To many Americans, playing golf in the famous Australian Sandbelt feels like an unattainable dream.
It's easy to get caught up in all the hurdles for a golf trip to Melbourne: the cost, the 15-hour flight from California, the logistics of getting tee times on very exclusive clubs like Royal Melbourne, the jet lag during and after the journey, finding time for at least 10 days away from work and family, etc.
But if Dr. Alister MacKenzie could make the weeks-long trek by boat almost a century ago, you can certainly make one of golf's most memorable trips come to life, too. I traveled Down Under in February, playing 17 courses in 16 days on a trip that included stops in Melbourne, the Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas south of the city, Tasmania and King Island.
After my incredible experience, I want to share a few travel tips to make the thought of organizing a similar excursion less daunting and to help plan your journey. To condense things for you, these tips are for planning the ultimate golf trip to the Australian Sandbelt. Tasmania and King Island can wait for another time (and story). There's plenty to see and do for a week or more in and around Melbourne.
Don't play 36 holes every day
There are so many courses surrounding Melbourne in the Australian Sandbelt and the Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas that it's easy to try to play them all. I almost did, but you shouldn't.
I attempted playing 36 holes a day THREE days in a row. I almost paid an extreme price. My back almost gave out after that stretch, an injury that could have derailed my extended journey to Tasmania and King Island. What saved me was a massage and hot tub/cold tub experience at Peninsula Hot Springs, a natural geothermal mineral springs and day spa facility on the Mornington Peninsula.
There is such a thing as too much golf. You don't want to regret finding out what your limit might be.
If you're a golf nut who just can't get enough, several 36-hole days can make sense. Just be sure to leave a day between them for rest and recovery. Remember, the Sandbelt courses are all about walking, so make sure you're in shape for the itinerary you choose. The options for the best 36-hole days are plentiful. I've ranked them below:
1. The East and West at Royal Melbourne
2. Victoria Golf Club and Kingston Heath Golf Club
3. Two of the three courses at The National. The Gunnamatta, Moonah and Old Course are all superb.
4. Yarra Yarra Golf Club and Metropolitan (with Huntingdale as a third option)
5. The Legends and Open Course at Peppers Moonah Links Resort
Have you been to the Australian Sandbelt or are you planning a trip? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Don't play Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath first
The biggest regret of my trip was playing 36 holes at Royal Melbourne first. My game, body clock and mind were still stuck in America. I felt out of sorts and didn't get to fully enjoy the experience. I'd add Kingston Heath to the list of which courses to avoid on round 1. These two Presidents Cup hosts (future, in Kingston Heath's case) are the two premier tournament tests in Australia, so you'll want to be ready to play your best. A warmup round at Yarra Yarra or Metropolitan would be better. I didn't play Huntingdale or Commonwealth, so I can't vouch for them as potential warm-up rounds, but I think they're solid options as well. These four courses are still world-class, but they are more forgiving for a golfer suffering jet lag.
Take at least one day off to enjoy the city
Staying in the city will give you some time to explore Melbourne, but I'd even go a step further and take an entire day off from golf in order to see more. That advice might be taken as treason by some golf groups, but I'm not the only one who thinks this way.
Cummins, the tour operator, said many groups make the mistake of playing too many days in a row. "The Melbourne Sandbelt courses are not only mentally tough to play, they can be physically challenging," he shared. "Most visiting golfers visit the Sandbelt in the summer months (from) January through March. Hot dry days are common in Melbourne and combine this with most of the courses being walking only, it can take a toll physically. Be sure to have enough rest days to fully enjoy the experience."
If you pace your group's schedule correctly, you'll be rewarded with some memorable experiences and renewed energy when you do head back to the course.
During my five-day stay, I saw Melbourne from all angles off the course:
* a guided Real Melbourne Bike Tour that included drinks on a rooftop bar.
* a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over downtown from Global Ballooning that ended with a surprise landing in a skate park after we missed our initial drop-off point due to shifting winds.
* a walking Melbourne Street Art Tour that ended at Blender Studios, where talented artists each have their own work space to create their next masterpiece.
* dangling over the city from 'The Edge', Melbourne Skydeck's all-glass enclosure that juts out 3 meters from the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The view from nearly 1,000 feet down to the river and beyond is spectacular.
A beach day to go surfing, paddle-boarding, kite-boarding or some other adventurous ocean sport is never a bad idea, either.
Explore the Mornington Peninsula
Despite its proximity to the 10 courses of the Australian Sandbelt, the Mornington Peninsula really feels like another destination entirely. The region's courses, hotels and towns give off the holiday vibe that you're out of the city's traffic and hassles and ready to relax. There's beaches and coastal hikes to explore and a general slower pace to life. None of the peninsula's courses are 'world ranked', but there's a lot to like about the 36 holes at Peppers Moonah Links Golf Resort, the 54 holes at The National, The Dunes Golf Links and St. Andrews Beach, a Tom Doak course building a new clubhouse in 2024. The National is a private club, but does accept international visitors.
Play a course you've never heard of
It's always tempting when booking your dream trip to stick to only the top-ranked courses. There's a lot of them in the Sandbelt and adjacent Mornington Peninsula. Some of my most fun experiences came discovering other courses.
A tip from my Melbourne bike tour guide led me to seek out the Anglesea Golf Club, a course along the Great Ocean Road that's a nature sanctuary home to hundreds of kangaroos. Golfers can play through without too much trouble from the 'roos or the tourist trucks that ferry kids and families out to see them lounging in the tree shade and munching on the fairways.
Although I didn't have time to play, the Flinders Golf Club was just minutes from my hotel in the Mornington Peninsula, so I took a detour to look around. Whenever a course boasts ties to Dr. Alister MacKenzie, it's a must-see for curious golfers. A coastal road runs through Flinders, so I parked my car and poked around.
The last thing I'll note is that oftentimes, it's easier to have fun on courses where you have little or no expectations. A course ranked among the top 10 in the world like Royal Melbourne West carries such high expectations that it may be hard for you to be blown away. It's an easier bar to hurdle at a less-heralded Sandbelt course like Yarra Yarra, which won me over with its charms.
Stay in downtown Melbourne for at least four nights
Logistically, it might make more sense to stay closer to the Sandbelt courses, which are between 25 and 45 minutes south of downtown Melbourne. But the real joy of the journey is the chance to explore Melbourne. The worlds of art, sport, international culture and the culinary scene are part of the fabric of what truly is a great city. Every time I traveled by foot, bike, trolley or car, I found something exciting and new.
My first home base was QT Melbourne, a boutique hotel in the high-end fashion district. It was chic with an elevator that talks to guests, usually with some snark.
One night at the NEXT Hotel Melbourne introduced me to La Madonna, an impressive restaurant within a contemporary high-rise hotel.
I took taxis to and from the courses, so I didn't have to worry about driving in traffic, rental car fees or paying the cost of expensive overnight parking downtown. Once you're at your hotel, everything is within walking distance or easy to reach via the city's reliable and inexpensive trolley system.
Get creative for dinner
After a long day of golf, it's easy, and habit, for golfers to eat at the clubhouse or head out in search of some pub food like pizza or burgers.
Melbourne is one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities. Don't miss the chance to have some real culinary experiences. My most exotic meals were served at Supernormal, one of the city's most popular dinner haunts; a chic small-plates wine bar named Embla and a more traditional white-cloth experience at Victoria by Farmer's Daughters. For lunch, don't miss the vibrant ambiance of Yarra Botanica, a floating bar and restaurant on the Yarra River. The menu is diverse, and the people watching five stars.
If you really can't live without some comfort food, find out which local restaurant is having Chicken Parm Night. Yes, this is a real delicacy Down Under. My chicken parmesan at the Deck Bar and Bistro inside the Flinders Hotel was one of my favorite meals of the trip.
Talk to a tour operator
Using a reputable tour operator to organize your trip would be the easiest way to get all the details sorted, but that comes with a cost. At the very least, you should at least talk to a tour operator and ask all the questions that feel relevant. They're experts who might introduce you to tourist attractions, courses, places to stay and logistics you might have never even considered.
I teed it up with Simon Cummins, the director of Golf Tourism Australia who has been leading inbound Australian golf tours for years. He said most of his golf clients usually try to hit all the famous world-ranked courses in Melbourne, King Island, Tasmania and Sydney (in that order) in one trip. I don't like that idea because Sydney is such a great city that it deserves more time to explore than a quick stopover to play New South Wales.
Cummins said Americans often make two critical mistakes when planning their trip, including the process for hiring caddies. It's not like the top U.S. clubs, where a request for caddies can be made the day of play.
"Caddie requests need be made well in advance," he noted.Frankston, Melbourne, VICPrivate4.42857142862Frankston, Melbourne, VICPrivate5.03
Start the planning early
Start your planning process as early as possible. Remember, the Southern Hemisphere is currently in spring, heading for the peak summer golf season from December through the end of February. Making tee times for the Australian Sandbelt isn't all that easy. The 10 Sandbelt clubs - plus The National, an exclusive 54-hole club on the Mornington Peninsula - all have limited tee times available to non-members. They often require a letter of recommendation from your club professional and/or verification of your official handicap to book. It's a very formal online process that takes time. If you're not a member of a prestigious club, don't fret. The right tour operator can get you on.