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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

(continued from page 1)

The star of the Sandbelt is Royal Melbourne, with two courses, the West and the East, both in the World Top 100. The site of the 2011 President Cup matches, it is the only venue outside the U.S. where that event has been held more than once. The tournament is played on a composite of the two courses to facilitate walking and crowd management and to avoid the four road crossings that are part of the marquee West layout. The work of the revered Dr. Alister MacKenzie, the West course is the best in Australia. Excluding the U.S., Scotland and Ireland, it’s also the highest-ranked course on earth.

Golf Magazine puts it ahead of Royal Troon, Pinehurst Number Two, Turnberry and Whistling Straits, as well as such highly touted links new and old as Pacific Dunes and Ballybunion. “You could easily make the argument that MacKenzie is the greatest designer in the history of the game, and after Cypress Point, this is probably his best work—and certainly the best one the traveling golfer can play,” says Pedrero. “Another of his very finest designs, Kingston Heath, also in the World’s Top 50, is a few minutes down the road.”

That is the beauty of Melbourne’s Sandbelt region: so much great golf in so little space.

While Royal Melbourne West is by honor of its rankings and tournament history the 800-pound gorilla of Australian golf, several of these courses have their own advocates.

“People think all the Sandbelt courses are the same, but they are not,” says Allan Shorland, manager of Metropolitan. “The bunkers and green complexes are similar, but the land is very different. We are known as the big tree course, while Royal Melbourne has hardly any trees.”

Even the two courses at Royal Melbourne are radically different. MacKenzie was a huge fan and student of St Andrews, and like the Old Course, his West opens with a fairway so big it is far harder to miss it than put the ball in play. In sharp contrast, the opening tee shot at Royal Melbourne East is blind, over a ridge to a valley fairway with a huge, deep, rough encrusted bunker hidden in the middle of the landing area.

MacKenzie’s style, especially his elaborate bunkers in a variety of wild shapes, clusters and depths, influenced all these courses, though even this varies widely. At Metropolitan the bunkers are the chief defense, sharp-lipped, deep and seeming to exert their own gravitational field on errant shots. Rather than providing a collar or fringe on the greens to slow or stop the ball, this club is known for mowing them right to the drop-off into the sand. The slightest misstep on the approach or an overzealous putt will put you in the bunker. The other Sandbelt courses put more emphasis on the fairway bunkers. Kingston Heath is known for the dichotomy between its halves, with a golfer-friendly front nine offering up some early birdie opportunities, and a back composed of one brutishly long hole after another. Victoria is wide open in comparison with the others. Several holes share double-width fairways that are nonetheless challenging. In short, each round is different, and each a new adventure.

There is simply no weak golf here, but if time constraints on visiting golfers necessitates sorting the courses into “must-plays” and “if you have times,” the former includes both layouts at Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria and Metropolitan.

Metropolitan was widely considered Australia’s marquee course until the 1950s when the government claimed the land under half a dozen holes for a new school. The club’s fortunes and reputation suffered accordingly as a 12-hole course, until the members brought in architect Dick Wilson, of Doral’s Blue Monster and Cog Hill/Dubsdread fame, to restore its glory. Today the course has 19-holes, including an extra par-3 used in rotation for maintenance purposes, and not surprisingly, Metropolitan is known today for its always excellent conditioning.

The second-tier group includes Huntingdale, Commonwealth and Yarra Yarra. The joker in the deck is the 36-hole Peninsula Club, which some consider the “Eighth Sister of the Sandbelt.”

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