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Barwon Heads: Exploring Victoria’s Seaside Links

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The Barwon Heads Golf Club is located along the Bass Strait on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. The course has a timeless, old-world charm with a traditional links layout, respecting the past while incorporating modern upgrades. Alister MacKenzie consulted on the course in the mid-1920s and recommended strategic bunkering changes to make it “the equal of the best seaside British courses.”

Barwon Heads was founded in 1907 with a 9-hole layout located north of Barwon Heads on the banks of the Barwon River, known as the “old links” course. It was a links-style course, taking advantage of the sandy soils and seaside location. The founding and early development of the club occurred when golf was growing rapidly in popularity in Australia.

In 1920, the club moved to its current location on the southern edge of Barwon Heads, alongside the coastal sand dunes and tea tree scrub overlooking Bass Strait. Consistently ranked among the best courses in Australia, Barwon Heads is a journey through classic links golf, where the natural terrain and coastal winds dictate the play.

In this post, we’ll travel to Barwon Heads to learn about this Australian links that was designed to work in harmony with the natural features of the land. We’ll learn about its origins, history, and evolution, as well as the terrain and characteristics that define the course. Finally, we’ll conclude with a course walkthrough, suggested further reading, and some videos to bring the course to life.

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barwon heads intro

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Origins of Barwon Heads

The new course was designed in a links-style by Victor East, the professional of the prestigious Royal Melbourne Golf Club at the time. The first nine holes at the new site opened in November 1921, with the full 18 holes playable by Easter 1922. In December 1924, the Clubhouse was officially opened, featuring accommodation for both men and women guests, which was unusual at the time, and the clubhouse is heritage-listed for its social and architectural significance as Victoria’s first country club with integrated accommodation.

Alister MacKenzie visited Australia in November of 1926 and advised on Barwon Heads, Kingston Heath, and Victoria GC. At Barwon Heads, he consulted on the course design, noting that the greens needed more defense to provide more challenge. In a letter, MacKenzie wrote: “All that is necessary to make Barwon Heads the equal of the best British seaside courses of championship dimensions is to bunker it properly. At present, the greens, like those of most of your courses, are insufficiently guarded.” MacKenzie’s guidance aligned with the club’s vision to establish Barwon Heads as a prestigious golf destination.

In 2004, architects Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford were hired to update the course and routing for enhanced playability and challenge while honoring the original design principles. New holes were built and green complexes were remodeled while retaining the traditional links feel. The renovated course is consistently ranked as one of the top golf courses in Australia, currently ranked #5 overall. It is rated the top public access course in mainland Australia by Golf Australia magazine.

barwon heads origins

Did You Know?

Did you know that the Barwon Heads Golf Club, established in 1907, was the first country club in Victoria, Australia, and an early example of a private residential golf club that provided accommodation? This made it a prestigious holiday retreat for privileged Western District graziers and wealthy sports-loving members. The resort not only put Barwon Heads on the map but also influenced the town’s development.

Moreover, the course was Australia’s first true links-style course, designed by Victor East, the then-professional of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club. The course was constructed with horse-drawn implements, a testament to the traditional methods used in the early 20th century. The course’s firm turf and the ‘running’ game are characteristic of classic links courses, where the wind often plays a significant role in the game.

barwon heads 1920s

Terrain and Characteristics

Barwon Heads is situated along the coastline, surrounded by the marine habitats of Bass Strait to the south and the wetlands of Lake Connewarre and the Barwon Estuary to the north. The Barwon Bluff consists of reefs and rocky outcrops formed from ancient volcanic activity, covered by coastal vegetation like Moonah woodlands. This rugged terrain along the shore transitions inland into gentler plains and wetlands, with the floodplains of the meandering Barwon River cutting through the landscape.

The coastal location and proximity to Bass Strait give Barwon Heads a temperate maritime climate, with moderate rainfall, mild temperatures, and constant strong winds off the ocean. These conditions shape the vegetation and land use – the nutrient-poor sandy soils and salt spray support coastal heath and scrubs, while the good drainage has historically made the area suitable for grazing. The course is laid out over sandy, undulating terrain with tea trees, coastal scrub, and dunes. It is exposed to strong winds off the ocean, which significantly impacts play on any given day. The turf and conditions are maintained to an exceptionally high standard year-round, and the sandy soil and coastal location ensure great drainage.

One thing that separates the course from its counterparts in Great Britain is the use of Poa Annua for putting greens. Due to climate and durability, fine fescues and browntop bents thrive in the cool, relatively dry climate of links courses in Great Britain. They require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than Poa Annua while producing firm, smooth, fast surfaces for ideal links golf conditions. Poa Annua is well adapted to a wide range of environments in Australia. It can thrive as a winter annual in warmer climates like southern Australia, germinating in fall and dying after spring seed production. It also persists year-round as a perennial on closely mown turf like golf greens, adapting to routine irrigation and maintenance.

barwon heads terrain

The Course

The course plays to a par of 70 over 6,400 yards from the back tees.  The round begins with six holes that immediately immerse the golfer in the traditional links experience. The short par-4 1st sets the tone with strategically placed fairway bunkers. The 2nd, a par-3, requires precision to navigate the coastal breezes that can affect ball flight and club selection. The par-4 3rd is particularly notable for its fairway that runs alongside an expansive sandy waste area, demanding a bold drive to set up a favorable approach. The par-3 4th continues to test your mettle against the elements, with the wind again playing a significant role in club selection.

The risk-reward 5th is the first par-5, characterized by its undulating fairway and several strategically placed bunkers. The green is reachable in two shots for the longer hitters but requires a precise approach to avoid the surrounding hazards. The par-4 6th tests the golfer’s accuracy with a fairway, which is relatively straight but can penalize errant shots. The green is well-guarded by bunkers, making the approach shot crucial. A well-placed drive on this hole can set up a birdie opportunity, but a mistake can bring in bogey or worse

The course reaches its crescendo at the signature 13th hole, a par-3 with a “postage stamp” style green that is as beautiful as it is challenging. From an elevated tee is a panoramic view of the surrounding dunes and the ocean. The hole requires a precise short iron to a small green that, while bunker-less, is surrounded by undulating terrain that can make any errant shot a tricky recovery.

The closing holes of Barwon Heads maintain the strategic demands of links golf, with the 18th providing a fitting end to the round. Playing alongside the classic clubhouse, it provides a reminder of the course’s storied history. The approach to the green requires accuracy to avoid the bunkers guarding the front, and par here leaves a lasting impression of a course that is both a test of golf and a celebration of its traditional links heritage.

Visit Barwon Heads online at https://www.barwonheads.golf/.

barwon heads course

Further Reading

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Great Golf Down Under
by Gary Libson

Summary: A photographic journey, covering the best golf courses of Australia and New Zealand.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Barwon Heads – Flyover
Barwon Heads – Review
Barwon Heads – hole by hole

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