The National Journal Presents

The Ultimate Day

If I asked you, what does 'the ultimate day' at The National Cape Schanck look like, I might get a range of responses. Maybe playing all three courses in a day would be some golfer's idea of perfection. Or maybe dew sweeping on a speedy solo round at sunrise, before hitting the beach, all before lunch. But for us? It just had to include a National Burger. The rest just fell in place.

Written & Photographed by William Watt

The Ultimate Day

I was listening to an episode of ‘ The Australian Golf Passport ‘ when I first heard the idea of tackling 36 holes in one day at The National. Co-host Matthew Mollica suggested that, if given the chance, playing 18 holes on Moonah or Gunnamatta in the morning, a National Burger for lunch, then 18 up on The Old Course on a lazy summer afternoon would be about as good as it gets. Not one to let a good idea slide past my attention, a few months later I’m pulling into the famous Cape Schanck driveway, with long-time golfing buddy Rohan, on a perfect Thursday morning in March with that exact plan in mind. The rest of our foursome, Sam and Anthony, don’t yet know that this is the plan – they’re excited enough to be playing the Gunnamatta course for the first time that we thought we would leave the afternoon round as a surprise. The occasion is a celebration of sorts – both Sam and Anthony have just turned 40, and I’m hoping this round goes some way to making up for their Bali trip/party that I was unable to attend.

As a four, we’ve played the majority of our golf on public courses, like Yarra Bend in Melbourne’s inner-north, as well as on many of the great destinations around Victoria and Tasmania. The number of rounds together must be in the dozens, if not hundreds. I’ve learnt over the years that these guys need a little bit of ‘management’ to ensure our tee time experience is as calm and organised as I prefer. This involves varying the accuracy of the tee time that I give them. If I just gave them the actual time, their inclination would be to arrive five minutes before, or, as has happened on a few occasions, pull into the car park as I’m hitting off, running over, sticking a tee in the ground and smashing it 20 meters past me. It’s a John Daly kind of approach to the game. As someone with more of an Adam Scott personality, this is maddening, and completely throws me off my game. So these days I give them a time that is anywhere from the actual tee time to an hour beforehand. (Throwing in the accurate time occasionally is crucial to this working, otherwise they would start to compensate and eat into my buffer zone.)

Today I’ve gone for the full hour of buffer, and Sam and Anthony are on time, giving us time for a delicious bacon and egg roll, a much needed triple shot coffee (dad life has made my caffeine addiction even worse), and a bucket of balls on what must surely be the best driving range in Australia. The handicaps in the group range between 9 and 18, and as we start to hit balls I’m living up to my billing as the low marker of the group – I flush every single shot throughout the bag. It’s like those days you dream of when it all just ‘clicks’. Golf feels easy! I don’t say that very often, if ever. It surely won’t last. As we head up to the rooftop practice green, the putter isn’t running quite as hot, and the roll-out feels ominous. “There will be three putts today,” I think.

We make the easy decision to tee off the black markers for the first hole. It is surely one of the most impressive tee shots in Australia – an expansive par-5 with a high-road/low-road fairway target, split by a deep centerline bunker. The epic coastal views stretch from the roaring surf of Gunnamatta Beach to Point Nepean, and on a clear day like today, across to Queenscliff and beyond. Rohan pulls out his new Ping driver, still wrapped in plastic. He peels off the shrink wrap ceremoniously, topped off with a kiss. Brave. Or silly. Only time will tell. The teams are set with a ball toss – Anthony and I versus Rohan and Sam. We typically play a version of fourball skins with a few added extras – long-drive skins available on every par-5, nearest the pin on every par-3, and anything that’s halved gets jackpotted to the next hole. There are big stakes as usual – lunch is on the line.

We all get away well, and the temporary green (work on moving the first green is still underway) provides a very accessible second shot. A birdie three for me, but the hole is halved with Sam’s par. The same thing happens on the awesome short par-4 2nd hole – I drive the green with a memorable contour hugging draw and 2-putt for birdie, only to be equalled by Rohan who drains a long putt after a decent approach. Two under after two holes and we’re still all square. This is very unusual. The front nine continues to be close with every hole being halved, and as the sun breaks through on the 5th tee, there are 6 skins up for grabs – one for the hole, four for all the halved hole jackpots, and one for nearest the pin. I take out my trusty 8-iron, get about half a groove onto it, and thin it to 12 feet. A stroke of luck, but I feel it is deserved being even par to this point. Nobody else hits the green, and being one of the toughest pins on the property today, my two-putt par is good for the hole. Boom. 6 – 0.

The rest of the front 9 stays pretty close, as Rohan and Sam mount a comeback. Standing on the 10th, it’s 6 – 3, and the most intimidating tee shot on the course awaits. The left-side bunkers, with their intimidating gnarled edges and massive scale, have my attention again. ‘Avoid at all costs,’ I think. My well-struck drive reaches its apex, and I go to pick up my tee with satisfaction. And then… oh no. The ball starts to drift, impossibly, but inevitably, into their clutches, and plugs into the face. It’s one of those moments that makes a mid-handicapper feel unlucky, when in fact they just don’t practice enough to pull off the shot. A reality check. It opens the door for the other pair, who take the hole, but I’m able to respond on the difficult long par-3 11th, with a perfect 5-wood to 20-feet and a 2-putt par. 8 – 5.

I’ve been keeping a little secret up my sleeve for the 12th. For a front pin, which it looks like there is today, there is an option to hit your tee shot way right of the normal target line, out onto the start of the 13th fairway, which links across to the 12th. This has the advantage of being able to use the distinctive contours on the left edge of the green as a backboard for your approach shot and setting up a birdie chance. Rohan asks what the best line of the tee is, and I stay silent. “Left edge of the bunker?” he asks. “That’s an option,” I say. Eyebrows raise around the group. I can immediately feel like this could backfire. Rohan steps up and hits probably the best tee shot I’ve ever seen him hit, out of thousands. It could even be on the green. He kisses the Ping again. I stick with my secret line and hit a decent drive way to the right of the rest of the group. The walk down the fairway is full of heavy banter, and I describe my interview with Tom Doak in The National Journal where the 12/13th fairway connection is discussed, and that perhaps my playing partners should have done their research.

As we approach the green, Rohan’s ball is nowhere to be seen, and thoughts of a hole-in-one albatross enter the picture. I suggest he checks the hole, which he starts to do (hah) before I spot the ball has just trickled into the greenside rough. I’m also in the rough, but on the far side of the 13th fairway. The group ahead pass by and comment that I’ve outsmarted myself, and they’re probably right. Despite my good angle in and a nice wedge shot, my ball rolls up the greenside contour, stops for a second at the peak, then trickles over the other far side into an impossible position. A foot shorter on my approach and it would have been tucked in nicely for a birdie. As it is, I’m aiming perpendicular to the hole just to get on the green for 3. Golf karma is real.

Our luck doesn’t improve from there, and Rohan and Sam play some solid golf coming home. By the time we get to the 18th tee, the match is tied. Sam has an 18-foot putt to win the match, which slides by, agonizingly close to a famous victory. I crumble mentally and three-putt, meaning Anthony has to hit a 4-footer to halve the hole and save the match. Thankfully, it drops in. Match drawn! We joke on the way back to the clubhouse about an 18-hole playoff on The Old Course. “There’s no way, I’m wrecked,” says Sam.

I’m also in the rough, but on the far side of the 13th fairway. The group ahead pass by and comment that I’ve outsmarted myself, and they’re probably right.

Famished from the match, we order National Burgers all round, along with a beer, and they go down a treat. We continue to joke about playing 18 more holes, and it isn’t really going according to plan – Sam and Anthony are sounding like they’ve had their fill for the day and looking forward to some time on the couch this afternoon. In an attempt to boost morale, I order a round of Affogatos – maybe some caffeine can spark the golf bug back into life in these guys. As we pack up lunch and head for the carts, they finally realize we are serious – 18 holes at sunset on The Old Course, with carts to give our weary legs some rest on the massive property. The Affogatos must have worked their magic because once they realize we’re serious, the boys are pumped. Pulling up to the first tee of The Old, seeing the views down the peninsula and ahead to the dramatic contours of the first fairway, we know we’re in for a treat. In fact, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that this will be a day we won’t soon forget.

Sunset 18 on The Old Course

The quality of the golf being played, it has to be said, drops off pretty quickly, particularly for Rohan and Sam, who can’t seem to find a fairway. Anthony and I are 6 up after 6. They raise the white flag and call the playoff done – victory is ours! With delirium setting in, we team up as a four and play as an Ambrose team for the back-9, trying to muster our talent to break par. But in truth, scoring doesn’t matter at this point. As we soak in the glorious views and attempt shots well beyond our capabilities, not a hole goes by without a bout of hearty laughter. Entering golden hour on the home stretch, every tee box is a photo opportunity, and every green a chance for some imaginative short game play. Coming up the dramatic 18th as the sun goes down, we all agree – it has been one of the greatest days of golf.

As we putt out for our +2 ambrose score, Anthony casually mentions he has a 2kg dry-aged T-Bone steak on ice for tonight’s BBQ back at the ranch. The ultimate day just got even more amazing.