2005: Sandbelt layouts among country’s elite

By Rob Vanderzalm

Melbourne, Australia

Many people genuinely believe the golf courses that make up the Melbourne Sandbelt are linked solely by their golf-friendly soil conditions.

But they aren’t.

Instead, the eight elite Melbourne golf clubs that are the Sandbelt are tied together only by status.

If the Sandbelt moniker was based only on the quality of the courses and the sand-based soil on which they were built, then these courses wouldn’t be alone.

At least five other Melbourne courses are on a similar sand-rich parcel of land.

Woodlands Golf Club, Kingswood Golf Club and Patterson River Country Club all hold the same, if not better, geographical advantages as the elite eight.

And the point can be argued that one of the Sandbelt courses, Huntingdale Golf Club, isn’t on sand at all. Part of its course is on reclaimed swampland, and drainage – something the Sandbelt clubs believe is a major asset to their courses – has been a problem at Huntingdale.

The Sandbelt clubs – Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Commonwealth, Peninsula, Yarra Yarra, Metropolitan and Huntingdale – do, however, have much in common.

First, they’re regarded as Melbourne’s premier golf clubs and subsequently attract plenty of interest from prospective members and visiting golfers. The Sandbelt clubs often meet to discuss issues that they share, and a large number of them have at some point staged professional tournaments.

Although all Sandbelt courses are private, international golfers can apply through an introduction via the manager at each club. This generally can be done by e-mail, though most visitors choose to use a tour operator. Unlimited Golf (www.unlimitedgolf.com.au) and Golf Tourism Australia (www.golftourismaustralia.com) are two operators with strong connections to the clubs that can arrange individual or group bookings.

Paul Daley, author of “The Sandbelt – Melbourne’s Golfing Heaven” and considered an authority on the region, says the terrain and the close proximity of so many quality courses set the Sandbelt apart.

“I don’t think there are too many places like it,” Daley said. “It really is something very unique.

“The shaping of the holes are just magnificent. Architects on most of these courses have used the topography to great advantage. It’s like they used the land as it was meant to be. The holes just fit the landscape beautifully.”

Royal Melbourne has hosted Australasian Tour events for the past 20 years. In 1998, the composite layout staged the Presidents Cup. More recently, the now-defunct Heineken Classic was played there in 2002-04.

Royal Melbourne remains the most talked-about Australian course for locals and international visitors. There’s a waiting list of more than 10 years to obtain membership. And only those who come up with four members to refer them get a chance to wait in line.

The 428-yard sixth hole on the West Course is regarded as one of the nation’s finest par 4s, requiring a tee shot of more than 230 yards before the fairway swings sharply right to a well-guarded green. And the final three holes on the West arguably are the most difficult stretch on the Sandbelt.

Last year, Royal Melbourne opened a stunning new clubhouse. The building replaced one of the most fanfared clubhouses in Australia. Built in the 1970s, the former building apparently was designed to limit distraction from the course.

But members and visitors often referred to it as an oversized “toilet block” because of its brown exterior.

Huntingdale, the youngest course in the Sandbelt, has staged the Australian Masters since its inception. The tournament certainly boosted the profile of Huntingdale, though many still believe the course remains the “poor cousin” of the Sandbelt elite.

In recent years, Huntingdale has worked through a major redevelopment that took almost a decade to complete. When heavy rains closed the course in 1996, its committee immediately began improving drainage. The final four holes were altered and opened for the Australian Masters soon after.

The initial changes drew a sharp response from many Aussie players who said Huntingdale’s design had been permanently scarred. Greg Norman was one of the strongest critics at the time. But club officials and course designer Jack Newton argued that an opinion could be formed only after all the holes had been changed.

This year finally marks the completion of all 18 holes, and players will get their first look Dec. 8-11 at the Australian Masters. Huntingdale officials expect members and professionals will appreciate the finished product.

Commonwealth Golf Club hasn’t hosted a major tournament in more than 10 years. And it’s unlikely that it will be given another opportunity anytime soon. The short length of Commonwealth’s course (6,977 yards) and an ongoing battle to maintain the consistency of its fairways has seen the club slip.

Still, Commonwealth has its share of strong holes. The short par-4 first (260 yards) is one of Australia’s more memorable opening holes, and the par-4 16th features water down the left side of the fairway that creates an unsettling tee shot.

The large trees that frame Commonwealth’s fairways create a beautiful setting to play golf, and the club remains one of the most exclusive in Melbourne. Commonwealth has one of the oldest memberships in Australia and is the club of choice for many influential Melbournians.

Victoria Golf Club’s decision to stage the 2002 Australian Open was to be a highlight for the club, which was celebrating its 100th year.

But when the tournament had to be cut to three days because the greens became lightning fast and unplayable on the first day, it fast became the club’s worst nightmare.

Although the club had no control over the speed of the greens during the tournament, the public didn’t see it that way. Blame was pointed in several directions, and Victoria took the brunt of it.

Victoria, though, is one of the jewels in Australian golf. The layout appears easy and not overly long (6,801 yards), but well-positioned bunkers and beautifully sculptured greens are its strongest asset.

Victoria is the only Sandbelt club that offers on-course accommodations. The rooms recently were renovated and are offered to visiting golfers as part of a complete package that includes golf, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Kingston Heath has hosted International Final Qualifying for the British Open for the past two years. The course also has been used for several Australian Opens and major amateur competitions.

Over the years, Kingston Heath (6,946 yards) consistently has been considered one of Australia’s top five courses, a position that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Kingston Heath’s third is a wonderful example of a hole that doesn’t require length to be difficult. Measuring only 297 yards, it’s possible to reach the green with the tee shot. But bunkers and undulations that surround the putting surface make the penalty for not hitting the target severe.

The 155-yard 15th, a hole that changes dramatically with the direction of the wind, is another gem. When playing downwind, little more than a lofted iron is needed. Into the breeze, however, it’s a 4-iron or longer. Either way, it’s no easy task to stop the ball on the small, hard green.

When Metropolitan Golf Club held the 2001 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, the course attracted more media attention than the tournament at times.

The fairways were touted as the most immaculate of any course participants had played. Members and guests typically agree.

Superb conditioning isn’t the only thing that sets the course apart. The par-73 layout has a beautiful flow, although the flatness of the course means that some holes on the opening nine lack definition.

Aside from Royal Melbourne, Peninsula Country Golf Club is the only Sandbelt course with 36 holes.

A long way from its neighboring clubs in the bayside city of Frankston, Peninsula recently completed significant changes to its North Course.

Former tour-pro-turned-course-architect Mike Clayton opened up the course and revealed a stunning transformation on what arguably is one of the Sandbelt’s best parcels of land.

Clayton also has been commissioned to improve the South Course, which generally was regarded as the better of the two. The changes are nearly complete.

Yarra Yarra staged the Australian Women’s Open for a number of years. The tournament was a huge success, not only for women’s golf but also the club. Two years ago, Yarra Yarra lost the championship to Sydney. (Last year, the Australian Women’s Open wasn’t played because of lost sponsorship and no television broadcast commitment.)

Yarra Yarra is optimistic that a pro tournament might return. But the club has more immediate issues.

The clubhouse is undergoing a major refurbishment. The facade of the two-story building, regarded as one of Australia’s finest clubhouses, will be kept intact while modern amenities and a new wing will be added.

Yarra Yarra does play host to the Master of the Amateurs, one of Australia’s leading amateur tournaments, every December.

Melbourne’s Sandbelt might not be exactly what most people think it is. But there’s little doubt that the eight clubs – each unique in its own way – hold a special place in Australian golf.

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