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Golf City Down Under

How Australia’s Melbourne merged its vibrant culture with a brace of internationally acclaimed and vacationer-friendly golf courses to become the world’s foremost urban golf destination
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

It’s just like playing golf in the British Isles—only it’s different.” That was how a fellow American golf pilgrim I crossed paths with in a locker room Down Under described his adventure in Melbourne, and it is aptly put. The Queen is on the money, the meat pies are on the menus, beer is on tap and the highly acclaimed golf clubs of Melbourne’s Sandbelt region have an equally rich history, the same air of authority, and even similar names as the top English and Scottish clubs. At the same time, the seaside links of the nearby Mornington Peninsula evoke the epic dunescapes of coastal Ireland. Like the British Isles, world-class golf is abundant here, with over 50 courses in a 90-minute span around the city, including three of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses on earth, public or private.

But the big difference between a trip across the Atlantic and the Pacific is Melbourne itself. The incredibly cosmopolitan city of four million is known as both the nation’s epicurean and sporting capital. It is this combination of urban appeal, a loaded cultural calendar and fantastic golf that makes the area so appealing. “Melbourne is home to the Australian Open Tennis Championship, the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Melbourne Cup horse race. The State [Victoria] also boasts some of the world’s finest golf courses, headlined by the renowned Royal Melbourne as well as Kingston Heath, Metropolitan and my home club, Victoria, all located within a few miles of each other in the famous Sandbelt area,” says Australia’s leading professional golfer, former U.S. Open Champion Geoff Oglivy.

For sheer quality of golf courses in and around a major city, only New York and San Francisco are serious rivals, but their showcase courses are almost all ultra-private, so most golfers will never play them. Victoria’s best courses are not only world class, but convenient and welcoming. I’ve formed a different description than the gent I met in the clubhouse: I’d boldly say that for the traveling golfer, Melbourne is simply the best urban destination on earth.

There is something to be said for a cozy B&B, a roaring peat fire and post-golf fish and chips at a small-town pub. There is something else to be said for five-star hotels, celebrity chefs, wine lists the size of phone books, spas, casinos, top-notch shopping and nightlife, and this is exactly what Melbourne offers—along with as many World Top 100 courses as in all of Ireland. If that is not enough, there are optional excursions to wineries, to see penguins and to the wild island of Tasmania. Call it golf with benefits. Lots of them.

GOLFING THE SANDBELT

The star of this show is the Sandbelt neighborhood with a concentration of fine courses built on a felicitous geographic formation. “From flat St Andrews to the severe dunes of Royal County Down, from Bandon, Oregon to Pinehurst Number Two and New Jersey’s legendary Pine Valley, the very best golf courses on the planet are built on sand, Mother Nature’s gift to golfers and golf course architects,” says Robert Pedrero, the coauthor of Golf Travel By Design: How You Can Play the World’s Best Courses by the Sport’s Top Architects.

A natural oddity just south of the city center, the Sandbelt is home to seven historic clubs, with eight courses between them.

“Any course located in the area has some of the best bunkering you will ever see,” says Stuart Appleby, a PGA Tour veteran and native Victorian. “The sand is hundreds of feet deep in places, it drains well, grows great grass, and the courses typically play fast and firm.”

The Seven Sisters of the Sandbelt are: Royal Melbourne, Metropolitan, Victoria, Commonwealth, Huntingdale, Yarra Yarra and Kingston Heath, where in 2009 Tiger Woods donned the gold jacket of the Australian Masters champion—as of this writing, the last time he won any official tournament. Between them, the seven have hosted every major tournament in the nation’s history, including the Australian Masters and Opens, the President’s Cup and the World Match Play Championship. All seven are ranked in the Top 40 of Australia’s more than 1,500 courses. Four are in the Top 10.

Despite sitting on what appears to be the same landscape and often being separated by nothing more than a fence or a suburban street, the courses are surprisingly different. The short-cropped grass, firm fairways and hard greens play just like the best links, yet they are not on the ocean. While they share extensive and elaborate bunkering, their landscapes range from heavily wooded to nearly treeless. And, unlike their soulmates at Pinehurst, these courses often feature substantial elevation changes. In look and feel they are most similar to the pure heathland courses outside of London, but they lack the trademark heather.


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