What was it like when Victoria’s borders finally opened to the masses? EVIN PRIEST jumped on the first available flight to find out.

It had been so long since I’d been to an airport that I’d forgotten where the oversize baggage drop-off point was. Most golfers are acutely aware of where that is, because our clubs are never welcome at regular baggage check-in. 

But this writer, well, I’d developed an internal compass for oversize after several years of travelling across the USA on planes several times a month. Being the US-based PGA Tour correspondent for the Australian Associated Press required a lot of travel, to a lot of tournaments, from my adopted home of New York City. 

On the PGA Tour beat, writers take their clubs everywhere. There’s always a game at a course near the tournament and we love a free lunch.

But last April I was recalled to Australia, like many expats during the pandemic. Now, this trip to Melbourne from Sydney in November marks my first flight in eight months. The Sandbelt’s best courses are open for business (and guests) and I want to write about playing them. I can do that now Melbourne has reopened from arguably the world’s longest and strictest lockdown.

Getty images: James D. Morgan

Lost in transit
So, here I am, at a truly deserted Sydney domestic airport. A Qantas staffer gestures yonder to oversize, but I’m too distracted to pay attention. I walk in the hope of finding it, but the sign doesn’t magically appear like it used to. Strange. 

At the end of the terminal, I turn left into a stream of people walking, in earnest, towards an escalator that will take them down to baggage claim and onto the rest of their lives.  

Bearings lost, I almost collide with someone. Well, not just anyone. It’s Anthony Albanese – leader of the Australian Labor Party. He laughs in shock, apologises in that throaty, comical voice and walks around me. Before long, I’m on the plane. Masks on, take off, and we’re away.

Getty images: James D. Morgan

Oh Melbourne, how I’ve missed you
The first flight in eight months is strange. I count 19 other passengers with me in economy, three in business and five flight attendants. That’s not many on a 737-800. Nevertheless, I arrive safely in Melbourne to another deserted airport. 

It’s a Monday night and the friends I’ve enlisted on my golf trip are due to arrive the next morning. The Melbourne idea originated over a beer when a good mate, Steve Martin, realised he would have to move back to the UK in early 2021. 

Martin is a Northern Irishman who moved to Sydney from London in 2019 when the company he founded, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, opened an Australian office. He’s a member of Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland, Walton Heath in London and he joined New South Wales Golf Club during his Sydney stint. But Martin had never played Royal Melbourne, so he suggested a Sandbelt trip before leaving Australia. He invited two friends and thus our four-ball was created.

I check in at The Langham, a beautiful hotel on the Yarra River at Melbourne’s popular Southbank area. Crown has become associated with golf over the years, but The Langham’s club bar on the 24th floor, looking out over Flinders St Station and the river, sets it apart in this writer’s opinion. Plus it doesn’t have the annoying transience of a casino. 

I’m drawn to the Southbank area because it was the tournament hub for the 2019 Presidents Cup, where I was on hand to cover a Tiger Woods-led American team taking on Ernie Els’ underdog International side at Royal Melbourne. 

It was a glorious time for Australian golf.The greatest golfer of all time was gushing about the Sandbelt in interviews for 18 months leading up to the Cup – a biennial teams event run by the PGA Tour. 

Australia’s greatest golf course was beamed to the world. American fans, and journalists, shelved their ridicule of the previously dull and lopsided event. They watched Woods plod his way around the Composite course with the strategy of an army general and the hands of a surgeon. Tens of thousands domestic and international fans converged on Royal Melbourne, including sporting celebrities like Shane Warne and Ash Barty. Royal Melbourne looked rugged and beautiful, as always. The atmosphere was electric.

But almost 12 months later, an unprecedented global pandemic has Melbourne looking very different. I walk around the city for more than an hour. No phone. No music. I want to hear and see everything. 

The usually vibrant laneways are empty, restaurants are closed and things look a little grim – although it is a Monday, to be fair. It’s November 23, the first day in more than 100 days that the borders are open. Maybe it’ll liven up by week’s end, I justify.

Kingston Heath – like most Melbourne courses – looks better than ever after minimal traffic during 2020.

A day of many firsts
The sun rises over Melbourne on a warm Tuesday morning and, although it’s encumbered by clouds, it’s still good weather for golf. Kingston Heath is first up on this sensational trip. Upon arrival, likeable general manager Andrew Taylor tells our group we are the first guests to play without a member since the end of March. It’s a nice footnote to hear before teeing off on one of the great courses of the world.

The two friends of my Northern Irish mate had never played golf on the Sandbelt. They were stunned by the understated beauty and openness of Kingston Heath – the way the range blends into the first fairway from the left, which rolls seamlessly into the sixth fairway on the right.

As we get to the 15th, one of the best par 3s anywhere in the world, we remember the pro shop staff had graciously waived a rule in place that day: the 15th was closed for maintenance and instead golfers were to play the spare, par-3 19th in between the first and second holes. I suspect that was because the two Sandbelt rookies in our group had been looking forward to playing the 15th and it was a thoughtful touch.

If there’s one upside to a lockdown, it’s how a lack of member play has Kingston Heath in wonderful condition. And there’s a good reason for that, as Taylor tells us after the round.

“We were closed from March 28 until May 13, then again from August 2 to October 19,” Taylor recalls. “The clubhouse was closed for sit-down dining for several months.”

Casual hospitality staff were drastically out of work. So the forward-thinking Taylor and his management came up with a brilliant idea. They put three hospitality staff out on the course with the superintendents, with no experience and, frankly, limited golf knowledge.

“They are now working full-time on the course through summer, because we can’t get international, seasonal greens staff. Three ‘hospo’ staff are now talking in turf lingo and are budding superintendents. It’s just amazing,” he says.

Royal Melbourne’s timeless majesty pairs perfectly with the successful renovation of the two courses at nearby Peninsula Kingswood [below].

MacKenzie’s masterpiece bites back
No Melbourne trip is complete without a visit to Flower Drum, a traditional Chinese restaurant with exceptional service in the centre of the CBD. And no trip to Flower Drum is complete without a hangover the next day.

But a formidable cure for our dustiness is a reminder we are off to play the No.5-ranked course in the world. Only yours truly has had the privilege of playing arguably the finest 36-hole course on the planet. Today, the West course, Alister MacKenzie’s gift to Australia, is our playground.

Fittingly, director of golf Ben Jarvis puts us in the MacKenzie Room for lunch before the round. The acclaimed Scottish architect’s visit to the Black Rock site in 1926, when he designed the course and layout for Australian golfer Alex Russell to build once he’d left, quite literally put Australian golf on the map. It remains one of three courses MacKenzie designed that are perennially ranked in the world’s top 10 – along with Cypress Point and Augusta National in America. MacKenzie certainly deserves his own room at Royal Melbourne.

Fizzing with a combination of euphoria and shiraz, our group jumps out of the gates on the West course. Martin, with a smooth swing crafted from decades of playing links golf in Northern Ireland, starts birdie, birdie, birdie. My solid opening two pars are no match.

Flushing it, I am irate at a silly decision that leads to double-bogey on the third. But my spirits lift when I hit a 5-iron for my severely downhill second shot at the par-5 fourth to four feet and drain the eagle putt.

Martin and I are seemingly obsessed with our scores, which is like fiddling with deckchairs on the Titanic as amateurs. Even if he is a 6-handicapper and I’m off 9.

Martin has one of the great mid-round meltdowns, and after turning in two-over par from the tips I also come home in an ambulance whose wheels fall off before reaching the hospital. Royal Melbourne pulls our pants down and reminds us that we play for love, not a living. It’s the most enjoyable dressing down we’ve ever had, and our group is grinning from ear-to-ear as we crack open a bottle of red after playing the iconic West course in sunny, calm conditions. It’s a scenario as rare as rocking-horse excrement, if you know Melbourne weather.

A new player in town
The wine flows at the chic Thai fusion restaurant Chin Chin, albeit not as heavily as the night before. Our group toasts the trip as the two friends of Martin, who are now my friends too, obviously, must head home to Sydney. 

But Martin and I, the architects of this golf getaway, fashioned a trip further out of Melbourne to Peninsula Kingswood. It has undergone a significant restoration at the hands of Ogilvy Cocking Mead, a design firm spearheaded by Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Cocking and Ashley Mead.

Peninsula Kingswood is a sprawling 36-hole property measuring 140 hectares with a modern clubhouse, country club and accommodation on-site. Cocking’s redo of the North course has the entire golf world buzzing for a long-awaited contender to Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath as the Sandbelt’s finest layouts. Although lacking the history of the pair, it deserves to be spoken in the same sentence as the big two.

Peninsula’s land is more dramatic than the rolling terrain of Royal Melbourne, and its rugged beauty gives Kingston Heath a run for its money. Thankfully, Cocking is generous enough with his time to play the North course with Martin and I to explain, from the horse’s mouth, why ‘PK’ is all the rage in golf architecture.

“Peninsula was already more or less a Sandbelt style of course, but we just pushed it a little further down the road,” says Cocking, smashing a drive down the uphill par-4 first hole, demonstrating the silky swing of a once fantastic elite amateur who briefly turned pro.

“Sandbelt golf is all about width and angles; nice wide fairways but greens angled to favour play from a particular part of the fairway. Then, you position world-class bunkering around the green to punish bad shots and reward bold approaches. It’s Strategy 101. If anything, we just emphasised this concept a little more at PK.”

For this writer, the par-3 second is just spectacular with its green site perched on a hill, which sets the rollercoaster in motion for the downhill and winding par-5 third. The round, from there, is a mixture of calm, flatter holes and exhilarating twists and turns that culminates with a sweeping, almost arena-like par-4 18th. 

“Mark Allen made the point about PK being like a mixture of all the best bits of the Sandbelt. It has the scale and contour of Royal Melbourne or Victoria, the bunkering of Kingston Heath and greens better than Metropolitan – not a bad compliment,” adds Cocking about popular former tour professional Allen.

It has to be noted, lunch after the round gives Peninsula Kingswood the clubhouse lead for the best food of all the Sandbelt clubs – and that’s not an easy feat. Heath Wilson, PK’s hospitable chief executive and a clever operator, is chuffed with the compliment. He is excited as the legend of PK grows, both architecturally and as a destination golf resort that is conveniently positioned as a gateway between Melbourne and the sought-after Mornington Peninsula only 30 minutes down the road. 

But, sadly it’s time to leave Peninsula Kingswood – and Melbourne for that matter. As I’m washing my hands in the chic locker rooms, an elderly member makes some small talk with me. He says he’s heading out for a late afternoon game with his wife.  “We’ve been married 44 years today,” he adds, crumpling up his paper towel and throwing it into the bin. “Congratulations, mate… which course are you two playing today? North or South?” I ask.

“I think my wife will tell me,” he grins.

I laugh at the options. Not just his wife’s, but all golfers in Melbourne, really. It must be nice.