When contemplating dream itineraries, the wise golfer would look to Australia with the same hungry desire more often provoked by fabled venues in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the state of Victoria alone, one could spend six weeks playing a different world-class course every day; five of Oz’s top ten are here, nearly half of the top 50, and most of them within a short drive of Melbourne—perhaps the premier city on the planet when it comes to golf.
While the game down under began in Tasmania in the 1820s and quickly spread northward, it achieved its maturity in the so-called golden age of course design, the first three decades of the 20th century. By that time many Melbourne clubs were already moving away from the city to the countryside in the southeast, now fa- mously known as the Sandbelt. And in 1926 the Royal Melbourne Golf Club followed the advice of the sport’s Vatican—the R&A in St. Andrews—by inviting Dr. Alister MacKenzie to design its new course in Black Rock. English by birth but Scottish by temperament and fond of wearing kilts, he abandoned medicine for a higher calling and perhaps is best remembered for Augusta National and Cypress Point. And though he stayed in Australia for only three months, never seeing the fruits of his labor, MacKenzie left behind a handful of courses that are now considered classics and from their inception set impeccable standards for subsequent architects. This tradition has informed the breadth of the nation’s golf and produced such legends as Peter Thomson (five-time British Open champion), Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, and a cadre of younger professionals (Aaron Baddeley, Adam Scott, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby, and Geoff Ogilvy)—remarkable for a country of only 20 million.
Perennially ranked in the world’s top ten and number one in Australia, Royal Melbourne’s courses constitute a holy trinity: MacKenzie’s West Course; the East, designed by Alex Russell, a club member who had assisted MacKenzie; since 1959 the Composite Course, that borrows from each to form an 18 on which countless championships have been contested. While the latter isn’t an option for mere mortals, we should nonetheless hustle to where the legend began. On either side one encounters MacKenzie’s "strategic design" features: short par fours and reachable par fives alternating with holes of taxing distance, fast fairways, lightning-fast greens, and bunkering that looks natural but is coldly calculating.
A round at the Royal Melbourne is "very much an emotional experience," as Peter Thomson has written. "In the playing of it a good deal of thinking is required, and in the thinking, a certain amount of courage is called upon, together with a cool head and a steady hand." My introduction, on the East Course, was neither cool nor steady, but it was shot through with the sense of playing on hallowed ground where solid shots and good decisions are rewarded, loose ones penalized, and a delicate short game essential.
The good doctor kept busy during his short stay, with credits including New South Wales (Sydney) and the Royal Ade- laide in addition to his other Sandbelt work at Metropolitan, Victoria, and elsewhere. In some cases he redesigned existing holes, and at others he displayed his genius for creating hazards. At Kingston Heath, rated Australia’s second best, he was responsible for the wild bunkers—these really are traps—and the 155-yard 15th hole, regarded as the best par three in greater Melbourne and extraordinarily difficult, playing uphill to a firm green with sandy death both right and left. And given his close association with Alex Russell, whom he soon made a partner, MacKenzie’s presence is felt even at clubs he didn’t personally influence, the spectacular Yarra Yarra chief among them. Royal Melbourne reportedly arranged these other collaborations in order to defray the cost of importing him, though I’ve also heard that he struck some of the deals himself; after all, on his way past New Zealand he did stop off to redesign Titirangi. Regardless, in Australia he found a society crazy for golf and, in the Sandbelt, the opportunity to perfect his art. He is the presiding spirit here, with clubs desperate to drop his name. What he accomplished in those three months in 1926 makes Melbourne a living museum of his architectural brilliance and the best place in the world to experience it.
Having steeped myself in the golden age, I drove an hour and a half farther south, along the east coast of Port Phillip Bay onto the Mornington Peninsula. A number of highly regarded courses are grouped closely together here, but my destination was the Tom Doak design that had recently opened for play at St. Andrews Beach. The most acclaimed new architect in golf—either Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Oregon, or Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay would alone seal his reputation—he has also coauthored a book about MacKenzie and can be considered his modern counterpart, so the opportunity to pass from one to the other was irresistible. Doak works with the existing landforms rather than bulldozing them into something else, and his courses settle over the terrain as comfortably as a blanket and have the same wild beauty one sees in the master’s work in the Sandbelt.
The Gunnamatta course runs through rolling grasslands well inland from the beach, as will the forthcoming Fingal course (with a nod to Royal Melbourne, a composite will use nine holes from each). Great stands of tea and moonah trees and striking blown-out dunes provide natural obstacles that enrich the ingenious routing, which feels centuries old instead of brand-new, and from several elevated tees and a few greens there are grand vistas, the intervening fairways lapping like waves. The par-five opening hole is tempting, playing downwind, and a fitting introduction as the second shot is blind, the green hidden behind a sand-trapped hill. The next is the first of two short par fours, a signature of Doak’s, one on each side playing just over 300 yards. The third green, too, is nestled behind a hill, which establishes the peekaboo theme that runs throughout and dictates the angle of approach. Severe false fronts distinguish the ninth, whose green is practically a knob with high scores likely short or left, as well as the tenth, where the only safe place to miss is long. And by now one can’t help but notice how beautiful the bunkering is, often situated on horizon lines and sometimes festooned with tussock grass.
Though I have no idea who the author is, the list of playing tips has a laconic charm that suits its subject perfectly. The par-four 12th: "A sucker tee shot. Greed is bad." The slightly shorter 15th? "Looks easy, and is, if you hit the targets." Alas, no advice is suitable for the magnificent 13th, at just over 500 yards the longest par four in Australia; playing it straight into the wind, I came up short after flushing my drive and three metal, chipped poorly but sank a long putt for the most rewarding par imaginable. This is a truly great hole, with the fairway perched up on a ridge and the trapless green set in its own little bowl. The good news is that the 17th hole is only 20-odd yards longer but is a downwind, reachable par five that promises birdie. The bad news is that you might not have survived the 16th, a classic Redan par three of 215 yards with the green running away and to the left, much like the original at North Berwick in Scotland. And if that’s not enough for you, the architect kindly provided a way-back tee that stretches the length to 264 yards, a long iron indeed, even for Tiger Woods.
At any rate, by the time you walk off the superb 18th green ringed by moonah trees, you’ll look forward to playing it all over again—perhaps knowing how best to handle the narrow approaches, or to exploit the double fairway shared by the seventh and eighth, or just where to miss. And you’ll certainly want to return once the Fingal course is ready.
Melbourne bills itself as the gateway to Tasmania, and after an hour’s flight my wife and I took a break from golf in Launceston, the principal city on the northern end of the island. Then it was only an hour’s drive to Barnbougle Dunes, overlooking Bass Strait, across which is the Australian mainland. Here, on 13,000 acres largely devoted to cattle and potatoes, Tom Doak enlisted the Australian Mike Clayton, a former touring pro and budding architect, to help build a links course for public play. This was a bold endeavor—if this isn’t the end of the world, it surely can’t be far away—but one that the owner, Richard Sattler, who knew nothing about golf, was eventually compelled to attempt, with utterly breathtaking results when it opened in 2004. Golf seems to thrive on remoteness, on simplicity, and on nature. There was no significant earthmoving at Barnbougle Dunes, as there are no carts to enfeeble the game, just pure excellence. Along with Doak’s Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers, this course leaped into the top 50 of Golf Magazine’s best-in-the-world list, and it’s not hard to see why.
The dunes, of course, make it, wide and high and planted with marram grass to keep them from shifting because the wind threatens to blow the holes away. I’m told there are calm days, though my visit was both cursed and blessed with a gale that could, as Sattler has so neatly put it, "blow the milk out of your tea." For me it made a three- or even four-club difference, cheerful enough when playing a six iron with it into the 220-yard fifth, less so when a seven iron against it on the 123-yard seventh didn’t even come close. The latter, said to be the shortest hole in Doak’s repertoire, is nonetheless sheer terror, and in another round I missed left into a cavernous bunker and shocked my companion by lipping out my sand wedge, not that I could see even the top of the flagstick. Miracles come in the strangest places. Such a tempest made both par fives on the back nine easily reachable in two—the 559-yard 14th with only driver and seven iron—but golf began, after all, in the wind, which will also make you miss fairways and greens and require you to get up and down from unlikely situations.
My first day at Barnbougle Dunes, I shot perhaps the best five-over-76 of my life, even though I couldn’t reach the 440-yard 18th with a solid drive and two iron. Sometimes you can only improvise, and this course often demands it. On still days, for example, the 298-yard fourth is nearly drivable, but I had no chance of clearing the sandy mound that bisects the fairway so I wisely played around it and had a full wedge into the L-shaped green, a third of which is invisible behind another hill on the left—one of the greatest short par fours I’ve ever seen. On the front side, one cuts through saddles and climbs up dunes to play along corridors that run between them, whereas the back is more open. The same blend of fescue runs from tee to green, which tends to putt at a slower, more traditional pace and with good cause because many—notably the par-three 13th—are so ridged and billowed, in tune with the landscape, that at contemporary speeds they would be unplayable. And Barnbougle Dunes is not only endlessly playable but also addictive. There is talk of a second course that I hope will come to pass, since what Sattler has commenced here has every chance of becoming another Bandon Dunes, with everything else a golfer needs—splendid cottages, fine food and drink in The Clubhouse—right there and very reasonably priced. Certainly I would hole up here contentedly, for quite some time, where Tom Doak and Mike Clayton have extended the tradition of Alister MacKenzie into the modern age.
Gary Fisketjon wrote about playing golf with his son at Scotland’s Gleneagles in the November/December 2006 issue.
Land of Oz Logistics
Many of the courses mentioned here are private, but this doesn’t mean—as it would in the United States—that you’re out of luck. At the Royal Melbourne (61-3/9598-6755; royalmelbourne.com.au), reservations are available to nonmembers during weekdays, though your club secretary must provide a letter of introduction on your behalf. The courses at St. Andrews Beach, Gunnamatta and the forthcoming Fingal (61-3/5988-5366; standrewsbeach.com), offer limited access for nonmembers and thus I recommend retaining the services of a tour operator. GolfSelect (golfselect.com.au), whose staff arranged my tee times for this trip, can also handle lodging and transfers to and from the clubs. Barnbougle Dunes (61-3/ 6356-0094; barnbougledunes.com.au) is a public course; you can contact the office directly to make a reservation.
To reach Barnbougle Dunes Golf Club, one takes an hour-long flight from Melbourne to Launceston, established when Tasmania was a British penal colony known as Van Diemen’s Land and Australia’s oldest city after Sydney and Hobart. Two forks of the Esk River shape this lovely provincial outpost, and the south’s Cataract Gorge is only a short walk from the city center, where it joins the north to form the broad Tamar. My wife and I checked in to the Hatherley House, an 1830s home translated into a terrific small hotel. We’d already taken lunch up the Tamar Valley wine route at Daniel Alps at Strathlynn (lunch, $100; 61-3/6330-2388), a 100-acre vineyard whose menu concentrates on local produce.
Tasmania is justly famous for the purity of its air and water and the richness of its soil, and friends who’d traveled for weeks throughout Australia and New Zealand told me that the finest dinner of the entire trip was here in Launceston. After spending an evening at Stillwater (dinner, $125; stillwater.net.au), on the banks of the river in Ritchies Mill, we could only agree. The decor and service are impeccable, the 400-label-strong wine list vast, and chef Don Cameron’s "freestyle" Australian cuisine astonishing, combining the riches of this land- and seascape with Asian and European touches that make for truly exceptional dishes. My wife has tried—largely in vain—to re-create the oyster shooters, with palm sugar, rice vinegar, and wasabi, and I often refer to the menu online to remind myself of the depths of the restaurant’s excellence. This alone justifies a visit to Launceston, even without what awaits any golfer less than an hour up the road.