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Courses: Beat The Winter Blues - Australian Golf Digest Courses: Beat The Winter Blues - Australian Golf Digest

A selection of golf destinations you need to visit before the cooler weather comes to an end. 

Cool name, cool place – quite literally at this time of year – I’ve always been intrigued by the coastal South Australian town of Robe. Part of that stems from the exciting yet still-in-the-works Nora Creina Dunes, which is earmarked for a site just outside Robe that will see 36 holes added to the golf scene of the south-eastern corner of the Festival State.

Situated on a mesmerising dunescape, the Nora Creina project launched in 2014, received final approval in 2019 but is no closer to reality another five years on. These things take time, and course architect Bob Harrison is waiting patiently for his ‘baby’ to begin the construction phase of what should be the most exciting new golf development on the Australian mainland this decade.

That’s the future excitement for Robe; the good news is you’ve got reason to venture there right now. It’s probably a place you’ve never thought of kicking off a winter golf escape, but Robe Golf Club is a place for all seasons. Four hours’ drive from Adelaide or six hours from Melbourne, it’s a town and a golf course that hooks people in.

“We just get rave reviews from people who play this course,” says Robe Golf Club manager Justine Fennell. “We’re the only golf course in Australia laid out with three six-hole loops and the clubhouse in the centre.”

Largely volunteer-built, the Robe layout is indeed a tale of three courses. The club refers to the loops as Ocean, Dunes and Town Flats – and each has a story to tell. The Town Flats six spans the original part of the course, which dates to the club’s formation 100 years ago. Most of these holes run parallel to each other and are divided by rows of trees and bushes. Today’s holes one to six – the Ocean six – were built during the 1980s and 1990s on undulating land leading away from the clubhouse before working their way towards the ocean and Robe Lighthouse then back. The Dunes six are the newest addition, opening in late 2019. Designed by South Australian course architect Neil Crafter, these holes make the most of the natural sand dunes and form the “most spectacular, most challenging and most fun part of the course”, Fennell says.

Links Hope Island is an icon of the Gold Coast golf scene.

SEEKING WARMTH

Eventually, any discussion of winter golf options will turn to our warmer climates. Queensland is, and should be, the first consideration.

On the Gold Coast, neighbouring Links Hope Island and Sanctuary Cove Golf & Country Club form a potent one-two option. Stay at the InterContinental Sanctuary Cove Resort and it becomes a one-two-three punch, as tee-times at the exclusive Pines course are made available to resort guests. The only Arnold Palmer-designed layout in Australia, the Pines is an exhilarating excursion through the eponymous pine trees as well as extensive lakes. It might well be the best golf course in the country with virtually no elevation changes. Across at the Palms course, the layout continues to thrive after Ross Watson’s thoughtful redesign early last decade.

At Hope Island, which these days goes by the name Links Golf & Wellbeing to reflect its broader offerings, there’s a new-look third hole in play. The former long par 3 was extended into a short par 4 last winter, while the white-knuckle ninth hole, a newish water-carry par 3, opened for play three years ago. The remaining 16 holes have been left largely untouched and continue to carry the Peter Thomson signature pot bunkers, bringing links-golf features to a non-links setting and climate.

Now 25 years old, Noosa Springs is in peak shape.

Further north on the Sunshine Coast, Noosa Springs Golf & Spa Resort is basking in its return to the Top 100 Courses ‘fold’, sneaking into 100th place in what is an ever-tightening battle for a place in our primary ranking. In many ways Noosa Springs is emblematic of the calibre of golf course required to make the grade. It’s an absorbing and stunning layout in one of Australia’s most sought-after addresses – and one where a recent upgrade to a more efficient irrigation system has the playing surfaces in peak condition – yet it only just snuck back onto our list.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Graham Papworth-designed course, it touches the edge of Lake Weyba, weaves between stands of tropical vegetation as well as the eye-catching residential precinct.

The 14th at Noosa Golf Club is one of five already-renovated holes.

Nearby, Noosa Golf Club is humming with activity as a course masterplan initially penned by course architect Richard Chamberlain gradually comes to fruition via the construction work of Atlas Golf Services. Five holes are already complete, with plans to reinvigorate the rest of the layout during the next four to five years.

New general manager Anthony Sinclair says he envisages Noosa being one of the “faster-moving” golf clubs in the region in the coming years, with grand plans for all aspects of the club and not just the 18 holes. The club that sits a mere 10-minute drive from the glitz and glamour of Noosa’s famed Hastings St has long owned the ‘bones’ of a terrific layout. Carved through stands of towering eucalypts that create a palpable bushland feel for a course so close to the coast, it also incorporates several ponds and artful bunkering.

Venturing inland to the Darling Downs, Toowoomba Golf Club – known to all as “Middle Ridge” – is a club that’s enjoyed genuine progress in recent years. The second-oldest golf club in Queensland flourished during COVID after it leased some land for development and injected the new-found funds into improving the golf course. The ninth hole – which occupied the land surrendered under the leasing arrangement – was the first to be replaced, while more have followed since. The most striking change to the layout is the inclusion of new revetted-face bunkers. Those coupled with the flora across the site make for a visually appealing and enjoyable golf course.

If you’re thinking of going even more remote, we have the ultimate option for your winter travel plans. Well to the north, Mt Isa Golf Club is situated alongside Silverlena Creek, a tributary of the Leichhardt River, and is a beautiful and challenging course in the heart of the Outback. The course is far more lush than you might think given the harsh climate, while the pristine greens meld into the stunning surrounding landscape. The club hosts a range of tournaments and events throughout the year, providing an ideal opportunity to meet other golfers and compete in a friendly and competitive environment.

Queensland gets plenty of attention in the cooler months, but not as well known is how temperate Perth winters can be. While far from tropical, the middle of the year is arguably better for golf in the west than during the height of summer. Winter maximum temperatures often hover in the low 20s, which is ideal for our pastime.

With 27 holes and a resort, Joondalup is a one-stop shop in Perth.

Joondalup Resort remains a Perth favourite, with 27 holes in a peerless setting that leaves an indelible impression on all first-time visitors (and many returning golfers). Whether it’s the deep quarry, the sheer limestone walls or the series of deceptive lakes, Joondalup is impossible to forget. The Quarry and Dune nines form the most potent combination for an 18-hole round, although the Lake nine shouldn’t be sold short. There are a handful of holes that tempt and tease, although chances are the most memorable moments will occur on the Quarry and Dune.

Can you find the green unscathed at the tantalising par-3 third hole on the Quarry nine? Will your ball make the carry across the sandy pit and rock wall a hole later? Will you navigate the same ball for all nine holes? Then, will you decipher the dramatic contours and limestone walls that are so prominent throughout the Dune nine? Joondalup poses golfers so many questions and it takes a skilled golfer to respond with the right answers.

South of the city, Meadow Springs Golf & Country Club is something of a ‘sister’ course to Joondalup. They share the same course designer (Robert Trent Jones Jnr) and the same owners, yet offer complementary rather than similar challenges. Meadow Springs has far less natural undulation, but Trent Jones Jnr’s wild contouring is at the forefront of the design approach to the green complexes in particular. In any given round, players will need to decrypt a multi-turning pitch or putt – or use a slope to feed a ball close to the flag. Of note to golfers who haven’t visited for a while: Meadow Springs recently doubled the size of its café, for that pre-round pick-me-up or post-round celebratory drink or meal.

The reputation of Cypress Lakes continues to rise.

COAST AND COUNTRY

The severity of winter in New South Wales depends on where you go. Naturally, the coast is more temperate and the further north you head, the more agreeable the temperatures. The Coffs Coast – the region saddling Coffs Harbour – boasts an average winter daytime high of 24 degrees. Those looking to escape the winter chill of further south often make an annual pilgrimage to Bonville Golf Resort. It’s worth noting that it’s possible to fly directly into Coffs Harbour from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, while there is a new A220 aircraft set to service the Coffs Coast from this October.

Bonville has held a lure for golfers for more than three decades, many returning frequently to the place often described as “Australia’s Augusta”. With skyscraping gums lining every hole and a tranquil serenity that makes the crack of a well-struck tee shot reverberate through the trees, the place owns something special. While in recent years Bonville has become primarily the domain of members and those staying in the on-site accommodation, it is still possible for non-guests to play at certain times each week.

Not far down the coast, the key word in the name Nambucca Heads Island Golf Club is “island”, for the golf course occupies its very own island – Stuart Island in the Nambucca River. It must be one of the most picturesque public golf courses in Australia. Its unique river location provides a magnificent setting for a game of golf.

While the par-69, Ross Watson-designed layout presents a challenge for experienced golfers while remaining enjoyable for average golfers, when you tour the Nambucca course, it’s hard not to ponder one question: where else can you play golf while watching dolphins swim by in the river while an abundance of birdlife – including pelicans, osprey and sea eagles – flies overhead? The layout is a flat, easy walk along fairways lined by she-oaks and paperbarks.

For those looking at the Hunter Valley for a winter golf holiday, the duo of Cypress Lakes Resort and The Vintage Golf Club remain the benchmark. Two courses that incorporate the area’s wine region into the layouts, they both rank handsomely in our biennial Top 100 Courses list and are a handful for golfers trying to better their handicap. Cypress Lakes, which from the back tees holds the highest Slope rating of any Australian course, is much more user-friendly when played from the forward tees without diluting its many design features. The same can be said of The Vintage, which is a beast from the back markers but quite manageable from further forward. Play them both, in any order, and then tour them again from different tees to get a full taste of these robust layouts.

Across in the Port Stephens region, Pacific Dunes matches its wine-country siblings for challenge, although via a different set of attributes. Woodlands rule on the front nine of the James Wilcher-designed layout before water takes over to defend the inward half. Nudging 20 years old, the adjoining residential precinct has evolved since the golf course opened in 2005, but the layout has moved with it, becoming one of the must-play courses between Sydney and the Queensland border. Not for the faint-hearted, Pacific Dunes examines every department of your game so, again, don’t be afraid to nudge forward a set of tees or two.

The NSW Central Coast has come of age in golf circles since the turn of the century. A large part of that is thanks to the emergence in 2006 of Magenta Shores Golf & Country Club, where Ross Watson transformed a former rubbish tip into a beguiling seaside layout on a stunning strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and Tuggerah Lake. The second hole comes closest to the beach, although you’ll feel the seaside breeze against your cheek on almost every hole. Replete with rippled fairways, rumpled greens and stern bunkering, the home of this year’s Women’s NSW Open is a full examination of your game.

Further inland, The Springs is something of a sleeper course on the Central Coast, largely because of its secluded location at Peats Ridge. But in truth that’s an asset for the course. There’s a real sense of having escaped from the hustle and bustle when you step onto the first tee. Design-wise, the course is the union of the late Al Howard (the first 11 holes) and Graham Papworth (the last seven), the pair utilising the undulating land and bushland setting to pen a pleasant layout. The first hole might be the most memorable – a snaking, 518-metre par 5 where a series of small ponds cascade beside the tumbling fairway and command your attention on every shot.

On the south-western outskirts of Sydney, Lakeside Golf Club Camden feels like an escape from the city for Sydneysiders without having to venture very far. It’s a club with momentum on its side after a successful redesign by Wilcher’s Golf By Design firm. About $5 million went into overhauling the course while preserving many of the original characteristics, including Peter Thomson’s familiar pot bunkers. The new T-1 Creeping Bentgrass putting surfaces, strategic bunkering and subtle alterations addressed the challenges posed by the residential development encroaching on the course. Lakeside’s firm, fast-running couch fairways also provide a rare links-like golf experience in Sydney – especially in winter.

The Hilltop course at Mollymook is beautiful yet challenging.

From Wollongong to the Victorian border, the NSW coastline is littered with pristine and popular golf courses. Two of the best are the Hilltop course at Mollymook Golf Club and, a little further south, Narooma Golf Club. Both rank in our Top 100 Courses, although these days Mollymook also deserves recognition for the 2022 renovation of its cute Beachside nine-holer, which course architect Justin Trott shortened into a 1,200-metre, par-28 layout from what was formerly a par 33 measuring nearly twice as long.

Meanwhile, the Hilltop course is embarking on a long-term rejuvenation plan, with three holes per year to be renovated for the next six years. Trott first developed a course masterplan for the Hilltop in 2015, but it took until last year to be finalised. The plan focuses on increasing the size of the tees to spread the wear and tear associated with hosting more than 50,000 rounds annually, increasing green sizes, improving drainage and irrigation, adding or improving cartpaths and redirecting the troublesome ninth hole.

At Narooma, even golfers who’ve never been to the town are familiar with the famous third hole, the par 3 across a chasm made famous outside golf circles for the Paul Hogan commercial filmed there in the 1970s. The coastal holes tell only part of the story, however, as there is exceptional variety to be found on holes eight to 16 where the course meanders inland to an undulating section that’s a little bit heathland and a little bit bushland.

The club recently commenced a gradual replacement of its bunker sand to a visually striking white quartz variety. Part of the project included the judicious removal of a few superfluous bunkers, which cost the overall layout nothing in an architectural sense.

Curlewis offers much more than just a top golf course.

RUG UP AND PLAY ON

I spent a highly pleasant week touring the Murray River one June a few years ago. OK, so you needed to place newspaper across your car windscreen each night to peel away the frost in the morning (there’s a free tip for you), but after the chilly start the pay-off was pristine days in comfortable temperatures for golf. A sign I spotted outside the pro shop of Corowa Golf Club that week even enthused: “Winter. Murray River golf at its best.” With a late enough tee-time, anywhere along the Murray gets our tip for winter golf, but of course our biennial course ranking places Black Bull Golf Club as the best along the river.

The town of Yarrawonga straddles the river and so touches two states. Just onto the Victorian side sits Black Bull, which regular readers of this magazine will know also includes the Sebel Yarrawonga and Silverwoods residential estate. It’s a tremendous place to visit or live, but if you choose only the former, make sure your time includes at least one lap of the golf course and ideally two. It was Peter Thomson’s last course-design project before his passing in 2018. Thommo’s touches run right across the waterside layout where Lake Mulwala provides such a prominent backdrop.

The two peninsulas hugging Melbourne’s lower realms might be chilly and breezy at this time of year, but the standard of golf on offer never truly diminishes even in questionable weather. On the Bellarine Peninsula, we have a soft spot for Curlewis Golf Club, where progress rules. In recent years the club has renovated its golf course, overhauled the clubhouse to include an award-winning restaurant, added sparkling on-site accommodation and unveiled a tech-led driving range plus mini-golf. It is now a destination for much more than playing 18 holes and then departing.

Sandbelt-like qualities dominate the golf course, which has a bushland look and feel plus noticeable undulations – especially on the second nine. The major renovation of Curlewis began 15 years ago when the Vern Morcom design (which was later emboldened by Kevin Hartley) fell into the architectural hands of Mike Clayton’s firm. They drew the best from the site, sparking a revival that hasn’t slowed at all since.

Across on the Mornington Peninsula, the delights of Rosebud Country Club are more in view now than ever thanks to multiple TPS tournaments and a golf course that continues to improve. A busy club – but one with 36 holes at its disposal – Rosebud is the gateway course to the peninsula and shouldn’t be bypassed. Whether you play the vaunted North course (now ranked 67th in the country) or the ever-improving South, you’re in for a journey where the attractive ground features work in harmony with the majestic pines. The two courses continue to evolve under a masterplan penned by the OCM firm, which when complete will keep the two Rosebud courses in the ‘must play’ category whatever the time of year. 

Visit Auckland in winter? Surely you jest? (No, we don’t…)

We’ll concede that anytime you cross the Tasman, a good wet-weather jacket is likely to be a requirement, while at this time of year ‘requirement’ makes way for ‘necessity’. However, Auckland winters are not horrible. They might not be balmy or dry, but they have the potential to surprise.

For golfers – we hardy souls who seem to find optimism in any weather forecast – the revitalised Royal Auckland & Grange Golf Club represents a top-shelf option when in the City of Sails. After the separate Royal Auckland and Grange clubs amalgamated in 2017, the new entity set about transforming the neighbouring sites into the modern, 27-hole facility it is today.

What was dubbed “Project Legacy” began in 2017, the first phase of which included the construction of 13 new holes on the former Grange site, two bridges built across the estuary dividing the two properties, plus a new clubhouse. The second phase saw construction of the remaining holes on the Middlemore site, as well as a practice range. Chris Cochran from Nicklaus Design was the architect behind the new layout, which falls into nine-hole loops named Grange, Middlemore and Tamaki.

With a new clubhouse open since 2020 and the final nine holes (the Middlemore loop) open since 2022, Royal Auckland & Grange’s evolution is complete after a brave, five-year journey.

“RAGGC is a true championship golf course, and it offers a slightly different test for each of its three nines,” says favourite son Ryan Fox. “The course is always in fantastic condition, the practice facilities are world-class and I always look forward to coming back to the club when I’m back home from tour life.”

One handy bit of info to know for winter: the club’s fairways are sand-capped and stay dry all year, while the Bentgrass greens feature a SubAir system beneath, which helps maintain firm and fast surfaces throughout the winter. So no matter the weather, the course will stay open for play. Royal Auckland & Grange chief executive Ed Chapman says that during last year’s horrendous rain in Auckland, the only days the course was closed came during the worst of the rainfall when no one would have played anyway.

The winter rate for 18 holes is $NZ275 and lasts until the end of October (before rising to $NZ350). Anyone quoting “Golf Digest” when booking can play all 27 holes, including lunch from the a la carte menu, for $350 per person.