By Tony Webeck
Turn right off the old Pacific Highway south of Coffs Harbour and take the gentle rise on the otherwise nondescript North Bonville Road and you are transported instantly into a land of golf wonderment.
No matter how many times you have made the journey to Bonville Golf Resort on the New South Wales north coast, your senses are instantly heightened when the grand entry comes into view. Like any truly worthwhile expedition, plenty have had difficulty in finding it; those who do never want to leave.
When it opened on January 3, 1992, there was a sense of bewilderment among the locals – of which your author was one – that such a piece of golf paradise could be constructed in a part of town famous only for its caravan park and roadside fruit stall. It was inconceivable that within the plantation of gum trees was a golf course that would become renowned around the world just waiting to be discovered. It was the hottest ticket in town and for more than 25 years has been building upon its reputation as one of Australian golf’s truly great golf destinations.
“You dream of those sorts of places, and to have one open up in your own backyard was quite surreal,” remembers Matt Dagger, a Coffs Harbour junior who has been the golf operations manager at Bonville since 2004.
Once you set foot on the property the rest of the world ceases to exist, its regular comparisons with the rolling topography of Augusta National impossible to deny. The view from the foot of the clubhouse over the 18th green may only be surpassed by that halfway down the 18th fairway looking back the opposite way, each hole majestically framed to provide 18 very individual experiences that together make for a cherished collective.
But the road hasn’t been without its bumps along the way.
The trees that defined so much of the course’s character also made it problematic to maintain ideal turf conditions, a program to open up the course to enhance playability coming with the added benefit of more available sunlight. An extensive greens redevelopment program has delivered putting conditions that are unmatched in the course’s history, while the fairways give you ample opportunity to turn a good drive into a putt for birdie.
Picking the same ball out of the bottom of the cup at 18 that you struck from the first tee was a greater accomplishment than surpassing 30 Stableford points, but given its popularity among travelling golf groups there has been a conscious effort to present a fairer test to all levels of golfer while remaining the integrity of the layout.
Ranked 35th in our 2018 ranking of Australia’s Top 100 Courses, Bonville is by no means a pushover but the punishment for poor shots is far less extreme than its early days.
“Over the years we’ve widened the fairways and kept the beauty of the trees but cut away a lot of the undergrowth so in most instances you can at least find your ball and keep playing,” explains Dagger, pointing out expanded hole locations created at the sixth, seventh and 16th greens in recent years.
“We always want the course to pose a challenge but we also want it to be playable for the average golfer. We want them coming back year after year to enjoy the golf course.”Matt Dagger
A recent addition to the Bonville experience is the ‘Secrets to Bonville’ clinic offered as a complimentary service to visiting golf groups. Conducted by teaching professional Daniel Dosen – who moved to Bonville from Royal Canberra six months after visiting the property for the first time – it is an extra layer of attention to detail that the resort has become famous for.
A three-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, Paul Sheehan came through the ranks in Coffs Harbour, worked in the Bonville pro shop and waited tables at the acclaimed Flooded Gums Restaurant before turning professional. Through his company, Premier Golf Tours, Sheehan brings prominent clients to Bonville and says the experience on the golf course is matched by the service that guests receive throughout the property.
“It’s been great to go back over the years and see the course evolve and now with our tours, I get to take people and show them just how special a place it is,” Sheehan says.
“Because there are so many visitors there is a real focus on service, the food is obviously outstanding and that’s what people remember – as well as the golf course being incredible. We played all the best courses in Sydney with some quite prominent businessmen and then had three days in Coffs at the end of our trip. Every one of our guests said that Bonville was the best of the lot, and that was because of the way they were treated.”
And that feedback, to general manager Brad Daymond, is the best Bonville story of all. Lured back from Switzerland to take the role as Bonville’s first head professional, Daymond has helped oversee every area of improvement in the 27 years since and says that making every guest’s stay memorable remains the No.1 priority year after year.
“People will say to me, ‘The golf course is fantastic, but can I tell you something?’ and I know exactly what they’re going to say,” Daymond says.
“They go out of their way to tell me stories of how our staff have gone above and beyond to make their stay even more special, whether it’s a housekeeper, cart-shed operator, greenkeeper or someone in the restaurant. That’s extremely satisfying because that’s what is happening when I’m not watching: staff affecting a guest’s experience so much that they feel compelled to tell me about it.
“They’re the stories I love hearing the most.”
Bonville Golf Resort
Where: North Bonville Rd, Bonville NSW 2450
Phone: (02) 6653 4544
Designers: Terry Watson and Ted Stirling (1992)
About: Bonville plays to a par of 72 and 6,079 from the back tees. It has hosted the Ladies European Tour Australian Ladies Classic Bonville in 2018 and 2019.