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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 2)

“There is an argument about what exactly the Sandbelt is,” says Peter Stackpole, longtime general manager of the Victoria Golf Club. “There’s the geological argument, where does it start and end? Pretty much the whole Southeast of Melbourne has rivers of sand running underneath it. Then there is the cultural definition, the elite clubs, the ones that years ago chose to invest in top architects coming over, and are similar to each other, including these seven clubs all within a few miles of each other. The eighth is Peninsula, which traditionally is what members of Royal Melbourne, Victoria, Metropolitan and the others made their ‘second club,’ further from the city, with lodging on-site. Back in the days before cars, when it took too long to get to the Mornington Peninsula, Peninsula was their ‘weekender,’ a full country club with 36 holes, lodging and other activities, while these are mostly just golf clubs. Even though it is miles away, it is culturally and historically part of the Sandbelt. Then there are numerous other clubs that for commercial reasons call themselves the Sandbelt, but they are just trading on the name.”

The courses are just south of the city center, close enough—20–40 minutes—to commute every day from a downtown hotel, but just far enough that you might want to spend a night—or two or three—out among the Sisters in order to get an early start on 36-hole days (bearing in mind that these are all cart-free walking courses and in Melbourne’s summer—our winter—temperatures regularly tip the scales at 100 degrees).

Victoria is the only one of the Seven Sisters with lodging on-site, a true bargain that includes golf, meals and an unforgettable classic experience. These are simple upstairs rooms for golfers, not honeymooners, and cater to both members and visitors. The staff will happily make all your bookings at the other “Sister” clubs. Victoria also has one of the most impressive clubhouses in the game, and since Peter Thomson, the five-time British Open champion turned Australia’s most renowned golf course designer, has been a member here since 1946, the building is festooned with his memorabilia and trophies. Among the random highlights you will find scattered around the building are an original relay torch from both the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the more recent Sydney games. Another notable Victoria member is Australian golf journalist Don Lawrence, who famously gave Jack Nicklaus his nickname, the Golden Bear, and an engraved silver tray Nicklaus sent him as a thank you hangs on a pillar.

It is more than likely you will enjoy your post-round cocktails al fresco in an area named for another successful member, out on the Ogilvy Terrace.

The expectation in the Sandbelt region is that visitors will be members of golf clubs at home and call or have club representatives call on their behalf, or alternatively arrange the trip through a golf travel company specializing in the region. The Sandbelt courses have recently banded together to market themselves as more accessible, especially to Americans.

“We’ve seen how the clubs of southwest Ireland, Lahinch, Ballybunion, etc., have partnered with Aer Lingus and Tourism Ireland and really built their visitor business. So we’ve been trying to get the clubs here to work together and make it easier for international visitors to play,” says Metropolitan’s Allan Shorland, who has taken the point on the effort for the group. “The Sandbelt is not about being Myrtle Beach, but we love having groups of four or eight golf lovers over to visit.” Shorland works closely with the Victorian and Australian visitors bureaus, as well as a wider range of golf tour operators, and his efforts include a new website that will offer tee time booking.

MORNINGTON PENINSULA

The Mornington Peninsula, just to the south, is the yin to the Sandbelt’s yang. Recently it has become a hotbed of golf development, thanks to the ample coastline and towering sand dunes, the kind of topography that sends golfers on pilgrimages to places like the Ayrshire Coast of Scotland or Bandon, Oregon. With the current fad for neoclassic links design, the peninsula has attracted architects such as Greg Norman and Tom Doak, and has emerged as a worthy golf destination in its own right. “The variety is amazing,” says Pedrero, “playing the Sandbelt courses one day, which are sort of a cross between Pinehurst and the classic U.S. Open courses, and then in the dunes of the Mornington Peninsula the next, is like being in Northern Ireland.”

With some of Victoria’s best beaches and wineries and only an hour from the city, the peninsula is Melbourne’s answer to the Hamptons or Cape Cod and makes for great vacation variety. And since the Sandbelt courses are generally off limits on Saturdays and Sundays, it is a good weekend destination.

Two larger facilities stand out on the peninsula, the 36-hole Moonah Links, and the 54-hole National Golf Club. The former is the new kid on the block, a combination tournament venue and resort community developed in cooperation with the Australian PGA, sort of the TPC Sawgrass of Down Under. It has two stout courses, one by Thomson and one by his design partner Ross Perrett. Both are big, modern courses, long, tree-lined and challenging, but neither stand out as must-plays.


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