A genuine links golf experience doesn’t require a 24-hour flight to Great Britain or Ireland as there’s an absolute beauty in our own backyard.
Playing the great links courses of Britain has always been one of the most exhilarating experiences in golf.
The springy turf, at its best reminiscent of velvet, is unique and a joy to hit irons shots from. The tumbling ground affords wildly differing stances forcing players to constantly adapt to the unusual, the wind is a constant presence and the bunkers are truly fearsome hazards to be avoided at all costs.
In Australia, we have courses people refer to as links but in truth they are usually courses played over undulating, sandy land and often with big dunes as a part of the landscape. They are vastly different to the true British or Irish links – famous and not so – that fill the narrow strips of land ‘linking’ the beach and the farmland beyond.
We have a few courses in Australia that offer that experience. The Barnbougle courses – Dunes and Lost Farm – as well as the King Island layouts – Cape Wickham and Ocean Dunes – are the most obvious.
Then there is Port Fairy – routed along rows of rolling unspoilt sand dunes, it is classic links where no two days on course are the same, thanks to the wind … Where the golf is fun, not brutal.
Once upon a time, it was a little-known links on Victoria’s south-west coast. Today, it is firmly entrenched among the top-50 courses in the nation. It is no longer the mystery it once was, even as recent as 15 years ago. Golfers used to ‘discover’ its delights by chance, perhaps looking for a game after trekking along the Great Ocean Rd. These days, it’s not uncommon to see golfers extricating their clubs from travel covers in the car park, having specifically navigated the three-and-a-half hour drive from Melbourne and from further afield.
Those visiting the links for the first time might be mistaken for thinking the course had been in the ground for a hundred years. While the club dates back to 1899, it has only been located among the dunes east of the coastal township since 1962. Back then, nine holes were laid out on the flatter ground of the site. A decade later, another three holes were added and finally, in 1985, the club officially opened as an 18-hole layout with former Australian Amateur Champion turned course architect Kevin Hartley overseeing the extension.
The design firm of OCCM (Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Clayton, Mike Cocking and Ashley Mead) has been working with the club for nearly two decades.
In that time, several holes have been redesigned to take advantage of the coastal location and add to the quality of the links. There have also been subtle improvements to the bunkering, some greens remodelled, while the selected removal of coastal scrub has opened up the ocean views on several holes.
It is safe to say all this work has simply tweaked what Mother Nature left behind among the sand dunes. Port Fairy’s wonderful natural feel, where the fairways subtly rise and fall over the natural folds in the landscape, is evident everywhere.
A first look of the Port Fairy scorecard lures you into a false sense of your own ability. Two par-5s – between 440 and 470 metres – and three par-4s measuring less than 330 metres in the first six holes would certainly have most regular players anticipating a good start to their round.
What the scorecard doesn’t reveal is the course’s two great defences – wind and the myriad of lies you will find beyond the tee on every hole.
“Port Fairy’s wonderful natural feel, where the fairways subtly rise and fall over the natural folds in the landscape, is evident everywhere.”
For example, on the short par-4 3rd hole, the fairway rolls over a diagonally set ridge as it turns slightly right to head to the green. If this was a flat hole of 304 metres you would expect to walk away with a par on most occasions. But the undulations between tee and green here, and the wind, make the second-shot approach here anything but straightforward. The first time I played Port Fairy, a stiff chilly south westerly was blowing and I hit a driver and knockdown 5-iron (from a slight hanging lie) into a deep bunker front right of the green. A further four shots were required before heading to the next tee.
It is a similar story two holes later, where the 448-metre par-5 ebbs and flows over the rippling terrain ensuring no two shots from the wide avenue of short grass are ever going to be exactly the same. I actually prefer to play this hole into the wind because it takes away the option of hitting the green in two. When the wind is favourable, you will try and get as close to the green as possible, no matter whether the ball is lying above or below your feet, and this can only mean trouble outside of making the perfect strike. It is another of the well-designed Port Fairy holes where birdies are as common as double and triple bogies.
The front nine is laid out among the dunes furthest from the beach and run predominantly east and west. The one exception is the 122-metre downhill par-3 8th, which is played to the north and is easily affected by the prevailing south-westerly and westerly winds blowing high struck tee shots right of the green and into one of two cavernous bunkers or deep hollows.
Port Fairy’s most exciting holes are incorporated into the stretch from the par-5 12th to the par-4 16th. The Southern Ocean comes into view for the first time as you walk onto the tee of the 465-metre 12th. It is a straightforward three-shotter with out-of-bounds on the beach to the right of the fairway and tall marram grass rough to the left. The key here is not to be distracted by the view and maintain control over your shots en route to the green. Five bunkers left and short of the round putting surface really come into play during the second shot when the wind is favourable.
The toughest of Port Fairy’s holes is the bunkerless 408-metre par-4 14th where a huge sand dune lies between the right edge of the fairway and out-of-bounds markers. When the wind is blowing hard off the sea from the right, it might be necessary to hit your drive over the sand dune to allow the wind to bring it back into the middle of the fairway. The second shot here is breathtaking. It doesn’t get much better than having to play any number of clubs (depending on the wind strength) from a downhill lie to a small green set against a Southern Ocean backdrop.
A spectacular redesign of the 178-metre par-3 15th in 2006 changed the direction of the hole to run along the coastline and it has proven a masterstroke. This is now, by far, the hardest par-3 on the course – missing the green here makes for a tough up-and-down – and has raised the bar on the challenge that confronts players as they near the end of their round.
“Port Fairy’s most exciting holes are incorporated into the stretch from the par-5 12th to the par-4 16th.”
The 365-metre par-4 16th is links golf at its best and is a real taste of what you might experience on the great links of Britain and Ireland. The sweeping dogleg left presents a blind tee shot to a fairway, riddled with bumps and swales, which is separated from the beach by a single line of sand dunes. The approach to the slightly elevated green is rarely played from a flat lie … Got to love the links.
LOCATION: Woodbine Rd, Port Fairy, Victoria, 3284.
CONTACT: (03) 5568 1654.
DESIGNERS: Members (1963); Kevin Hartley (1985); Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking & Mead (2001 and ongoing).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Troy Richardson.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Anthony Warburton.
SLOPE RATINGS: Men – Blue 124; White 118. Women – Red 119.
PLAYING SURFACES: Couch (fairways and tees); Bentgrass/Poa annua (greens).
GREEN FEES: $49 (18 holes); $15 (juniors, 18 holes).
MEMBERSHIPS: Full Ordinary memberships cost $680 and provide playing rights seven days per week. Country memberships, to those living outside 40km of the Port Fairy Post Office, cost $520.
ACCOLADES: No.43 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Courses ranking in 2018; No.21 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses in 2019.