Down Under with Dad and Dr. MacKenzie

A filial tale of forgotten clubs and unforgettable courses in Australia.


It sounds so appealing: Son taking father on a golf trip.

Though Scotland seems to be No. 1 on these filial jaunts (ever read James Dodson’s Final Rounds?), ours occurred in Australia last year, courtesy of Tourism Australia, which wants American golfers to understand the vast range of courses available in the country’s three leading population centers—Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

My father, Lew, jumped at the chance. Just 69 but now retired, he plays more golf than a PGA Tour pro, thanks to his two-minute drive to the first tee of River Island Country Club in the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Like so many members there, he has cut a groove into the course. No matter the quality of his ball-striking, he always shoots between 78 and 84.

Over the years, however, he has gained a serious reputation for leaving a trail of wedges, putters, occasional nine irons and five irons, as well as head covers and assorted other golf accoutrements. Don’t ask about car keys and trunks. Lew had 14 clubs in his bag when we boarded our Qantas flight out of LAX, and I had the over-under line at 11 upon our return.


The Gold and the Sunshine

We were midway through our very first round at Lakelands Golf Club, just west of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, when I heard a familiar wail. “Jeeeez! I left my damn sunglasses on the range.” In less than four hours on the continent, Lew had already lost something.

There wasn’t any need for Lew to see Lakelands through rose-colored glasses anyway. The Jack Nicklaus design works its way through a housing development using the Nicklaus formula of wide fairways and greens, favoring Jack’s belief in building amateur-friendly courses. Just like we get in the United States. Also like the States, Australia has California real-estate prices. Homes around Lakelands, about 60 miles south of Brisbane, had been selling for AUS$800,000 to AUS$1 million, (about US$600,000-US$750,000). As we cruised through Surfers Paradise, a growing suburb south of Brisbane that is in the heart of a 33-mile stretch of perfect white-sand beaches, we realized Australia has a new national bird, the construction crane.

The next day we moved from the Radisson to the Marriott in downtown Surfers Paradise. From there we headed over to The Villa, which isn’t so much a course as an experience. A Japanese businessman transformed the grounds around a large house along the Nerang River into an 18-hole, par-66 course. It was like playing in a garden, only the garden served ice-cold Crown Lager, a gourmet lunch, fine cigars and no par four longer than 350 yards. Although he didn’t realize it until we were back at the hotel, Lew repaid the hospitality by donating a Mizuno sand wedge on—we think—The Villa’s 17th. Two days, two items.

It’s always a risk blending business and family, and I tried to tell Lew my interests in the trip extended beyond holes 1 through 18. For example, there was syrah, known Down Under as shiraz, a grape rich and lush and with enough tannin to stop a bullet. I got lucky at the Omeros Brothers, a restaurant whose grilled barramundi, paired with a Barossa Valley shiraz, produced a near-perfect meal.

During our drive north from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast, we got off the highway and headed east to Mooloolaba, a quaint surfer town—if “quaint” includes million-dollar condos overlooking the Pacific. While drinking some dark-roast coffee at a charming café, I told the manager my desire to play golf nearby at the Hyatt Coolum, which three months earlier had held the Australian PGA. “You want me to be your third then?” he replied before making the call.

This Robert Trent Jones Jr. course played soggy from heavy rains six weeks earlier, and it worked us over pretty well. Our most vivid memory, however, was dodging a pelican the size of a Kenworth on the 13th hole. Kangaroos on the 18th hopped out of camera range. To his credit, despite the Wild Kingdom atmosphere, Lew left with the same amount of gear he arrived with—minus a few balls, of course.

Later that night, we checked into the Sheraton in Noosa, about 70 miles north of Brisbane. A young Greg Norman dreamed of becoming a professional surfer in these waters. Unlike the Gold, the Sunshine Coast is more Big Sur-like, rocky and steep. That makes Noosa its Carmel, only with near-tropical weather. Just to the north is reportedly the cleanest ocean water in the world.

In Noosa we received some insight into Australia, which had changed some since my first visit back in 1998. The Aussies have slowed down. Mad Max has been told to cool it on the highways.

“It’s simple,” said the bartender at the Sheraton. “In Australia, we give kids the keys to the car at 17. A year later, we give them a beer.” The combination of a legal drinking age of 18 and ample open space produced some predictably deadly results. 

The speed limit on national highways rarely exceeds 65 mph. To enforce it, the state and local police employ photo radar, a high-speed camera loaded in the back of a parked car that captures offenders on film. “It really works well,” the bartender said. “I got three pictures of me driving my car at home on the refrigerator. I look great in all of them.”

The Aussie spirit has not been dimmed, however. According to this bartender, a group of men snuck up on one photo-radar car, removed its front license plate and placed it on the front of their car. They proceeded to pass the radar car at a high rate of speed nine times, spawning nine moving violations for a parked vehicle.

With that laugh in our minds, Lew and I settled into Jasper, a restaurant with a piano bar on Hastings Street in the middle of Noosa. It was a quiet Sunday night, and I met Ric Hastings, a local musician who plays saxophone. Prior to arriving in Noosa, he ran a Hong Kong jazz club, an experience that produced a great story about former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor that—trust me—isn’t suitable for print.

The next day, as we loaded our car after our round at Noosa Springs Golf Club, an American-style golf track in a lush country-club setting, I saw this lanky body lope through the parking lot. Jet black hair, a tan the color of a Milky Way bar, jet black wrap-around sunglasses, and pearl-white lip gloss. It could only be Patrick Rafter.

“Hit the yellow ball much these days,” I asked.

“Not much,” he replied.

“Well, if I had to bet on you or Sampras on the golf course, who would I go with?”

“Pete plays off eight, does he? Well, I play off four.”

I told the two-time U.S. Open champ I would bet on him. As he turned to put his clubs in the trunk, I reminded myself to get a Taser in case the raffish Rafter came around my wife. I then told Lew to load up; we were going to drive to Brisbane and get on a plane. He had seen nothing yet.


The Sandbelt

Australia, home to just 20 million people in a land mass roughly the size of the contiguous 48 U.S. states, has six states. Getting from one to another takes time. Flying from Queensland to Victoria is a two-and-half hour flight, and it took us, in one sense, from the fresh concrete and bronze tans of southern California to the tweed and traditions of San Francisco, which means Melbourne.

We checked into the Langham Hotel, one of the great inner-city hotels in the world and home to the largest chandelier in the southern hemisphere. The next morning, in a light fog, we arrived on the first tee of Kingston Heath Golf Club, perhaps the epitome of the Sandbelt courses.

“What’s the card say?” I asked Lew. “Four nineteen” was the reply.

“That’s meters,” I said. “Right out of the box: 464 yards, par four.”

The Heath opened in the 1920s, and it might be Greg Norman’s favorite course. His mentor in America, Tom Crow, the founder of Cobra Golf, is an 11-time club champ at Kingston Heath. Kingston’s style is so old it’s almost funny. Tee markers consist of a white board in the ground. The ball washer is a pan of water next to a wire basket intended for waste, such as broken tees. That’s it. You’re in the bush with your sticks.

Dan Soutar is credited with the Heath’s layout, but Alister MacKenzie did the bunkering—cavernous waves of sand stacked on top of each other, menacingly deep pits with steep walls near the greens. And the greens are firm enough to make a Womp! sound even on short chips.

Heathland courses are relatively flat, but they are built on sand, which drains particularly well. That means the turf becomes tight and hard, yet remains healthy, which makes the ball roll and roll. (It’s common practice in the Sandbelt to take a pull cart on the putting surfaces.) There’s no out-of-bounds, no water, and, if the rough grew a little, you could play the U.S. Open on it tomorrow.

“This is the best,” Lew said after experiencing MacKenzie’s devilish work. The lunch in the men’s grill included a “Heath burger,” which from the bottom up consisted of bread, a large slab of ground beef, lettuce, tomato, beets and a fried egg. A large helping of fries accompanied it all.

As we reveled in the charm of Kingston Heath, it dawned on me that this doesn’t happen in America. The Heath, a private club currently ranked No. 2 in Australia, could be compared to Cypress Point in the United States, where it is nearly impossible for the average person to get a tee time. All it takes in Australia is proper arrangements.

All the best private courses on the Sandbelt—Royal Melbourne (arguably the best course in the world), Kingston, Commonwealth, Victoria and Metropolitan (site of the 1999 Match Play Championship)—are open to international play. The best way to arrange play at these courses is to contact a firm like GolfSelect in Australia, which will work with the clubs to get you tee times. Kingston and Royal Melbourne are about US$250 each and worth every penny. The other thing is that the Sandbelt clubs are very close to each other—minutes really. Victoria is next door to Royal Melbourne. Playing 36 a day is easy.


Mornington Time

By this time, the itinerary became a little intense. From the Langham, Lew and I drove southwest on the Mornington Peninsula toward Cape Schanck, fitting for a golf trip. The Mornington is to Melbourne what Napa Valley is to San Francisco, an area rich in wineries, but also with a stunning coastline on Port Phillip Bay.

After our 90-minute drive from Melbourne, Lew and I played the Moonah Course at National Golf Club, had lunch, then made a five-minute trip to Moonah Links to play the Open Course, which did nothing to contradict the warning from head pro Sean Charleston that it’s a “brutal, tough course designed for the world’s best golfers and modern equipment.”

They hold the Australian Open at Moonah Links, which I claim to be golf’s Bataan Death March.

Dinner afterward stretched until 11 p.m. because Nigel Harrison, who runs Norman’s course design firm in Australia, dropped in for a glass or two of shiraz. We were expected up at five the next morning to head back toward Melbourne to play Royal Melbourne. But we couldn’t leave because Harrison kept telling stories.

Here’s my favorite: Harrison’s in Florida with Norman, who got word that his new Ferrari had arrived. Norman, Harrison, Jack Nicklaus’ son Gary and Formula 1 race-car driver Nigel Mansell—just another typical day at the Shark’s house, I guess—hop into Norman’s Rolls for the cruise down I-95 into Miami. There, Norman suggested a race back to his place in Hobe Sound.

“I figure if we’re going to race, I might as well get in the car with the guy who does it for a living,” Harrison said, so he and Mansell set out after Norman and Nicklaus up I-95. Speeds delved deep into triple digits as the two cars wove in and out of traffic. A Florida state trooper pulled over both of them.

“Nigel turns to me and says, ‘Now, don’t laugh, but I actually am a constable in a small town back in England.’” It was Mansell’s way to get out of a ticket, Harrison said. The trooper had finished talking to Norman in the Ferrari and strolled over to Mansell in the Rolls.

“‘I don’t know what your story is,’” the trooper said, according to Harrison. “‘But that guy up there said he doesn’t deserve a ticket, but you do.’”


MacKenzie Land

MacKenzie did all his work in Australia within a relatively short period of time, and he never saw the finished results. Royal Melbourne now has two courses, East and West, with 12 of the original MacKenzie holes on the East, which we got to play. The original, or composite, course served as host to the 1998 President’s Cup.

Everything is there for you to see. No hidden bunkers, no sneaky creeks, no railroad ties. During the 2005 Heineken Classic, the players said it was too short, but the last two holes on the East Course were 446 and 445 yards, doglegs left and right, respectively.

The wide fairways are deceiving because the slopes of the greens require such precision on the approach shot to give a decent chance at birdie, or par for that matter. On 18, Lew found himself 30 feet above the hole and watched disgustedly as his putt strolled past the hole and then kept going off the green. It’s actually fun shooting 88. Just like at Cypress Point, as soon as we walked off 18 I had the strongest desire to march right back to No. 1 and try again.

The next day, after the 90-minute flight to Sydney and check-in at the Grace Hotel, Lew and I came to the first tee at New South Wales Golf Club, MacKenzie’s dream on the bluffs where Captain Cook landed 235 years ago.

MacKenzie’s art was routing; playing his courses are like following a trail, with each hole fitting into the next like a puzzle. The tough, par-five fifth peaks on a rise that shows Botany Bay, and the par-three sixth is a six iron over the South Pacific—Australia’s equivalent to Cypress Point’s 16th. Lew had wanted to take a cart, but I convinced him to walk, and afterward he said he was glad he did.

The round completed an itinerary that notched three courses from Golf Magazine’s World Top 100: Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath and New South Wales. We left each with renewed appreciation for classic course architecture—and, surprisingly, with the same number of clubs with which we arrived.

Lew hadn’t lost a club in a week. Not only was he stuck on 13; he’d turned a profit. “Whose are these,” I asked when I held up a pair of shoes as we re-checked our golf clubs back at the Grace.

“Aren’t they yours?” Lew asked. A few phone calls revealed he had grabbed shoes belonging to a Royal Melbourne member.

“I’ve heard of interesting ways to get invited back,” I said, “but that’s the most creative.”


Ted Johnson is a contributing editor. This story originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of Colorado AvidGolfer.


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