2005: Golf juts out on Mornington Peninsula

By Rob Vanderzalm

Mornington Peninsula, Australia

Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula is a place that needs little introduction to most Australians. It has been a popular holiday destination for more than 20 years.

Slightly more than an hour southeast of Melbourne, it’s a region that boasts some of the country’s finest wineries and beaches. Over the summer months, thousands of Melbournians make the annual pilgrimage to this region to enjoy their summer breaks. Finding a place to stay between December and February can be difficult.

I should know because I live here.

Plenty of locals, myself included, tend to get away that time of year. It’s a perfect opportunity to escape, then return when the crowds have subsided.

Golf courses always have been a part of the Mornington Peninsula landscape. But it really has been only in the past five or so years that it has become a dedicated golf destination.

Five new courses have opened here in that time and another two are planned.

People are now starting to visit just to play golf. And why wouldn’t they? The peninsula contains about a dozen courses within 20 minutes of each other. It really is a golfer’s paradise.

And you’ll never pay more than $100 Australian (approximately $75 U.S.) to play any of the courses. Most are under $50 ($38 U.S.).

But don’t let the prices make you think the courses are inferior. They’re as good, if not better, than some courses in Scotland or Ireland. The only difference is they have yet to gain international recognition.

Moonah Links Golf Course has earned the most praise of any Mornington Peninsula course.

It hosted the 2003 Australian Open months after opening, and will again stage the national open Nov. 24-27.

Moonah Links has two contrasting layouts – the Open and Legends courses. The Open course was designed by five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson. But it’s certainly not just another course with his name. Thomson wanted to leave his mark on this one – and he did, creating a stunning layout that draws heavily on the traditional links courses of Ireland and Scotland.

In short, the holes are designed to test the highest level of professional from the back markers. But amateur golfers will find some relief from the forward tee boxes. The greens are set mostly in amphitheater-type surrounds, making bump-and-run shots critical to low scoring. Pot bunkering, for which Thomson has become well known, also is a dominant feature.

Built soon after the Open course, the Legends course cuts its way through rolling sand dunes and is less punishing, with many holes allowing the average player to find the green with a short-iron approach. Still, poor shots often are penalized – thanks to greens that are difficult to approach and bunkers that have plenty of bite.

The Mornington Peninsula might be a popular holiday destination, but surprisingly there are not a lot of quality accommodations. What makes Moonah Links appealing is the five-star Peppers Resort on site.

The National Golf Club opened in 1988. At the time, it was seen as an ambitious concept and it was certainly different from anything in Australian golf.

Instead of just taking membership, golfers purchased a share in the development. At first, the idea of investing in a golf course was treated with pessimism. The club struggled for a couple of years until more golfers realized its potential.

From a humble beginning with only one course, The National has grown to three layouts and a membership of more than 2,700. Shares in The National have more than doubled. The “who’s who” of Australian sport, politics and entertainment are members. Yet, most of them are lucky to use it even once a year. Although strictly a private club, The National does allow international visitors. Locals, however, will find it near impossible to score a round unless they’ve been introduced.

The National’s three courses are the work of Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Old Course), Greg Norman (Moonah) and Thomson (Ocean). Jones did the first course in 1988, and the other two followed in 2000.

The National’s clubhouse is jaw-dropping – it’s amazing what $20 million will buy. Set on three levels with undercover parking for up to 200 vehicles, the building offers panoramic ocean views and is a real talking point for visitors.

Jones’ first course on the Mornington Peninsula was Cape Schanck Golf Course, opened in the mid-1980s as a public-access golf resort. At the time, it was hugely popular. But over the years, it has lost its shine. While the facilities are a bit tired, the course hasn’t changed a bit; the only thing that has is the cost of a round. Ten years ago, the fee was $50 Australian for 18 holes. Today, it’s about $35 (approximately $27 U.S.).

Competition for the golfing dollar is high on the Mornington Peninsula. Cut-price deals that include golf, cart and lunch are common.

Over the years, a course that has gotten better and better is Portsea Golf Club, at the most southern tip of the peninsula. It really is a fun place.

Portsea, a private club with access for visitors, isn’t overly long, but thick trees frame most fairways, so accuracy is important. Portsea has one of Victoria’s finest holes, the 189-yard seventh, which is positioned at the highest point of the course. From the back markers, it requires a long iron to a small green set in amphitheater-type surrounds.

Portsea has for many years been the holiday destination for Melbourne’s so-called elite. The course is flanked by large mansions and takes in views of Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait.

Flinders Golf Club doesn’t seem to get near the recognition it deserves. One of the great things about Flinders is its spectacular seaside location and serenity. The greens aren’t overly big and the fairways are tight. Measuring less than 5,800 yards, Flinders is a course where the woods are best left in the bag. Most par 4s can be played with a long iron from the tee and reached with a short iron or mid-iron on the approach. During the summer, Flinders attracts plenty of visitors. But after March, you’ll struggle to find another golfer on the course during the week. That’s part of the appeal.

If you’ve played enough golf and want to explore the Mornington Peninsula’s other delights, you won’t be disappointed. This part of Victoria has some of Australia’s leading wineries. Red Hill Estate is world-renowned, and dinner at Max’s restaurant is an experience you’ll long remember. The peninsula also is home to more than 20 other boutique wineries.

Most people who visit the Mornington Peninsula to play golf often find it hard to leave. There are so many courses to play, so many wineries to visit and never enough time.

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