A spate of spectacular new seaside courses has elevated the Mornington Peninsula and the nearby island of Tasmania to the forefront of Australian golf
New York has the Hamptons. Boston has the Vineyard, Nantucket and the Cape. And halfway around the world, Melbourne has the Mornington Peninsula. Just over an hour’s drive south of Australia’s second-largest city, this boot-shaped promontory has long been a summer playground of wide sandy beaches, rugged coastal dunes, and hillside vineyards and olive groves. But lately it’s the golf courses that have been drawing the most attention to this sun-swept region. Over the past decade, some of the game’s most talented architects have been handed priceless parcels of linksland here upon which to work their craft. The thirty-six-mile-long peninsula, home to seven bayside towns stretching from Frankston at the top of the boot to Portsea at the toe, now harbors twenty-eight courses. The finest are to be found among a fifteen-hundred-acre area known as the Cups, a name that refers to the saucer-shaped undulations in the land. And just an hour-long flight away, across the Bass Strait to the island of Tasmania, lies Tom Doak’s three-year-old Barnbougle Dunes, a strategic masterwork woven over a wild stretch of coastline—too enthralling to pass up once you’ve traveled this far.
WHERE TO PLAY
The two-minute drive along the entrance road will leave you wondering what all the hype is about. Wander up the short trail to the lookout behind the clubhouse, though, and all is revealed: crooked green fingers of fairway push through vast expanses of purplish-gray dunes. In just a few years, this remarkable links on Tasmania’s northeastern coast—designed by Tom Doak and Michael Clayton, an Australian architect and former European Tour pro—has earned a place among the best half-dozen courses in Australia. The four opening holes and the final quartet play into the prevailing wind, serving as overture and finale, and there are plenty of high notes in between. Barnbougle makes up in wile what it lacks in length: The 277-yard twelfth dares a drive over an angled chasm when two safe iron shots will all but assure par. The bent-grass greens, even though they roll at moderate speeds due to an overseeding of fescue, have so much slope that the best approach on a thirty-footer can be to putt the ball ten feet past the hole, just firmly enough so that it can change direction and ease back down the ridge.
Waterhouse Road, Bridport, Tasmania. Architects: Tom Doak and Michael Clayton, 2004. Yardage: 6,724. Par: 71. Greens Fee: $80. Contact: 011-61/363-560-094, barnbougledunes.com.au.
Golf Club at St. Andrews Beach, Gunnamatta
Another Tom Doak and Michael Clayton tour de force, this exhilarating links is easily the peninsula’s most enjoyable course to play. Despite its sweeping linksland beauty, the landscape has no dramatic features, only subtle twists that lead to greens that seem to materialize as extensions of the fairways. To the uninitiated, this might seem banal, but it’s paramount to Doak’s design philosophy of providing multiple playing options, and it’s a feature that can be every bit as challenging as elevated greens that demand aerial approaches. You can still flop the ball on from twenty yards out—you just don’t have to. And once you reach the putting surfaces, which are embedded with borrows that both surrender to and fight the lay of the land, the rolls are seldom obvious. What’s more, the routing features frequent changes of pace: The inviting 302-yard fourteenth, for example, allows you to catch your breath after the brutish 494-yard par-four that precedes it.
209 Sandy Road, St. Andrews Beach. Architects: Tom Doak and Michael Clayton, 2005. Yardage: 6,627. Par: 70. Greens Fee: $90. Contact: 011-61/359-885-366, standrews beach.com.
National Golf Club, Moonah
Reminiscent of an Irish links, this Greg Norman design threads through high banks of natural grass-covered dunes. Rarely is there just a single route to the green, and cerebral players will delight in the possibilities. Many holes feature generous areas from which to run the ball onto the putting surface, but that strategy comes with the risk of having it spill off a side or rear slope. At the par-four tenth (where an old windmill has been left intact), you can pitch the ball to the edge of a punch-bowl section of the green tucked behind a dune and have it feed toward the hole. Most impressive, however, are the par threes: Two of them are semiblind, offering only a glimpse of the flagstick from the tee, and a third, the 223-yard seventeenth, is framed by distinctive moonah trees, the salt-resilient hardwoods that resemble giant broccoli florets and dominate the peninsula’s coast.
The Cups Drive, Cape Schanck. Architect: Greg Norman, 2000. Yardage: 7,191. Par: 72. Greens Fee: $200. Contact: 011-61/359-886-666, nationalgolf.com.au.
Portsea Golf Club
This traditional members’ course at the tip of the peninsula was recently reworked by Michael Clayton and Bruce Grant. Its delightful collection of short and medium-length holes rolls gently and sometimes wildly over dramatic sandy land. All of the par fives are reachable, but each demands careful shotmaking, including the curling 488-yard sixth, which requires you to shape a draw off the tee. The 287-yard thirteenth is the perfect example of subtlety being every bit as challenging as length: The hole bends left and uphill, with a forty-square-yard bunker-flanked plateau affording a tiny sanctuary. You can get a game at the club any day except Saturday. Afterward, head to the bayside Portsea Hotel for a plate of fish and chips.
Relph Avenue, Portsea. Architects: Various, 1965; Michael Clayton and Bruce Grant, 2001. Yardage: 6,529. Par: 72. Greens Fee: $40. Contact: 011-61/359-842-909, portseagolf.com.au.
Moonah Links, Open
Peter Thomson has referred to his design here as "the leviathan," and the course is certainly gargantuan. Once a month, the public is permitted to play from the same 7,468-yard back tees used in the 2003 and 2005 Australian Opens, but almost anyone who does so is summarily pummeled. It’s like you’re a Lilliputian on Gulliver’s private golf course. Unfortunately, from the middle tees the course sometimes feels out of proportion, with fairway bunkers that can be carried with relative ease. That said, the three closing holes are as tough as they come: a long par four with a narrow opening at the green, an uphill par three played over a valley to a steeply pitched putting surface, and the three-shot eighteenth, featuring a minefield of eleven pot bunkers.
Peter Thomson Drive, Fingal. Architect: Peter Thomson, 2001. Yardage: 7,468. Par: 72. Greens Fees: $55–$75. Contact: 011-61/359-882-000, moonahlinks.com.au.
National Golf Club, Old
This course marks the first significant work on the peninsula by an overseas architect. It ascends more than four hundred feet from the clubhouse level, demanding drives from elevated tees to winding valley fairways bordered by tea trees. The greens are enormous—the tenth and fourteenth share a putting surface that’s a three-quarter wedge shot in width—with curvy ridges and racing speeds. Sixteen holes survey the ocean, including the par-three seventh, which, depending on the wind, can require the spectrum of the irons in your bag. "The National will make me famous," Robert Trent Jones Jr. once said, "either as the designer who has created one of the world’s great golf courses or who has stuffed up some of the best golf course real estate imaginable." By all accounts, he needn’t worry.
The Cups Drive, Cape Schanck. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1987. Yardage: 6,903. Par: 72. Greens Fee: $200. Contact: 011-61/359-886-666, nationalgolf.com.au.
Peninsula Golf & Country Club, North
Geoff Ogilvy tells T+L GOLF that he considers this unassuming thirty-six-hole club to be the finest in Australia after Royal Melbourne. For three decades, Peninsula’s South course was regarded as superior to the funkier North, although the latter occupies higher, more dramatic ground. A master plan to rejuvenate both eighteens was submitted five years ago, with the first stage concentrating on the North. Architect Michael Clayton added clumps of Sandbelt bunkering, altered lines of play and leveled trees that blocked out sweeping bay views. The North became the young dandy, although a recent renovation to the South should hoist it into the top twenty in the nation. Each of the layouts resonates with Sandbelt flavor. Several holes on the North could slot into Royal Melbourne without detection, including the 380-yard twelfth, where a slippery hogback fairway bends left around a sandy wasteland to a well-guarded, elevated green.
Skye Road, Frankston. Architects: Sloan Morpeth, 1969; Michael Clayton, 2004. Yardage: 6,620. Par: 72. Greens Fee: $90 ($45 for resort guests). Contact: 011-61/397-892-222, peninsulagolf.com.au.
Best of the Rest
Unlike its sterner sibling, the Moonah Links Legends course (moonahlinks.com.au) can be enjoyed thoroughly by golfers of all abilities. Generous width allows you to spray the ball off the tee, although doing so yields poor angles of attack. The greens sit comfortably on the land, and they invite not only bump-and-runs but also putted approaches from long range. The Dunes Golf Links (thedunes.com.au) became the region’s first purely public course when it opened in 1997. Now the fourth-ranked public course in Australia, it costs less than fifty dollars to play, and some of the game’s greats have heaped praise on it. The third eighteen at National Golf Club, the Peter Thomson–designed Ocean, is a fine test of links golf, thanks to its large and raised St. Andrews–style greens. Sorrento Golf Club (sorrento golf.com.au) and Rosebud Country Club (rosebudcountryclub.com.au) are members’ courses that are more parkland than linksland in feel, featuring trees as opposed to low scrub. Sorrento has wide fairways and strategic subtlety, and a creek adds definition to Rosebud’s thirty-six holes.
WHERE TO STAY
Barnbougle Dunes This wonderfully remote resort houses golfers in twenty-two cottages nestled side by side among the dunes. Modeled after the changing stations on Melbourne’s Brighton Beach, they’re designed for foursomes, with two cheerful bedrooms separated by a large central bath. There’s also a four-bedroom villa, complete with kitchen and outdoor grill, that can house groups of eight. While you’re here, rent a fishing rod and cast into the mouth of the Great Forester River, where ocean trout and salmon are itching to jump on a line. The clubhouse chef will be happy to cook up what you catch. The restaurant serves excellent food at fair prices and stays open late— a good thing, because it’s the only place of note to eat for eighty miles.
425 Waterhouse Road, Bridport, Tasmania. Rooms: $115–$160. Contact: 011-61/363-560-094, barnbougledunes.com.au.
Lindenderry The finest accommodations in the wine-producing town of Red Hill, midway between the northern and southern coasts and half an hour from the area’s top courses, this forty-room lodge sits amid grapevines, manicured lawns and rose gardens. The furnishings are a blend of antiques and newer pieces complemented by works of Australian art. Complimentary afternoon teas add a pleasing touch, and the restaurant draws not only overnight guests but also patrons from afar. Dipping into a spa bath here is a great way to relax after a round.
142 Arthurs Seat Road, Red Hill. Rooms: $225–$540. Contact: 011-61/359-892-933, lindenderry.com.au.
Peninsula Golf & Country Club For the modest cost of an overnight stay, guests receive a 50 percent discount on the greens fees to play the club’s two highly regarded courses. The rooms are a bit institutional—they have the feel of a wood-paneled cocktail lounge—but who can argue with the pleasure of having an early evening drink and then slipping outside to practice your stroke on the club’s enormous putting green before getting dressed for dinner?
Skye Road, Frankston. Rooms: $115–$150. Contact: 011-61/397-892-222, peninsulagolf.com.au.
Peppers Moonah Links Resort Perfectly situated for golfers seeking to play some of the peninsula’s finest courses, this luxury resort in the heart of the Cups borders the two eighteens at Moonah Links and lies within five minutes of St. Andrews Beach, the National and the Dunes. The ninety-six rooms are laid out in rectangular blocks that have a practice green and a pool between them. Many of the rooms have balconies that offer views of the course. Guests can also make use of the day spa, the gym and tennis courts during their stay.
Peter Thomson Drive, Fingal. Rooms: $215–$315. Contact: 011-61/359-882-000, peppers.com.au.
Where to Eat
Montalto (Australian contemporary) This timber-and-glass eatery sits within an idyllic vineyard and olive grove, a twenty-minute drive from the National and a half-hour drive from Moonah Links and St. Andrews Beach. Its French-inflected menu draws inspiration from produce grown on the estate and in the surrounding region, offering aged beef, bay fish, wild mushrooms and fresh cheeses. The restaurant serves lunch daily and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. It has extended hours in December and January.
33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South; 011-61/359-898-412, montalto.com.au. $$
Pebbles (Australian contemporary) Occupying a scenic perch on the Moonah Links property within the Peppers resort, this restaurant specializes in provincial fare, including organic duck breast with de Puy lentils, mushrooms and morello cherry relish. The starters—such as tiger prawn dumplings with sorrel velouté and curry oil—take more risks and are a great way to spark your taste buds.
Peter Thomson Drive, Fingal; 011-61/359-882-000. $$$
The Rocks (Seafood) For market-fresh seafood in a casually elegant setting—either indoors or out—it’s hard to beat this wharfside spot on Port Phillip Bay (twenty minutes from Peninsula Golf Club and forty-five from St. Andrews Beach and Moonah Links). Shellfish is the speciality, and you’ll understand why once you dig into a plate of raw oysters from the briny waters of Bruny Island and Coffin Bay or work your way through a redolent pot of mussels steamed with leeks, garlic and white wine. If you’re interested in coming for dinner instead of lunch, be sure to book ahead.
1 Schnapper Point Drive, Mornington; 011-61/ 359-735-599, therocksmornington.com.au. $$
Tuck’s Ridge (Australian contemporary) Before sitting down to a meal at this unpretentious vineyard café on the main road in Red Hill, visit its tasting room to sip the estate’s award-winning pinot noir and chardonnay. Then, if the dining room is full, grab a picnic blanket and eat on the lawn overlooking the neatly tended rows of vines. The seasonal menu borrows from Italy, with selections such as wild mushroom risotto and spinach and ricotta tortellini with sautéed king prawns.
37 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South; 011-61/359-898-660, tucksridge.com.au. $$$
Vines of Red Hill (Australian contemporary) Yet another delightful restaurant situated within a winery, Vines of Red Hill has an upscale dining room and a more casual terrace that overlooks a lake and rows of pinot noir vines. The kitchen turns out carefully crafted dishes, such as braised snapper fillet with aubergine, garden greens and roasted-pepper jus. Recent desserts included homemade sorbet and persimmon pudding with brandy custard.
150 Red Hill Road, Red Hill; 011-61/359-892-977, vinesofredhill.com.au. $$$$
Getting There: Australian carrier Qantas flies daily (except Tuesdays and Thursdays) from New York to Melbourne via Los Angeles. Putts won’t be the only thing lagging on this trip: The 10,389-mile flight takes twenty-two and a half hours, including a ninety-minute layover in L.A. It pushes off from New York at 7:20 p.m. and, because of the time difference, touches down at Melbourne Airport at 7:55 a.m. two days later.
When to Go: The best time of year to visit Mornington is October through March, leading into and exiting the Australian summer, when the average temperature ranges from the mid-fifties to the high seventies. To be sure, it can swelter into the mid-nineties on occasion, but breezes off the sea tend to keep things comfortable. Summer is also the ideal season to take advantage of the peninsula’s many outdoor activities, including beachgoing and bushwalking. The winter months (June through August) have highs of fifty-five degrees and bring nearly three inches of rain per month, drizzling every other day on average, meaning wind shirts and rain suits are necessities.
Talk the Talk
Aussies appreciate dry wit, on and off the golf course. Stray to the sand and you’ll be "headed for Bondi." Join a wayward playing partner and he "won’t be Robinson Crusoe" in his suffering. Or spray one into the trees and you’ll be "headed for the ’donga" (as in the outback region beyond the town of Wodonga). Fail to hit your drive past the ladies’ tees and you’ll have to buy your group a round of beers (preferably Crown Lager).
After nearly twenty-four hours on a plane and then a few rounds of golf over the next day or two, your muscles are bound to be sore. You can soothe those aches with a geothermal soak at Peninsula Hot Springs (peninsulahotsprings.com) in Rye, in the heart of golf country. Water nudging 115 degrees and rich in healing minerals rises from a depth of nearly 2,100 feet to flow through a series of public and private pools. You can also indulge in a variety of treatments at the spa on the property. You’ll be fit for the first tee again in no time.
The Beach Scene
Just as its links are defined by rugged dunes, the peninsula is known for its beaches. The bay side, on the north coast, has smooth, calm waters and stretches of golden sand in towns such as Mount Eliza and Rosebud. The ocean coast, to the south, is rocky and pounded by waves, making for great surfing but sometimes dangerous swimming. Popular surf spots include Portsea, Gunnamatta and Sorrento. Also worth visiting is Phillip Island Nature Park (penguins.org.au), an hour’s drive from the peninsula. It’s home to the world’s smallest penguins—about a foot tall.
Planning a Trip
Golf Tourism Australia offers rounds at Moonah Links, the Dunes, and the National plus two nights of lodging for about $400 per person ( morningtonpeninsulagolf.com). Koala Golf Tours (koalagolf.com) has a package starting at $808 that features four nights at Peppers Moonah Resort and golf at Moonah’s Open and Legends courses, the Dunes, and the Moonah course at the National. Gimme Golf (gimmegolf.com.au) provides a four-night, four-round package for a foursome. The cost is $1,140 per person, including a tour and lunch at a local winery.
With its cool maritime climate and rich soil, the Mornington Peninsula is an emerging producer of distinctive wines. Fifty of its 175 vineyards have tasting rooms, or "cellar doors," as they’re called. Most are clustered in the inland towns of Red Hill and Main Ridge—within an hour of the top courses—where the red volcanic soil yields superb pinot noir and chardonnay. The best way to experience the wine scene is by tasting and dining at vineyard restaurants such as Montalto or Tuck’s Ridge (see "Where to Eat," right). Also try the recently opened Ten Minutes By Tractor (tenminutesbytractor.com.au).Brewer’s Feast
If beer is your preferred postround beverage, drop into Red Hill Brewery (redhillbrewery.com.au) in the town of Red Hill. You can check out vines of organic hops and sample the house brews: the flagship golden ale (pale, crisp and tangy), the wheat beer (Bavarian-style, with a hint of banana), the Scotch ale (malty, with a caramel finish), and a selection of seasonal specials. There’s also a restaurant that offers a small, well-chosen menu influenced by the beer-friendly cuisines of Britain, Germany and Belgium.