2005: Destination Australia - Knock your socks off

Sydney, Australia

I assumed before I left my Connecticut home that any golf destination requiring a 20-hour flight was going to be different. But I was not prepared for all the idiosyncrasies I encountered during a two-week visit to the land Down Under.

It started with my arrival in Sydney, after a long trip from Los Angeles during which I read an entire book, watched four movies and tried to sample as many Shirazes from the Barossa Valley as I could without lapsing into complete dehydration. (No, I do not take Ambien.) I wearily gathered my luggage and then staggered through customs.

But an officer suddenly pulled me aside.

“Do you have golf shoes?” he asked rather sharply, looking at my travel bag.

“Of course,” I replied with something of a puzzled tone, and with that pulled out two pairs of FootJoys. He snatched them from me and hustled through a set of swinging doors.

My first thought, of course, was that he had taken me for a drug smuggler and wanted to see how much contraband I had managed to stash in my shoes. And when the official burst back through the door a few moments later, I could see the problem was indeed grass. Grass, as in the type that grows on the courses I play back home, not the kind that is smoked. Australia, you see, is obsessed about agriculture disease and insists on all golf shoes being thoroughly cleaned and rinsed of any foreign matter before strange strains of bent and poa are tracked across its verdant layouts.

“Here you go,” the agent said, handing me two pairs of somewhat soggy shoes that he had scrubbed with soap and hot water. “Have a good day.”

That was the first of many surprises during my tour of the island continent, and the beginning of a serious infatuation with what might well be the most underrated golf destination in the world.

For starters, Australia has some of the finest golf courses anywhere. They range from brand new to Jazz Age old, from links-style layouts to parkland tracks. And they have been designed by many of the game’s greatest architects, including Alister Mackenzie, Tom Doak, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. In addition, the people who run these retreats put a premium on everything from course conditioning to guest hospitality to make even the weariest traveler feel welcome – and pampered.

Then, there is the variety of the golf, which is something Golfweek’s Australian correspondent, Rob Vanderzalm, and I marveled at time and time again while working on the series of stories on the following pages. The country boasts golf of the highest quality in a vast array of settings that present the land Down Under in many different lights. And, as good as the golf is – whether on one of the classic Sandbelt tracks outside Melbourne or on the new Doak creation in Tasmania called Barnbougle Dunes – travelers will find so much else to do. Tour the majestic metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne, arguably two of the finest cities in the world. Lounge on the beaches of Queensland’s Gold Coast. Check out the wineries of the Barossa Valley in the province of South Australia or the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. You will never lack for things to see or do when not playing golf.

One of the things I like most about Australia is the sense that it is as different a land as it is familiar. The common language and similar culture made me feel much closer to home than I actually was. But there also were so many quirks and characteristics that reminded me that I was indeed halfway around the world. Especially on the golf course.

For example, I set out to play my first round the afternoon following my arrival at Royal Adelaide Golf Club in the province of South Australia, and I had just walked out of the pro shop when the general manager approached and said, “I am sorry, sir, but you cannot go onto the course that way.”

Now, I am always careful about proper attire and had no clue what was wrong. I wore a collared shirt with the discreet logo of my club back home, Bermuda-length shorts (which I had been told would be fine) and proper – and properly washed – shoes. What was the problem?

“Your anklets,” he said. “You must wear socks that come up higher on your legs.”

Back into the pro shop I went, trading in my peds for a pair of veritable tube socks climbing up almost to the middle of my calves and making me look as if I should be hanging around a shuffleboard court. I grumbled slightly about the insistence, but my playing partner explained that it was more or less that way throughout the country; you must wear socks that cover the talus.

And all I could think was: What do freewheeling Aussies have against ankles?

Dress code appears to be a big deal in the big-time clubs a visitor would want to play Down Under, and I have no problem with that. But it was hard not to be amused by a photographic display I came across at the front desk of the New South Wales Golf Club outside Sydney, which looked like the sort of cheesy posters often found in low-rent sushi restaurants to demonstrate what was – and was not – acceptable attire. There were maybe 10 examples of players in various states of dress, and some models looked like they had just marched in a Mardi Gras parade. Again, the Australian fixation with stockings was revealed, as most of the “don’ts” involved socks, whether pushed-down, colored or striped.

Australians generally have a fine sense of humor, as evidenced by an experience I had playing in a pro-am before the Jacob’s Creek Open in Adelaide. The tournament organizers seemed only too happy to acknowledge a national passion for most beverages alcoholic by stuffing my goody bag with hangover medicine. And they made light of the high populations of gnats, mosquitoes and flies that lead countrymen to call the incessant waving of hands the “Australian salute” by packing a few tubes of insect repellent in my satchel as well.

Speaking of all God’s creatures, it is astounding to see the variety of wildlife in and around the country’s finest courses. Several times I came across Koala bears lounging in eucalyptus trees and also saw wallabies and kangaroos as well as two species of birds called galahs and kookaburras.

Fortunately, I never came upon any of the deadly snakes that are found all over the country. It’s actually strange that such a friendly and seemingly benign land can possess so many natural weapons, but it is renowned for its extensive collection of poisonous serpents. And I was warned repeatedly to be careful of venturing into the rough, because a bite from, say, the Australian black snake likely would prove fatal.

Names throughout Australia are a curiosity, with towns bearing appellations such as Myponga and Yanhahilla. After one round of golf, I ordered a lunch dish called “grilled marron” and asked the playing partner who had recommended it what it was. “Oh, it’s just like a yabbie,” he said.

Eventually, I learned a marron is a type of crayfish, and it was indeed delicious, as was something called flathead fish I had at one spot, and the kangaroo served at another.

The Australian golf clubs I visited have wonderful airs about them as well as sensible ways of encouraging reasonable behavior among their members and guests.

For example, there’s a sign at the first tee at New South Wales announcing that visitors must play from the white tees, which provide a course of modest length and appeal to all but the best golfers. No five-hour rounds from hackers foolishly determined to tee it from the tips.

The powers at venerable Kingston Heath, located in Melbourne’s fabled Sandbelt, do not put out benches by the tees for one simple reason: They want to keep players moving. Royal Adelaide has a self-service shoe shine station outside its men’s locker room, so if you want your shoes buffed, you have to do it yourself.

Perhaps most interesting is the proliferation of golf balls in one-ball packs. That’s an Australian tradition, for many games between players are contested over a new golf ball, with the winner getting a signed Callaway or Nike from his opponent.

But best of all for U.S. travelers is that the greatest courses in the land welcome foreign visitors and encourage international guest play.

Now all you have to do is make it through the long plane trip.

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