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.
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.”
“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.
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.
The chief appeal of Moonah Links is that it is home to upscale resort accommodations by Peppers, a popular Australian hotel chain. It is a great base with easy public access. The National, the oldest and most revered club in these parts, on the other hand is a must-play. It is the only serious challenger to the prestige of the Sandbelt courses. Its superb Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course plays right down to and along the sea. It has several very dramatic coastal holes, and a fanciful usage of quirky and impressive trees, sort of a Valderrama meets Pebble Beach aesthetic.
The National even features a coastal par-3 signature hole as its seventh, a la Pebble. The two more recent layouts at the National (by Greg Norman and Thomson) are also very good, and the three are different enough to make visitors and members struggle to decide which to play. Norman’s Moonah course (not to be confused with nearby Moonah Links) is thought by many to be his best design. It has the most dune-filled real estate at the National, but in a more open, valley fairway style akin to Scotland’s magnificent Turnberry. Norman also did a great job of incorporating the unique native trees into the layout. Thomson’s low-lying Ocean Course is the least dramatic of the trio, and seems tame in comparison with the vast elevation changes of the other two courses. Nevertheless, it is a solid, if subtle, test of golf and beauty.
Two other worthy peninsula courses are the Dunes Golf Club and St Andrews Beach. The Dunes is a true public course, and while its clubhouse and range have a decidedly muni, hotdog-stand feel, right down to the bargain bucket of “experienced” balls, the course is borderline spectacular. For many years it was voted the top public course in Australia. A links and dunes course, it would feel right at home dropped next to Portrush or Royal County Down. Nearby St Andrews Beach is a very different take on a very similar setting, but is also routed right through impressive sand dunes, this time by Doak of Pacific Dunes fame. A daily-fee course, St Andrews is perhaps too natural for its own good. It offers demanding blind shots to minuscule targets and odd angles with penal consequences proliferate, in a layout that seems like an effort to avoid earth moving at all costs, for better or worse. This course may be best suited to Doak fanatics.
THE CHARMS OF THE CITY
Melbourne has a number of luxury hotels all located in a concise downtown corridor along the banks of the Yarra river and within an easy stroll of the top shops, bars and nightlife, a wealth of excellent restaurants representing every imaginable cuisine, and Australia’s largest casino, the vast Crown complex, which includes dozen of restaurants and bars under one roof. To double up and take full advantage of the long trip, many international visitors time their golf vacations to coincide with a high-profile sporting event. “Whenever we have a major event, the Australian Open tennis, the F1 race, the Australian Rules Football final or the Melbourne Cup, we get a lot of visitors,” says Paul Rak, general manager of Royal Melbourne. Victoria’s Peter Stackpole puts it more bluntly: “We don’t have an Opera House or a Harbour bridge. What we have is an events calendar.”
Pedrero, who recently made his first trip to Melbourne, couldn’t agree more. “It is a long way to go, and to be honest, I was skeptical. There are a lot of places to play golf. Was it worth skipping Scotland or Ireland or even Hawaii for? The answer is yes. I went during the Spring racing meet, so I was able to attend the Melbourne Cup, the ‘Race That Stops a Nation,’ and it was spectacular—a true bucket-list event. The golf was equally impressive, both the Sandbelt courses and the Mornington Peninsula. My only regret was that I did not have more time.”
Larry Olmsted is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.