Playing desert golf is a unique experience.
The origins of the game are forever associated with links golf, with courses laid out against an ocean backdrop. While desert golf – perhaps the last frontier of the game – is played in a harsh arid and, sometimes, unforgiving environment. Yet, both places present an equally beautiful setting to play the game.
Considering this great, dry brown land is 35 percent desert (or is considered desert, based on an annual average rainfall of less than 100mm) it is a little surprising there are only two desert courses ranked in this nation’s Top-100 Courses.
There is the Graham Marsh-designed Kalgoorlie layout, and then there is Australia’s original desert course at Alice Springs Golf Club – a Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge creation that lies on the edge of suburbia but is unmistakeably desert golf at its finest. Driving to the course through the back streets of Alice’s eastern suburbs, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re a thousand miles away from the arid landscape you will soon trek across during your round.
The backdrop to this course is spectacular and unique.
Early in the morning or late in the day are the best times to witness the complete colourful splendour of a round at Alice Springs. It’s no wonder this course was once voted in the top-10 desert courses in the world.
The well-maintained playing surfaces are various shades of green and wide of the fairways the tinder-dry undergrowth is surrounded by the reds and yellows of rocky and sandy desert soils. The ochre glow of the MacDonnell Ranges, which forms a majestic backdrop to the course, is particularly impressive late in the day. Having been warmed all day by the sun, the quartzite, granite and sandstone of the range glows even after the sun has disappeared beyond the horizon to the west.
The course was the vision of a private consortium that approached the club in the early 1980s. The plan was to transform the barren fairways and sandscrape greens, which had been in play for more than four decades, into a fully-grassed par-72 layout and surround the development with upmarket homes overlooking the layout. Thomson and Wolveridge were commissioned to create the course and it opened for play in November 1985.
To mark the occasion, Greg Norman and American Johnny Miller played an exhibition match known as the “Fosters Challenge” and most of Alice Springs turned out to watch. Norman, eight months shy of his first Open Championship victory, coped best with the typically warm desert conditions by shooting a six-under-par 66 and established a course record that stood for many years.
RIGHT: A sandy wasteland cuts the 18th hole in two, demanding a strategic approach. PHOTO: Brendan James.
The record now stands at 64, set by two long-time local members Kerryn Heaver and Leigh Shacklady. The professional record of 65 was set by Stuart Appleby, which was later matched by David Diaz and David Iawasaki-Smith.
Nearly a decade ago, the course slipped into a steady period of decline with many of the Tifdwarf greens showing signs of stress and were badly affected by disease. The condition of the greens was reflected in the rankings as Alice Springs went into freefall in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses ranking. In 2015, the desert course dropped to an all-time low of No.89, but the eradication of the disease and the introduction of new management practices saw the greens thrive again. By January this year, Alice Springs had bounced back to No.84 in the same ranking, with Top-100 judges keen to report the presentation was again on par with the quality of the design.
Alice’s opening hole – a drive and pitch par-4 of 337 metres – eases you into the round. If you have a chance of birdie here, make the most of it as the proceeding two holes are much tougher.
The 404-metre par-4 2nd, rated the hardest hole on the course, features a rocky range to the right and out-of-bounds left. The green doesn’t let the pressure off either, with its enormous surface covering plenty of undulations, making the task of achieving par even harder.
The 171-metre 3rd is one of two ‘signature’ holes on the course. The view from the elevated tee is worth the cost of the green fee alone as the majestic MacDonnell Ranges provide a spectacular distant backdrop to the wide green, guarded front and right by bunkers. This won’t be the last time you stand over a shot, look up and see the range beyond the flag.
Most of Alice’s front nine fairways are flanked on at least one side by a small range of sand, rock and wispy grasses. Miss the short grass and you will find a rough, perhaps very rough, lie … welcome to the desert.
I loved every hole on the front nine, with the best being the ‘second’ signature hole, the 386-metre par-4 8th. The fairway winds like a snake between two ranges of the roughest of roughs, past a fairway bunker cut into a hill right and down to the green, which is guarded by three bunkers short. It’s a great hole and one of Thomson and Wolveridge’s best anywhere in the country.
The back nine has less elevation change than the front and there is less imposing trouble away from the fairway. Any big misses will usually result in a red, sandy lie. The key to playing from these areas is no different to playing from a fairway bunker – ensure you hit the ball first.
Interestingly, the first and last of the four par-3s at Alice Springs are exactly the same distance – 171 metres – from the tips. But both play very differently during a round – the 2nd plays to the south and to a slightly raised green, while the 15th treks to the west across the flattest section of the course. A red, sandy wasteland separates the tee from an island of green containing the putting surface and its well-kept surrounds. Four pot bunkers scattered across the front of the green need to be avoided at all costs.
Arguably the best short par-4 is Alice Springs’ penultimate hole. The par-4 17th is little more than a drive-and-pitch at 327 metres. However, a large fairway bunker right forces you to head left off the tee, bringing the only lake on the course into play for the green approach. A short iron is all that is required but when you haven’t been faced with avoiding water all day it does make you think twice about the shot and how embarrassing it would be to hit your ball into a lake on a desert course.
Alice Springs is a fun golf course. Good shots are rewarded and bad shots penalised – sometimes harshly – while the course can best be described as challenging, there is a lot to enjoy for the casual golfer. So, if you’re planning on heading to Alice to take in the sights – like the The Ghan train or Royal Flying Doctor museums, the desert parks, the aforementioned MacDonnell Ranges or you’re just en route to see Uluru (five hours’ drive away) – take your clubs as you won’t regret it.
LOCATION: Cromwell Drive, Alice Springs, Northern Territory.
CONTACT: (08) 8952 1921. Pro shop (08) 8952 6575.
DESIGNERS: Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge (1985)
PLAYING SURFACES: Paspalum (fairways), Tifdwarf (greens) and couch (tees).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Patrick Gamble.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Stephen Tieck.
GREEN FEES: $75. Carts, $38.
MEMBERSHIP: Memberships are available in all categories. Full membership is $1,730, while a new category – limited membership – replaces four- and six-day membership and allows members to play social golf on any day at any time for $1,297.
FACILITIES: The fully equipped club provides a restaurant, bars, a well-stocked pro shop, a floodlit driving range and putting green. There is also a grass bowling green. The Range View Restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday, and for lunch Friday to Sunday.
ACCOLADES: No.84, Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Public Access Courses, 2021.