Australia: Steer clear of the rough

By Cameron McMillan

Victoria has top golfing, but there's one small - possibly deadly - problem for Kiwis, says Cameron McMillan.
At Barwon Heads, the splendid view is as good as the golf.
At Barwon Heads, the splendid view is as good as the golf.

First tee shot and I find the rough. It's probably no surprise after my opening drive of the day saw me take a wrong turn out of Melbourne Airport - turning an 80-minute journey southwest to Bellarine Peninsula into two hours. The car's GPS would have made a horrible caddie.

Two days playing on spectacular courses in Victoria's famous golf regions of Bellarine and Mornington peninsulas, followed by two more days of watching some of the world's best showing how it should be done at the World Cup of Golf at Royal Melbourne - the top rated course in the country - lay ahead of me. But as I went to find my ball's precarious lie on the first hole at Barwon Heads Golf Course all I could think about was snakes, a hazard you don't encounter on New Zealand courses. I quickly hit my second and told myself to stay in the middle of the course.

The opening six holes at Barwon Heads are a visual treat, with a mix of lush green fairways and golden grassy dunes that border the course and hide Bass Strait. The famous surf spot Bell's Beach is just a few kilometres down the road, so bring your board as well as your clubs.

Since I was playing by myself it wasn't long before I caught up to a three-man group ahead of me, part of a contingent of 12 keen golfers who flew down from Sydney.

They were playing for the Mulligan Cup - a year-long tournament where they play a round a month, and they'd saved Barwon Heads for the finale. With a cash prize and a blazer on offer it was intense as I happened across the three players still in with a title chance. Adam Scott seemed more relaxed a few days later at Royal Melbourne and he was playing for a lot more.

The area is well-suited to a lads' weekend or a golfing-mad couple - just a short drive from Melbourne there are golf courses galore which can be played all year round. With so many courses close by it's easy to get two rounds in a day but a longer day awaited me.

I was up early to catch the short ferry ride from Queenscliff to Sorrento on Mornington Peninsula - home of the Cups Region where there are 19 courses within 30km of each other.

It's at Moonah Links that I'm reminded of snakes again. It's not hard, as there's a warning on every golf cart with pictures of the ones to avoid. Stay on the fairway.

Moonah is grand. That's the only word to describe it. A huge clubhouse greets you with two 18-hole courses on offer - the Open, designed by famed golfer Peter Thomson, and the Legends. Despite the ever-present snake message, a cart is advised on the large Open course. Peppers Moonah Links resort next door holds 92 deluxe suites.

As I leave Moonah a sign reads "Your worst day on the golf course is still better than your best in the office". Too true. But there aren't snakes in my office.

Leaving Moonah, I head two minutes up the road to The Dunes - one of the top-rated public access courses in Australia. The immaculate course is a true links, and something you won't find on this side of the Tasman. Set on 120ha of gently rolling sand dunes, the 27 holes are all strikingly designed.

The final stop is a round at the Portsea Golf Club, which has just undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation and looks well ... a million dollars. Bordering Point Nepean National Park, there are a lot more trees but they don't block the panoramic views across Port Phillip Bay.

The bell-ringing to advise players behind you that you've played your second shot on undulating holes is a nice touch. It must have helped to ward off those snakes as well.

THE CUPS RUNNETH OVER

It's called the Cups Region for a reason, with 19 courses within 30km of each other. Here are our top picks.

Bellarine Peninsula

A spectacular opening six holes greet you at Barwon Heads Golf Club, a links course with open fairways and long, grassy rough. It's ranked number seven of Australia's top 100 public-access courses.

Other courses close by are Thirteenth Beach Golf Links and The Sands.

Mornington Peninsula

Moonah Links is home to two 18-hole courses, The Open and the Legends. The Open is a true links course and was designed specifically to challenge players in the 2003 and 2005 Australian Open.

The Dunes Golf Links is one of the top public-access courses in Australia. The Scottish-style links course achieves the difficult objective of being a challenge to the low marker without being a monster for the higher handicapped golfer.

Portsea Resort and Golf Club adjoins Point Nepean National Park, with accommodation that looks out over the course to Port Phillip Bay.

The National club is close by, including a course designed by two-time Open Championship winner Greg Norman.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Melbourne. Pick up an Avis rental car at the airport and drive to Bellarine Peninsula and Mornington Peninsula.

Accommodation: Bellarine Peppers resort in Torquay is on the same site as the The Sands course.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria.

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