THE SANDBELT DOWN UNDER

Ask any avid golfer in Australia where the best courses are and they will all give the same answer: “The Sandbelt, mate!” The Sandbelt is a region that starts about 15 miles south of Melbourne in Victoria. Continue along the Port Phillip Bay all the way to Portsea at the tip of the Mornington Peninsula and golf options prevail. The region’s sandy soil is similar to that Scotland or Ireland, which is ideal for golf courses and thus produces excellent conditions.

The Sandbelt is home to the famed Royal Melbourne, which a number of experts have ranked as one of the best courses in the world. Alistair Mackenzie designed the course, in addition to Kingston Heath, Victoria, Commonwealth, Yarra Yarra, Huntingdale and the Metropolitan Golf Club. They all rank among the best courses in Australia or anywhere else for that matter. Most of these courses are private but can be played with an introduction. Gary Lisbon and his team at GOLFSelect, a corporate golf and travel organizer, specialize in setting up such connections in Australia. Visit www.golfselect.com.au for more info.

In the heart of the Mornington Peninsula, about an hour south of Melbourne, lies Moonah Links Golf Course. This is home to the Australian Open Golf Tournament and features 36 holes all designed by the famed Peter Thompson, who holds the record with Tom Watson for most British Open titles – five each. Thompson did not play a lot on the U.S. tour, and as a result is not as well known in the States.

I played the Open Course at Moonah Links and it was quite a test. Thompson has drawn from his British Open experience to design a course where bunkers dictate your play. The fairway bunkers at Moonah are punishing and are to be avoided at all costs. If you find one you will most likely be going out sideways or backwards similar to Scotland. The course is set on gently rolling terrain with Bass Strait just a mile or so away. Moonah is long and fairly wide open except for the bunkers, which are always in your mind.

The Mornington Peninsula has long been a vacation spot for Melbourne. In addition to Moonah Links, there are more than 20 courses in the area, including The National Golf Club, with courses designed by Greg Norman, Peter Thompson and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. This unique club features 54 holes of private club golf all with sweeping views of the Bass Strait Coastline. Other great layouts on the Peninsula include The Dunes, St. Andrews Beach, Sorrento and Portsea. The Peppers Moonah Links Resort is the ideal spot to stay on the Mornington Peninsula. The resort is right on the golf course and is brand new. The rooms all feature golf course views as well as all you would expect from a luxury property. Dining is available at the Moonah Links Clubhouse. For more information visit www.peppers.com.au or call 61-3-5988-2000.

Travel and Traffic

The roads are good out to the Mornington Peninsula, but it will take a bit of getting used to driving on the other side or the road. Traffic in Melbourne is quite hectic so avoid the rush hour. From the downtown area there is a tunnel, which goes under much of the city and connects out to the highway leading to the Sandbelt and Mornington Peninsula. If you stay in the South Yarra area, the highway is several blocks away, just like in Beverly Hills. They play golf all year round in this area but for optimum conditions I would go between October and May. High season is December and January.

Melbourne is a large bustling international city with a great deal of culture. It is also the events capital of Australia hosting the Australian Open Tennis Championships and The Australian Formula One Grand Prix, among many others. I would suggest staying in Melbourne itself to explore the classic Sandbelt courses. The Lyall Hotel is located in the famed South Yarra district where the best shopping can be found. This area is akin to Century City or Beverly Hills. The Lyall is a small elegant boutique property with excellent service. For more info visit www.thelyall.com.

I would suggest staying one night in Melbourne on the front end and back end of your trip. Then venture out to the Mornington Peninsula for a couple of nights. The airport is located about 30 minutes north of town with normal traffic. The Sandbelt region is about 20 minutes from downtown and the Mornington Peninsula is a little more than an hour.