The rise of the Vic Open has had a ripple effect on the golfing landscape across Victoria’s picturesque Bellarine Peninsula.

Since moving to the beautiful Thirteenth Beach Links six years ago, the event has grown significantly – perhaps beyond the wildest dreams of its organisers.

This year, an unprecedented collaboration between the European Tour, the LPGA Tour, the PGA of Australia and Australian Ladies Professional Golf to co-sanction both the men’s and women’s events saw it feature in headlines and dozens of hours of TV coverage here and abroad.

And the marketing, that money can’t buy, was ramped up for a week as players and fans took to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to extol the virtues of life on the Bellarine and the golf to be found there.

But, really, they only scratched the surface with their observations of Bellarine golf, which offers a quality mix of classically designed links layouts, modern courses and a few hidden gems.

Thirteenth Beach – with its two contrasting 18-hole layouts, the Beach and Creek courses – is a must-play for any golfer visiting the region. When the Beach Course opened for play in 2001, it raised the bar in terms of golfing standards on the Bellarine Peninsula.

Thirteenth Beach Creek Course. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Thirteenth Beach was the vision of entrepreneur Duncan Andrews, who fell in love with the coastal strip of sand dunes at first glance. Having already developed The Dunes Links – across the other side of Port Phillip Bay on the Mornington Peninsula – Andrews commissioned the design genius behind that layout, Tony Cashmore, to craft a course that would incorporate as much of the rugged dune landscape as possible.

While the opening four holes cover relatively flat land, the excitement builds on the 5th tee as the layout begins its journey across some of the best natural terrain for golf in Victoria. Cashmore, following a minimalist philosophy in creating the Beach course, located some fabulous tee and green sites among the dunes, which have, in turn, produced some memorable holes. The trio of holes, starting from the par-4 5th, is the highlight of the front nine while the back nine includes two world-class par-3s in the 12th and 16th holes.

The opening of the adjoining Creek course in 2004 turned Thirteenth Beach into a golf destination in its own right. Designed by Cashmore in collaboration with six-time major winner Sir Nick Faldo, the Creek Course is completely different to the Beach course with holes covering gently rolling terrain that was once used for grazing.

The landscape has a Melbourne Sandbelt feel, especially with the style of bunkering employed by Cashmore and Faldo to add bite to the Creek Course. The green complexes are superb with closely mown swales and hollows nestled alongside creative greenside bunkering that cuts the fringes of each putting surface. The dramatic slopes created off the edge of the bunkers add to the excitement of putting on the true rolling greens of the Creek course.

If you need any more reason to sample these two gems, here’s another – both courses are ranked within the Top-30 Public Access Courses in the country by Golf Australia magazine, with the Creek at No.27 and the Beach at No.7.

Barwon Heads Golf Club. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Thirteenth Beach’s next-door neighbour, Barwon Heads Golf Club, was the highest-ranked Bellarine Peninsula course in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses list published in January this year.

Architects Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford have overseen subtle changes to the design as part of an ongoing development plan for the course. This has included bunker renovation and scrub clearing to further enhance the playability and visual appeal of the layout. These improving aspects, as well as the course’s immaculate conditioning under course superintendent Adam Lamb and his team, will no doubt keep Barwon Heads entrenched in the top percentile of this national ranking for some time to come.

Barwon Heads is the kind of course you enjoy more and more with every round you play as you begin to understand its nuances and realise how good the strategy of the design really is.

The layout, which measures a meagre 5,856 metres from the championship tees, continues to hold its own against the technological advances in golf equipment and remains as challenging today as it was when Victor East laid out his creation.

“Barwon Heads is the kind of course you enjoy more and more with every round you play …”

Most would describe Barwon Heads as a links course but the majority of the holes are more reminiscent of those found in the Melbourne Sandbelt. In truth it really is only the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th holes that really fit the links course billing. These holes, across a narrow road from the historical clubhouse, are brilliant, while the holes from the 7th (alongside the clubhouse) to the 18th are flanked by sometimes dense clumps of ti-tree and the occasional Cypress Pine.

The most memorable hole on the inward nine is also the shortest to be found at Barwon Heads. The 130-metre 13th is widely regarded as one the finest par-3s in Australia due to the simplicity of its design. The tee is perched high atop a sand dune and here you are totally exposed to the elements. On a still day the green can easily be reached with a short-iron but when the prevailing wind starts to roar, a fairway wood is needed to reach the putting surface below. Making par here should be easy – there are no bunkers, watery hazards and the ti-tree is some distance left of the green. But the combination of wind, elevation and poor club selection sees more bogies than birdies scored here.

Barwon Heads Golf Club. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Heading east along the southern coast of the peninsula, there are three courses to be found within 20 minutes’ drive of Barwon Heads.

Ocean Grove Golf Club is a pretty nine-hole layout set on the east bank of the Barwon River. The manicured lush fairways and greens are a far more appealing view to the one that greeted back in days long gone when the property was a rubbish tip.

Improvements over the years at Lonsdale Golf Club have added to the overall strength of the Bellarine’s courses. Indeed, this layout is an absolute gem and will be even better when the latest round of course redesign is complete. The club is in a redevelopment phase after selling off some of its land closest to town and is now being played as a nine-hole course, while its new holes – created by the design team of Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Clayton, Mike Cocking and Ashley Mead (OCCM)– are constructed on adjoining land and beside Lake Victoria.

In the meantime, the course remains open and is well worth a visit.

At the eastern edge of the peninsula is Queenscliff Golf Club, which carries some of the highest security to be found entering any Australian golf club.

The course lies across land owned by the Department of Defence on Swan Island. All visitors to the course are asked where they are going, what they are doing and are told “no photographs,” which is a shame considering the quality of some of the holes on the course. The site has some gentle undulations across sandy terrain making it perfect for golf. Unfortunately, a cash injection is needed for Queenscliff to realise its full potential as a seriously good place to play.

Swinging to the north of the peninsula, you will find St Leonards Golf Club, a charming 18-hole layout with most fairways lined by native gums and coastal scrub. The par-67 offers a short journey, with the occasional glimpse of Port Phillip Bay, but the small greens and narrow fairways demand accuracy with every shot.

The coastal drive north from St Leonards, via Indented Head, offers wonderful views of Port Phillip Bay en route to Portarlington Golf Club, just 10 minutes away.

This easy-walking par-72 layout offers narrow driving lines between tall stands of trees on most holes. In fact, the only real respite from the woodlands comes late in the back nine at the 15th and 16th holes.

Acclaimed designer Tony Cashmore oversaw the redesign of much of the Portarlington course during the early 2000s and this included the removal of many trees on the two par-4s, which now share a massive scheme of bunkers between the two fairways. Portarlington, one of the oldest clubs on the Bellarine Peninsula having been established in 1909, is one of the best presented layouts in the region with superb Santa Ana couch fairways and pure greens.

A further 15-minute drive west will have you in the car park of another ‘hidden gem’ of the Bellarine – Clifton Springs Golf Club.

Clifton Springs, like nearby Portarlington, was formed in 1909 and boasts some awesome views off the northern edge of the peninsula, particularly from the closing holes. From the tees of the par-5 16th and par-4 18th it’s possible to see the bluffs along Corio Bay and even to Melbourne on a clear day.

The views aside, Clifton Springs boasts beautifully manicured Legends couch fairways and smooth, subtle-breaking bentgrass greens.

Geelong Golf Club. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Arguably the most improved course on the Bellarine Peninsula in recent years can be found at nearby Curlewis Golf Club.

Back in 1947, Vern Morcom – the long-time Kingston Heath course superintendent and acclaimed designer – was commissioned by the then East Geelong Golf Club to create an 18-hole layout on the club’s current site. He crafted an open layout with wide fairways, big undulating greens to take into account the wind that is such a strong influence on the courses of the Bellarine.

But the decades that followed were difficult without a reliable water supply and the course, despite its superb design, was never able to reach its full potential. That is until it was purchased in July 2015 by local winery owners, Lyndsay and David Sharp, who injected $1 million into upgrading the layout. This included retaining the design services of Mike Clayton, who had been consulting to the club for more than a decade. His advice over the years has been minimalist rather than massive overhaul. Bunkers have been added, some greens remodelled, trees removed and some subtle tweaks including the realignment of some tees made.

The result has seen Curlewis climb in every national ranking published in recent years. In January, Curlewis was ranked at No.37 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses for 2019.

At Curlewis, players get the chance to start their round in the best possible way – with a birdie – at the short par-5 1st hole. The rolling fairway of the 448-metre hole is laid out before you like a set of waves heading for the beach. The fairway then doglegs right before rising again on its climb to the slightly elevated green. Four bunkers – all short of the green but with two left and another two right – provide a narrow gateway to the putting surface.

The 308-metre 3rd hole is the best of Curlewis’ short par-4s. From the tee perched above the fairway, you can see the green as well as all the trouble that can be found en route. Big hitters will also note that they can carry a massive fairway bunker on the right side of the fairway by taking an ‘as the crow flies’ route to the green. But any aggressive play from the tee is fraught with danger as an out-of-bounds fence is just metres from the left edge of the fairway.

Geelong Golf Club. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Curlewis is also home to The Range, which offers 18 indoor/outdoor hitting bays with hitting monitors to help you analyse your swing stats, an X-Golf simulator and mini golf as well as all-day dining.

Geelong is the gateway into the Bellarine and is home to four publicly accessible courses of varying lengths. The best of them is the nine-hole Geelong Golf Club, located about 10 minutes’ drive north from the city centre. In 2017, Golf Australia ranked Geelong among the best nine-holers in the country.

It wasn’t always a nine-hole course. Its history stretches back to 1892 but after more than a century as an 18-hole layout, the club was forced to close in 2004. In the decade that followed, land was sold off for development and the course reopened as nine holes in 2014.

Course architect Graham Papworth created the design which lies across quality golfing terrain and features beautifully presented Santa Ana couch fairways and tees as well as some of the best bentgrass putting surfaces you will find in regional Victoria.

This is not an overly long course but it definitely tests as an approach shot course as Papworth’s green complexes don’t lack for contours and are often surrounded by cavernous bunkers, mounds and swales.

With three teeing options on each hole, the course is enjoyable for players of all standards. Even low single figure players will discover there is a real challenge to find the best spots to attack the flags. Leave yourself on the wrong side of the cup, or even on the wrong tier, a three-putt can often be the result.

Geelong features some terrific short par-4s but, for mine, the best of them is the tree-lined 282-metre 3rd. The first of five bunkers – that lie diagonally from left to right across the fairway – is easily reached with a shot of about 215 metres. The closer you get to the green, the easier the second shot becomes but the slightly uphill drive must be straight to avoid the sand left and rough to the right.

The Sands Torquay. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The seaside resort town of Torquay, about 21km from Geelong, is probably best known for its surfing roots. Here you will find the world-famous Bells Beach and the birthplace of iconic surf brands, Rip Curl and Quiksilver.

But the town’s ties to golf are strong. The original course at Torquay was designed by the father and son team, Mick and Vern Morcom, who gained fame for their long greenkeeping careers at Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath respectively.

In the mid-2000s, the RACV purchased the course and commissioned OCCM to rebuild the layout over a three-year period while an adjoining 100-room resort and day spa was constructed. The new links-style RACV Torquay course opened for play in 2012 and features generally firm conditions and the ever-present wind, which goes hand-in-hand with its coastal location. This encourages the links-style ground game and OCCM’s creation takes this into account. For example, the simple bunkering is relatively small but in many cases the surrounds are contoured to feed balls into the sand. The greens feature subtle slopes and are receptive to running shots, especially those played from the correct side of the fairway.

By comparison, RACV Torquay’s nearest golfing neighbour The Sands Torquay, less than 10 minutes’ drive away, features far more expansive bunkering.

The name really says it all. The Sands, Torquay. The developers of this fine golf course didn’t miss the mark when they bestowed the name upon this layout.

As the name suggests, this course features plenty of sand – in fact there are more than 100 bunkers scattered across the landscape between the 1st tee and the 18th green. And this is marginally less than what was in the ground when the Stuart Appleby-designed layout opened for play in 2004.

There is little doubt Appleby’s design team – which included veteran course designer Brit Stenson from International Management Group Design – was influenced by the bunker work of Dr Alister MacKenzie and his associate Alex Russell in the Melbourne Sandbelt during the 1920s. Appleby, for one, has described the bunkering in the Sandbelt as the best in the world so it should come as no surprise that his first foray into course design would see him try and emulate the best.

The designers did a pretty good job in creating some wonderful bunkering schemes that not only intimidate players visually but also deceive you on the distance remaining on some shots.

"As the name suggests, this course features plenty of sand – in fact there are more than 100 bunkers ..."

The front nine – set among a growing residential development – offers fairways zigzagging between bunkers or wetlands or both. But it is the back nine that will really excite the first-time player as more undulating topography comes into play.

From the championship markers, the 435-metre 11th is the longest and most brutal par-4 on the course. Despite being played downwind on most days, this two-shotter is played uphill past a small grouping of Moonah trees before the fairway splits into two as part of the natural slope and the ideal location for some bunkers. The approach is uphill to a green where only the top of the flag is visible. There is no tougher shot to be found on the course.

The best par-3 at The Sands is its shortest – the 148-metre 13th. The green is perched high above the tee on a ridge and you have to trust your club selection, as most of the green cannot be seen, despite sloping markedly from back to front.

The 400-metre par-4 14th is one of the most beautiful holes at The Sands. Laid out on land that was formerly part of the Torquay rubbish tip, there are seven bunkers ready to halt your progress along this fairway, which is set on the edge of a ridge and features a steep slope down off its right edge. The putting surface is also set carefully on a sideslope, with mis-hits right or long of the green finding inevitable trouble.

The Sands Torquay. PHOTO: Brendan James.

WHERE TO STAY

BARWON HEADS RENTAL PROPERTIES

If you have a golfing foursome or two, who want to stay in a house while visiting the Bellarine Peninsula, here are two great options almost tailor-made for visiting golfers.

Black Swan @ Barwon is a five-bedroom house that can accommodate up to eight guests. Situated in a quiet court in the exclusive Seabank Estate you will find this luxury home caters for all your holiday needs.

There is a large decked area with a full outdoor kitchen, a three hole synthetic putting green in the backyard, open plan dining and living area with large LCD TV and Foxtel.

Check out www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/16150877 for more details.

Corymbia @ Barwon is a luxury five-bedroom home also found in the exclusive Seabank Estate and can be configured to accommodate two families, three couples or a group of golfers.

A four-hole synthetic putting green and the outdoor kitchen, large decked area and giant outdoor chess set might just become the most popular gathering nightspot after a day on the course.

Check out www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/22192652 for more details.

BARWON HEADS RESORT

Located on the Thirteenth Beach Golf Links Estate, Barwon Heads Resort has a total of 60 rooms with a combination of one-, two- and three-bedroom suites. The resort is perfect for the short or long break and a lovely way to unwind and relax, access the two championship golf courses, the surf beach or onsite pool and gym. The resort has a wide range of packages to suit your needs.

For more information, visit www.13thbeachgolf/cms/accommodation

PEPPERS THE SANDS RESORT

Peppers The Sands Resort, Torquay offers a premium golf resort accommodation experience, just moments from the beautiful beaches of Torquay.

The 112 rooms feature spacious layouts with private balconies or terrace, tasteful furnishings and flat screen TV’s. Suites offer separate lounge and dining spaces. Providing unique points of difference in each of the hotel’s guest rooms redefines the experience as truly individual.

The on-site restaurant and bar provides gourmet dining in a stylish yet casual atmosphere.

Peppers offers a Winter Stay and Play package including accommodation, 18 holes of golf for two people in a shared motorised cart, full hot breakfast, WIFI & parking.

For details visit www.thesandstorquay.com

BARWON HEADS GOLF CLUB

Golfers have been making use of the accommodation facilities within the iconic Barwon Heads Clubhouse since 1924.

There are 19 ensuite rooms available in single, twin or double bedding configuration and a variety of packages available that incorporate your stay with golf. The club has a Winter Escape package during June, July and August, which offers accommodation, breakfast and complimentary golf for up to two guests – Sunday to Thursday inclusive – from $255 (standard room) per night.

For more information, visit www.barwonheads.golf