LIKE many Australians, my first experience with Canberra came during a Year 6 school excursion that took in the near-mandatory stops of Parliament House (the old one; the current one was still a year or so from completion), the Australian War Memorial, Royal Australian Mint, Questacon, Black Mountain Tower and other locations of national significance. It was an impressive collection of sites in a city that otherwise lacked much in the way of genuine attractions. Or so I thought.

I’ve since come to learn that our national capital has a far deeper soul than first impressions may permit. It’s too easy to get bogged down in Canberra’s widely known attributes and miss the substance behind the place. Yes, the weather is seemingly either scorching hot or bitterly cold, the city possessing shoulder seasons narrower than most people’s shoulders. Yet when a friend and his wife moved to the trendy suburb of Kingston a dozen or so years ago, I finally received a window into Canberra that hadn’t previously opened for me, one more diverse than school excursion-based visits ever reveal.

The National Gallery of Australia is a fascinating place to lose yourself for several hours – and the same can be said of the NewActon cultural precinct and the area’s cool-climate wineries. Suburbs like Manuka and Kingston are full of shops, restaurants and cafés, and the edges of Lake Burley Griffin are ripe with parks, plus walking and cycling tracks that show off the planned city’s best sides [see below].

Golf-wise, the landscape is far more interesting than reputations allow, too. Across the Australian Capital Territory is a spread of classic layouts, revamped gems, parkland venues and open, links-like courses where the ground game holds the balance of power. It’s a broad mix for a small territory.

Only the best strike will do at the long, downhill, par-3 12th hole at Federal.
Only the best strike will do at the long, downhill, par-3 12th hole at Federal.

One club shaking things up in recent times is Federal Golf Club. Tucked away in its own slice of solitude at Red Hill, Federal is reaping the benefits of some astute foresight several years ago. The transition to all-couch fairways was the first smart move, while the club’s water storage capabilities are now far greater than ever thanks to two substantial irrigation ponds. And an increasing number of visitors are now aware of how good the golf course is thanks to a clever marketing approach. An advertising campaign, which included Australian Golf Digest, focused on debunking the long-held stereotypes of Canberra to implore golfers to explore beyond the political landscape, temperature extremes, fireworks, roundabouts and other notorious reputations. It was a message as much about the destination as a whole as it was about all that a single golf club can offer.

Steven FosterThat a club like Federal would adopt such an approach is entirely appropriate. Long garaged in the shadow of the much-vaunted 27 holes at Royal Canberra, Federal played something of a second-fiddle role in the hierarchy of golf options in the national capital. In reality, any visitor bringing their clubs to town would be mad to skip a game at the Red Hill layout, which, as it turns out, is exactly what’s happening.

“We’ve noticed a massive pick-up in social competition golf groups, mainly from Sydney and the surrounding area, so it’s done its job,” Scott Elias, Federal’s general manager, says of the marketing campaign. “Eighty dollars a round is pretty cheap to play at Federal Golf Club and a lot of people realise that. They play consecutive days or play in the comp on Friday and play on Sundays, otherwise they come down socially as well. It’s good for golf to get people here as a destination.”

It’s not difficult to see why they flock to Federal. With abundant wildlife, a location adjoining Red Hill Nature Reserve and views to the Brindabella Ranges, Federal would be a pleasant place to spend a few hours even if golf were not part of the equation. The course is a solid test and uses its hilly terrain to great effect. The par 5s might lack a little length for top golfers in the modern context but the rest of the golf course is championships calibre. A full range of shots is required to conquer the Prosper Ellis-designed layout, as no holes other than the par 3s are straight. Especially useful is the ability to judge uphill and downhill shots and the impact these elevation changes will have on ball flights at various times of year. And the course is thoroughly Canberran – right down to Black Mountain Tower acting as an aiming point for tee shots on the fifth hole.

Queanbeyan Golf Club

Next up for Federal? Several course changes and facility upgrades loom in the first half of next decade should final approval be given to a proposal for an over-55s residential community spanning 125 residences. Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford from Golf Strategies are poised to pen the redesign work to cater for the development as, overall, it’s a move that will shore up Federal’s financial future while improving the club as a whole. Unsurprisingly, the progressive club has embraced the project with fill vigour. A worthy golf haven now, Federal’s best may be yet to come.

Technically in New South Wales but always regarded as part of greater Canberra, the town of Queanbeyan is home to Queanbeyan Golf Club, which prides itself on having “the best greens in the region” [pictured above]. Federal and Queanbeyan make for a great double act for a weekend in Canberra although Queanbeyan remains something of a hidden gem, according to general manager David Doyle.

“A lot of people don’t know it’s here,” he says, before adding that once ‘discovered’, Queanbeyan fast becomes a favourite. Doyle tells a story of one Canberra-based public servant who was shopping around, testing his game before deciding which golf club to join. He toured literally every course in the region before choosing Queanbeyan. Why? “It was the only course where he couldn’t break his handicap,” Doyle says.

It’s a trait the club’s head professional Jake Nagle confirms. The grandson of the late, great Kel Nagle says there’s far more to the Queanbeyan layout than initial impressions provide. “The scorecard doesn’t tell the full story,” Nagle says of the 5,806-metre, par-70 course, adding that a couple of the back-nine par 5s in particular don’t suffer meek shots.

Queanbeyan is a tight layout with undulating land not dissimilar to the terrain at Federal. No two holes look or play the same and it truly is a domain for the straight hitter as threading shots between the towering treelines is an essential asset to a good score. And the reputation for fine putting surfaces holds up. The club is blessed with a healthy water supply and a greens staff committed to providing premium surfaces year-round, a proud attribute members revel in and visitors remark about. Yes, the condition of the greens is commendable, but the total package at Queanbeyan is on par.

The Mt Broughton layout offers plenty of length and more than a little Southern Highlands charm.
The Mt Broughton layout offers plenty of length and more than a little Southern Highlands charm.

Highlands Fling

Much like Canberra, there are several ‘must-do’ stops in the NSW Southern Highlands. The Bradman Museum sits close to the top of the list, with various gardens, wineries and antique shops not far behind.

Another ‘must-do’ is Mount Broughton Golf & Country Club, which is handily positioned between Sydney and Canberra in one of the most beautiful pockets of the country. The Southern Highlands region is generally a shade milder than Canberra during the cooler months, although it tends to be windier, which can add to the chill factor. But as an escape option during the heat of summer, it doesn’t get much better than the Highlands.

From its outset Mt Broughton earned a reputation as a bear of a layout, although one high on charm. “The course is one of the most interesting developed in Australia for many decades,” says Frank Phillips, the co-course designer and a two-time Australian Open champion. “It’s a natural, and feels like it’s been there for a hundred years. Just walking the course is enough to send a tingle down my spine and take me back to my roots.”

Phillips is right, as the rural setting and contrasts in colours, depending on the season, recall far more established layouts. Mt Broughton today plays a little easier than in the past as the swathes of high grass that bordered most fairways have retreated a few paces farther from the cut stuff. This is especially so where carries are involved, the club rightly recognising that lengthy wallops over long rough don’t trouble pros or single-figure handicappers but they do wreck the enjoyment of less skilled players. So with several tough carries now eliminated, there’s a higher degree of playability to Mt Broughton without compromising the integrity of its design.

There are multiple ways to challenge the short par-4 seventh hole at Highlands Golf Club.
There are multiple ways to challenge the short par-4 seventh hole at Highlands Golf Club.

The layout stretches to 6,619 metres from the black tees – which is plenty of golf course in the cool air – but plays a more manageable 6,299 metres from the blue blocks, 5,860 from the whites and 5,399 from the reds. Whichever colour you opt for, the second hole is a pivotal point in the round. Ranging from 119 to 227 metres in length, the par 3 known as “Long Drop” plays from a tee elevated far above the green. The target is defended by a creek in front that also wraps around to the left, bunkers either side of the green and an out-of-bounds fence just right of the right-hand trap. There is no place to bail out and into a southerly breeze, the hole is a brute that has the pitfalls to ruin a round before it really gets going.

Some years ago, the club commenced a program of transforming many of its bunkers into links-style revetted pots, a move befitting the look and feel of the course, although in recent times addressing the layout’s drainage took priority. Whenever the bunker program is completed, Mt Broughton will threaten the top echelon of rural courses.

The cheeky little 18th.
The cheeky little 18th.

Half an hour up the road, Highlands Golf Club at Mittagong is a sleeper course that deserves more attention. The 5,597-metre layout disguises its challenges adeptly, with clever use of the hillside terrain and small, perched, sloping greens that ask plenty of questions of every golfer seeking to approach them. Even greenside pitch shots require careful consideration, such are the options around most of these crowned putting surfaces.

The best hole is the 236-metre seventh, a potentially driveable par 4 in the far corner of the property. The green is set high above the tee and the fairway rises gradually to a plateau before halting to make way for a pond that continues to the front of the green. A cavernous fairway bunker on the left side complicates the equation. There are two ways to play the hole: play safely to the plateau and pitch across the water or take a rip at the green from the tee, knowing an uphill carry of 220-plus metres is needed (but a steep bank behind the green saves ‘hot’ hits from scurrying into the bush).

Closing the round is a delicate par-3, a downhill 107-metre play across a creek guarding the green. The clubhouse and balcony, which is often full of golfers, looms as the backdrop close behind the target. Whether it’s the small margin for error, nerves, the high possibility for distraction or just general misjudgment, many golfers plonk their ball into the creek at Highlands’ 18th. It’s short but daunting, offering the hope of a round-capping birdie wrapped in the potential for humiliation.

One is long and broad, the other short and tight. Like the pair of Canberra courses, this Highlands duo makes for an ideal long weekend destination, midweek getaway locale or a longer, lingering golf sojourn.

Where To Play

Canberra region

Federal Golf Club
Gowrie Drive, Red Hill ACT
Green fees: $80
(02) 6281 1888

Queanbeyan Golf Club
Brown St, Queanbeyan NSW
Green fees: $28 to $35
(02) 6297 1669

Southern Highlands region

Highlands Golf Club
Old Hume Highway, Mittagong NSW
Green fees: $27.50 to $33
(02) 4871 1995

Mt Broughton Golf & Country Club
Kater Rd, Sutton Forest NSW
Green fees: $50 to $70
(02) 4868 3200

Brendan JonesWhen In Canberra

Veteran touring professional Brendan Jones has called Canberra home for the past 17 years. Here are his top-five things to do in the national capital:

1. Stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge at the National Zoo and Aquarium. It saves a trip to Africa, and the accommodation, behind-the-scenes tours and up-close experiences with the animals are five-star.

2. Visit the National Arboretum. There is so much space in Canberra and the arboretum has plenty of it.

3. Pack your bike! There are hundreds of kilometres of bike paths around Canberra and you can ride from north to south and east to west without ever having to ride on the roads. But if you are a road cyclist, the roads in Canberra are wide with designated bike lanes – and the hills just outside Canberra are incredible riding!

4. Visit the Australian War Memorial, Parliament House and Old Parliament House. There are guided tours of each, but you can also move at your own pace.

5. Lake Burley Griffin. Pretty much at the city’s doorstep, the lake is fantastic for walking, running, cycling and canoeing. There is a bike path around the whole lake (stretching about 28 kilometres) and great walking loops of about five kilometres between the major bridges. Many of Canberra’s major attractions, such as Questacon, museums and the National Library of Australia, are also within walking distance of the lake.

Top 100 Courses Spotlight

Royal Canberra Golf Club’s revival is largely complete, with the rejuvenated Westbourne course (comprising holes one to 18) reopening late last year after redesign work by Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. The club has postponed any plans to rework the remaining nine holes, but the main 18 is flourishing after having the better part of a year to bed in.

In what was more a cogent series of tweaks rather than a full-scale overhaul, OCCM opened up several new angles, rebuilt and recontoured greens and bunkers, and cleared trees where necessary to let the turf and playing corridors ‘breathe’. The firm did shorten the par-5 fourth hole into a strong par 4 and vice versa at the sixth, but otherwise the holes all cover the same ground as Commander John Harris’ original version.

The golf course now feels far less claustrophobic and the agronomy benefits of being more open are obvious. There is greater variety in the available shot options around the greens with expanded short-grass areas where rough previously grew. OCCM made vivid changes to a pair of holes on the inward nine: the par-4 14th, where the inlet of Lake Burley Griffin is now in play next to the broad, dual-path fairway; and at the 15th, where a rocky stream now fronts the green of the short par 5.

Royal Canberra does permit access to non-members (for players with GolfLink handicaps) for at least part of each day of the week, including all day on Mondays and Thursdays.

Phone the club on (02) 6240 2250 or e-mail [email protected] for more details.