Almanac Book Review: ‘The Golf Courses of Vern Morcom’ – Toby Cumming

 

 

Book Review:’ The Golf Courses of Vern Morcom’ – by Toby Cumming

Review by: Peter Baulderstone

 

Vern Morcom is the unsung hero of Australian golf.  We all know about the Great White Shark, Karrie Webb and the five British Opens of Peter Thomson.  But if you are a keen golfer who has played more than a dozen different courses around southern and western Australia – chances are you’ve played a Morcom.  I’ve been a member of three (without knowing their origins) and by the book’s end realised I’d played 24 locally or on holidays sometime in the last 50 years.

 

The ground and layout of the playing field is crucial to golf as a sport like no other. Only road cycling or the playing characteristics of a turf cricket pitch come close. A challenging, fun golf course is like a captivating movie actor. You sense their beauty and energy when you see it – even if you can’t quite define it.

 

Vern Morcom is Australian golf’s Six Degrees of Separation. In 1926 the world’s greatest ever golf architect Alister MacKenzie came to Australia for three months at the behest of LKS McKinnon (Royal Melbourne’s president and also chair of the VRC immortalised in Melbourne Cup lead-up race named after him). Golf courses are a living part of the environment and as cities grew they encroached on valuable course land that could be sold to move to what was becoming understood as better land for golf (undulating sandy loam) in the outer coastal suburbs.

 

MacKenzie designed what would become Royal Melbourne West but importantly also made short visits to Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and New Zealand. His time was short but his ideas for strategic course design took root.  It is often said that South Africa has all the natural advantages of Australia but none of the great courses because MacKenzie never visited.

 

The mark of his strategic design was courses that were playable for the average golfer but challenging for the accomplished player. Wide fairways but fortified green complexes guarded by sand bunkers and subtle slopes.  Augusta National where the US Masters has been played since 1933 is his best known but dozens of others in the UK, US and Argentina are similarly challenging.

 

Grand ideas wither in the desert without disciples to carry the message.  When MacKenzie walked the scrub and sandhills that became Royal Melbourne he had three companions.  Alex Russell, Mick Morcom and his 26 year old son Vern. An unlikely trio.

 

Russell was a toff. Educated at Cambridge. A western districts scion and champion golfer who won an Australia Open. A political conservative and World War I hero who befriended Stanley Melbourne Bruce at Cambridge (also an avid golfer – shades of Trump) and became his Private Secretary when Bruce took austerity instructions from London bankers as Australia’s Prime Minister at the start of the Great Depression.

 

Russell left a great golf design legacy at Royal Melbourne East, Yarra Yarra, Lake Karrinyup (WA) and Paraparaumu Beach in New Zealand. But that was the sum of his vintages.  He accepted a bottle of scotch for his designs.  The Morcoms were working men.  Beer to Russeill’s Bordeaux.

 

Mick was from farming stock and his earliest greenkeeping was the running track at Central Park for the Stawell Gift. Via Bendigo he became Royal Melbourne’s head greenkeeper at its Sandringham site in 1905.  His son grew up on the course and both were accomplished players but as employees they played with other working men on the public Royal Park course north of the city.

 

MacKenzie took the boat back to America leaving the course design for Mick Morcom to build at Royal Melbourne West and hole redesigns and extensive bunkering to be added at nearby Kingston Heath where Vern would take up the head greenkeeper job.  His work was so outstanding that by 1932 the British Open course at Carnoustie would ask Vern to visit Scotland and advise on improving the course’s bunkering.

 

All that is remarkable enough but it is Vern’s post WW2 missionary work to public courses in Melbourne’s burgeoning suburbs; Gippsland; the Bellarine; the Wimmera; the Murray; Tasmania; Adelaide; Perth and rural South Australia that remains his legacy.  As a proud Victorian there were  few trips north of the Barassi line.

 

Vern would take the train (occasionally a plane – he never drove) and arrive in town to stay at the local hotel and visit the proposed course site with keen committee members. Discuss the options over beers of a night and draw up plans for course design; turf and green contours. By Sunday afternoon he was back on the train to Melbourne for work at Kingston Heath Monday morning.

 

More detailed drawings and construction ideas would follow in the mail, but as with MacKenzie it was the locals who put his ideas into practice.  At 90 courses from 1927 to 1964 with everything from full new layouts to a few strategic modifications at courses great and small across the breadth of rural and metropolitan Australia.

 

Toby Cumming is a researcher and health care professional by weekday and a golf tragic by night and weekend. The extent of his research is apparent in the comprehensive 340 pages of this labour of love that ranges across many elements.

 

The introductory chapters describe the Morcom family history and the seminal MacKenzie visit of 1926.  There is a basic primer of the Golden Age principles of strategic golf design that Mackenzie shared with his contemporaries Colt and Alison.  Most of the great US and British Open courses we revere today come from their pen or that era between 1900 and 1939.

 

The book then breaks down all Vern’s courses into geographical areas with descriptions of his visits and correspondence to each course.  The work both before and after Morcom is summarised so many readers will find a three or four page history of the course they play every week but somehow take for granted.  Finally there is a playing description of each course today; it’s design features; notable holes and what parts we still play that can be attributed to Vern.

 

Toby’s book can be used as a travel guide for courses you have played or might want to;  a history of your local course; and how the holes you play each Saturday fit into the grand sweep of golf’s worldwide evolution.

 

Toby finishes his book with his suggestion for Vern’s finest 18 holes.  It has Royal Hobart, Grange East and Long Island from the metropolitan notables. But Warracknabeal, Devonport, Leongatha, Curlewis and Bordertown among the many more memorable holes Vern sprinkled across rural Australia.

 

Vern’s life and work found a place for all Australian golfers. I hope Toby’s book finds a place on their bookshelves.

 

Copies of the book can be ordered through Ryan Publishing.    www.ryanpub.com.au

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I have very little interest in golf, but I’m fascinated by the Vern Morcom story, especially about his impact across Australia, which has until now, not been known to me.

    Thanks Toby and PB.

  2. Toby Cumming says

    Great piece Peter. I liked how it was more an elaboration than a reductionist review. Love the reference to the Barassi line. One of my reasons for writing the book is captured perfectly: “…how the holes you play each Saturday fit into the grand sweep of golf’s worldwide evolution.”

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