Sitting atop a thousand or so hectares of sandy subsoil lies a little slice of Australia that spoils any golfer either lucky enough to live here, or well-travelled enough to have visited this part of Victoria, southeast of Melbourne. The ‘Sandbelt’ is home to incredible courses, including at least four considered to be top ten in the country, three of which have been pigeonholed alongside the very best in the world.
In status terms, Royal Melbourne Golf Club (green fees from £300) is the godfather of the group. It’s already got two Presidents Cups to its name and is generally considered Australia’s best.
And now it’s to host a third of the bi-annual competition that pits the best of America against a selection of the best the world has to offer, minus Europe. Royal Melbourne continues to embed itself further in great golfing history.
The club was founded in 1891 and later became home to two courses (East and West) designed by the legendary Scottish architect Dr Alister MacKenzie. So respected the world over is Royal Melbourne that Tom Watson — a man who had done everything in golf at the time, include 39 PGA tour wins – spoke of it in the same breath as the legendary course. “To win an Australian Open at Royal Melbourne,” Watson said back in 1984, “would be the same as winning at British Open at St. Andrews.”
When the Australian Open took place at the club later that year, he added to the accolades. “He [MacKenzie] built two totally different types of courses like Augusta National and Cypress Point, from two totally different types of terrain,” Watson said. “After next week, I will have played all the great MacKenzie courses.
“I rate Royal Melbourne ahead of Augusta (National), for being able to combine challenging and fun golf.”
After hosting the 1998 and 2011 editions of the Presidents Cup, when Royal Melbourne was confirmed as 2019 tournament host, Phil Mickelson, who played in both previous Sandbelt competitions (winning one, losing one), commented: “Royal Melbourne is a special place. And I think this tournament is lucky to go back there. With so many strong Australian golfers on the International Team, it’s a great fit.”
The course that gets the plaudits is actually neither East or West, but a composite, taking the best from each and creating both beauty and beast for any golfer. Those taking it on will often get tripped up by the most cunning of sand traps, greens as quick as a billiard table and a links-style coupled with what has been described as an ‘Augusta-style beauty’.
In short, when adding in the sunny climes of Australia, golf doesn’t get much better than this.
However, the Presidents Cup also provides golfers with the ideal excuse to go on a true Antipodean golf odyssey. That expedition begins without leaving the state, as you must first tick off a few other Victorian courses. Kingston Heath Golf Club is another multiple award-winner with global respect; Metropolitan Golf Club is close to 120 years old and hosted the 2001 World Golf Match Play Championship; and Huntingdale Golf Club is one of the most renowned names in Australian golf, hosting the Australian Masters for 30 consecutive years.
Beyond the Sandbelt
Having travelled all the way to Australia, it’s a relatively short hop to Tasmania, the stunning island state that’s more akin to New Zealand, with so much changing landscape within a comparatively short space. It’s got dramatic coastline, thick, verdant areas of woodland, fertile farmland, boutique distilleries and wineries, incredible shellfish and the much sought-after abalone. And it also has Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm (green fees from £104).
Barnbougle Dunes was there first. A young gun dating back to 2004 and, incredibly, a public course, it was designed by American Tom Doak, together with Aussie Mike Clayton, but both had the Celtic links of Scotland and Ireland in mind when they created this course on the site of a former potato farm. The course describes its own greens as ‘lively’, but what that translates to is three-putts, and while the fairways can be wide, this is links golf, so expect those drivers to take a battering.
And if you don’t make the fairways, well, the rough isn’t worth thinking about.
Its sibling Barnbougle Lost Farm joined the golf party in 2010, and while it shares the same coastal assets and not-dissimilar geographical characteristics to its neighbour, it does have at least two extra plus points: namely holes 13A and 18A, the first a hole ‘too good to leave out’ and the latter just a nice bonus at the end, so you get 20 holes of golf at Lost Farm. While the coastline is just as dramatic as it is on Dunes, the sand dunes the courses weaves through inland are steeper. Bunkering is just as tricky for all levels of golfer, and, once again, don’t be fooled by those tempting wide fairways. Either way, two days and two rounds at Barnbougle is bucket list territory for any Australasian traveller.
Across the Tasman
Another short sea hop, this time across the Tasman separating Australia from New Zealand, and there are two mind-blowing courses in Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs (robertsonlodges.com, green fees from £160).
To find Kauri Cliffs, head north from Auckland and pretty much keep driving until the Bay of Islands in Northland. Those with the cash to spare can take a helicopter. So keen are business golfers to play Kauri Cliffs that as many as a dozen helicopters will arrive and depart daily from Auckland to indulge their passengers in a round in a course genuinely considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful. No fewer than 15 of the 18 Kauri Cliffs holes have Pacific Ocean views, with half a dozen of them offering the ocean as a peril to avoid when driving as well as something to be marvelled at.
Teeing off trying not to get distracted by views of the ocean peppered with tiny islets or sandy beaches hugging the cliffs below is no mean feat. Even inland, there’s such a farming idyll all around that the temptation to jack it all in and change career may become all consuming. The accommodation is wide ranging, the top choice being the Owner’s Cottage complete with infinity pool, jacuzzi, walk-in wardrobes and the option of in-house dining. The suites also have incredible views, be it the golf course, ocean or farmland, so nobody misses out, no matter where they’re staying.
But Kauri Cliffs has a rival for New Zealand’s top spot, and it’s one that’s close to home. Cape Kidnappers is part of the same group, and is a par 71, 7,119-yarder designed by Tom Doak.
Located in the sandstone headland of Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s east coast, it contains many holes that many will consider the best they’ve ever played. Heed the words of Golf Digest, who described it as: “Not a links, more like a stratospheric Pebble Beach, high atop a windswept plateau some 500 feet above the sea.”