MELBOURNE, Australia – Melbourne is a city of contrasts. This is a refrain that popped up on multiple occasions during my recent trip to the southern coast of Australia, and it was clear to see why as I experienced the city for the very first time.
Built along Port Phillip Bay and bisected by the Yarra River, Melbourne evokes thoughts and images of Chicago from an American eye. It’s every bit a bustling metropolis, but also one that bridges eras and generations: stroll along Swanston Street in the Central Business District and you’ll see sleek high-rises being built as fast as possible to meet with growing housing and business demand. But on the other side of the street you’ll spot a Victorian-era church boasting architecture that harkens back to the city’s foundational years. Modern public transit still flows through Flinders Street Station, which bears a throwback look complete with its brick façade and collection of analog clocks lining the entrance.
The city itself is fiercely Australian, proud of its stature within the country, but also home to a diverse collection of backgrounds and nationalities. Traditional Aussie fare can be found along any of Melbourne’s iconic laneways, each a unique and creative bastion of art and commerce, while a short ride across town to Lygon Street seemingly shuttles you into 1950s Italy, replete with bakeries and vintage restaurants from halfway around the world.
And while Melbourne’s location may seem remote, especially from an American perspective, its population density rivals any big city in the States. Nearly 5 million people call Melbourne home, a number that is fast approaching that of Sydney (5.3 million) and means that it accounts for approximately 20 percent of Australia’s total population.
The same theme of contrast can be applied to Melbourne’s place in the annals of golf. While the "Sandbelt" remains an exotic and faraway destination for most golfers, more an abstract concept than a concrete place, it’s home to some of the most timeless and iconic courses anywhere in the world – and they’re all within about a 30-minute drive of one another.
Any discussion of golf in Melbourne must begin with Alister MacKenzie, the famed architect who transformed Australian course design despite spending a relatively short amount of time Down Under. His crowned jewel along the Sandbelt is Royal Melbourne’s West Course, which contributed 12 holes to the composite course used for last year’s Presidents Cup. Step foot on the grounds at Royal Melbourne and you’re instantly greeted by a size and scale that evokes thoughts of Augusta National – and that’s no coincidence, given MacKenzie’s seminal role in shaping both iconic layouts.
The bunkering is dramatic, and the undulations on and around the greens are severe without ever crossing the line into unfair. Royal Melbourne requires thoughtful precision and strategy with every shot, and after one stroll across its famed grounds it’s easy to see why it’s consistently included in any list of the world’s top tests.
The day after the Americans completed their stirring comeback to win the Presidents Cup, our group’s itinerary shifted just down the street to Kingston Heath Golf Club. Opened nearly 100 years ago with contributions from MacKenzie, Kingston Heath feels as though it always belonged to this particular parcel of grass, dirt and sand. Walk through the narrow foyer that leads from the parking lot and you’ll pass the locker room, pro shop and clubhouse all in short order – each occupying a small corner of an understated white building that you’d never expect to serve as the gateway to one of the best courses on the planet. There are no lavish signs or markers to be found, almost as if any such accoutrements would take away from the sheer beauty and splendor of the course itself.
Instead you’re succinctly directed to the first tee, which sits beyond a small starter’s shack just a few yards from the clubhouse. On this day our international foursome of writers was rounded out in style by former Open champion Ian Baker-Finch, a man who has traveled the world playing golf for more than 40 years and insists if he could have just one more round it would, without hesitation, be at Kingston Heath.
“There’s a simplicity to this place,” Baker-Finch said. “There’s something special about just showing up, pulling your own trolley and heading to the first tee without being hounded by 15 people in the parking lot. It’s understated, but it traces back to the roots of what makes this game so special.”
That’s just what we did, and after a few holes it’s easy to see what about this place puts a glint in IBF’s eye. Yes, the bunkering receives worldwide acclaim, but it’s the ability of the grounds to seem immaculately manicured and inherently natural at the same time that provides such an exquisite backdrop for a round. There’s strategy and angles aplenty; most holes offer ample room to miss in front of the green, but danger lurks for those who dare go beyond the target.
The course winds through sandy waste areas and over small hillocks, overall a much flatter and more compact walk than Royal Melbourne provides. But that doesn’t detract from the skill required to tame it, especially on the 269-yard third hole which deserves a spot in any discussion of the best short par-4s in the world. Kingston Heath retains a rugged visage while the course itself could host a pro event in a moment’s notice, a rare combination that adds up to a memorable experience.
But the biggest takeaway from a morning at Kingston Heath, aside from the sheer enjoyment of traipsing to and fro across a wide-open landscape that sits just below the clubhouse, was the collection of par 3s. Each measuring under 175 yards, they were not a test of length or brute strength. Instead it was about precision, with wildly contoured greens on the 127-yard 10th and 142-yard 15th both guarded by treacherously deep bunkers.
Throw in the 19th hole, a similarly-distanced offering that was used in tournament play when Tiger Woods won the 2009 Australian Masters here, and it’s an amazing collection of short holes that continues to stand the test of time while offering players a wedge or short iron but requiring a precise shot to escape with par or better.
The next day the scene shifted a mere 4 miles down the road. While Royal Melbourne is the most-recognized of the eight Sandbelt venues, and Kingston Heath boasts a decorated history of prestigious events, a similar case can be made for Metropolitan Golf Club, which hosted the WGC Match Play in 2001 and the World Cup in 2018. One trip through its sleek clubhouse, flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass panes as opposed to the white walls of Kingston Heath, and you’ll pass a photo tribute to past champions that includes the likes of Gene Sarazen, Peter Thomson, Lee Westwood, Laura Davies and Brad Faxon. Many greats have tried their hand at Metro, which tips out above 7,200 yards and packs plenty of punch.
While dramatic bunkering is a common theme along the Sandbelt, it’s something of an art form at Metropolitan which, like Kingston Heath, bears the fingerprints of Mackenzie. On several holes the line between a birdie chance and a scrambling par is razor-thin, with the faces of the bunkers meticulously carved right into the edges of the greens. With no fringe or rough to separate target from hazard, the price of an errant shot goes up significantly. There’s also a greater demand from the fairway, with several holes requiring a carry over a bunker to access the proper portion of the green.
With a larger collection of towering trees, and with some holes running alongside houses or buildings, Metropolitan offers a cozy contrast to Kingston Heath. Often times the hole you’re playing is the only one in view, which is probably for the best since each will require your full attention. The course lost several holes in the 1950s when the Australian government took over a portion of the property to build a primary school, which now abuts the 13th tee. But a 1960 redesign by Dick Wilson, whose American portfolio includes Bay Hill and the original Blue Monster at Doral, now connects the original and newer holes with little distinction.
Two particular highlights are the 368-yard 16th, which appears from the tee to include more sand than grass but can be conquered with a pair of accurate irons, and the uphill approach to the 18th green that sits just below the glass-enclosed clubhouse, which you’ll hit under the watchful eye of members enjoying lunch or a 19th-hole beverage.
The action in and around Melbourne doesn’t stop when the final putt falls. Our nights were spent at the Crown Towers hotel, which also housed members of both teams during the Presidents Cup. Enveloping a wide swath of real estate downtown right alongside the Yarra River, the property feels like a posh Las Vegas resort, complete with a casino downstairs and restaurant options ranging from elegant sushi to indulgent French cuisine. Stroll the downtown streets after the sun goes down and you’ll encounter a wide array of places to quench your thirst, ranging from traditional bars to Irish pubs to Bar Margaux, a basement establishment that is a cross between a Parisian subway and a New York deli.
The sheer concentration of world-class courses along the Sandbelt, with some layouts literally adjacent to one another while others are separated by a few hundred yards, is unparalleled. But the golf in and around Melbourne extends beyond this well-trod section of soil. The state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne and is the smallest of Australia’s six mainland states, boasts a collection of courses that reaches well beyond the Sandbelt. A trip south down the Mornington Peninsula affords scenic coastal views and ends with another collection of world-class venues; while the trip would typically take about 90 minutes by car, we managed to shorten it to a brisk 30 minutes by taking a helicopter over the azure seas and pristine beaches that sit just beyond Melbourne’s city limits.
Our chopper landed right next to the driving range at The National Golf Club, a sprawling, 54-hole facility that offered a glimpse into the newest era of Australian golf design. Opened in 1989, the Old Course was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and was soon followed by two subsequent layouts that leave the open vista dotted with fairways and flags. Our afternoon was spent on the Moonah Course, a Greg Norman design that might cause Americans to do a double-take from the start, as golf carts are required to remain in the fairway at all times – this is Australia, after all, and the wildlife looming just off the short grass (including venomous brown snakes) isn’t worth meddling with. Hit it in the brush, take a drop and move on.
Chances are you’ll have a few of those drops during a trip around the Moonah, a challenging layout with a natural aesthetic and dramatically undulating greens that evoke images of Gil Hanse’s Streamsong Black. Navigating the putting surfaces is only half the battle, with some approaches (like the one into the punchbowl 11th green) affording blind or obstructed views of the target. The relatively open expanse across hundreds of rolling dunes means the winds will be up more often than not, adding another challenge while rounding out the overall experience.
But the Moonah has recently been supplanted as the go-to course at The National, with Tom Doak overseeing a renovation of the former Ocean Course. Now known as the Gunnammatta Course, Doak’s layout is immensely pleasing to the eye from the opening tee shot, incorporates views of the nearby Bass Strait and offers a wide array of shot-making options at every turn. Re-opened in the spring of 2019, the Gunnamatta is still in the process of reaching its full potential but is well on its way to becoming a highlight of any itinerary that ventures outside the Sandbelt.
A trip down the Mornington Peninsula also offered a refreshing contrast to the fast pace of life near the heartbeat of Melbourne. Our whirlwind adventure concluded at the Jackalope Hotel, a boutique establishment that sits in the midst of a vineyard and instantly transports visitors to Napa Valley. With an offbeat vibe and house-made wines, the Jackalope grinds things to a halt and forces guests to appreciate the natural aesthetic of the area. The wide array of offerings at the in-house restaurant, including a kangaroo carpaccio, also hit the spot after a long day on the links.
While not significantly impacted directly, Melbourne and the surrounding areas were still affected by the recent brush fires that swept across much of the continent and received worldwide attention. As rebuilding efforts continue, the government for the state of Victoria has established a dedicated agency, Brushfire Recovery Victoria, to assist with recovery. But with recent rains largely quelling the fires, the doors to some of the greatest courses in the world are very much open.
At its core, a golf trip to Melbourne is about reveling in the timeless aspects that make the game so captivating. Neatly manicured fairways and ankle-high rough have their place, but so, too, do rugged, natural layouts that turn back the hands of time to an era when the game boiled down to only a few component parts. Less fuss, more focus on enjoying what can often feel like a spiritual experience.
Nearly a dozen world-class venues within reach of the city center fit that bill, with many offering reciprocal playing opportunities for international visitors. While reaching the southern edge of Australia isn’t exactly easy, the experiential reward more than makes up for the length of the journey. Regardless of playing ability, or the combination of courses that might make up your itinerary, adding a trip to Melbourne is a bucket-lister that will immediately remind you of why you fell in love with the game in the first place.