What lesson does a golfer learn from spending 72 hours in the nation’s capital? Three days barely scratches the surface in this underappreciated golf destination.
Canberra was conceived, in part, as a middle-ground compromise for our national capital in the seemingly endless rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney ‘won’, from a geographic perspective, as the Australian Capital Territory’s location is twice as near to the Harbour City as it is to the Victorian capital. Yet today’s Canberra remains an easy drive from either place, just as it is for residents of southern New South Wales, northern Victoria and a large chuck of south-eastern mainland Australia.
As someone who travelled the Hume Highway twice in each direction during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can vouch for the convenience factor. Any border restrictions aside, driving between Australia’s two most populous cities has never been easier – the Hume now bypasses every town – as any deceleration below 100km/h is now done by choice rather than necessity. Which makes Canberra all the more accessible and a comfortable drive for more than half of our country’s residents.
With three days up your sleeve, the city and surrounds offer two clear must-play golf courses and ample options for that desire-sating third loop.
A Federal Inquiry
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canberrans were asked to walk, run and cycle in only a clockwise direction around Lake Burley Griffin, the aquatic centrepiece of the city. But don’t mistake that edict as an indication of a one-directional approach to life in the capital – a tag the city has tried to shed for years. Canberra owns more personality and ingenuity than is revealed by politics and landmarks alone.
Golf-wise, that resourcefulness is in full force at Federal Golf Club. Amid the chaos and carnage of last summer’s devastating bushfires and then the pandemic, the Red Hill club has managed to boost its annual rounds played by 18,000 and attract more than 100 new members – more than half from the hard-to-entice 22 to 35-year-old demographic. Intertwined with that youth push is a club captain who is just 27 years old. Add some tweaks to the course, including levelling of some tees, as well as the addition of eye-catching tee signage and it’s been a year of activity – and success – for Federal.
“We’re pretty proud of the work we’ve done in what would otherwise be a very, very challenging year,” says general manager Anthony Sinclair. “We were closed for six weeks of the year, and we’ve increased our revenue from pre-COVID… with bushfires and drought. The demand for the game on top of that growth that we’re already seeing is just amazing. Really, really incredible.
“We’re a public-access golf course. We’re very, very happy to have visitors, and especially those with a handicap. If you don’t, it’s fine as well. We have a calendar of availability for the public for the golf course.”
During the pandemic and a period of difficulty for Canberra and the surrounding area, Sinclair says their experience at Federal showed golf became something of a safe haven for people. Attributes like the open air and a stunning environment in which to spend a few hours had people literally knocking on the door to get in.
“I’m sitting in my office, and I’m the only one in the clubhouse, and I had people driving into the club, banging on my window trying to get in to join when we were closed. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that before. That was pretty crazy.”
I had people driving into the club, banging on my window trying to get in to join when we were closed. – Anthony Sinclair, Federal Golf Club
And why is Federal so popular? Aside from the myriad kangaroos on course, the undulating terrain and the Brindabella Range in the distance, it’s the kind of golf course that challenges all levels of golfer without owning a high intimidation factor.
“I always felt like that’s the kind of course people want to play. They don’t want to get brutalised, they want to find their ball, they want to enjoy a round of golf at a decent pace, and we have all of that covered,” Sinclair says.
The Royal Treatment
It’s been a hectic past few years at Royal Canberra Golf Club. The city’s most iconic and best-known golf course hosted the Women’s Australian Open in 2013 – part of the celebrations of Canberra’s centenary year – before embarking on a substantial redesign spanning 2014 to 2016, one that was largely well-received. Then the couch infestation happened.
A combination of adopting a strain of creeping bentgrass that had never been grown in Australia before and some live remnants of the couchgrass infiltrating that fairway grass meant an aggressive couch eradication program was required in 2019 followed by a reseeding of the bent to bring the playing surfaces back to their usual supreme condition. It was an unfortunate chapter in the proud club’s history but, much like the bushfire situation, it is happily in the past.
“It’s in fabulous condition now,” says general manager Matthew Olson of the healing the turf has experienced as well as the recuperation the whole course has enjoyed after a wicked summer. “It’s been remarkable what the course staff have been able to achieve in a short amount of time.”
Royal Canberra owns a unique setting within a climate of extremes. The 27 holes sit in a heritage-listed arboretum beside a vast lake just 10 minutes from the centre of a major city.
“It’s a special place and a really fun place to play,” says Olson, who came to Royal Canberra last year from The Lakes Golf Club, so is familiar with the nature of an Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead redesign. It’s the space to move and the non-claustrophobic corridors of the Westbourne course that give the redesigned version the edge over the previous iteration. “It’s a friendly golf course. You can have 36 Stableford points and walk away feeling good about your game,” Olson says.
In what was more a cogent series of tweaks rather than a full-scale overhaul of Commander John Harris’ original version, the OCCM redesign opened up several new angles, rebuilt and recontoured bunkers and greens for more short-game shot options, and cleared trees where necessary to let the turf and holes ‘breathe’. However, further renovation plans for holes 19-27 remain well down the track.
Royal Canberra ceased all non-member play from March until July 1 but the course today is surprisingly accessible for visitors, unaccompanied or otherwise. Mondays and Thursdays are the best days for visiting golfers with an official handicap, although write a letter to the club and there’s a good chance of securing a tee-time on the other days of the week.
A Third Act
Royal Canberra (ranked 25th) and Federal (80th) are the only ACT courses to figure in our biennial Top 100 Courses ranking, however multiple layouts in the region would make for a pleasant third – even fourth – day’s golf in the capital. Yowani Country Club arguably holds third-place billing, but Gold Creek Country Club and Gungahlin Lakes Golf Club might argue otherwise. As could Queanbeyan Golf Club, a past Women’s New South Wales Open venue, Murrumbidgee Country Club and Magpies Belconnen Golf Club.
And as Federal’s Anthony Sinclair says, the appeal of Canberra’s golf courses spills over into its off-course attractions.
“There’s some good places to stay as well, and definitely if you’ve got kids and they want to be entertained while you’re out playing golf, there’s stuff like Questacon and the National Gallery and all the exhibitions, and they’re amazing. It’s just the best.”