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Rater’s blog: Birdies and birdwatching at Kingston Heath

Editor’s note: James Hansen is one of 28 Golfweek raters who have converged in Australia for the golf trip of a lifetime. Hansen and company will play 16 rounds in 13 days, and Hansen is logging the experience here. Ever had the urge to golf your way around Australia? Hansen’s narrative could be the push you need to get there.

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Day 3: Tuesday, March 23: Kingston Heath Golf Club, Cheltenham, Victoria

CHELTENHAM, Victoria – If there is a better area for golf anywhere in the world than Victoria’s Sandbelt region, I haven’t seen it. Six of Australia’s 10 best courses are located in the Sandbelt corridor southeast of Melbourne, including Royal Melbourne, Victoria Golf Club, Yarra Yarra Golf Club, Peninsula Country Golf Club, Huntingdale Golf Club and the course that our group of course raters played today, Kingston Heath Golf Club.

Not even Pinehurst or the Monterey Peninsula compared, and perhaps only the “Kingdom of Fife,” around historic St. Andrews is able to offer something similar to the rich wealth of fabulous golf available in this favorable environment. Along with the few dozen premiere private clubs, there are more than 320 public golf courses in the state of Victoria, which boasts more than a quarter of the top 100 public courses in Australia. The golfing experiences are remarkably diverse, from the famed layouts of the Sandbelt region on the Mornington Peninsula to the lesser known but extraordinarily rewarding courses located on the picturesque Murray River, many of them meandering their way through strands of giant gum trees.

Our round today was at Kingston Heath. A course originally formed as the Elsternwick Golf Club in 1909 (based at present day Elsternwick Park, before relocating in 1925 to its present location in Heatherton and renaming the club as Kingston Heath), the course originally played as a whopping par 82 and was the longest course in Australia. (Apparently, its founders felt it was easier to shorten the course than to lengthen it!) A Scottish emigre from Carnoustie, Daniel Gordon Soutar (winner of the 1905 Australian Open and four-time champion of the Australian PGA), laid out the early course. Alister MacKenzie visited Australia in 1926 and Soutar brought him in to provide a comprehensively improved bunkering plan. Now a par 72, Kingston Heath is still a long course (many of us raters felt that the course still played to a par 82!). Its length even for regulation men’s play is 6,352, or 6,946 yards. Kingston Heath has hosted both the Australian Open and Australian Match Play Championships seven times, and plays longer for those championships. It is also the Royal & Ancient’s preferred Australian venue for the staging of International Final Qualifying for The Open Championship.

We raters were privileged to play the course, as membership is highly exclusive. It is a fabulous course, with a brilliant routing of holes through a surprisingly tight piece of ground (think Merion), all of which requires good distance off the tee, strategic thinking and supreme shotmaking. The par 3s on the course are world-class. I made my first birdie of the trip on the par-4 eleventh. I felt especially good about running in a downhill 20-footer, not just because it won me a “skin,” but because there is a photograph of Tiger Woods playing the hole from a greenside bunker and managing only a par when he won the Australian Masters at Kingston Heath in 2009.

Not on the eleventh, fortunately, but I found many such bunkers during my round, most of which are penal because of shallow sand, high lips and greens that slope away from your shot. There is zero margin for error from many of those bunkers. Word to the wise: Before coming to the Sandbelt area, hone your bunker play!

Speaking of birdies, this region is a birdwatcher’s dream. The diverse shrubs and trees (especially striking is the red-flowering gum or “corymbia ficifolia”) attract several species of native birds, many of them wondrously noisy, notably the beautiful sulpher-crested Cockatoo. At Kingston Heath, one can also find the multi-colored rainbow Lorikeet, Spotted Pardalote, Superb Fairy-wren, White-browed Scrubwren, Brown Thornbill, Grey Fantail, Grey Butcherbird, Red Wattlebird and Eastern Rosella. The last on the list is a medium-sized, very colorful parrot that has distinctive white cheek patches. Kingston Heath is also home to different species of wild duck,

After the morning round, some of the raters returned to Royal Melbourne to play a second 18 on the East Course. The rest of us returned by Coach bus to our hotel. Our driver took us along the bay so we could take in the superb vistas of Melbourne’s many skyscrapers in the background.

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