MELBOURNE, Australia - It really didn't matter where I was.
Up above the city skyline in a hot-air balloon watching the sunrise.
Down deep buried in a bunker at Royal Melbourne.
Perusing back alleys looking for hidden street art downtown.
Pedaling a bike along the Yarra River.
Dangling nearly 1,000 feet in the air from the Melbourne Skydeck.
Whatever the perspective, I found the same truth: Melbourne never disappoints. I couldn't shake this thought ... Is teeing up the Australian Sandbelt the best golf trip in the world?
Playing golf in Scotland, specifically St. Andrews, is probably the first choice for a dream golf trip of the average American golfer. For the more educated traveling golfer, however, the Sandbelt is that true once-in-a-lifetime destination. Australia's state of Victoria boasts better weather than St. Andrews and more World Top 100 courses according to Golf Digest (6 to 3). We ranked the Australian Sandbelt fifth in our latest World Top 100 Destinations. After closer inspection, that feels too low.
I consider the 16-day, 17-golf course bender I experienced Down Under in February among the premier highlights in my golf writing career. You don't have to go for that long or play that much golf, but I do recommend at least 8-10 days to get a real flavor of one of the world's coolest places.
Thankfully, this was the year that Australia lifted its difficult COVID travel restrictions, welcoming golfers back for the first time since summer 2020. The 10 elite private clubs of the Sandbelt are happier than ever to welcome back international visitors. They still require some hurdles to book tee times, but at least they don't keep their gates permanently closed like their American counterparts. All it takes is the right tour operator or a letter of recommendation from your club to unlock access to some of the best golf courses in the world.
I spent my first four days staying in downtown Melbourne, followed by three days on the Mornington Peninsula and 24 hours in the Bellarine Peninsula. Let's explore. Remember, it's almost peak season in the Sandbelt. Summer runs from December through February, making Australia the best winter golf destination in the world for Americans.
Staying in Melbourne and playing the mighty Sandbelt
Leaving San Francisco on a Saturday night and landing at 10 a.m. on a Monday after a 15-hour flight will always mess with your body clock. To me, it's important to stay awake in an attempt to adjust to the new time zone quicker. I often go straight to the golf course, where the fresh air and walking help keep your mind and body engaged, even if you play poorly. This time, however, I spent my first day in Melbourne riding 20-plus miles on a guided bike tour from Melbourne by Bike. It was a fascinating first impression of one of the world's greatest cities. We rode by sports stadiums, parks, shopping districts and a college campus, stopping only for a beer to celebrate my safe travels. I'm not a cyclist by any stretch of the imagination, and I'd still highly recommend this style of discovery.
Dinner at Supernormal that night was a great first introduction into Melbourne's trendy culinary scene, which is influenced by Asia, Europe and local culture. The restaurant was within walking distance of QT Melbourne, my boutique hotel home for the next three nights. If you're not staying downtown during your golf trip, you're truly missing out on the ultimate Australian Sandbelt experience. No other golf destination in the world is as intimately connected to such a large cosmopolitan city. All 10 Sandbelt courses are located south of the city within a 45-minute drive (or less). I took taxis every day to and from the courses. My golf itinerary was aggressive - a 36-hole day at Royal Melbourne on day two, and pairing up Metropolitan and Yarra Yarra two days later and Victoria Golf Club and Kingston Heath the next.
A 1928 visit by legendary architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie forever changed the Sandbelt, influencing Royal Melbourne's East and West courses, Victoria, Kingston Heath, Metropolitan and Yarra Yarra. Even a century ago, his bold bunkering style was easy to execute in the sand-based rolling terrain. This turf lends to the firm and bouncy conditions preferred by players that mimics links golf. Without the sea views and fewer chances to use the ground game, however, Sandbelt golf is more a cousin, than a sibling, to links golf. Bouncing approaches into greens doesn't always work when there are bunkers everywhere. Sandbelt golf remains its own breed.
Prepare to give your bunker game a workout. Every bunker is indeed at least a one-stroke penalty if not more. Each Sandbelt course seems to have its own interpretation of bunker presentation. Royal Melbourne, which is only available Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays for visitor play, kept its bunker sand tight and compact. Only a steep, violent strike digs the ball out. At one point, on my caddie's suggestion, I putted to escape. Victoria's bunker sand was softer. Kingston Heath was somewhere in between.
Much of America's obsession with the Sandbelt has been inspired by the Presidents Cup, which first visited Royal Melbourne in 1998. Royal Melbourne's composite routing, using holes from both the East and West courses, also hosted the event in 2011 and 2019. Kingston Heath, which was my favorite course of the six Sandbelt courses I played, will get its chance in 2028.
Believe it or not, that day off from golf after Royal Melbourne was one of the highlights of the trip. Not even a morning tee time on one of the world's top courses could compare to a sunrise balloon ride over Melbourne's skyline from Global Ballooning. Getting up at 4:30 a.m. meant my flight was done by 10 a.m., which left the rest of the day to experience the Melbourne Skydeck, a glass enclosure that juts out from the Southern Hemisphere's tallest building, and a walking street art tour with a local artist. Melbourne's back-alley walls are the canvas of choice for creative people like my guide, James Wilson. Lunch at Yarra Botanica, a two-story floating boat on the Yarra River, was a great spot for people watching, while dinner at Victoria by Farmer's Daugher was more elegant and refined.
Playing the under-appreciated Mornington Peninsula
If it weren't so close to Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula would be considered one of golf's best vacations in its own right. The Mornington Peninsula gave me serious Monterey Peninsula vibes with its laid-back lifestyle and stunningly natural coastal surroundings.
It's also home to what could be the best 54-hole facility on the planet - The National Golf Club (which also sports another course at a second site). I teed up Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s dramatically hilly - and difficult - Old Course first, followed by the Moonah Course by Greg Norman. Tom Doak's linksy Gunnamatta will have to wait. All three operate out of a large clubhouse in Cape Schanck. Like the Sandbelt courses, overseas visitors must fill out an online form with a letter of introduction from their home club to gain access to this private club.
Although a bit out of the way - the luxury RACV Cape Schanck Resort is across the street from The National - I did enjoy my stay and meal at the charming Flinders Hotel that night. It's a gorgeous spot near another course with MacKenzie ties, the Flinders Golf Club.
As you might imagine, after playing 144 holes in five days, my body needed a full reboot. I found bliss with a massage and soak at the Peninsula Hot Springs, home to geothermal bathing pools and spa facilities. I felt like a golf Humpty Dumpty being put back together again.
It's a good thing because 54 holes came soon after - the Legends Course at Peppers Moonah Links Resort, Saint Andrews Beach and The Dunes Golf Links. Of the three, Legends was the most fun, a true resort course that's entertaining and enjoyable. It's part of 36 holes at Peppers Moonah Links Resort, where I stayed that night in a room large enough for a whole family. The nearby Saint Andrews Beach is on the radar of bucket-list-chasing Americans because it's a Doak design. Plus, it's finally living up to its potential by building a clubhouse that will debut next year. The Dunes added accommodations - six two-bedroom suites and the 11-room Links Lodge - in 2021 to make stay and plays much more convenient. It seems every local club is raising the bar to keep up with the competition.
Kangaroos and beaches on the Bellarine Peninsula
After planes, automobiles, bikes and hot-air balloons, it was time for another mode of transportation. I jumped on a Searoad car ferry from Sorrento to Queenscliff, crossing the Port Phillip Bay to reach the Bellarine Peninsula. This is the less touristy side of the bay with fewer resort hotels and vacation homes. It still sports some stellar golf, just not as much depth. The best option is the 45-hole 13th Beach, where its linksy Beach Course regularly hosts the Victoria Open. Nick Faldo designed the parkland Creek Course, and a new nine-hole short course is ready to grow the game.
I really wanted to play Lonsdale Links and the private Barwon Heads as well, but time just didn't allow it. A recommendation from my bike tour guide did lead to one final thrilling discovery - the Anglesea Golf Club, a golf course that doubles as a sanctuary for hundreds of kangaroos. I was finally able to get the 'roo' photos I had been seeking the past eight days. You won't find this hilly course ranked on any must-play lists, but for American golfers seeking to hold court with the kangaroos, I'd consider it bucket-list-worthy.
A short ride back to Melbourne afforded one more night downtown before a flight to Tasmania. The La Madonna restaurant inside the chic Next Hotel Melbourne served up a memorable last supper.
As I look back upon Melbourne, I can say honestly that I'm not sure where I had more fun - on or off the golf course. Not many world-class golf destinations can say that. So many offer great golf and not much more. This diversity is what makes the Australian Sandbelt so special. The golf wouldn't be as great without the city, and vice versa. They operate as one, kind of like a player and caddie. One can't succeed without the other.
The world's other great golf cities - New York, London, Chicago - all boast fine golf, but how many of their best courses and clubs will let you inside the gates? This is the formula that makes traveling half way around the world to play the Australian Sandbelt so compelling. I'd jump on an additional 15-hour flight after the first one just to experience it all over again.
Have you played golf in the Australian Sandbelt? Please share your experiences below.