Finishing Up in Melbourne & Heading to Sydney

By: Bruce Babbitt

Editor's Note: Bruce, Cybergolf's correspondent in Australia, has sent along his final installment from "Down Under." Here, Bruce wraps up his travelogue about the continent's favorite sports along with a peak at an Alister Mackenzie gem and the city of Sydney.

There's much to do in Melbourne besides golf. There is the Melbourne Cricket Grounds where, as part of a tour, one is allowed to stand on the hallowed grass - just not for too long. The Museum of Cricket is like a more compact version of baseball's Cooperstown with art, tapestries, cricket bats and memorabilia dating back to the 1830s when it was founded by four Aussies who contributed about 10 pounds Sterling to buy the material on display.

The stadium now seats 90,000 and is used for cricket and Aussie Rules Football, a game seemingly combining basketball (they have to dribble and jump for the ball), rugby (but no passes - they punch the ball with a fist), and soccer (with scoring by kicking the ball through goalposts). However, Aussie Rules Football is very old, older they say than the games it resembles. Membership in Melbourne Cricket Club is limited, and there's an 18-year waiting list to get in. Member benefits include reserved seats in a great viewing section and access to beautifully decorated clubrooms and bars.

Among the memorabilia in the museum are etchings from the 1860s emblazoned with the American flag; a large tapestry with a chronology of cricket from the 1830s through this century that depicts U.S. soldiers, Marines and a 1940s flag; and a separate American display. In 1942, when Japan threatened to invade Australia and Anzac Troops were deployed elsewhere, American forces showed up to defend the nation and camped at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. Aussies remember the U.S. gratefully for this largesse, although they were that happy because the display describes us as "overpaid, oversexed, and over here."

Here are other subjects of interest:

Wine. Australia makes a lot of wine and its citizens drink a lot of the stuff. In 2005, Australians drank about 25 liters of wine per capita, far below the leader, Vatican City State, which had a per-capita consumption of 62.02 liters (there must be compensations for working there), well ahead of the United States and its 8.69 liters per capita. The total acreage of Australia's vineyards ranks just behind Argentina and Chile. A men's day that I attended had a special pre-tee-off lunch offering a bottle per twosome. Not a bad way to get one's swing nice and loose.

Tournament Prizes. The prizes for a very big mixed foursome I played, with a banquet featuring a speech by a two-time Olympic marathoner, entailed: The winners: three balls; second place: two balls; third place: one ball. The standard Nassau game is dollar-dollar-ball.

Competitions. Clubs are quite active and involve several all-club exchange competitions plus a "pennant competition" whereby the low-handicap golfers from each club play in a round-robin format (Aussies call single-digit handicappers "pennant players"). Junior golfers have the same competitions.

Politics. Although Australians are very cosmopolitan in world affairs compared to the U.S., they do enjoy rough-and-tumble politics. Remember Crocodile Dundee saying: "That's not a knife - this is a knife!" Well you might as well say: "That's not a scandal, this is a scandal." While I was there the front pages of Australian dailies featured a hubbub in Goolagong, a Sydney suburb, whereby an attractive blonde, female urban planner had an affair with not one, but four, portly middle-aged real estate developers. She was seeking to influence them to erect buildings much higher than the rules allowed. If there is an entendre in that story, it's pretty easy to find.

Retirement. Australia has no social security or IRAs. It has something called a "superannuation" account (also known as "The Super"). Nine percent of each Aussie's yearly wages automatically go into the account, which is invested in various private markets. These include American stocks, making the Aussies just as interested in our economic situation as we are. After age 60 a citizen can start drawing from "The Super," tax-free. (If you're interested, Certificates of Deposit in Australian banks are now paying over 7 percent. The prime rate was 7.25 percent when I left the country in late March 2008.)

On to Sydney

In 1969, as a young and fit U.S. Navy lieutenant on the U.S.S. Decatur - DDG-31, I sailed into Sydney Harbor. Its palisades at the entrance rival San Francisco Bay's. Sydney has become better than ever over the last few decades, even though I distinctly have not. Again, think of San Francisco, but with sunny weather in the 80s, the huge Hyde Park with its Arboretum in the middle of town, and a chain of neighborhoods and inlets surrounding the harbor.

Sydney has a great art museum that features an annual portrait competition called the Archibald Prize. There's also a large and active live theater and nightclub scene.

The beaches . . . ahh, the beaches. Bondi, Bronte and all the others boast thousands of tanned, striking Aussie women almost wearing swimsuits. But enough creepiness, let's get back to golf.

New South Wales Golf Club on the Pacific shore east of Sydney is a typical Alister Mackenzie-designed track. Though not long, it's certainly narrow. As is usual with his courses there are many blind shots and bunkers. The signature hole is No. 6, which involves an over-water carry from an island tee. I can say that I made par on it - we won't talk about the rest of the round!

The views at the course are spectacular, with the ocean in sight on half the holes. The wind averages 15-20 knots, enough to affect shot-making but not spoil the day. Hit a bad shot? No worries mate, just look at the view.

New South Wales GC is like Bandon Dunes with the wind and the bracken, only the wind is warmer and the water and sky are blue. I was paired with Larry and Patsy from south of Sydney, and Colin, from London; all fine partners. The first task at NSW is to wear proper attire, of which guests are given strict instructions on its webpage. If you have Tommy Bahama golf shorts with exterior pockets, lose them. If you want to wear colored socks with shorts, beware. The dress code is so serious that the gift package at New South Wales contains, in addition to the usual yardage book and ball-mark repairer - a pair of white socks!

Colin and I were very flattered to be designated by the club as "international guest players." This means that, while locals pay $165 Australian per round, we paid $280, plus another $60 for club rentals. If not for such an honor I would just as soon have not been bestowed that title.

Besides showing up in proper golf clothing the second challenge is to stay out of the sand traps. Patsy disappeared in a fairway bunker, invisible except for her hat. Nonetheless, whatever the cost, New South Wales is worth it.

The golfers at New South Wales GC, as well as the other clubs, are very "matey." As one who has played as a single on many courses in America and abroad, I haven't found any friendlier golfers to join up with anywhere. In the clubhouse I met Scots and others from around the globe who were NSW members. All seemed to have some sort of Seattle connection. One can explain this in large part by the Aussie's penchant for world travel. Go to Europe, the U.S. or South America and there will be Aussies on the road or attending school.

In conclusion, if it's nine hours to the UK from Seattle, getting to Australia only requires four or five more hours of suffering in an airplane seat. While Qantas is the nation's flagship airline, many who I met preferred Air New Zealand. Business class seats on Qantas are extremely expensive.

In my humble opinion, even in coach, weeks of heaven are worth four or five hours of hell on a jetliner.