Moonah Links has been a part of the Australian golfing landscape for the best part of two decades but recent ownership changes has the 36-hole complex looking as good as ever.
A tick over 20 years ago, five-time Open Champion and prolific course designer Peter Thomson stood on a sand dune overlooking a vast area of grazing land on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. He liked what he saw. He would later proclaim the site as the
“some of the finest golfing land to be found in Australia.”
Along with design partners Mike Wolveridge and Ross Perrett, Thomson was commissioned by the developers, Golf Australia Holdings, and the then named Australian Golf Union to create the first of two planned courses for Moonah Links. Also included on the masterplan for the 196-hectare property in the golf-rich Cups region were a state-of-the-art teaching and practice facilities as well as a resort and residential development.
By the time the Open Course was finished in 2001, the Australian Golf Union had changed its name to Golf Australia and Moonah Links was quickly named “The Home of Australian Golf.”
In its first handful of years after opening, Moonah Links gained a new owner in developer Paddy Handbury and hosted two Australian Open Championships across the layout Thomson would later refer to as a “leviathan” and, indeed, at 6,783 metres from the championship markers it can be a monster.
Designed specifically to test the game’s best players contesting our national championship, the Open course was originally lambasted by some as being too hard for the average player. However, if the course is played from the correct tees to suit a player’s ability, the Open course is an enjoyable excursion across some of the best golfing land to be found in the country.
The course has been routed over, through and around rolling sand dunes that undoubtedly took Mother Nature hundreds, if not, thousands of years to create.
For the average golfer, the Open course provides a stiff, but fair, challenge. It also gives them the chance to follow in the footsteps of some great current Australian players like Geoff Ogilvy, Robert Allenby, Peter Lonard, Adam Scott and Stuart Appleby – an opportunity that is difficult to come by given the Open has traditionally been played on private courses like Royal Melbourne, Royal Sydney or The Australian.
The peninsula is prone to being buffeted by strong winds and the Open course really bares its teeth on such days. But the strength of the challenge here is the enjoyable aspect of any round across the Open course’s fairways. You know if you can play to your handicap here you have indeed played well.
There are more than 80 bunkers scattered across the landscape but arguably the toughest hole on the course has no sand at all. From the tips, the par-4 6th measures 403 metres and follows a valley between dunes left and right as it gradually rises to the green. On a calm day the 6th green is a strong drive and a long- or mid-iron away but as the hole runs in a south-westerly direction, into the prevailing wind, it becomes a real brute when there is any hint of a breeze. During the final round of the 2005 Australian Open, few players could reach the green here but Rod Pampling was successful hitting two full-blooded drivers into the middle of the putting surface.
Conversely, the closing hole – a 582-metre par-5 – is a minefield of bunkers. There are 11 cavernous sandy pits strategically placed in the fairway between the tee and green. The fairway has also been crafted so that the contouring actually feeds rolling balls towards some of the bunkers so players must hit well clear of them to stay on the short grass.
The finishing touches were still being made to the Open Course in 2000 when a parade of course designers visited the site to look at the adjoining land earmarked for Moonah Links’ second course.
The design firms of Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Ben Crenshaw and Englishman Donald Steele all pitched for the job alongside Thomson, Wolveridge and Perrett but it was TWP that was chosen to create what we know today as the Legends Course.
The Legends, the first Australian design of Ross Perrett, opened for play three years after the adjoining Open layout, and within a year it had cemented a place among the cream of Australian public access courses.
Perrett’s successfully fulfilled the brief to design a course that would complement the brutish Open layout.
Although the 1st tee of the Legends course is no more than a 7-iron shot from the 18th green of the Open course, it heads out across a vastly different landscape.
The Legends opens with a series of parkland-style holes that rise and fall through valleys and in between long and dense stretches of ancient Moonah trees. The high ground off to the sides of these fairways has largely been filled with houses overlooking the course.
The course then takes on a new complexion as the Moonah trees thin out and wild, rugged bunkering, high sand dunes alongside gently rolling fairways give rise to a links-style course.
Very little earth was moved in the creation of the Legends course, which gives the impression it has been here for decades. Perrett did a wonderful job in routing the course to follow the roll of the land, sticking to the low ground wherever possible, while the aforementioned bunkering is not only visually intimidating but it adds to the visual appeal of the layout.
An interesting feature of the course is its celebration of past Australian Open champions. Each hole has been named after a winner of the championship, with the likes of Tom Watson (3rd hole), Greg Norman (4th), Arnold Palmer (6th) Jack Nicklaus (7th) and Gary Player (9th) all represented.
One of the most enjoyable attributes of the Legends course is the variety of holes and strategies required to play them well. The par-5s are all different and each demands a different approach depending on the wind strength and direction as well as the boldness of your play. This can be best seen on the 495-metre par-5 9th hole where the shortest line to the green is down the right half of the fairway but this route is also the most treacherous. Eight bunkers line the right edge of the fairway, which follows a valley between rows of mounds to reach the green set in an amphitheatre created by high, deep grass-covered dunes. With the prevailing wind pushing in from the right, the 9th calls for smart play not brute strength to better par.
One of the best short par-4s on the peninsula follows at the 272-metre 11th. Named after the great South African golfer Bobby Locke, the 11th is reachable from the tee for long hitters but the wind conditions must be conducive. Any hint of a southerly breeze will certainly be tempting enough to take the driver here but there are four penal bunkers to clear with the shot to reach the sanctuary of the green. With a wide fairway lying to the left of the sand traps, the conservative play is a long iron from the tee and a short iron approach to set up a birdie opportunity.
Handbury sold Moonah Links to a private Chinese developer for a reported $18 million in 2015. Since then, the standard of presentation on the Legends and Open courses has improved to a level rivalling what it was when Moonah Links gained a reputation for having some of the best playing surfaces in the country.
LOCATION: Peter Thomson Drive, Fingal, Victoria.
CONTACT: (03) 5988 2047 (pro shop);
(03) 5988 2000 (resort).
DESIGNERS: Peter Thomson, Mike Wolveridge and Ross Perrett (Open Course 2001); Ross Perrett (Legends Course 2004).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass (greens); Santa Ana couch (fairways, tees).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Kyle Wilson.
PGA PROs: There is a group of resident teaching professionals available upon booking for
GREEN FEES: June to September, $75 (18 holes), $130 (all day play); March to May and October $85 (18 holes), $150 (all day play); November to February; $95 (18 holes), $180 (all day play).
MEMBERSHIPS: Moonah Links offers unlimited playing rights on both courses through its Silver Medallion program. There is no upfront purchase and the annual subscription is $3,019 for a two-year term (non-transferable). Check the website for further entitlements.
ACCOMMODATION: Moonah Links has an Academy Stay and Play package for groups of 12 or more golfers. Prices start from $165 per person, which includes overnight accommodation in the academy, a round of golf including motorised cart and a slab of beer
For couples or a few mates, there is the charm and peaceful ambience of the Peppers Moonah Links Resort, which is a pitching wedge from both courses. Moonah rooms, one bedroom suites and Open rooms feature stylish décor with a natural palette and modern appliances with golf course outlooks.
For more information visit the website www.peppers.com.au/moonah