to hit it, and they're not always obvious. It's only learned through playing the course.
"So I think the International Team will have a slight advantage because we've got more players on the team that have played Royal Melbourne before and have played Sandbelt courses before.''
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.