Elevated Greens

An assessment of current golf course design in Australia and the US

Does Australian golf suffer from a lack of variety compared to America’s strategic riches? In his latest article, Lukas Michel unpacks this question through first hand experiences at top courses in both countries. Analysing differences across layouts like National Golf Links of America, Maidstone, and Friar’s Head, Michel makes the case for bolder experimentation in Australia. With several redesigns currently underway, he sees opportunities for architects to introduce new themes and break from classic Sandbelt conventions.

Written & Photographed by Lukas Michel


Once a year I pack my clubs in their oversized case, throw near-exclusively golf apparel in my carry-on, and embark on a long journey across the Pacific Ocean to compete at the US Mid-Amateur Championship.

Competing, these days, is a small part of my time spent Stateside. Indeed, in the last three years I’ve played a total of 6 competitive rounds in these events. Whilst frustrating not playing the calibre of golf I know I’m capable of, this does leave extra time to explore golf courses across America – especially ones that I target for their architectural significance.

In 2019, alongside my Mid-Am victory, the highlight was a short visit to Sandhills in Nebraska. In 2020, I supplemented my Major starts at Winged Foot and Augusta with visits to the likes of Pine Valley, Merion, and other Philadelphia gems. Courses in the Boston area, including Myopia Hunt and Essex County, were my destinations of choice in 2021. In 2022, I explored the modern and classic gems of the Mid-West including Chicago GC, Sand Valley Resort, and Lawsonia Links. Most recently, this September I toured the courses of the Met-area and Long Island with standouts like Somerset Hills, The Creek, and National Golf Links consuming my sun-soaked late-summer days.

Each year, as I return home with these remarkable courses front of mind, I’m filled with a sense of wonder at the depth of quality golf design in the US. A collision of brilliant golfing minds in the early 1900s, the likes of Donald Ross, AW Tillinghast, William Flynn, CB Macdonald and Walter Travis, has left the country with an abundance of interesting courses that display the immense diversity of what great strategic golf design can look and play like.

It also leaves me reflecting on golf in Australia. Whilst known as a country of esteemed course design, Australian golf course architecture can mostly be traced back to the influence of one man: Dr Alister MacKenzie. With a background in in trench warfare and camouflage, MacKenzie’s preference in building features that are “indistinguishable from nature” and blend in with the existing landforms is evident in Australia’s most renowned courses. MacKenzie’s Royal Melbourne West course exemplifies his delicate touch when compared to the heavy hands of some of his contemporaries (Travis, Tillinghast, Raynor or Langford and Moreau come to mind).

Distinctive bunkering from around the Sandbelt (Featuring Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath and Commonwealth Golf Clubs). Photography by William Watt.
Maidstone – a intimate journey amongst lakes, dunes and the beach balanced with simple and effective design.

Soon after his visit down under in 1926, Australian golfers identified MacKenzie’s knack for design in the courses he left his fingerprints on. In the years that followed, clubs along Australia’s east coast sought to capture the brilliance of MacKenzie’s design philosophies, with many undertaking work in the image of his Royal Melbourne masterpiece. The result is a collection of fantastic courses in Melbourne’s southeast, including Commonwealth and Woodlands, and others further afield like Kooyonga, which have no direct link to MacKenzie, yet bear striking resemblance to the good doctor’s work.

This influence of MacKenzie has clearly been a positive one on the state of golf design in Australia. It’s important to recognise the calibre (or lack-thereof) of courses in places like South Africa, where MacKenzie and his contemporaries bypassed, to understand what might have been without a working tour from one of the all-time greats. However, whilst many of Australia’s courses are truly excellent, the more I’ve travelled the more I wonder if there’s something deficient in the Australian golfing offering.

Architects of the golden age often used the phrase “Infinite Variety” to describe the goal of the golf course architect – and one of my bosses and mentors, Frank Pont, even named his business after these two words. At the extreme end of the spectrum, a golf course with no variety would have golfers play the same hole repeatedly 18 times. On the other end, the best courses have tremendous hole to hole variety in orientation, length, bunker placement, green shaping, amongst other traits – which is clearly the most engaging and interesting approach to design

What about variety across golf courses, not just within them? National Golf Links of America (NGLA), Maidstone, and Friars Head are all within a half hour drive of one another and three courses I played consecutively on my recent trip to the US. All three are considered within the World’s Top 50 or so courses. NGLA, a CB MacDonald design, plays over a beautifully rolling site on Peconic bay and displays some of the most creative and wild design work I’ve ever seen. Maidstone, a Willie Park Jr. course on the Atlantic ocean, weaves its way through human scaled dunes and tidal lakes with more modestly sculpted greens and bunkers. Friars Head, overlooking Long Island sound, is a 2004 Coore and Crenshaw curated masterpiece, with large diverse putting surfaces, and artistic bunkers tied perfectly into their surroundings.

As a combination, the three offer immense diversity in length, challenge and character which made playing them one after another such a fascinating and enjoyable experience. To me, this experience crystallised that great strategic golf design comes in all shapes and sizes.

Returning to the Sandbelt and suburban Australian golf more broadly, there are dozens of fantastic golf holes, yet they tend to be variations of a theme. Steep faced bunkers cut right against the putting surfaces, defending the preferred line to an appropriately contoured green. Classically strategic golf, but perhaps a little formulaic? Truly great holes that break these rules are few and far between, and I can only think of a couple – Woodland’s iconic 4th hole, Royal Adelaide’s blind and quirky 3rd, and PK North’s hogsback/knoll 12th

Friars Head – a rolling diverse landscape complemented by considered and natural looking golf features
NGLA – bold design features and abrupt shaping highlighted here by evening light.

Variety isn’t the be all and end all, and too much may have a course feeling confused, disjointed, and thematically incongruous. This is sometimes the case when a course has been touched up by several architects over the years. However, I’m yet to find a course designed by any of the all-time greats which feels this way. NGLA may be the course that tries its hardest to, but somehow it all comes together to be a coherent composition. It alone may have more variety in strategic golf design across its 18 holes, than the whole of the Melbourne sandbelt.

Fortunately, golf is booming down-under, and a number of courses around the country are embarking on redesign work. The opportunity is ripe for courses and designers to push the envelope and build something different to what we already have.

At Royal Sydney, Gil Hanse has the chance to give Australia a taste of bold American architecture and shape golf design here moving forward like MacKenzie did nearly 100 years ago. Since then, nobody with as much influence and acclaim has been given such a transformative opportunity.

I’m also curious at how the team of OCM differentiates their upcoming work at the National’s Long Island course from across the fence at Peninsula Kingswood, or Huntingdale, which will be under construction at the same time. I truly admire the approach they took at Lonsdale Links. Although I don’t think the 130m reverse Redan and 160m Biarritz holes play authentically, the template hole concept was a brilliant way to expose Australians to a completely foreign design style, with CB Macdonald and NGLA as opportune scapegoats if golfers didn’t like it!

OCM’s approach at Lonsdale Links brilliantly introduces template holes to Australia. Photography by William Watt.

In my hometown of Perth, I’ve commenced on preliminary work for upcoming projects with Mike Clayton and Harley Kruse at Royal Perth and Wembley, where we have an opportunity to shape golf architecture in an area that punches well below its weight by measure of the quality of the land. 

Australia is in a great spot for transformative positive change in its golf design. I’m hoping to do everything I can to contribute and trust my fellow industry professionals are with me on that journey.

One Comment

  • John Evans says:

    huge agreement, variety is the spice of lifeand lots of redesigns around Melbourne have been homogeneous rather than disparate. Greeen and bunker shapes should be varied and where possible emulate the skyline

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