“Fortress Western Australia” kept visitors away for the better part of two years during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Which means we’re all long overdue to rediscover the best golf in the west.
Cusory assessments of Western Australia often centre on the fierce independence with which the left-hand third of our country governs itself. Independently wealthy and rich in natural resources, WA is like the child that raises itself with minimal parental intervention. We witnessed the intensity of this independence during the COVID pandemic when the state’s 1,874-kilometre land border with the rest of Australia was slammed shut for 697 days. It was nicknamed “Fortress Western Australia” as, like several other borders, a genuine segregation existed between our states and territories. In the golf sphere, it’s easy to forget – even just a few years on – that the 2020 WA Open and WA PGA were closed-shop affairs, with only WA-based players allowed to play, while the 2021 editions of both tournaments were pushed into 2022.
Fortunately, that unhappy period is now domiciled in history and we’re all free to venture to WA once more. Among the waves of tourists, it’s a great situation for golfers as this month the state plays host to the next two PGA Tour of Australasia tournaments, the WA Open (October 5-8) and WA PGA (October 12-15). You would struggle to find two more diverse golf courses than the host venues, too: Joondalup Resort and Kalgoorlie Golf Course. If ever there’s a fortnight for the rest of Australia to view the variety on offer across the WA golf scene, this will be it.
As with many other golf hubs, several WA golf clubs used the COVID period to refresh and renovate their courses. Cottesloe Golf Club is progressing nicely with an impressive greens renovation project under the eye of favourite son and WA golf icon Graham Marsh, while Mt Lawley Golf Club’s extensive OCM-led redesign is steaming along at a rapid pace. Further south, one of WA’s wisest and wealthiest citizens, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, is behind the revival of the Binningup course, the nine-holer that closed in 2020. Meanwhile, the major overhaul of the Links Kennedy Bay continues, with the much-vaunted coastal links-like course working towards a re-opening in early 2025, although nine holes remain playable at present. Energy and enthusiasm exemplify the game in the west, which makes it an attractive location for travelling golfers.
GRAPES AND GROWTH
Synonymous with tournament golf in Perth for so much of the 1990s and 2000s, the complexion of The Vines Resort has altered through the years. Once something of an outpost nestled within the Swan Valley wine region, these days the expansion of the city has brought the area into suburbia. The Vines’ 36 holes have remained untouched, however that won’t be the case for much longer. The resort will soon reduce to 18 full-length holes – retaining the same nine from each of the Lakes and Ellenbrook courses that was used for tournaments – to allow for an expanded driving range and short-game area, plus the addition of an 18-hole short course. While yet to be finalised, the design allows for 14 par 3s, a quartet of par 4s and a projected par of 58. The 18 ‘big course’ holes that survive are currently undergoing renovation in the form of a new, $9 million reticulation system that replaces the original system and is due to be completed this month.
Protest signage draped across several back fences adjoining the holes set to be ‘lost’ in the redevelopment indicate that there’s not total satisfaction with the plan among The Vines’ residents. However, they’re not losing golf; the golf around them is simply changing. The proposal is firm proof that the resort is not only evolving with the times but also moving past an era of declining condition by reinvigorating what was for so long a recognised tournament home. Often overlooked is that 20-odd years ago, The Vines held numerous Heineken and Johnnie Walker classics as well as the short-lived Lexus Cup. It was a popular and enduring tournament venue, and can be again.
Lake Karrinyup Country Club is still the jewel in the WA golf crown. The state’s top-ranked course (17th in our biennial national Top 100 Courses list) is another recognised tournament venue but not since the most recent iteration of the short-lived Super 6 Perth event, which was last staged in 2019.
With its centenary approaching in 2028, there’s a club-wide push to improve the total offerings at Lake Karrinyup – which is saying something when you consider the quality of what’s on offer as it stands today. Yet just as golfers like to tinker with their techniques in the search for improvement, golf clubs will seek to scrutinise every aspect of their operation to find ways to provide more.
On the golf course, an impressive bunkering renovation was recently completed under the knowledgeable eye of the club’s consulting architect, Mike Cocking from OCM. Meanwhile, Karrinyup’s 007 bentgrass greens might leave you shaken or stirred, but almost certainly because of their nuance and breaks rather than the calibre of the surfaces. The club is the first in Australia – and just the fourth in the world – to implement the DryJect aeration method on its greens. DryJect is different from standard coring in that it uses pressurised water to blast a hole in the surface then pulls sand down that hole, leaving a far cleaner aeration puncture. It’s far less punishing for the surface, doesn’t require cores to be removed and the recovery time is shorter. Also gone is the inherent softness that usually comes with the standard aeration process. “Our greens actually come back firmer,” says course superintendent Fraser Brown.
One of the most appealing aspects of playing Lake Karrinyup is the number of shots you just want to hit. It might be slinging a sweeping draw around the corner from the second tee where the steep camber of the fairway makes it feel like the ball has only just come to rest as you arrive to hit your second, or the tee shot at the little par-3 12th, which packs fear and hope into the same swing. While private, Lake Karrinyup does allow some non-member play, especially for interstate golfers.
It’s something that could naturally be said of any golf course, but there is nowhere else quite like Joondalup Country Club. Where else do you encounter a yawning quarry on your path to the green or play holes lined by towering rocky walls? As I found out after an errant drive on the third hole of the club’s Dune nine, the course can give genuine meaning to the term “stuck between a rock and a hard place”. Then, having navigated these unique features, golfers are left to decipher Robert Trent Jones Jnr’s often wildly undulating greens, which challenge all shots struck on and around each putting surface.
Joondalup is also known as the Perth course that attracts celebrities. When Tottenham and West Ham played in Perth in July, Tottenham striker and avid golfer Harry Kane made a point of arranging a game there, largely because he already knew of the site’s otherworldly features. Likewise, popular American country music singer Luke Combs was on the timesheet the day after my visit in late August.
This month sees the club’s first WA Open since 1987, when the course was a mere two years old. The Quarry and Lake nines will combine to host the four-round tournament. The field will miss the thrill of touring the mystical Dune nine, but that loop is most definitely in play for everyday golfers. Lined by limestone walls and dotted with grass trees and kangaroos, it’s a setting that’s foreign yet quintessentially Australian at the same time. The Quarry nine hits its peak in the third to fifth holes, which almost encircle the disused pit. Decent golfers won’t feel threatened by it at the short third, but the carry across the quarry to the fifth green has the capacity to raise blood pressure levels.
If there’s an underappreciated course in the Perth golf scene, it’s arguably the Western Australian Golf Club. The course in the central-northern suburb of Yokine occupies a compact triangle of land but makes smart use of its natural undulations and highlights its views of the CBD.
There’s been a hive of activity at the club in recent years, with more to come. It began with Marsh advising on work to alleviate safety issues and aid visibility on the club’s two closing holes. Seeing the players in front – as well as more of the elements of each hole – was a problem on the 17th and 18th, so during 2021 the ridgelines on the highest parts of both fairways were lowered, with the new-look holes unveiled in January 2022. More Marsh-led revisions are in the pipeline, as the club seeks to squeeze all the architectural juice it can from the 45-hectare site.
The Western Australian is a wonderful, old-school design in many ways. The course is short and tight, and the extensive bunkering is distinct, while the layout is maintained in tip-top shape by a dedicated greens staff led by long-serving course superintendent Idris Evans. A member at the club and a low-handicap golfer himself, Evans says playing the five par 3s well is the cornerstone of a good score. Non-member play is available on some part of four days each week, giving visiting golfers a window to experience the layout that held last year’s WA Open.
If you’re after a golf course that melds West Australian bush with subtle hints of the Melbourne Sandbelt, Gosnells Golf Club gives that vibe. The course in Perth’s southern suburbs flows across a sandy base and features undulations and bunkering to match. The treelines are more fulsome and much closer to the lines of play than on a Sandbelt course, but the dual-setting combination is very much evident.
Gosnells blends its attractive bunkering with mostly small greens, which are not over-bunkered. Thoughtful golfers, especially those who hit a lot of fairways, can find a safe passage onto the putting surface on nearly every hole as forced carries are rare. Recent clearing work has widened some of the playing corridors to enhance the course’s agronomy and playability. Off the course, the club has plans to renovate its clubhouse within the next five years and enhance its appeal as the go-to golf club in this corner of Perth.
On the subject of similarities, parts of Kwinana Golf Club bear just a little resemblance to Lake Karrinyup. The steeper sections of the course in the suburb of Calista are framed by large gums and tuarts as well as the grass trees so common across the state’s golf courses. The foliage coupled with the camber recall Karrinyup, even if Kwinana lacks the grandeur. It’s another course that’s evolving, firstly through the recent rebuilding of its third and 13th greens in the past year by course architect Ben Davey. Both putting surfaces were redesigned to become larger than before but, especially in the case of the third, also segmented in order to create targets within a target.
Kwinana provides a few contrasts to other Perth courses. The striking ochre bunkers are the first indicator of a golf course with a difference, then comes the practice fairway that has Aussies Rules goalposts set up in the middle of the range as a target. Later, on the far side of the course, you’ll spot a quaint old cottage on the grounds. Wheatfield Cottage dates to the 1800s and was used as the clubhouse in Kwinana Golf Club’s early days then later as the course superintendent’s quarters. These days, the local council is looking to restore
VENTURING ‘DOWN SOUTH’
When West Australians explore their own state, they either head “up north” into the never-ending desert wilderness or “down south” to the forests, the at-times wild coastline and the wineries of Margaret River (or “over east” if travelling to the right-hand side of the country). The “down south” option has become an increasingly busy one for a variety of reasons. Whether fleeing Perth permanently for a regional lifestyle or travellers taking advantage of direct flights from Melbourne into Busselton Airport to bypass the capital, the area framed by Geographe Bay and the twin capes, Naturaliste and Leeuwin, has risen dramatically in popularity.
Among the movers and shakers is Busselton Golf Club, where course superintendent – Australian Golf Digest’s reigning Superintendent of the Year – Lance Knox is one of several award-winning staff at the club. Office manager Jude Hood earned the Golf WA Employee of the Year in April, while in the same ceremony the club itself received dual awards for Regional Golf Course and Regional Golf Facility of the Year, “after a period that saw significant membership increases and successful renovation work”, the judges said.
Indeed, the club is ‘future-proofing’ for what is a rapidly growing population in an area revered for its temperate year-round climate. As more Perth people and eastern-staters move to the area, annual rounds played have risen from 35,000 to 52,000 in the past year. Busselton is getting on the front foot by expanding its greens plus several tees and renovating other in-play areas to improve the layout and mitigate wear and tear. New pin positions and broader or deeper teeing grounds are already reaping rewards on that front.
The Murray Dawson-designed layout is strategic in nature, particularly the second nine, which sits beside the gurgling Vasse River. Players need to thread tee shots through stands of trees, with one section of the course dominated by a tract of impressive pine trees where the breeze is prone to swirling. The sandy soil gives rise to impressive surfaces that Knox and his team present in peak shape all year round.
Those direct flights into Busselton have raised accessibility to the whole area for golfers. The region’s courses – which also include Bunbury, Capel, Margaret River and more – are now a
golf destination in their own right.
The road north towards Perth is littered with more courses, mostly on the Peel coast and many of which rank in our Top 100. The Cut is a seaside brute, the aforementioned Links Kennedy Bay is set to look better than ever once redesigned, Secret Harbour is something of an unheralded layout, but Meadow Springs Golf & Country Club is one that keeps drawing back golfers, this writer included. “Golf as nature intended” is the motto at Meadow Springs and it’s more than a mere marketing slogan.
The design is spectacular – it’s Robert Trent Jones Jnr shelving his trademark wild contours to instead deliver a milder, yet just as exciting, layout – but the aesthetic factor is genuinely high. So many holes are framed by the site’s best features, whether the huge, centuries-old tuarts, the contours, bunkering or a combination of the three. It was a more restrained Trent Jones Jnr in comparison to his much more dramatic shapes and features at Joondalup, which was built at the same time. Touring both courses within the same trip opens a window to appreciate the American’s design genius.
Little has changed in recent times at Meadow Springs, mostly because little has needed to. Sure, a few peripheral upgrades have taken place – like the occasional new or realigned tee or refreshed pathing and path edges or the clearing of scrub in out-of-play areas – but the soul of the original design endures. Mike Healy, who is just the second course superintendent in the club’s 36-year history, has carefully preserved the fine work of his predecessor, Greg Simmonds.
Meadow Springs, like many of the best courses in WA, will appear just as you remember it – and that’s a good thing. Time, toil and a pandemic may have come and gone since your last trip west, but the good news is that the golf courses have only become better. The border is open and so are the courses. What are you waiting for?
Unearthing a golden experience
Kalgoorlie Golf Course is as much a spectacle of nature as it is a testament to human ingenuity. By Loren Justins
As you make your way through the vast, flat landscapes of Western Australia, it’s hard to imagine you will encounter anything other than endless mining towns. Yet, in the heart of the famous mining town of Kalgoorlie is an oasis of green offering an unforgettable golf experience.
When the word ‘Kalgoorlie’ is thrown around, your mind might race towards rich gold deposits and mammoth mining operations. It’s a town synonymous with the ‘Super Pit’, one of the largest open-cut mines globally. Nestled within the rugged Australian outback, the town’s golf course is an 18-hole desert layout designed by internationally renowned West Australian golf course architect Graham Marsh. He was born in Kalgoorlie and has a lot of experience with golf in the state. Marsh and his team have helped in the designs of many WA golf courses, such as Cottesloe, Western Australian Golf Club, The Vines and more. Since opening in 2010, Kalgoorlie Golf Course has continued to attract golfers from around the globe, seeking an incredibly unique adventure.
As you step onto the first tee, the contrast between the lush, green fairways and the harsh, red earth that surrounds them is immediately captivating. The course is as much a spectacle of nature as it is a testament to human ingenuity. It’s a desert links-style course that draws inspiration from some of the most acclaimed golf courses in the world while maintaining its authentic Australian essence.
Carved into the wild, rugged terrain, this 18-hole spectacle flaunts lush, undulating fairways that weave through natural sand dunes, native bushes and the iconic red earth that forms a stark contrast against the vibrant greens. At more than 6,750 metres from the championship tees, the course is one of the country’s longest, offering golfers a stern test of skill and strategy, no matter their handicap.
Don’t let the beauty and colours deceive you, though. Miss a fairway, and your clubs and white golf shoes may not come back the way they left. It’s raw and unmanicured off the fairways, with rocks and red dirt penalising bad shots. This course taught me quite a few lessons during my rounds there.
Kalgoorlie is currently building a new clubhouse and pro shop, along with a new Hilton DoubleTree hotel. This will further transform the course into a serious tourist destination with world-class amenities located on-site. The new infrastructure is expected to be completed by mid-2024.
The practice facilities include a large putting green and a driving range, and provide the perfect platform for players to hone their skills before tackling the course. Professional golf coaching is also available for beginners looking to take up the sport and seasoned golfers aiming to lower their handicap. I’m not convinced that taking up the sport on this particular golf course would be the best option, though!
It’s not as easy to get to the Kalgoorlie course compared to most others… and that’s part of the charm. You can drive from Perth in a bit less than seven hours, or you can take a 40-minute flight. Be aware, though, although Qantas and Virgin both fly to Kalgoorlie multiple times per day, it is not cheap at $500 or more for a return trip. It is often listed as one of the top 10 most expensive flights in Australia per kilometre flown.
Kalgoorlie has crafted a unique identity that goes beyond just a golf venue. It’s the epicentre of local events like the annual Goldfields Golf Club Championships, making the course an essential part of the community’s life. Goldfields Golf Club uses the Kalgoorlie course as its home course and runs weekly competitions. It is a wonderful way for those in the area to play the golf course regularly.
The layout is a green sanctuary amid the barren beauty of the Australian outback, a testament to the town’s vibrant community, and a destination that adds a new dimension to the traditional Australian golf experience. For those venturing to WA, a trip to Kalgoorlie Golf Course is a pilgrimage into the heart of Australian golf. It is a chance to experience a tantalising blend of challenge, charm and camaraderie in a setting like no other. This is one of the few courses where the thrill of golf meets the grandeur of the outback.
Loren Justins has been a member of our Top 100 Courses judging panel since 2010 and US Golf Digest’s course-ranking panel since 2017.