Location: Rose Bay, NSW
Architect: Carnegie Clark (1913) / Ross Watson (2003)
Date Played: 12th December 2016
Set amongst the hills of the Eastern suburbs, lies one of Sydney’s most exclusive golf venues, Royal Sydney Golf Club. This top 100 golf course is close to the water of Rose Bay, where a few sea planes can be seen flying whilst playing the round.
One of the three most difficult courses to gain access during my journey, unlike the other Royal clubs in Australia, this course only allows play if invited by a member. A bit of networking and luck was required to gain access. I had come across a few opportunities over the years, but they never eventuated. Seems to be the closer I reach 100, the more doors seem to open.
Another aspect with Royal Sydney Golf Club, was the fact that no cameras are allowed. Hence there are no photos I have taken for this visit. Those images of the course will be with me, until the mind starts to alter.
I don’t usually talk about clubhouses a lot, but a special note should be mentioned here. By far one of the most impressive venues for members. The majority opens out over the course, allowing for some magnificent views. Whilst inside, there are plenty of setting in different environments, from seated tables to lounges to make yourself comfortable.
This really is more than just a golf course, it’s more like a country club. Tennis, bowls, squash, croquet, a pool and fitness center are all on site.
Considering the club likes to remain very discreet, it has made the news for the wrong reasons over the years. The pool had one members partner, decide to sun bake topless, with both being quickly evicted from the premises. Another member expelled for cheating during a competition, then taking the club to court.
Royal Sydney Golf Club Course Map
There are two courses within the premises, the eighteen hole Championship course and the nine hole Centenary course, designed for beginners and older members. The main course is one continuous loop, running almost the full boundary of the property and has hosted some of Australia’s major tournaments, including The Australian Open.
Scorecard for Royal Sydney Golf Club
Play on the day was from the white tees.
Hole 1 – 254 meter par 4
Starting the round is the shortest par 4 on course. There are various teeing areas, built into a hill adjoining the clubhouse. For most it will be a case of playing from the lower ground, but during tournaments the higher teeing ground is utilised, giving a great view of the hole layout.
Being such a short par 4, there is the temptation to try and drive the green. Here is where the bunkering becomes very effective. The fairway is quite wide, with trees running down the left, but a large collection of bunkers are found protruding out into half of the fairway. A long portion of fairway is found beyond these, allowing a simple shot into the green. Ample fairway is found short or to the right of the bunker complex, which is fine for left pin positions, but any pin on the right of the green is best approached from the left, with the green being quite narrow this side. There is a bit of strategy to take into account.
Footnote – Interestingly today (1 month later) I was listening to one of our esteemed golf architects on a podcast, who discussed this hole. In particular what should happen under the potential reworks by the Gil Hanse masterplan. His comment, the hole should be ‘blown up’, so obviously he doesn’t like it. ‘There are a lot of answers, but what is the question being asked’, referring to the strategy. This had me thinking further, yes it does have a lot happening with the bunkering across the fairway. Certainly not subtle on the strategy. It may ask a bit too much off the tee, depending on pin position. Most players would try and bomb the green, but that is more about the distance the ball travels. I still like the hole, but it did give me a different perspective on the design.
Hole 2 – 481 meter par 5
The second runs in a southerly direction along the properties boundary, with out of bounds to the left. This medium length par 5 plays from a slightly raised tee, down slope predominantly to the green. A long collection of fairway bunkers are located on the left, with some out to the right which shouldn’t come into play as they are mainly for the 16th hole.
Further along another long section of bunkers are located right, not finishing until reaching the green. With two smaller traps to the left of the fairway, allowing a medium opening, a decision needs to be made on laying up or taking on the risk of finding sand. A wide, yet shallow green awaits, sloping down from the left. For good measure a lone trap is find front center of the putting surface. Challenging hole, especially if into the wind, with some strategy on offer.
Hole 3 – 156 meter par 3
Coming to the first par 3 for the day, this hole plays much shorter than its suggested distance, as it is down slope. Native scrub is found between the tee and fairway, before numerous bunkers are found, short, as well as surrounding either side of the narrow green. A bail out area is found left, which may assist the ball running onto the putting surface.
Interestingly the right hand bunkers are shared with the 15th green, so might be best avoided or you could become target practice. Testing hole with the green being slightly exposed to the elements, although this can be disguised on the tee due to trees being either side. I like the fact that it is possible to run the ball in from the left, utilising sloping of the terrain.
Hole 4 – 383 meter par 4
Still heading in a southerly direction is this longer par 4. From an elevated tee the fairway sweeps away, but also slopes left to right. This is interesting as the hole doglegs in the opposite direction. Trees line either side of the fairway, however those on the left are not very dense, allowing for some form of recovery shot. Those with a left to right ball flight may struggle to avoid trees to the right due to the sloping of the fairway.
The approach is made to an elevated green, with a few bunkers short left, two deep bunkers green side right and a small trap on the left. Most notable feature of the green complex, is the strong sloping away on most sides, which are only appreciated once you get close. The shorter grass surrounding will ensure a variety of shots can be played to try and recover. Enjoyable hole with its sweeping fairway, elevation change and raised green. Some risk in taking on the left to ensure holding the fairway with trees coming into play, but the approach is all about accuracy.
Hole 5 – 369 meter par 4
Thankfully this is the last hole running in a southerly direction. The medium length par 4 again plays from an elevated tee to a fairway sloping away, although this hole turns slightly to the right. Bunkers are found this side of the fairway, but can be carried by longer hitters due to the elevated tee. Finding these however will leave a tough approach to a green located at the top of a tiered hill. Playing to the left offers a clearer shot to the green, except for pin positions down this side.
The green complex has one large trap short, nestled in the hill, whilst others are located either side. A solitary bunker remains at the rear, which I suspect is primarily to protect players on the tee behind. The putting surface is of average size angling away to the left. Another hole I enjoyed, offering some strategy from the tee, but after four consecutive holes in the same direction, I would hate to have been playing into a headwind. I must admit though the previous four had a good variety in elevation changes.
Hole 6 – 137 meter par 3
Heading north east, is the shortest & easiest index hole at Royal Sydney Golf Club, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an easy hole. Bunkers are found on all sides, bar a small portion at the front and rear. Playing from a slightly elevated tee position, if the wind is strong, you will wish the tee was much lower.
Significant sloping away from the green are found on most sides, requiring some finesse being to reach or stay on the green. Putting is one option, but some observation is required of the grain direction in the grass. Some strong slopes are found on the putting surface which also need to be contended with. Nice small hole, which on our day of play, was not quite so easy. The strong head wind made it difficult to find the right club and still hold the green, especially with the front pin position.
Hole 7 – 506 meter par 5
From the shortest to the longest hole and hardest par 5. This also continues in a north westerly direction. From the tee a hill must be carried before the green can be viewed. Fairway bunkers are found staggered on either side of the hill, after which the fairway starts sloping away to the left.
Making the approach is to a narrowing fairway, with trees encroaching from the right side. Bunkers either side are short of the green, creating some deception with distance. The green complex has some small mounds and swales on the right, before getting larger the further left you move. With a wide but shallow putting surface, it will be easy to fly through the green. This is also multi tiered, with the left section being the lowest. Hitting the middle of the green is not ideal for right hand pin positions.
A hole which actually offers more than its look. It is relatively straight, but use of the hill makes this more interesting, breaking up the hole. Good use of bunkers being short of the green, along with one of the more trickier complexes, gets you thinking.
Hole 8 – 269 meter par 4
Heading in the opposite direction is the easiest index par 4. From the tee you play up a gentle incline before reaching a small dip in the fairway. A large bunker is located at the start of the fairway which I will discuss later. The fairway slopes slightly from the left, with a string of traps spaced out down the right. From the tee these look to be quite close, being cleverly deceptive.
A tough approach shot will require accuracy with club selection, to a wide but shallow green. Being short of the green will see the large swale collect your ball, whilst long also has the same result. The putting surface slopes gently from left to right, so finding the wrong portion could lead to a delicate touch being required.
What is the biggest issue with this hole? The usefulness of the first bunker. From the rear tee it is only a 120 meter carry. Aesthetically it doesn’t offer anything and would only trouble a truly horrible shot or very short hitter. Strategically you have the choice in trying to play close to the green leaving a short shot, although being too close may not be desirable. Some accuracy is required with the approach to avoid trouble, but still offers the chance of recovery.
Hole 9 – 323 meter par 4
Again heading in a similar direction to the previous hole, this shorter par 4, is quite deceptive in look from the tee. The fairway angles away to the right with trees scattered on either side. This assists in hiding some of the width available, however finding yourself behind the last left tree is not a wise place to be. It does however get narrow in this section, ensuring those trying to find maximum distance hit an accurate shot.
Playing the approach is to an elevated green. The view will be obscured from the left of the fairway, by a large trap built into the rise. The putting surface makes for a tricky target being quite long but narrow. Having a push up green has allowed multiple deep bunkers to be place on three sides, with the rear being shared with the 6th green.
I did enjoy this hole, but do question the amount of trees either side. It is noted that safety issues would arise with adjoining holes from both the Championship course and Centenary course. The main strategy here is to leave a clear shot to the green for the second, which means finding the narrow area between the trees. As for the approach it is all about accuracy on a narrow green.
Hole 10 – 374 meter par 4
Royal Sydney Golf Club is one continuous loop, so there is no quick visit or stop for a refreshing drink after nine holes. The 10th however does head back in the direction of the clubhouse. From a very elevated position, some foliage to the left needs to be avoided before reaching the relatively flat fairway. Trees run most of the right side, where a solitary fairway bunker also awaits.
To take the ideal line into the green, requires play from the left side of the fairway. A small stream runs along this side, which is barely visible from the tee. Bunkers are found either side of the long green, which rises in the middle portion. Having the elevated tee gives some depth to the hole. Some slight turns due to bunker placement also make it a little more interesting. Not the strongest hole on the course, but certainly not the worst either.
Hole 11 – 388 meter par 4
Still heading in a northerly direction, this longer par 4 appears dead straight from the tee. The first and probably only hole to truly have water in play, with a small dam to the left midway along the fairway. Bunkers are to the right, which can force the player closer to the water, although it is the better line to take into the green.
A fairway which is predominantly flat for the first section, gently rises approaching the green. Three large bunkers are also on the right of this long, narrow green, with the lips sitting above the putting surface. To the left of this green the ground falls dramatically away into a swale, so any slightly mishit bunker shot may pass through the green.
Although it appears quite straight, the subtlety of the bunkering gives some shape to the fairway. The hole forces a certain style of play from the tee however, which is all about avoiding the bunkers. An accurate shot is required to find the green, although there is some allowance in how to get the ball onto the putting surface.
Hole 12 – 348 meter par 4
Swapping our direction of play is a mid length par 4. Having a slight dogleg to the right, bunkers are found left around the 150 meter mark, where the fairway is quite wide. This is the ideal side to make an approach to the green. The fairway narrows dramatically at the turn. Too much in fact, with the problems now becoming evident of trying to fit an 18 hole course on such a narrow strip of land. Longer hitters may take on this small opening to allow a short approach, but tree trouble is found either side.
The green has a narrow opening, before expanding at the rear section. Three traps in total are located both sides of the putting surface. There are great principles, with risk and reward from the tee, but the trees probably encroach a little too much down the right, leaving a slightly obscured shot even when finding the left portion of the fairway.
Hole 13 – 463 meter par 5
We head back out to the far end of the course on the shortest and easiest index par 5. Trees encroaching on the right, make this flat fairway look smaller than it actually is. Another narrowing of the fairway occurs with bunkers on the right and trees to the left. In reality only very long hitters would reach this area, so for most they will have quite a wide fairway to land the tee shot.
Another large area is available to land the second shot, where a rise to the green starts. Some well placed bunkers then come into play, which are scattered either side, but not directly opposite to make the landing area an impossible target. The large green sits raised high above the fairway, leaving a tricky approach as the bottom of the pin cannot be seen. A multi-tiered putting surface requires the correct portion to be reached.
It is only the second portion of this hole which I find interesting. There is no demand on the tee shot, unless downwind when the fairway bunker comes into play. The approach requires some thought, whether to lay up or go for the green with a higher risk of finding sand.
Hole 14 – 167 meter par 3
Playing from a highly elevated tee, is this mid length par 3. A long green awaits with bunkers running either side. An opening exists to the left front, allowing for a bail out area on those not confident to reach the green, or potentially running the ball in.
The putting surface has a few undulations and slopes to contend with. Finding the wrong portion of the green could be quite punishing, due to its length. On our day of play the wind was quite strong, making this hole play a lot longer than normal. In such an exposed area, the elements can make the tee shot quite tricky. I loved the design of this green complex and its surrounds. It could be quite punishing but smart play allowed for some forgiveness and potential recovery.
Hole 15 – 394 meter par 4
Heading back towards the clubhouse, the longest par 4 and hardest hole on course, plays relatively straight. With a narrow tree lined fairway, this is the one of only two holes on the course without a fairway bunker.
The green complex shares a bunker complex with the 3rd hole, leaving some potential awkward lies, whilst the putting surface sits fairly level with the fairway. The hole does not really excite the player unfortunately so there is not a lot more I can say about it. With a fairly narrow fairway and wide opening to the green, there is not a lot of strategy with the hole.
Hole 16 – 498 meter par 5
Another long par 5, the last for the day, takes us towards the short game practice area. From the tee there looks to be ample room to land the ball, which is helped by the lack of trees and adjoining fairways. However bunkers run down the left, before trees may come into play obscuring the second shot. The right has some sandy waste area along with the tree lines to avoid, although being out here is quite off line.
In the second portion of the hole, fairway traps are located at varying points on either side, with one solitary bunker sitting in the middle. Here is where some thought is required to ensure the ball finds the short grass. The green leaves a level opening with the fairway, allowing for a variety of shots, although it is quite narrow angling away to the right. A large swale sits to the right, which would be best avoided.
I like how a perception of openness is given by the lack of trees and adjoining fairways, given that there is not really much land available here for some many holes running parallel. There are questions asked on each shot on a hole which utilises undulations on the fairway.
Hole 17 – 183 meter par 3
Playing back in the opposite direction is the longest and hardest par 3 at Royal Sydney Golf Club. Another short hole which plays slightly down hill, but down hill nonetheless, the green sits raised among its surrounds. Bunkers line the right side, whilst the front and left sides have strong slopes leading away. For good measure a bunker is located at the rear of the green.
The putting surface has varying undulations and slopes, which create small tiers leading towards the back. I learn’t missing to the left is not ideal, with the green sloping away towards the bunkers. At least the grass is quite short giving options on how to recover. Good challenging hole which will test all your skills.
Hole 18 – 361 meter par 4
To finish is a mid length par 4 which doglegs to the left. From a raised tee a heavily tree lined chute must be navigated to reach the turn. The main aim is keeping it on the fairway, although staying to the left probably offers the better line beyond the turn. This is the only other hole without a fairway bunker at Royal Sydney Golf Club.
A hole which is synonymous with finishing a few of the various championships held at the course, the approach is to an elevated green, with the clubhouse sitting behind. Two large traps are built into the hill either side of the green, whilst another is raised at the rear. The putting surface slopes from the rear, back towards the front, but finding yourself long could see the ball run down a large swale.
From the approach on I really like this hole. It gives a grand finish, but also offers some challenges around the green. The biggest let down is the tee shot which is all about staying out of the trees. I do wonder how this would be with trees removed down the left, and possibly a large collection of bunkers or sandy waste, offering some risk to carry the distance to the fairway.
Looking at the course makeup:
- Hole Directions – There was a limited variety allowing for conditions to have wide ranging effects during play. Almost 80 percent of holes had a predominantly north or south facing direction. The first hole is also an easterly facing hole, which in the early morning may have issues with the rising sun
- Hole Lengths – Par three holes had a good variance in distance, the majority in mid length, although most played from an elevated tee. Par four holes ranged from short to long with a fairly even spread amongst them. Par 5 holes ranged from mid to long length with the latter being the majority
- Hole Layout – There was some mixture in how the holes played, although an overwhelming majority tended to be straight, where two shots or more were required to reach the green. This outnumbered those turning to the left or right by two to one
In summary my first thoughts were quite harsh regarding how I felt about the course, although looking back at some of the holes, this softened quite a bit. Having an eighteen hole course squeezed into this area, with another nine hole course also on the property, I question how good this really could be if all the land was utilised for one course. Surely the routing would have to be drastically improved.
One of the biggest problem was the consecutive holes going in the same direction. This occurred on holes 2-5, 8-9, 10-11 and 14-16. There are others which could be considered here, but the message is clear, especially when 3 or 4 holes are flowing in the same direction. Getting to the 6th would be a relief if a headwind was encountered from 2-5. Having said that, it was some of the best land along the Eastern border, so routing wise it is hard to pass up on having the holes run in a similar direction.
Next was the fact that there are quite a lot of holes which are quite narrow, due to the nature of the course. I was surprised how some room was found to give the impression of having larger areas to play, with strategic planting of trees, followed by openings, which was done quite well. But in the end this limits how much strategy can be employed.
Having numerous holes playing relatively straight also can become boring to the player. Cleverly some of the bunker placement gives some alteration in the lines to be taken, which I really only noticed after looking at some photos available on-line.
The biggest thing that stood out at Royal Sydney Golf Club, was the design of the green complexes. These were certainly a highlight, which I am sure helps to increase its ranking. There was some enjoyment when making the approach shots, knowing that there would be a bit of a challenge awaiting. Bunkering on these was quite well placed in general, giving some thought to a majority of the approach shots. The various swales or mounds found around each hole, along with the shorter grass, allowed a variety of shots to be played. Certainly on the day there was a variety of putts, chip and run along with lob shots, depending on the pin position.
The conditioning on the course could not be faulted. This went from tee to green. Fairways were well looked after and not appeared to be worn. After reading how many rounds are played on the course, it is quite surprising (read somewhere around seventy thousand rounds are played annually.
There were a few enjoyable holes on the course for me. They were 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, 16 and 17. Obviously I enjoyed the approach to 18. The standout, well that is a good question. Probably one of the par 3 holes, maybe 6 or 13.
The big question is would I return to play the course again, if asked of course. It would be hard to refuse an invite, although I would not actively seek one. Preference would be to visit some of the other inner Sydney clubs or even those in the northern suburbs. One exception here, would be a return visit after the masterplan by Gil Hanse is carried out. I have not seen this, but could not imagine the course being worse after any work. Having great land on the site, the course could only be improved.
I have to thank a couple of people, who I will remain nameless, don’t want them to be inundated with potential requests to play. Let me just refer to them as the organiser, someone I had been in contact with for some time on social media and his friend the member. Both great people, not only to play with but socialise as well.
How to play at Royal Sydney:
1. Be invited by a member