The bartender at the Prince of Wales looks like Ray Davies wrote “Lola” for her: She has clearly not always used the Ladies. At six-feet tall and with bleached-blond hair, she cuts a striking figure, and in a voice that is indeed a deep dark brown she tells me they are all out of Coopers Red.
All right. I’ll take a VB, then.
I’m in St. Kilda, Melbourne’s seaside suburb, five miles southeast of downtown on Port Phillip Bay. I’ve just completed an Australian music tour—just me, my guitar and my songs, old and new. It’s been twenty years since my former band’s only tour down under, when, with just two albums to our name, we were bona fide pop stars. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions played three big sold-out shows in Melbourne, but we didn’t much care for the place, particularly the deathly dull Central Business District (CBD), where we were put up. If only we had done our homework: We were just ten minutes by cab from St. Kilda, which in the eighties could give Hell’s Kitchen and the East Village a run for their money.
It’s been cleaned up over the years—the hookers and junkies are long gone, and the hipsters have left for the now-vibrant CBD, replaced by tourists and the young well-to-do. Today’s St. Kilda offers a wealth of bars and restaurants, as well as the beach. Still, I wouldn’t quite call it gentrified, and many locals remain, as do stalwart landmarks like the Prince of Wales.
Over the years, I’ve often carried a set of clubs along with my guitars, but as a rule the world’s great cities present few opportunities to balance the golf life with making a living. Take New York: The courses you want to play—Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot and the rest—you can’t. Most clubs around London accept visitors, but you can’t play Sunningdale in the morning and make lunch in Piccadilly, at least not without a helicopter. In Melbourne you can essentially do just that—play Royal Melbourne before lunch, Kingston Heath after, and be back at your hotel for a walk on the beach before dinner.
This is pretty much my plan for the next five days. I’ve chosen St. Kilda as base camp because on top of everything else, of all the “inner city suburbs” it’s the closest to the golf. Sipping my Victoria Bitter, I reflect that the life of a not-quite-washed-up songwriter isn’t so bad. Especially when it brings me to places like this—the most cosmopolitan of Australia’s major metropolises, and the perfect golf city: Melbourne.
There was no Augusta National and no Cypress Point in 1926 when, acting on advice from the R&A, the Royal Melbourne Golf Club brought Dr. Alister MacKenzie halfway around the globe to redesign its course. And yet in three short months, his presence would elevate design standards to dizzy, unforeseen heights, and then inspire and invigorate an entire golf nation. Really.
To offset expenses, MacKenzie’s hosts brokered his services to ten other clubs, including Kingston Heath, Victoria and Metropolitan. They also arranged for the architect to be assisted by 1924 Australian Open champion Alex Russell and greenkeeper Mick Morcom. They made a perfect team: Morcom, a kindred naturalist spirit, applied his wild, rugged aesthetic to the course construction, one that makes MacKenzie’s bunkering in Melbourne quite distinct. Russell, for his part, simply “got” MacKenzie, who promoted him almost immediately to design associate in Australia. Russell is credited as co-designer of the West Course, and he laid out the East in 1932, with Morcom again constructing. There are highly regarded courses in what has become known as the Sandbelt that do not bear the stamp of MacKenzie, Russell or Morcom, but not many.
Precisely defining the Sandbelt today would require its own essay, and it would inevitably be a controversial one. There is no consensus as to its borders, and what local club wouldn’t want to claim to be a part of it?What it is, though, is quite simple: an area of land southeast of the city blessed with sandy soils that are ideal for golf. Terrain varies from boldly undulating to utterly flat. None of the Sandbelt courses are oceanside, but none are more than a couple of miles inland. Royal Melbourne is ten miles from St. Kilda, and Peninsula is twenty. Golfers who take my advice and book rooms in the city will not be troubled by commuter traffic: Cars will be bumper to bumper coming into town when you are striking out.