Australia’s largest golf club boasts four 18-hole courses. There is the Old, Moonah and recently opened Gunnamatta layouts spread across exceptional golfing terrain on the oceanside of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula at Cape Schanck. Some 40 minutes’ drive north towards Melbourne is the club’s Long Island course. Long Island was added to the stable of The National’s courses after a merger five years ago.

All four courses are ranked in Australia’s Top-100 Courses by Golf Australia magazine, with the Cape Schanck-based layouts all featured highly at No.10 (Gunnamatta), No.13 (Moonah) and No.23 (Old).

These accolades, a membership exceeding 3,200 and to see the golf that exists there after 35 years, is testament to one of the greatest success stories of Australian golf.

The National Golf Club was launched to the public in a tent at the 1985 Australian Masters by entrepreneur David Inglis. The foundation of its establishment was based on the memberships being sold as an equity shareholding of the club and this model has been copied by several clubs since.

As a result of his creative design at Joondalup Country Club in Perth, American course architect Robert Trent Jones Jnr was commissioned by the club to craft the first layout, now famously known as the Old course. He couldn’t believe his luck to get the job.

Deep bunkers dominate the final approach into the green on the 18th hole of the Old Course. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Jones famously told the founding members: “any golf course architect would kill for a piece of land like this. It is one of the most unique areas of links country left anywhere in the world.”

The Old course covers high, dramatic land covered by dense ti-tree and ancient Moonah trees, some of which have been found to date back 1,000 years. Bass Strait provides a stunning backdrop to most of the layout as it rises and falls from one ridge to another. The elevation change on many holes is so great it is like riding a roller-coaster in slow motion as you head from tee to green. In fact, the flattest lie you will encounter on this course is on each of the 18 tees.

A simple tee shot opens proceedings on the 342-metre (from the back markers) par-4 1st hole. It is a wide fairway in front with a lone bunker to the left and a Moonah tree growing out of a knoll in the right half of the fairway. The best playing line into the green is from the right so a drive skirting past or flying over the tree is a good one. The green – protected by five cavernous bunkers, two left and three right – features three clearly defined sections created by ridges running through the putting surface. Compared with some of the wildly undulating greens to be found later in the round this is a rather tame example of Jones’ work.

The short par-4 2nd of the Gunnamatta Course can be played several different ways. PHOTO: Brendan James.

You don’t have to get too far into the round here for the challenge to be ramped up to the extreme. The 390-metre par-4 3rd calls for a drive over a deep valley to a rippling fairway that climbs gradually to the green, which is partially obscured for the second shot. There are no bunkers around the two-terraced green but this doesn’t lessen the difficulty here. Your choice of club for the uphill shot, usually into the wind, is crucial to get your ball finishing on the same level as the flag.

The signature hole of the Old course is the 139-metre, par-3 7th, which is widely regarded as one of the finest par-3s in the country. It is hardly surprising such an accolade is bestowed upon this gem given the Bass Strait backdrop and the stunning topography the hole covers.

Club selection is vital despite the huge green. In a strong wind you have to be prepared to try and play a punching shot with a long iron to cover the same distance a short iron would normally handle. The putting surface is wide but any tee shot hit short, long or left of the green can be kissed goodbye as it sails into the ti-tree. A spine running through the middle of the putting surface complicates any putt rolling from one section another. This imaginative greenscape adds to the unforgettable golfing experience this hole offers.

Some golfers over the years have unfairly criticised the Old course for being too tough, especially in windy conditions. But the truth is any round here, whether it is in calm or gale force conditions, where you can go close to playing to your handicap is simply exhilarating.

The par-5 1st hole of the Gunnamatta Course inflicts as many bogies as it yields birdies. PHOTO: Brendan James.

In 1996 the then Club Chairman had a chance telephone conversation with the owner of the adjoining property, a spectacular piece of rolling natural linksland amongst the sand dunes with the coastline to Port Phillip Heads in the background. The club purchased the land and led to the expansion of The National to a 54-hole complex.

The plan included the construction of a multi-million-dollar clubhouse, which would overlook the two new courses to be built across the incredible golfing terrain to the west of the original layout. Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge were commissioned to create the Ocean Course, while Greg Norman and then chief architect Bob Harrison were appointed to create the layout to be known as the Moonah course. Both courses opened for play in 2000.

For Norman and Harrison, who to that time had crafted several courses on less than ideal land, were presented with the opportunity to produce their first links design. And what a job they did.

Harrison recalls walking the site and being excited about the dramatic rows of sand dunes and the valleys in between dictating the routing.

“To that stage we had worked on quite a lot of courses where, for one reason or another, heavy earthmoving was required,” Harrison says. “At The Glades it was excavating wetlands, at Sanctuary Lakes it was adding definition to the landscape. This type of work wasn’t required at Moonah.

“A lot of effort went into finding the greatest number of dramatic, natural holes, with much less concentration on design drawing.” – Moonah Course designer Bob Harrison

“It’s a links course over the most exhilarating, dramatic dunes and this sort of land imposes new challenges, whilst offering the chance of a lifetime,” Harrison said. “A lot of effort went into finding the greatest number of dramatic, natural holes, with much less concentration on design drawing.”

Harrison said the natural contouring of the site was so intricate drawings were abandoned and old-fashioned course shaping by eye was employed.

There is not one hole among the 18 that does not stop you in your tracks and ask you to admire it for a while. The wild bunkering and deep rough wide of each fairway, conjure thoughts of Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. Add the dunes of England’s Royal Birkdale and you have a contender for the World’s Top-100 courses.

The first world-class hole of the Moonah course comes early in the round. The stunning 497-metre par-5 2nd features a wide rippling fairway that bends gradually right, passing bunkers scattered at varying lengths down the right side. Majestic sand dunes to the left and behind the green frame the hole beautifully. When the wind is blowing in from the south off Bass Strait, it might be bitterly cold but the green becomes reachable for the brave willing to take on the scheme of bunkers short and right of the putting surface.

Moonah is a single loop out-and-back design that stretches to the north-west corner of the property. It is here where the most undulating land has given rise to some exciting holes.