Victorians certainly did it tough during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most volatile case numbers paired with the most stringent restrictions made for a nightmare winter and spring for residents of the Garden State and its golfers. Spare a thought, then, for the one golf course in our biennial Top 100 Courses ranking that sits directly upon a state border.
Black Bull Golf Club is distinct from its Murray River brethren in that it is located on the Victorian side of the border, whereas most of the time-honoured Murray favourites were strategically built just onto the New South Wales side. With no timezone differences or other functional variances, never was this geographic anomaly a factor before 2020. Yet this year Black Bull was on the outside looking in, peering across Lake Mulwala at another state that was so close as to be visible but so far away in a practical sense. And one particular date during the pandemic sticks in memory.
“Funnily enough, on the 29th of March, 2010, we opened the course. On the 29th of March, 2020, we actually closed the course because of COVID,” says James McCully, Black Bull’s director of golf. “It was 10 years to the day.”
While the calendar dealt one blow, like all resort and destination-style golf facilities, the worst for Black Bull was still ahead.
“Not being able to get our Sydney markets and our Canberra markets, who are very big parts of the visitation to this area, that’s been extremely difficult,” McCully says. “From the Victorian side of things, obviously Melbourne makes up the bulk of the traffic that comes to the river area – I’m speaking on behalf of probably everyone [along the Murray] – and that’s been the difficulty. Regional Victorians have definitely started to move, which has been good, but it’s not the bulk which comes out of Melbourne metro.
“The frustrations of the border and being bundled in with everything that’s happening in the Melbourne and Sydney areas has been difficult but, to be fair, everyone who’s come along and played and everyone who’s come to town here, we’ve all done our part. Everyone’s wearing their facemasks, as uncomfortable as they are. But Yarrawonga and our area – and pretty well the entire river – has been safe from COVID through the entire period.”
Amid it all the Peter Thomson/Ross Perrett-designed golf course, which has played as a full 18 holes since 2015, continues to flourish. “The course is magnificent. There’s no two ways about it,” McCully enthuses. “It continues to get massive praise. We’ve got a fantastic team with what [course construction and maintenance firm] Turnpoint does here and Cameron Buckingham, our head super and what he and the rest of the guys put into it. We’re very unique – every one of our grounds staff all play golf too. It’s very, very rare that you’d find that. These guys are not just passionate about their work but they’re passionate about their golf as well. They really do have an eye for detail.”
Visiting golfers will now see their eyes drawn elsewhere at Black Bull. One end of the driving range was recently converted into a state-of-the-art fitting and teaching centre, which makes it the new home of the long-standing McCully Golf Schools. The presence of Glenn and James McCully along with fellow Top 50 teaching professional Andrew Long and the latest technology has kicked the golf schools up a gear in terms of what’s on offer. Meanwhile, long-time touring pro Terry Price is joining forces with the McCully Golf Schools to cover more bases in what is already the longest-running golf school in the southern hemisphere.
“We’ve taken it to a whole new level with what we can do teaching-wise, facility-wise and technology-wise,” James McCully says.
With international travel all but off the cards for the foreseeable future, McCully envisages a return to National Lampoon’s “Vacation”-style trips where people pack up the car and hit the road rather than move through airports. That puts the Murray River region – still one of the great travel destinations in Australia, whether you’re a golfer or not – squarely in the spotlight.
“Golf’s going to have a resurgence as far as being an activity,” McCully says. “Our winter was the best winter we’ve ever had. Especially through June, July and August, I was blown away by the numbers we saw through there. We were just getting going again before the borders were shut and Melbourne locked down, which stalled the momentum. But from what we’ve seen since that announcement [of border restrictions easing], I think it’s fair to say it’s about to go ‘boom’ again.
“Yarrawonga’s got a lot to offer from not just the golf side but the water activities, we’re surrounded by some fantastic F&B – there’s another pub in town that’s been totally re-done with 30 taps of craft beer going in. You can really start to see another changing market coming to town and everyone’s ready to embrace that.”
Most noteworthy is the addition – at last – of the Sebel Yarrawonga on Black Bull’s lakeside site. Slated to open early in the year, the opening was initially pushed back to August but Melbourne returning to a hard lockdown necessitated a further postponement before it was finally unveiled in a soft opening on November 1. The Sebel offers three food and beverage outlets as well as a dedicated day spa, gymnasium, 300-seat conference space and 63 stylishly appointed rooms and apartments.
“Sebel has raised the bar, it really has,” McCully says. “For what is on offer in regards to the quality of accommodation, the quality of surrounds, sitting on the lake watching the sun go down – you couldn’t ask for anything better.”