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.

One of the most photographed holes in Australia – the par-3 7th of the Old Course. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The 359-metre par-4 11th is an example of what the Moonah Course demands at every hole – strategy, courage, and an ounce of good fortune – the quintessence of golf. This is a wonderful natural hole where the tee shot is played to a plateau, leaving a mid-iron into a diagonally positioned green that slopes markedly from back left to front right. The bunkers cut into the edge of the dune beneath the green can prove deceptive when deciding what club to hit into the green.

The challenge to Norman and Harrison was to create a layout that is, of course, testing but fair, given the landscape and opposing weather extremes. They have certainly achieved that end.

“We knew there was a great course buried out there somewhere under the 250 acres of sand dunes,” Harrison said. “I think we found it.”

In 2017, the club decided to enter into discussions with acclaimed American architect Tom Doak to come up with a concept plan for the Ocean Course, which was seen as being a very difficult layout and was the lowest ranked of the Cape Schanck-based courses.

Opening for play last year, Doak’s Gunnamatta Course is far more than a redesign of the Ocean layout. It is very much a new course, with Doak virtually turning the course upside down – replacing the repelling upturned greens of the Ocean Course with majestic greensites, many with receptive punchbowl shaping or slopes continuing onto the putting surfaces from surrounding mounds.

“My first impression was that maybe the property was too hilly to be great for golf, due to the Ocean 2nd hole with its steep approach,” Doak told Golf Australia. “My eye was drawn to the new green site, well short and left, but I thought that was impractical because it was such a long walk up to the next tee in the corner.

“But then I realised I could play into the old 17th hole instead to tack my way uphill, and I realised there was potential for a real transformation, because there were no trees between holes, it was easy to establish new green sites just by sticking a flag in the ground.”

Gunnamatta’s 3rd hole covers the old Ocean Course’s 17th fairway and leads to a wonderful green complex. PHOTO: Brendan James.

I played Doak’s new creation shortly after it officially opened in October. I was coming off a long period of poor play and wasn’t really fussed about playing the game. I walked off the Gunnamatta Course with my love of the game renewed. I had not had as much fun on a golf course in a very long time.

On reflection, this was no different to all the other Doak designs I have been lucky enough to play – like Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers and St Andrews Beach – during the past two decades. They’re all fun to play but with Gunnamatta, Doak has crafted one of his most challenging and enjoyable courses.

“When I started out in design 30-plus years ago, I noticed that fun was a word never used in marketing golf courses – even resort courses were sold as being serious tests of golf,” Doak said.

“I decided right away to concentrate on building courses that were beautiful and fun to play. Of course, for good players, a course must be challenging to be fun, and my courses are challenging, but in an engaging way, not in a relentless way.”

Gunnamatta’s closing hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Gunnamatta is certainly no different. As is the case with any redesign of an established course at a member’s club, a designer could easily second guess themselves or worry about how their work will be received. Not Doak.

“I don’t really worry much what golfers will fuss about in my work,” Doak said. “But for The National, I understood that they have three courses and our goal should be to make a course that contrasted with the others.

“It didn’t have to appeal to every member, as long as it claimed its fair share of play, and I’m confident it will. The course is wide enough to be playable for members even on the windiest days, which also means there’s a chance to go low in calm conditions, but you’ll have to hit some great golf shots to do that.

“Like my other courses in Australia, there are some terrific short par-4s and a memorable set of par-3s, but the three par-5 holes are unusually good for my work, too.”

He’ll get no argument from me.

Every shot you face on the Gunnamatta Course presents questions as Doak provides different playing options depending on your ability, while the terrain and the conditions of the day add the variables.

The testing par-3 5th hole on the Moonah Course. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The 355-metre par-4 2nd is a perfect example. This hole was shortened with the green brought forward to lie in a pocket just beyond two left side fairway bunkers and only a few metres inside the boundary fence. The key here is leaving yourself a straightforward second shot. You could take an iron from the tee, leave a 100-metre wedge shot from a flat lie, and have a better chance of making birdie than the player blasting a driver at the green, missing, and having a difficult chip from the wrong side of the putting surface.

The following hole, a 360-metre par-4, is a big departure from the previous design. Doak routed his 3rd hole to head back to the east – playing from the Ocean Course 3rd tee to the old 17th fairway – to a new ‘bowl-like’ green site carved out of the side of a sand dune which is receptive to long shots. It’s a gem.

A visit to The National is like going to a five-star smorgasbord, and never fulfilling your appetite. At Cape Schanck, there are 54 world-class, beautifully presented holes that rarely ever play the same way twice. At Long Island, you get a tasting sample of Melbourne Sandbelt golf. Leave time to play all 72 holes … you won’t be disappointed.

THE COURSE

LOCATION: The Cups Drive, Cape Schanck, Victoria, 3939; Long Island: Frankston-Dandenong Rd, Frankston, Victoria, 3199.

CONTACT: (03) 5988 6666 (Cape Schanck); (03) 9786 4122 (Long Island).

WEBSITE: www.nationalgolf.com.au

DESIGNERS: Old Course – Robert Trent Jones Jnr (1987); Moonah Course – Greg Norman and Bob Harrison (2000); Gunnamatta Course – Tom Doak (2019); Long Island – Gordon Oliver (1938) and Vern Morcom (1945).

SLOPE RATINGS: (Old Course) Men – Green 119, Red 121, Black 138; Women – Gold 120, Green 126, Red 139. (Moonah Course) Men – Black 133, Blue 126, Red 120; Women – Green 124, Red 133. (Gunnamatta Course) Men – Black 125. (Long Island) Men – Black 136, Blue 135, White 131; Women – Red 136.

GREEN FEES: The National Golf Club is a private golf club. Interstate and overseas visitors can request a tee time via the club’s website and will need to provide a letter of introduction from their home club. Victorian residents need to be invited as a guest of a member. Green fees are charged per round and guests may play up to 36 holes in one day. Prices are upon application.

COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Leigh Yanner.

PGA PROFESSIONALS: Craig Funch (Director of Golf, Cape Schanck); Richard Quested (Director of Golf, Long Island). Tim Stone and Andrew Kloprogge (teaching professionals).

THE CLUB

MEMBERSHIPS: There are various membership options available at The National to join the club as either a private or a corporate member. This includes both acquiring share equity in the organisation or leasing the membership playing rights of an existing member. The various share classes and membership types can be viewed on the club website. To arrange a personal, no-obligation tour of the club and to obtain further information contact the membership and corporate manager Jeremy Watson on (03) 5988 2744 or email JeremyW@nationalgolf.com.au

Members have playing rights on all four Top-100 ranked courses, access to exceptional clubhouse and practice facilities as well as a large fleet of motorised carts.

PRACTICE FACILITIES: The range at Cape Schanck offers more than 100 square metres of quality rye grass to hit off. The range has seven target greens at varying distances for approach to green practice, and is more than 260 metres in length for long game practice. The short game practice areas are designed with contours and slopes similar in nature to the design features of the courses and provide the ideal short game practice including: bunker practice, pitching practice and putting practice.