It’s January 1994 and businessman Duncan Andrews takes a gamble and buys a partially-built golf course in Rye from a local butcher who had decided to sell well before the course could be finished. There was hardly a tree on the property. The Mornington Peninsula was nothing like it is today with a plethora of high-quality links courses. In 1994, many modern-day treeless links courses including Moonah Links, St Andrews Beach and most of The National didn’t exist.
But there was something raw and beautiful about Andrews’ new acquisition, which would become The Dunes Golf Links and pioneer a links design revolution in Australian golf.
“It came about through happenstance,” says Andrews, the man who helped create The Dunes, Thirteenth Beach and St Andrews Beach among others. “I became aware there was an auction and a golf course for sale. This might seem strange but, 20 years ago, no one had ever heard of a golf course being sold and I seemed intrigued. I decided to have a look at it because I played golf and, like most keen golfers, you always wanted to be an amateur designer.”
Andrews had played plenty of the world’s great links courses in Scotland and Ireland and sensed he had a unique opportunity on his hands.
“I thought, ‘wow, this land’s fantastic, there’s nothing like it in Australia’. At that stage there was nothing like it. In the end, I decided to take a punt that golfers in Australia might like a course that had no trees,” Andrews states. “It started a bit of a renaissance here in Australia of links golf courses,” chimes in The Dunes’ superintendent Simon Muller, who moved to The Dunes in 2012 after 12 years at Royal Melbourne where he was also assistant superintendent during the 2011 Presidents Cup.
Andrews had secured the land for a pittance of what it would be worth today, but the expenses would start to rack up as he went about creating 27 holes as well as a brand-new clubhouse. Green fee golfers in the early 90s had little avenues to play top-end courses in Australia. The very best layouts belonged to private golf clubs while public courses were largely council-owned and, in most cases, nothing to write home about.
There was scarcely anything at the time like Barnbougle Dunes, where golfers could pay good money to experience a world-class course and there certainly wasn’t world-class golf on offer at a bargain price. “I could see no reason why you couldn’t create a decent golf course that was equivalent to the top private courses but open to the public,” Andrews remembers. “It’s something that hadn’t been done. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”
Twenty years after the course opened in 1995, The Dunes is a case study in how to run a top-end public access facility. It weathered a tough climate for golf clubs and courses in Australia – especially in Victoria – and has only recently stopped taking members. “We’ve got a waiting list here for memberships because we like to keep our balance of members and green fee players,” Muller reveals. “We’re so busy, it’s a year-round golf course no matter what the weather’s been. If it’s rained three or four days in a row, we can still have the golf course up and playable straight away. We base everything on that firm and fast scenario.”
Even with the advent of 36 holes at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, The Dunes remains a regular in the top-five of Australia’s public course rankings. Many times, it has ranked as Victoria’s top public course and, for the past 15 years, has been ranked among Australia’s top-20 courses. In 2014, Australian Golf Digest rated The Dunes 16th in the nation, ahead of revered layouts including Royal Sydney, Woodlands and Kooyonga.
Andrews admits he’s not surprised the course has stayed so relevant. The secret, he says, is creating a course that can be enjoyed by scratch markers and hackers alike. “I worked closely with the designer Tony Cashmore and we tried to make a golf course that was challenging for the one-marker but playable for the 22-marker and I think we succeeded.
Andrews – who plays most of his golf at Metropolitan in Melbourne and Flinders Golf Club – refers to an “intellectual snobbery” he so desperately avoided in building The Dunes. “We tried to make it so you wouldn’t lose too many balls. We didn’t have long grass within one metre of the edge of the fairway, which so many golf courses do, new golf courses particularly. Designers (think), ‘I must have this long grass here, it looks wonderful.’ The fact that no one can play there is irrelevant.”
Perhaps forgotten amongst The Dunes’ popularity has been its nine-hole course – The Cups – a far easier test of golf than the 6,436-metre par-72 championship course beside it and one that attracts just as many golfers. Andrews estimates The Dunes has averaged just over 70,000 rounds a year for the past decade and very close to half of those green fees have come from the par-33 nine-hole gem.
It’s a place for beginners, where they can learn the craft without intimidating bunkers and water carries thwarting their efforts. “You’ve got to learn to play somewhere and all you’ve got is driving ranges these days. The Cups is a friendly place and it’s down the beach so kids on vacation on their school holidays can learn to play golf and the retirees, when they don’t feel like walking 18 anymore, they can have a really enjoyable nine holes. When the staff have an annual game of golf before Christmas, they always pick to play it on The Cups course because it’s fun.”
If you need any more convincing of The Dunes’ worth as a golf course, consider Tom Watson’s views. “This is an exquisite golf hole,” the eight-time major winner remarked after playing the par-three 17th hole in 1997.
Nothing has changed since.