South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula might just stake a claim as being one of this country’s most underrated golf destinations.
Good wine and good golf seem to go hand in hand. Look at any map showcasing the best wine-growing regions in Australia and you will undoubtedly find quality golf courses nearby.
A case in point is the famous McLaren Vale wine region, which can be found at the northern gateway of the popular Fleurieu Peninsula, just 60 minutes’ drive from Adelaide’s CBD.
Wine aside, the Fleurieu is also renowned for its natural beauty with a mix of rolling hills, rugged coastline, national parks and beaches, while historic towns like Victor Harbor and Yankalilla offer a touch of old world charm.
The peninsula has become a holiday playground, perfect for day trips or weekends away, with golf playing a starring role. Your first tee time should be at Mount Compass Golf Course, which can be found just a short 20-minute drive from nearly 70 McLaren Vale cellar doors.
The course lies across land that was, up until the early ‘90s, a sand mine and the late Brian Crafter was commissioned to craft the layout.
Crafter passed away before construction of the front nine holes started. His son, Neil, took over the project and the front nine was completed in 1995. When it was decided a second nine holes should be added Neil Crafter was commissioned to design it. Holes 10 through 18 were opened in 1998. There is no doubt Crafter had a very good piece of land to work with. The sand base has been left alone across much of the property, while some holes have been given little more than some sculpting in the right direction.
This sand base was ideal for Crafter to create some wonderful bunkers. There are 89 sand traps scattered throughout the layout. Some have a rough, natural appearance like those found on the right edge of the 1st fairway and behind the 6th green. Other sand traps are of the smaller pot bunker style but these penal traps have been used sparingly.
In fact, the 6th hole is one of the highlights of a round at Mount Compass. The dogleg right par-4 with water and marshes guarding the direct line to the green, is a classic risk-and-reward dilemma. Take on the hazard with driver and you’ll need to fly the ball a good 200 metres to safety. With a bunker ready to catch anything right and swampy bushes punishing anything left, you will also need to hit a precise line for full value. Do that, and you’re rewarded with a wedge or 9-iron to the green.
Option B, the strategy I always follow, is to trace the fairway and bail-out to the left. The downside, heightened by the easterly breeze we were pushing into, is that even a 200-metre hybrid from the tee to the apex leaves a long approach into a raised putting surface. But that’s the beauty of this hole – it switches off the auto-pilot driver selection and instead makes you consider the factors of the day, from weather conditions to ball-striking.
And this is what has to be admired by this layout. It is a thinker’s course where long isn’t necessarily best and trouble from the tee can mean re-loading. The option to take driver or to play it safe with a trusty hybrid is the player’s option from every tee – and just as the rewards are on offer for aggressive play, the punishment for an errant hit is as much a companion as the joy in mastering any of the Crafters’ 18 wonderful holes.
The course has blossomed since 2016 when new ownership took over and recommissioned Neil Crafter to oversee a renovation of the layout. It is now being discussed as a genuine contender to return to the list of Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses.
One course that already occupies a spot in that ranking is Links Lady Bay Resort, which can be found at the end of a 35-minute drive south west to Normanville.
Links Lady Bay was No.58 in the 2017 ranking and will be seriously challenged by Mount Compass when the 2019 ranking is released next month, which will raise the profile of the Fleurieu Peninsula as a golfing destination even more.
Links Lady Bay covers a coastal plain wedged between rolling hills and the waters of the Gulf of St Vincent and is routed in two loops of nine holes that head out from the luxury resort, which overlooks the front nine. Each hole runs in a different direction to the previous, which challenges the golfer to become a keen judge of the ever-present breeze.
The 339-metre par-4 4th is one of my favourites at Lady Bay. Flanked by surrounding hills to the left and beyond the green, this hole runs across the highest section of the outward half and offers views of the course, an adjoining vineyard and the gulf. After playing a blind drive over a gentle rise, you are faced with an interesting approach shot to an L-shaped green.
For mine, the green is a little too dramatically shaped but it does place a premium on club selection and accuracy. The pin placement on the green will certainly affect your approach. When the hole is towards the back, accuracy is so important as the green narrows considerably. When the pin is forward, club selection is paramount with a small creek and a bunker coming into play at the front of the putting surface. Leaving your approach in the wrong section of the green is a major blunder here.
Arguably the best par-3 at Lady Bay, and one of the best on the peninsula, is the 197-metre 17th. It is a beautiful hole. With the coastline off in the distance and tufted grasses swaying in the breeze and shimmering between tee and green, you feel immediately transported to the great links of Ireland.
Played into a westerly, a full-blooded drive might be required to reach the green. Downwind, though, bouncing a mid-iron in short and letting it run to the flag is recommended. There are no hazards in front of the green but disaster can be found right of the putting surface where several deep bunkers lay hidden.
After your round, you can sit in the resort bar and look over the course, going through the post mortems of the round while enjoying the sunset over the gulf.
There are more panoramic ocean views to be found at Victor Harbor – the Fleurieu’s most popular beachside town. There are two ‘musts’ when visiting Victor Harbor – catch the horse-drawn tram across the bridge to Granite Island, which is home to penguins and seals. Secondly, a round of golf at Victor Harbor Golf Club beckons.
“There are more panoramic ocean views to be found at Victor Harbor – the Fleurieu’s most popular beachside town.”
Victor Harbor’s par-72 course is the most underrated layout on the peninsula. The clubhouse is perched high above the course and from here you get a sweeping view of Granite Island and the blue waters of Encounter Bay.
The club celebrated its centenary in 2011 and its 87th year on its current site. The course started as a nine-holer and was extended to 18 holes in 1934 but when the club closed during World War II it reverted to grazing land. After the war, it wasn’t until the mid-1950s before all 18 holes were back in play.
In the late 1970s, a club committee made several annual trips to Melbourne’s Sandbelt and plans were adopted, along with a masterplan from designer Brian Crafter, to incorporate some of the best elements of Sandbelt design into the layout.
Many of the greenscapes featuring large bunkers, swales and steep slope drop-offs would easily be at home in the famed area. The trimming of putting surfaces right up to the lip of bunkers – greenside and on the fairways – is typically Sandbelt-like and really adds to the appeal of a round at Victor Harbor.
What you won’t find on the Sandbelt is a tee elevated 25-plus metres above a fairway. The 1st tee sits right alongside the clubhouse and the opening drive here is one of the most picturesque in Australian golf. This is not just a pretty hole either. At 402 metres, this par-4 is heavily tree-lined on both sides of the fairway. While the hole plays considerably shorter because of the highly elevated tee, the breeze here is also a factor on your length and accuracy.
One of the most memorable holes at Victor Harbor comes early in the round and is a fine example of nature dictating the design of a hole. The 150-metre par-3 3rd features a tee, surrounded by trees and shrubs, perched on one side of a deep gully and the green on the other side. A water hazard at the bottom of the gully doesn’t come into play for most players but the five bunkers surrounding the angled green certainly do.
WHERE TO STAY
LINKS LADY BAY
Stay overnight in a King Spa suite and enjoy a delicious hot breakfast in the restaurant while overlooking the course. Then head out for 18 holes in a cart before a light lunch in the Peninsula Café. Packages start from $375 twin share per night (pictured right).
Hotel Victor, in Victor Harbor, offers 31 quality rooms with en suite facilities. Play and stay packages are available and offer two nights’ accommodation, breakfast included and three rounds of golf including rounds at Victor Harbor, Links Lady Bay and McCracken Country Club. Package starts from $329 per person twin share.
APOLLON MOTOR INN
With individually styled rooms ideal for couples and larger rooms to accommodate families, the Apollon is also home to the only indoor heated swimming pool in the heart of Victor Harbor. Room options start from $110 per night.