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What enamored Gene Sarazen in 1934 and captivated Brad Faxon in 1993 will likely still command a dominating presence when competitors arrive for the 2018 Melbourne ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf.
The glory of The Metropolitan Golf Club is that awe-inspiring.
More than 100 years since it became part of the majestic Sandbelt golf landscape in and around Melbourne, Australia, The Metropolitan GC remains a sensation. “It is no exaggeration to say that this course is comparable with anything in the world,” said Peter Thomson on the eve of the 1951 Australian Open at Metropolitan.
Then 22, Thomson would win his country’s biggest golf championship that year, “the Wonder Boy of Australian golf,” proclaimed The Age. Eight years later when the ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf made its first appearance in Australia, Thomson would team with Kel Nagle to hold off Sam Snead and Cary Middlecoff at vaunted Royal Melbourne and give the home fans a victory to celebrate.
Four other World Cups have been held in Australia – three more times at Royal Melbourne, in 2016 at Kingston Heath – so the 2018 edition will be a first for Metropolitan. But in a way, it will be a celebration of Australia’s glorious golf past for it was in 1934 that Metropolitan hosted the Centenary Golf Tournament, the first major international golf competition to be held Down Under. Jimmy Thompson was the surprising winner, but Sarazen expressed great affection for Metropolitan. In fact, “The Squire” vowed a return two years later to take part in the Australian Open, “even if I had to swim the ocean.”
He did, too, remarking to reporters on the eve of the ’36 Aussie Open that Metropolitan was “cunningly trapped.” Having one year earlier captured the Masters to become the first man to record wins in each of the four majors, Sarazen was regarded on par with Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones as the premier players of their generation. But by 1936 he was 34 and set on a lifestyle. He would travel widely for enjoyment, global golf opportunities, and to sprinkle the world with his golf wisdom. No, he didn’t swim to Australia; instead, he made the Aussie Open the middle point of a five-month cruise around the world.
Sarazen’s consistency – rounds of 70-71-70-71 featured six splits of 35, two of 36 – impressed Aussie golf writers, while his charm delighted fans and Metropolitan members. At the championship dinner after his four-stroke victory, Sarazen was swooned by a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
No such neighborly sing-along greeted Faxon at his victory in 1993, but he was greeted by a warm Shark attack at Metropolitan’s 18th green. “I was friends with (Australians) Ian Baker-Finch and Greg Norman and they encouraged me to play in the Australian Open,” said Faxon. “It was a thrill to be paired with Greg in the first few rounds and when I won, Greg gave me the biggest, warmest bear-hug I’ve ever received.”
For Norman, the greenside joy at Metropolitan’s 18th was new to him. As Australia’s 24-year-old rising star in 1979, Norman only had to two-putt the 18th green at Metropolitan to get into a playoff with Jack Newton at the Aussie Open. He three-putted and lost. Then, at the 1997 Australian Open, Metropolitan’s 18th green got Norman again; where a two-putt would have won, he three-putted, then lost in a playoff to Lee Westwood.
“For those of us who were there for the 1979 Australian Open, it was virtually a mirror image,” wrote Peter Stone in 1997 in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Not that Metropolitan didn’t show some love to Norman, because he did win the 1984 Victorian Open there. It allowed for yet another world-class name to adorn the plaques within the Metropolitan clubhouse – Sarazen and Thomson having won Aussie Opens there, Laura Davies winner of the 2009 Australian Women’s Open, Steve Stricker at the 2001 World Golf Championships Match Play, and Kel Nagle at a memorable 1968 Australian PGA Championship.
“If I had putted well, I could have had a 62 or 63,” said Jack Nicklaus, who in ’68 accompanied his fellow “Big Three” compatriots, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, for what in those days was their annual visit Down Under. Nicklaus settled for a second-round 67 that day, matching the Metropolitan course record. But whereas Nicklaus struggled with the putter, Nagle did not. He also shot a second-round 67, then added 69-71 on the weekend for 276 to beat Nicklaus by six. Palmer was a distant T-6, Player T-12, and when he accepted the trophy, Nagle shook his head.
“I don’t know what all those young fellows were doing out there to let an old bloke like me win it,” said Nagle.
Nagle, 47, wore his modesty well, because he proved his World Golf Hall of Fame talent with 83 world-wide wins, including those over Palmer at the 1960 Open Championship and the 1964 Canadian Open and against “The Big Three” at Metropolitan in 1968.
Though they fell short in ’68, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player were massive fans of the style of golf that Sandbelt courses demanded. In a 10-year period (1962-71) they combined to win nine of the Australian Opens and while none were at Metropolitan, each man lavished praise on a course that had been redone by American architect Dick Wilson in 1960.
Faxon falls in line, honored to have won at The Metropolitan GC, a course that has hosted seven Australian Opens, five Australian PGAs, one Australian Masters, the Australian Women’s Open and the WGC Match Play. When World Cup competitors arrive in 2018, Faxon said they’ll discover a links that can stand up there with Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” said Faxon. “I had played links (in the U.K.) but this was ‘warm links where the ball was impossible to stop. It was incredibly good.”
He was presented a gold coin for his 1993 win, but could only pose with the famed Stonehaven Cup. It wasn’t his. “I was told I could pay 3,250 Australian dollars for my own replica,” said Faxon.
Of course, he did. “My favorite trophy. I just love it. It means everything to me.
A permanent reminder of an Aussie Open win at Metropolitan was worth it.
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