After 3 days of island hopping and some of the best golf we had ever seen, we returned to the mainland and the Melbourne sandbelt courses to see what all the fuss was about.
I had spent quite a lot of time thinking about where to stay. All of our golf would be to the south of the city, but we were keen to see a bit of Melbourne’s nightlife and get a sense of the city, so we stayed in the CBD. In the end I think it was the right call. We had some great food and the hotel was fantastic (although were too tired at night to hit the clubs, oh – and, of course, we’re far too old now!). We stayed in the QT hotel which was very central and within walking distance of everything we needed.
The hotel really looked after us well and had a very cool rooftop bar where the beautiful people were all hanging out. We fitted in very well, obviously! Feeling a few aches and pains by now, and having walked 100,000 steps in the previous 3 days, we had an early night and the luxury of a lie in on the Sunday morning before seeing the Southern Hemisphere’s premier golf course.
DAY 5, ROUND 7 - ROYAL MELBOURNE
I think I can safely say I had been looking forward to Royal Melbourne more than any other course on the trip. In my Ultimate Top 100 ranking the West course comes in at number 7 and everything I had read about it told me we were in for a real treat.
Visitor play is limited and very expensive. Here’s a fact for you – this is the most expensive ‘regular’ tee time of any of the top 100 courses in the world. If you are visiting from abroad you will pay A$750 for your tee time and then there is a compulsory caddy at another $140. That means 18 holes will set you back a cool A$890. That’s almost £500 or over $600 in American money.
Now, of course you can actually book a tee time here – you can’t do that at the vast majority of the US courses in the top 100 – but boy oh boy, this is one expensive tee time.
We were very fortunate though in that we had a gentleman, who may be the most wonderful host in the world, looking after us for the day. I had met Matt through Twitter and he was keen to show us around his home course. Matt is a tremendous font of knowledge when it comes to Sandbelt golf in general, and Royal Melbourne in particular. He has an infectious enthusiasm for the game and the course that made our day one of the most memorable I have spent on a golf course.
Matt played with the No Laying Up guys when they visited and narrated the course introduction you can see on their YouTube spot. You will also see him playing with hickories and he had them out again when we played with him too. And goodness me, could he play with them. He was hitting the ball as far as we were off the tee on occasions and his ability to get it up and down around the green was phenomenal.
We met many great people on our trip to Australia and one of the unifying characteristics was a real pride in their golf courses and their desire to give us he best possible experience. I don’t think the UK would give such a warm a welcome to visitors from the other side of the world, and this is one of the memories of this trip that will stay with me for the longest time.
After a very pleasant lunch we had a tour of the clubhouse. The place was packed with history, from original sketches from MacKenzie, through to the clubs Adam Scott used to win the Masters. The President’s Cup was also on show. It was a veritable treasure trove of Melbourne golf memorabilia and if you find yourself there make sure you take the time to explore it. I’ve written a little more about the history of the course on my main review and it really is a fascinating tale.
The wind was blowing hard and the skies overcast when we headed to the practice putting green. I had heard Mike Clayton talking on a podcast the previous week about how the greens at Royal Melbourne were running incredibly fast at the moment, verging on crazy. Indeed the practice green was pretty pacey and I got a little worried about whether the combination of wind and green speeds would prove unplayable.
As it was though, this wasn’t a concern. The wind dropped after the first few holes and the greens weren’t too fast. Without any doubt you would benefit from knowing which side of the hole to be on on pretty much every green. The ball seemed to run forever coming downhill but you could have a bit of a rap at it up the way. The slopes and contours really got the mind working overtime but they were incredibly true and a real delight, if slightly scary at times, to putt on.
I’m not sure why, but I had got in in my mind that this was going to be quite a tough test from the tee. The whole thing is on a grand scale but you will rarely be intimidated from the tee, with wide fairways in front of you. However, you will soon realise that you need to be in the right spot if you want to give yourself a chance of being the right side of the pin with your next shots.
There was so much to enjoy at Royal Melbourne, but two features worthy of mention were the superb bunkering and conditioning of the course. It takes a while to get used to the thin layers of slightly greyish sand but the positioning and shaping are tremendous. Conditioning-wise there wasn’t a bad lie on the golf course (some might say it was a little too perfect!) . The ball sat up perfectly on the fairways and those oh-so-smooth greens.
The West course is clearly one of the very best in the world. I found it fun, challenging but playable, and clever. We all agreed this was a very high 18 in the scoring system I use to rate courses (see here for more on that). It didn’t quite soar for us to the very, very best courses we had played, but it was still wonderful. Maybe I am not well versed enough in golf architecture to really ‘get it’ as much as others do. People who are far better positioned to comment on these things say it may be the best golf course in the world (well, after St Andrews of course!). When I make it back to Melbourne I will try and get straight back to Royal Melbourne to see if I can discover a little more of the magic that has it ranked so incredibly highly.
That being said, we had a wonderful day and our host had a huge part to play in that. Matt kindly gave us a lift back to the hotel, stopping off at what may be one of the very best burger joints I have ever experienced.
I would like to tell you that we then hit the nightclubs until 3am and give you a review of them. However, it was a quick drink in the bar before an early night. I needed to be with-it for my Monday morning.
DAY 6 - A PODCAST AND KINGSTON HEATH
A couple of weeks before I left home I received a message from Rod Morri asking if I would be interested in appearing on his iseekgolf podcast when I was over, to talk about my trip and experiences. I was pretty flattered by this as I am a huge fan of Rod and his work. Rod started hosting the State of the Game podcast some 7 years ago and I think he is the best in the business. I have previously waxed lyrical about his output, you can see a little of that here and here.
I was a little nervous replying to Rod’s message. I wasn’t sure that I would have a much of interest to say and, not being a professional broadcaster, I was worried I might just dry up altogether and make a bit of a fool of myself if truth be told.
Rod came to pick me up from the hotel and drove to Metropolitan Golf Club who had kindly lent us a room to record in. It was quite a surreal drive. I normally listen to podcasts on my daily commute and this was like having a live podcast, with Rod’s distinctive tones actually responding to my words!
It was fascinating talking to Rod about the changing golf media landscape and what business models may emerge in the future. He recently addressed that on a podcast you can listen to here. I really hope that whatever landscape develops, that it finds a place for people like Rod to thrive – his contribution to the golf debate is vital.
We were joined at Metro by Rod’s co-host, Adrian Logue. Adrian acts as the straight man to Rod on a regular basis. He’s a real gentleman who clearly has a deep knowledge of the game and shares with Rod a view of how it should develop for the better.
As we settled down to record, Rod was very clear with me that we would do this in one take and there would be no edits. With that, off we went! You can hear the podcast here if you are so inclined. I really enjoyed doing it and Rod and Adrian’s style helped me to relax into the conversation and hopefully provide a little insight into our trip so far.
These guys, like everyone we met on this trip, were hugely proud of Australian golf and delighted to meet people who could help spread the word. The Victoria tourist board should be putting them on the payroll!
ROUND 8 - KINGSTON HEATH
After my brief brush with celebrity, its was off to Kingston Heath. In the weeks before my trip this course had been rising up my ‘most anticipated’ list as it had been selected in my ‘Favourite Courses’ series by both renowned Australian architect Mike Cocking and journalist Graylyn Loomis, both putting it ahead of Royal Melbourne. Everything I had read about it said we were in for a real treat and gosh, were they right.
We found friendly welcomes everywhere we went, but Kingston Heath stood out. The guys in the pro shop were very friendly and we were given ‘Honorary Membership’ status for the afternoon. It was a little touch that cost nothing on the part of the club but set the tone for the welcome we would get.
There are some days on the golf course that just seem utterly magical -the company, the course, the atmosphere, your game. Our day at Kingston Heath was one of those very special days. This place entranced me in a way that few courses have before and I came away having been totally seduced by it.
Kingston Heath was exactly what I had expected in a sandbelt course and maybe even a bit more ‘sandbelty’ than Royal Melbourne. The fairways bleed into the scrubby sand with some of the most amazing bunkering all around. If you missed the fairways then there was no 2 inch collar rough here, normally just scrub sand or light vegetation. The look is unique in world golf, but works perfectly here. Geoff Ogilvy is not only a Melbourne native but also one of the best thinkers when it comes to golf course design and if you want to understand more about what sandbelt golf is, this article by him should do the trick.
There is no choice of 5 tees to suit your game here, just white and red markers and nothing in between. The white tees when we played were pretty pushed back and as such it probably played a good 6,800 yards but it didn’t feel terribly long. The ball will run when it hits the turf, and with the scrubby sand alongside the fairways rather than deep rough you won’t spend long looking for balls. Like at Royal Melbourne, we barely lost a ball between us.
This a small, flat property and is oft compared with Merion because of the way t the course fits so adeptly into a small property, 50 acres in this case. There is a fascinating read here from Golf Course Architecture about the history and evolution of the course. The work of the last 30 years in taking out trees, exposing the sand and restoring the bunkers has meant that this course really is now one of the very best in the world.
Like Royal Melbourne, the bunkering here was great and the conditioning wonderful. The other thing I would call out is the set of par 3s. There were only three of them but boy, were they great. The 15th is the standout par 3. It’s a 160 yard, uphill par 3 which is superbly bunkered all around. I thought the 7th at Barnbougle was close to perfection, but this gives it a run for its money. When we played it the tee was at the front and if you went for the pin, unless you landed it on a spot the size of beach towel you were going to end in the deep bunkers left and right. From there it would take a very skilled golfer to get up and down. The play was very clearly another club or two to the vast green behind but we didn’t know that at the time…
While the 15th is a wonderful hole, the other 2 par 3s are almost as compelling. Again, they are not long holes (which I like - there’s a reason there are very few long par 3s that people rave about) but the bunkering is phenomenal on them all. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better set of par 3s.
Like Royal Melbourne, this is an accessible course and was probably a little more playable from different angles. My game clicked quite well and I played close to handicap, putting me into the lead with only 4 rounds to go.
As you can tell I adored Kingston Heath. I thought it was one of the very best golf courses I had ever seen and we all agreed it thoroughly deserved a ‘19’ in my slightly esoteric scoring system. This puts it in a very elite group, up there with St Andrews, Cape Wickham, Muirfield, Shinnecock, Turnberry, Birkdale, Royal St George’s, Royal Dornoch and Friar’s Head. I had no doubt it thoroughly deserved its place there.
Back in Melbourne after the round we headed up to a great Thai restaurant, Chin Chin. The food was fantastic and it was a really fun atmosphere too. It also had the advantage of only being a 5 minute walk from the hotel. Glendo’s feet were not doing well after 8 rounds and we did some googling to work out whether he would be able to take a buggy for the 36 holes at St Andrew’s Beach and The National tomorrow. It was going to be an early start for our penultimate day Down Under.