Golfing on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula: Where the Murray River, wine … and characters flow


By Brian O’Hare

ONE of the great things about golfing in Australia is that you can turn up just about anywhere and get a game.

It’s even better if you’re a club member with an official handicap and can book to play in a local club completion. If you’re lucky you’ll be paired to play alongside some long standing club members who can help you navigate around what will be an unfamiliar course.

Usually, you not only get the enjoyment of playing a new course but also have the pleasure of the company of some amenable local golfers for four hours or so.

Afterwards you can share a coffee or drink in the clubhouse with your playing partners and before long you’re feeling welcome and relaxed in what were once foreign surroundings. Play in the competition a couple of times over a couple of weeks and you’re really starting to feel at home … and almost like a “local”.

When it comes down to it, golfers are pretty much the same wherever you go. Whatever your role or station in life, golf is the common thread and you always have something to talk about. (Though maybe it is wise to follow the hairdresser’s convention: never talk politics or religion).

And every club has its characters.

So for the last month or so I’ve been enjoying the delights of South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. I must admit I didn’t know much (anything) about the Fleurieu Peninsula  previously … and it only took me a couple of weeks to learn how to pronounce the name  correctly (Peninsula is such a hard word).

Now I know the region is a little under an hour south of Adelaide, has beautiful rolling green hills bursting with food and wine trails, contains the site of the Murray River ocean mouth, has tourist hotspot Kangaroo Island just off-shore … and has its fair share of very interesting golf courses.

I was originally coming over to Adelaide from my NSW south coast base to play in the 2016 Australian Veteran Golfers Union National Championships, which (as I write this) begins next Sunday in the Adelaide Hills, just a short hike north of my present location.

I also wanted to cover the Australian Mens Senior Amateur Championship which was on a few weeks back at the stunning Kooyonga Golf Club near Adelaide city.

When the opportunity came up to spend six weeks in the general area, attend both tournaments, and have a bit of a look around as well, I jumped at the chance.

So by “chance” rather than total design I found myself on a rural property less than 10 minutes to the nearby small town of Mt Compass, hub of a much larger rural area.

When I started researching nearby golf clubs, it turned out Mt Compass had one itself, and there were another half dozen or so scattered reasonably close by on the peninsula. One of them was Victor Harbour Golf Course, a course I had heard of and had even previously mentioned on this website as a venue of tournaments we had reported on.

So my first visit to a course in the Fleurieu was to the now Mount Compass Golf Club. It was previously called Fleurieu Golf Club but no doubt they got sick of visitors wandering the fairways saying “Flew-re-oh, Fler-ry-ough, Floo-roo-oo …”

For just the anticipated local golf course in our small nearby rural outpost I was more than pleasantly surprised. There was a modern clubhouse with stunning views across an undulating course with lots of features and character. It looks a bit linksy with its uneven terrain, some harsh rough, bunkering and water hazards, but there’s still lots of trees in various parts of the course. The course itself is in the middle of something of a rejuvenation with a new private owner putting more resources into course improvements and players’ representatives currently writing a new constitution to govern issues such as how playing rights and competitions will operate in future.

Mt Compass Golf Course
Mt Compass Golf Course

Just before I left home to come over here South Australia experienced those extreme storms that put the whole state in blackout. The weather has been improving somewhat since then, but rather too slowly and erratically for the liking of many.

When I played in the Mt Compass comp last Saturday for what was the third time, it was the first time we had fine, sunny conditions … and without a gale blowing.

I was also fortunate to be paired with a couple of long time members, including one Hugh Bulbeck, and his regular offsider Ray Gardiner.

Hugh Brubeck on the 18th green at Mt Compass Golf Club
Hugh Brubeck on the 18th green at Mt Compass Golf Club

My first impressions of Hugh were that he was a bit of a grizzled, wizened old character with a wry sense of humour. He was playing off a handicap of 24 but I could see by the way he looked so at home on a golf course and by his still sharp short game that it once would have been a lot less than that. I wasn’t sure how old he was but Hugh did mention it was his first game in four weeks after having some artery surgery.

As the round progressed, and when we sat down for a beer in the clubhouse later, his fuller background emerged.

Hugh wasn't sure if he was happy with his tee shot on this great par three at Mt Compass Golf Club
Hugh wasn’t sure if he was happy with his tee shot on this great par three at Mt Compass Golf Club

Hugh was just 16 days out from his 80th birthday and there was a big party planned with family and friends coming from across the country.

Hugh had been playing golf for some 65 years, more than 50 years of that as a single marker, getting down to a three handicap.

He’d played over 300 pennant games he figured, been club champion three years in row at a former club, played in senior order of merit events around the country and formerly been Club Captain at Mt Compass for six years.

“I played a lot of golf at Royal Melbourne and those sorts of places and thoroughly enjoyed it,” Hugh said. “These days it’s a little bit harder.”

Hugh also reckoned he had been in a bit of a form slump of late – notwithstanding the month off for surgery – and had been concerned about his swing.

“But I’m starting to hit the ball a bit better,” he said encouragingly.

He also thought he might go to a PGA pro shortly for a little more swing coaching. A couple of weeks out from your 80th birthday after 65 years in the trenches… why the bloody hell not.

Rowdy gives Victor Harbour Golf Club a lesson

The second club I’ve been visiting regularly in the area is Victor Harbor. As I mentioned I had heard of it previously as the scene of some big senior golf events and researching it was encouraged to learn its first hole has been included in the Australian Golf Digest Hall of Fame as one of “Australia’s Iconic Golf Holes”.

The iconic hole’s main claim to fame is its exhilarating elevated view, not only of the fairway some 39 metres below the tee, but of a broad vista taking in the nearby township, beautiful Encounter Bay, the nearby off-shore islands and the Southern Ocean. The elements of that view are the reason why Victor Harbour itself is such a popular holiday and tourist town.

One of the course’s other big claims to fame, as I read on the clubhouse wall, was that it was the birthplace in Australia of the Ambrose form of competition golf, so popular these days with charity golf events. Turns out a visiting American golfer (Dick Ambrose) introduced the game, which he said they called “Shotgun” at home, in the early 1960’s.

Standing on that elevated first tee for the first time the view over the township and across the bay is magnificent. But then you look down and the tee shot confronting you can be intimidating, particularly if there is a stiff breeze sweeping up the incline straight in your face.

This camera phone shot of the first hole at Victor Harbour doesn't really do the Australia’s Iconic Golf Holes "Hall of Famer" justice. You get an idea of the scale if you look at the little golf cart halfway down the fairway on the right
This camera phone shot of the first hole at Victor Harbour doesn’t really do the Australia’s Iconic Golf Holes “Hall of Famer” justice. You get an idea of the scale if you look at the little golf cart halfway down the fairway on the right

As I write this I’m hoping to play in the Victor Harbour comp for the third and last time (at least for this visit) tomorrow. I’m also hoping to find that first fairway for what would be the first time.

It can be visually disconcerting standing up there and trying to work out where exactly to line up your drive so it will land on what appears from on high to be a very narrow fairway.

Fortunately, I’ll probably be playing in a group of blokes I more or less know from the past few weeks.

In the Thursday competition at Victor Harbour there’s a group of some 12 or more guys who hit off just after 10am, with the groupings chosen on the spot with a quick draw of cards.

Last Thursday, the cards chose for me a group that included member Paul Thurlow, who everybody called “Rowdy”, though I don’t know why because clearly he wasn’t.

Rowdy, who I learned played off a seven handicap, had been given a new Titleist driver by the club pro to try out.

Rowdy’s first drive, like nearly every one that followed with the demo Titleist, went straight down the middle of that much lauded first hole.

As the round progressed, we didn’t really need to warn Rowdy that demo clubs always do that: hit the ball straight down to the middle until you actually stump up the asking price. In this case, the pro wanted a measly $749. Rowdy already knew all about demo clubs being specifically designed to mess with your mind.

Conditions that day weren’t that easy, particularly as the greens had recently been cored and had sand and loose pebbles and crap all over them. The course had also suffered some flood damage in the big storms.

Rowdy didn’t seem to notice. He was having one of the rounds of his life. After the front nine he was even off the stick with seven pars, a birdie and a lone bogey on the ninth.

It wasn’t just his potential $749 new driver doing it all he said, but the approach shots and particularly his putting on the uneven cored greens that were impressing him. Rowdy suggested more than once he was going to ask the greens staff to spread sand and gravel on the greens more often.

On the back nine there were three more unanswered birdies, and also some discreet mutterings by his playing partners about course records.

On the final hole at Victor Harbour, a very undulating par four, unless you are very long you have to hit your tee shot high to the left because of the seriously sloping left to right fairway.

Rowdy hit his drive too far left, his only real fairway miss of the day. We eventually found his ball nestled down in the rough. One potential lost ball disaster avoided, but one heck of a shot to come with lots of scope for a final hole blowout.

Rowdy hit what can truly be described, especially under the circumstances, as one magnificent golf shot. Many pros would be proud of it.

His ball ended up about 15 foot from the hole. Disappointingly, given his putting form on the day, he missed the birdie putt, but tapped in for par and a round of 3-under 69. That was good for 46 stableford points and a win in A grade by six strokes. (It wasn’t good enough to break the course record unfortunately… according to the sign on the clubhouse wall that was set at 64 by some bloke called Kel Nagle in the 1950’s. The amateur record of 67 was set in 2002).

But the overall result:

One very happy golfer, some very impressed playing partners; and a very enjoyable round of golf.

Across Australia, at courses you’ve never heard of, it happens every day.

Paul “Rowdy” Thurlow has taken to calling himself “Mr 69” following his best ever score in some 46 years of golf. Rowdy has been a member at Victor Harbour for 40 years and has had two scores of 71 previously, strangely, both in the third week of January, in 2014 and 2015. “I got down to a five handicap,” the 63 year old said. “Since I retired a couple of years ago I’ve come good because I was playing four or five times a week.” A week after his round of a lifetime he was still undecided if the new Titleist driver would have a permanent place in his golf bag.
Hugh Brubeck in front of the new Mt Compass clubhouse


Golf Courses in the Fleurieu Peninsula

A list of some of the main Fleurieu Peninsula courses, with precis from a local guide:

Victor Harbor Golf Club, Victor Harbor

A par 72 and 18 hole 5962 metre course, the Victor Harbor Golf Club is the oldest course in the Fleurieu Peninsula but is still one of the most scenic. The first tee takes full advantage of the magnificent views of Encounter Bay, the sparkling waters of the Southern Ocean and the grandeur of Granite and Wright islands.

Goolwa Golf Course, Goolwa

The Goolwa Golf Course has nine holes over 4936 metres, with a par 60 and Australian Course Rating of 64. The course is gently undulating and incorporates areas of natural semi coastal heath and woodlands together with areas of native grasses.

Mt Compass Golf Course, Mt Compass (Previoulsy Fleurieu Golf Club)

Modelled on the links-style courses of Scotland and England, the international-standard 6116 metre long Fleurieu Golf Course has 18 challenging and interesting holes, with a par 72.

McCracken Country Club, Victor Harbor

Only minutes from the centre of Victor Harbor, the McCracken Country Club is a great 18 hole, 6021 metre long course, with a par 72. Designed by renowned golf course architect Tony Cashmore, this is a fun but challenging course with five memorable par threes and is a fine driving course.

South Lakes Golf Club, Goolwa

The relatively flat terrain of the South Lakes Golf Club makes the 5784 metre course a pleasant walk with a background of waves crashing on the beach. The 18 hole, par 70 course is not long but still provides a challenge to the low handicappers as accuracy is the priority.

The Links Lady Bay, Normanville

An 18 hole course with par 72, The Links Lady Bay course is 6116 metres and provides coastal views and kangaroos, as well as great golfing – just an hour’s drive south of Adelaide. This is a St Andrews-style, sand-based links course among the best in South Australia.

Willunga Golf Course, Willunga

Willunga Golf Course is considered one of South Australia’s best public courses, with 200 year old gum trees, creeks and great views.

Wirrina Cover Golf Course, Wirrina Cove

With magnificent sea views and coastal cliffs, Wirrina Cove Golf Course offers an 18 hole PGA standard course. The 5697 metre, par 70 course offers excellent bent grass greens and couch fairways and is challenging for golfers of all abilities.

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