One of the endearing qualities of the great links layouts of Britain and Ireland is the natural setting. Wild windswept holes rolling between sand dunes that have been in existence for centuries are the norm.
The links at Port Fairy would not be out of place on the east coast of Scotland or along an isolated beach in north-western Ireland. Instead, it is 300 kilometres west of Melbourne on a stretch of coastline seemingly purpose built by Mother Nature to be home to a links course.
Routed along rows of rolling unspoilt sand dunes, Port Fairy is classic links where no two days on course are the same, thanks to the wind, and the golf is fun, not brutal.
Like the links of Britain, 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 can be fearsome hazards to be clearly avoided.
Those visiting Port Fairy Links for the first time might be mistaken for thinking the course has been in the ground for a hundred years. While the club itself dates back to 1899, it has only been located among the dunes east of the coastal township since 1962.
“The gently rolling sand dunes at Port Fairy have been largely unaltered by man, only mown in order to define fairways and rough giving rise to a wonderful natural feel." – Golf Australia Architecture Editor and course designer, Mike Clayton.
Back then, nine holes were laid out on the flatter ground of the site, separated from the ocean by the brilliant dunes that are today home to its most celebrated holes. Those came in 1985 when the club officially opened as an 18-hole layout with former Australian Amateur Champion turned course architect Kevin Hartley overseeing the extension.
In 2000, the club commissioned Mike Clayton to oversee any further design changes to the layout and he has been advising the club ever since.
“Port Fairy is a precious and unique layout. Nowhere else in Victoria is golf played so close to the ocean or along dune land of such quality,” Clayton once wrote in Golf Australia. “The gently rolling sand dunes at Port Fairy have been largely unaltered by man, only mown in order to define fairways and rough giving rise to a wonderful natural feel.
“The club has developed a higher profile amongst the golfing community, earning the reputation of a golf course worth travelling a long way to play – almost to the point of enjoying ‘cult’ status.”
“Not only does Port Fairy offer one of the best valued for money rounds in the country, it is a memorable golfing experience for everyone … from pros and elite amateurs right through to the casual holidaying golfer, such is the quality of this simple but always interesting design.” – Golf Australia Top-100 ranking judge, John Blackwell.
During the past two decades, several holes have been redesigned to take advantage of the coastal location and add to the quality of the links. There have also been improvements to the bunkering and green complexes remodelled, while selected areas of coastal scrub have been removed to improve the course’s playability and open 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.
It is easy to see why golfers from near and far have been inspired to make the journey to this relatively remote par-72 by the sea. The golf aside, there are awesome views of the Southern Ocean from several holes and, at the right time of year, it is possible to see whales breaching just offshore.
Port Fairy was ranked No.14 in Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses in this magazine in 2021. Ranking judge John Blackwell summed up the feeling of most judges.
“Not only does Port Fairy offer one of the best valued for money rounds in the country, it is a memorable golfing experience for everyone … from pros and elite amateurs right through to the casual holidaying golfer, such is the quality of this simple but always interesting design.”
The front nine holes have been laid among the dunes furthest from the beach and run predominantly north and south. The one exception is the 122-metre par-3 8th that is played to the west and is easily affected by the prevailing southerly winds blowing high struck tee shots to the right of the green and two deep bunkers.
This diminutive one-shotter is the entrée to a stern main course waiting on the next tee. The 355-metre par-4 9th is the most difficult hole on the front nine, with four fairway bunkers right, and another two to the left, of the driving zone of the slight left-to-right dogleg. The natural terrain has created a basin shape in the fairway and this can create its own complications for the mid- or short-iron approach into the oval-shaped green, protected by two deep bunkers in front.
Most would say Port Fairy’s most exciting holes are incorporated into the stretch from the par-5 12th to par-4 16th. The 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 across the water to the Port Fairy township and the lighthouse and keep your shots low out of the wind.
The most challenging of Port Fairy’s holes is the 408-metre par-4 14th where, again, out-of-bounds in the sandy dunes lines the right of the fairway. When the wind is blowing hard off the sea from the right it might be necessary to hit your drive out over the boundary fence 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.
RIGHT: A semi-blind drive and mogul-like fairway add to the test on the par-4 16th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.
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. The 15th has now become the hardest and prettiest par-3 on the course and it is destined to receive higher acclaim as more golfers play it.
Perhaps my favourite hole at Port Fairy is the 365-metre par-4 16th. The tee shot is semi-blind to a fairway that runs along the back of the adjoining beach to the right. Obscured from view on the tee is a bunker, lying on the left edge of the mogul-like fairway that gradually doglegs left away from the beach up to the slightly elevated green. It’s not an overly difficult hole but there is a huge amount of satisfaction walking to the 17th tee with a par pencilled on the scorecard.
By the time you walk off the 18th green at Port Fairy for the first time, you will be convinced the $49 green fee you paid to play this links might be the best $49 you ever spent.
LOCATION: Skenes Rd, Port Fairy, Victoria, 3284.
CONTACT: (03) 5568 1654.
DESIGNERS: Members (1963); Kevin Hartley (1985); Mike Clayton (2001 and ongoing).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Troy Richardson.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Anthony Warburton.
PLAYING SURFACES: Couch (fairways and tees); Bentgrass/Poa annua (greens).
GREEN FEES: $49 (18 holes); $15 (juniors, 18 holes).
MEMBERSHIP: Port Fairy offers five membership categories including full, restricted, intermediate, country and junior memberships. Full details are available through the club manager or via the website.
ACCOLADES: Ranked No.14 in Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses by Golf Australia magazine.