Some fervent golfers revel in their quests to tick off every course on their own unique must-play lists.
It sounds like the stuff of fantasy, yet for two members of our Top 100 Courses judging panel, they see it as reality. Mark Panopoulos and Cam Hart both hold the ambition of playing every golf course in Australia. At most recent count, that’s 1,603 with a geographic spread of 7,540 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Norfolk Island Golf Club in the Pacific Ocean to Cocos Islands Golf Club in the Indian Ocean.
Even at one course per day, it’s nearly four-and-a-half years of golf, a timeline that doesn’t account for the necessary travel between each location. As golf quests go, it’s either maniacal or magnificent. However, both men remain driven to achieve their stated goal.
Panopoulos has made the most inroads. As a recent graduate with the PGA of Australia, the 28-year-old Sydney resident is already closing in on 200 courses, thanks in part to the ones he’s played as part of the competitive component of his traineeship. A thirst for travel – especially to rural areas – has also boosted his overall number.
The lot of the trainee PGA professional often means touching some far-flung locations to compete, plus Panopoulos has had the chance to visit several remote parts of the country under his own steam, which gives him an inside running on the path to see all 1,603. For instance, he’s already played the golf courses of White Cliffs and Wilcannia in north-western New South Wales, the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy in central South Australia and Karumba on the lower reaches of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland.
But back to the origin of this crazy caper. How did the idea start? Appropriately, it began in a remote place.
“It came from a round that I had in Jabiru,” Panopoulos says of the nine-hole course in Kakadu National Park. “I was doing the run from Darwin to Cairns with my dad and I was like, ‘If I’m coming along, I’ve got to play some golf.’ I just had this moment as we pulled in where I realised, This is golf. This golf course deserves just as much respect and time as Royal Melbourne or Royal Sydney or Augusta. I just had this moment of, There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be here, giving it the respect it deserves.”
Panopoulos’s next realisation fed into his desire to travel.
“I had another epiphany where I was like, If I played every golf course in Australia, then I’ll just go everywhere because there’s golf courses everywhere.”
The birth of the idea came in those two moments in the north of the Northern Territory. As someone who grew up at Nowra on the NSW South Coast, Panopoulos says he has always had a kinship with rural destinations and playing country golf courses feeds his sense of adventure.
And it’s been quite the adventure to date. White Cliffs and Wilcannia represent his most remote rounds so far – “at Wilcannia, they’d had some rain and they hadn’t even got the saltbush off the fairway on the ninth hole that day, so it was pretty hairy!” – and Karumba the most difficult to get to, as 300 kilometres of dirt road had to be covered to reach the town. As for the course that most exceeded his expectations, Panopoulos nominates the Alex Russell-designed course at Narrandera in southern NSW – “11, 12, 13 there is one of the best three-hole stretches I’ve played in Australia” – and Oberon, another country gem and one featuring wild contours. His best round? A seven-under effort at Gerringong Golf Club.
True to his roots, his home club of Nowra holds a soft spot in his heart, so much so that he hopes to finish his quest with a ceremonial ‘extra’ round there when the job is done. “The property just sings to me,” Panopoulos says. “It’s a special, almost spiritual place for me, even though it’s a par-68, tiny golf course that I’ve never really shot a low round on, either.”
In 2023, Panopoulos intends to contest events through regional Victoria in areas he’s yet to see. Also on his list is the prolific run of events in the mining towns of central Queensland plus the stretch from Geraldton to Broome in Western Australia. With some time, effort and travel, he figures he can get to 400 courses in the next couple of years with an aim to cover all of them by the time he turns 40, in 2034.
Hart, meanwhile, is also about to pass the 200-mark, sitting at 196 Australian golf courses played. The 41-year-old from Marc Leishman’s hometown of Warrnambool in coastal Victoria only began playing seriously eight years ago and concedes his goal “will probably take me my whole life to complete”, but is determined to reach it nonetheless. And he’s going to extremes to make it happen. Having covered most of the courses within a three-hour drive of his home, Hart and his family are now on the move.
“2023 is going to be huge for me,” says the ultrasound and X-ray technician. “I have quit my job of 20 years and decided to work around Australia. I’ve got work in Mackay in Queensland, Lismore in NSW and Hobart. So I’ll be trying to play as many courses around there as I can.
“I just love playing golf. I’ve had great times playing [those courses ranked in] the Top 100 as well as $5-a-round courses. There are hidden gems all over the place, and so many great people I’ve met along the way. Who knows how long it will take me, but it will be interesting to see after 2023 where I’m up to.”
Other panellists are driven by quantity. Both Tony Ellis and Rey Saballa have a stated goal of playing 1,000 different golf courses, while Steve Bray has set himself a more modest tally of 200 (and was sitting on 110 when we last checked in with him).
Of the 1,000-course duo, Ellis’s quest is showing the most momentum. The retired finance manager from Melbourne sat close to the 220-mark as Christmas loomed. He stopped working in late 2019 and retirement was supposed to provide a gateway to see Australia, detailing a five-to-10-year plan of travelling across the country with his wife, Jo.
“My golf clubs were on board, but I had no specific lists or targets when we set out,” Ellis recalls. “The thought of discovering new courses has always appealed to me, and while I appreciate the top-shelf stuff as much as anyone, I have always derived as much pleasure in finding something unheralded that has real merit; be it architectural or just some natural feature, unusual characteristic or not-seen-before quirk.”
Yet just as his available time to travel and play golf opened, state borders closed. Then Jo recommended revising the goal.
“The initial COVID lockdown in early 2020 had us in country NSW in our first year ‘on the road’, and with activities limited (lucky for me golf was still allowed in NSW and I had left Victoria after 20 years), it was my wife who suggested I set a goal to play 100 different courses per year, to get me out of her hair.”
Ellis nailed the ‘ton’ on the number in 2020 but managed only 73 courses in 2021 and was expecting to hit 60 for 2022 as the year ended, restricted in his quest by “a couple of unforeseen circumstances”. Undeterred, he revised his aim and reset it to play 1,000 courses before they stop travelling. “Looks like the days on the road will extend beyond 10 years!” chuckles Ellis, who writes blogs at australiangolfcoursetourbycaravan.com.
Touring so many different layouts – and most are country courses – has confirmed Ellis’s hypothesis about loving to see and play a course for the first time and discovering its nuances or defining characteristics.
“I do really enjoy trying to get inside the head of the architects/designers, particularly in the country settings where these designers might just have been locals who took the task on board in ‘the day’,” he says. “It fascinates me that someone who had some interest in golf when a community was establishing a golf course, and may have been a local shop-owner, farmer, school teacher, etc. who sat on a club’s committee, may have had a major say in a course’s layout. Some of these efforts are ordinary (as you would expect) and some of them are super, and I really appreciate that. But the beauty of it is that you see holes that have unorthodox design elements, some of which are weird and wonderful, and some just weird!”
Asked to nominate a couple of standouts from his first three years on the road, Ellis points to a pair of almost-unknown nine-holers in Tasmania: the courses at Rosebery, a mining town inland from the west coast of the island that has a $10 green fee, and Tarraleah, a ‘hydro town’ in the Central Highlands on the road between Hobart and the west coast ($20).
“Both courses are looked after by volunteers and with climatic conditions not fantastic for growing grass. The condition of both courses was only just OK, but the spectacular setting, the obvious nous that the novice, local course designers had and displayed in laying out these courses – and the fact I had no idea on arrival – was so amazing to me and I loved those experiences. There is something particularly exciting about setting out with very low expectations and being greeted with little nuggets of gold. I am definitely a glass-half-full type, as I fail to recall any course where I haven’t found something that has appealed to me.”
Next up on the odyssey? “With 2023 likely to see us spending a fair bit of time in the Northern Territory and central-west Queensland, I can’t see 100 courses on the horizon, but I will be playing everything that comes my way, in the hope that I have some more of those Rosebery/Tarraleah days.”
Saballa’s 1,000-course quest is perhaps more achievable, as he has more time on his side. The 44-year-old from Sydney has already notched 120 and plans to pass 150 in 2023, but has given himself “until I die” to reach four figures. That just means a savvy bit of life organisation.
“Because I’m in my mid-forties and still work, this will not be an easy feat – not to mention the travel and money involved,” Saballa says. “Close friends calculate that it will take me 20 years
“Why do it? I say, ‘Why not?’ There’s a sense of adventure and excitement every time I play a different course, not to mention the people I meet – sharing stories about their golf journey and life in general. [In October] alone, I played four highly ranked courses in Oahu, Hawaii, and met some cool golfers.”
Saballa has started a YouTube channel (search for Golf-trotter) to capture his journey by scouring old video archives and making new ones as he goes. This year he’s eyeing the Gold Coast, northern Tasmania, south-eastern Victoria and overseas to boost his overall number.
“It’s a work in progress.”
Rank and file
Our biennial course rankings are also a source of inspiration in themselves. First to achieve the feat of playing all 100 was Chris Croker, a long-time past panellist who toured every course on the 1998 Top 100 Courses ranking – and did so despite being based in the comparative outpost of Darwin at a time when not one course in the Top 100 was in the NT.
More have attempted to match Croker’s efforts since, but on today’s panel it’s Melburnian Ian Greenwood who is using the current ranking as his guide. “I’ve got less than 20 to go,” he enthuses.
The largest concentration of courses he is missing is in Perth, so this May Greenwood is heading west – via Kalgoorlie – to play eight courses in eight days that will push him closer to 100.
Classic course architects are the driving factor behind Loren Justins’ 2023 aim that will require plenty of air travel.
“I would like to continue playing courses designed by the group known as a the ‘Philadelphia School’ of architects,” the Brisbanite writes. “They have more than 25 courses in the world top 100. An amazing group of architects including Tillinghast, Crump and Thomas.
“Some of my favourites I have played of this group include Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Bethpage, San Francisco, Riviera, Los Angeles CC, Bel-Air CC and Shinnecock Hills. Some notable courses still to play from this group include Merion, Pine Valley, Somerset Hills, Oakmont and their first course, Cobbs Creek.
“They are known for some of the toughest courses, for those that loved ‘the test’ of golf.”
The final word on golf quests goes to Rod McLeod, whose pursuit is one that many golfers can relate to: the boys trip.
“Every long weekend in June, up to 20 middle-aged but willing golfers gather on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, for the annual Cold NOBs event,” McLeod explains. “NOBs? Norths Old Boys – the North Brisbane Eagles Hockey Club, which is the nucleus that all the other non-hockey-playing electrons orbit around. It’s part fundraiser, part mental defrag, part humiliation avoidance.
“The Dunes Golf Club at Rye is the fitting venue for the matchplay event that decides who wins (or is burdened with) “The Collingwood” – it’s all about not coming last. The Dunes was the original venue for the very first Cold NOBs event… the rolling fairways, multiple shot decisions that stretch the imagination, the yet-to-be-conquered par-4 fourth with the frustratingly narrow green, the magnificent ‘Redan’ par-3 17th, and the inspired finishing hole as the winter sun recedes over the hills… brilliant. Oh, and for someone used to putting on Queensland’s lush 328 greens, the agony of watching your par-saving putt roll five feet past – there’s nothing that can compare!
“Other venues are worthy of mention. The brutal test of Moonah Links’ Open course – you sense it just shakes its head at your golf ability and wonders how you managed to even step onto the first tee and wants to remind you that open-cut mines belong in outback Queensland, not the roped tee-off area of its expansive driving range. The Cold NOBs brethren like to think they’re at least partly responsible for the installation of safety signs above the bunker on the 14th, where driving back towards the tee in the cart, the earth suddenly disappears into a yawning chasm of sand that becomes an all-consuming tear in the fabric of the universe. The 18th on the Open course has seen approaches of 60 metres or less being topped, whiffed, skulled, flubbed and bladed into the adjacent bunker, adding to the pressure and, ultimately, sheer schadenfreude of watching someone else suffer for a change!
“St Andrews Beach, with its blind tee shots, undulating fairways, and unpredictable results from a well-struck 5-iron, provides a rich mix of golf Russian Roulette. Oh, did I mention every time we’ve played St Andrews Beach, conditions have been absolutely benign? None of Bass Strait’s ‘Greatest Hits’ of 70km/h winds and squally horizontal rain.”
Sounds like a quest worthy of the most avid, which certainly describes all these golfers.