OVER the years, I’ve lost count of the number of golfers who are part of a group who regularly travel to the Murray River for a golf getaway. It’s almost as ingrained in everyday golfers as three-putts and double-bogeys.
Before departing for my most recent sojourn along the Murray, I asked a few golfers I know for their impressions of Murray River golf. Interestingly, no two tales were alike. Some favoured the Albury area, others preferred the might of Murray Downs near Swan Hill, while the central layouts remain favourites for many. “Rich River has the best greens you’ll see,” one friend insisted. “Nothing beats Yarrawonga,” said another, before adding: “But I haven’t been there since Black Bull opened.”
Ah, yes. The Murray’s new ‘bovine’ layout. Black Bull Golf Club’s entire 18 holes on the shores of Lake Mulwala opened two winters ago and added a new element to the river’s golf scene for the first time in decades. For some, it’s already the best course on offer, not that it intentionally set out to be regarded as the premier option. Black Bull’s energetic director of golf operations James McCully says there is no aspiration for the course to be viewed as the ‘best along the Murray’.
“We’d prefer golfers to see it as a ‘must-play’ course along the way,” McCully says. It’s a succinct and telling statement, largely because it is difficult to imagine any golfers travelling through the region not including Black Bull on their list. There’s a novelty value to the course thanks to its newness among a swathe of established layouts, but also for the unique touches McCully has implemented. For instance, almost everyone takes a photo alongside “Charlie” the bull, the life-size statue (on wheels) that is usually positioned outside the pro shop but for variety is often led to different parts of the course. The bull angle, it has to be said, is no bull. The site was once an Angus cattle farm, giving the nascent development a logical ‘hook’ to build upon.
And it has, right down to its bull ring. Walking to the third tee, players pass under a sign welcoming them into the “Bull Ring” – a three-hole run replete with red flags (the other 15 are yellow) and a second “Charlie” between the fourth green and fifth tee. Ever the innovator, McCully printed scorecards that allow the club to run separate competitions covering just those three holes. The trio are not necessarily the most difficult tests – except for the par-4 sixth when a westerly headwind blows – instead they occupy a secluded corner of the course. Still, when an eight-foot putt dropped on the index-1 sixth, I was quietly pleased to have written down pars for all three holes on my Bull Ring debut.
McCully lists other points of difference at Black Bull. It’s the main course of note on the Victorian side of the river, a legacy of the pre-1992 days when there were no poker machines permitted south of the border. The course added a new dimension to Murray River golf by being different in style (McCully accurately describes it as a “links-style resort” layout) to anything else in the region. It is also officially the last golf course to carry Peter Thomson’s name as a co-designer after the five-time British Open retired from all architectural work a year ago.
Black Bull is just one part of the large Silverwoods residential estate that will eventually include a $35 million
Sebel resort, scheduled to open late next year or in the first few months of 2019. And for anyone wondering what impact yet another golf offering along the Murray might have for the existing courses, in the first year after all 18 holes at Black Bull opened, rounds played at nearby Yarrawonga Mulwala increased.
Design-wise, it’s a straightforward course to navigate as all the features are right in front of the golfer. The Thomson Perrett design is a good test for low handicappers without crippling beginners or high markers, which is never an easy mix to get right. First-timers will note several things about the course but more then likely two aspects of Black Bull will remain in memory: how the golf course changes with the seasons and the various wind directions and strengths, plus the excellent condition of such young surfaces. The Penn G2 bentgrass greens in particular are phenomenal. They’re firm and true but not so firm that good shots won’t hold. Putting, meanwhile, was always a stroke and never a hit.
McCully says conditioning is a year-round focus, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed. When Black Bull hosted the Victorian Senior Open last year, Peter Senior, who somewhat incredibly was making his first trip to the Murray River, won the tournament and called Black Bull the best-conditioned course he’d played in the past 10 years.
High praise indeed.
Sum Of Its Parts
The Murray’s proximity to Australia’s two largest cities has long been one of its assets, one accentuated by the gradual completion of bypasses along the Hume Highway. Melbourne has always been easy to access but these days Sydney is too, whether by road or air. The Murray’s winter is also less biting than Melbourne’s and the coldest months are an underrated time of year to visit. Case in point: the noticeboard outside the pro shop at Corowa Golf Club, where one of the staff had written in large, colourful letters: “Winter. Murray River golf at its best.” Each morning of my mid-June tour began with a chill in the air but the jumper was usually discarded by about 10 o’clock.
The Murray’s courses emerged in ‘pockets’ along the river including, heading from east to west, Albury and surrounds, the Yarrawonga area, the cluster closest to Melbourne at Echuca-Moama and the Swan Hill/Mildura area before the golf continues across the border into South Australia. There is a certain design style to the Murray courses. Like the river itself, almost everything about them is big: big greens, sprawling bunkers, towering trees and plenty of broad fairways, although subtle variations are evident as you traverse the region.
Difference is Commercial Golf Resort Albury’s calling card. Where most of the Murray courses are flat, expansive and dominated by couch grass, Commercial Club is hilly, compact and home to quality kikuyu fairways. Its compactness borders on congestion in a smartly designed corner of the front nine that takes in the third green, fourth hole and fifth tee. Players exiting the third green need to be mindful of golfers firing their tee shots to the short fourth hole right across their heads. But with a little care and attentiveness, it works.
Commercial Club is an agreeable course for right-to-left players, who seem to get plenty of opportunities to let the ball turn in that direction to their advantage. Little has changed about the course in recent times, save for a new sixth green. The old version was deemed too steep, a complaint some golfers also have of the wickedly sloping home hole. But the club knocked back a proposal to rebuild its 18th green, which, like the entire hole, cants sharply from right to left. A hole earlier, the penultimate test is one of the scariest par 3s you’ll find that doesn’t contain a single hazard. The 136-metre 17th plays about a club-and-a-half uphill and any shot coming up short or drifting too far right will feed down a steep slope and leave a daunting pitch shot back to the small, circular green. There is no shame in taking a little extra club and using the bank long and left of the green to propel the ball onto the putting surface.
Why add Commercial Club Resort to your Murray itinerary? If not for the testing and interesting design, play it for the two key points of difference it offers: kikuyu fairways and elevation changes, especially across the last four holes. You won’t see much of either as your journey progresses.
Across town, Thurgoona Country Club Resort can proudly boast a feather in its cap: this November, the club will host the first of three New South Wales Senior Open Championships. Which means the senior opens for both states now have homes on the Murray.
Thurgoona is a quintessential Murray River course, with thriving couch fairways and firm, fast bentgrass greens along with fairways that twist and turn between the gum trees so ubiquitous across Murray courses. The NSW Senior Open field will be greeted by a new 12th green, which was rebuilt in preparation for the event and reopened in July. The new surface at the 149-metre par-3 offers more pin positions and is featured by a high left side, a low right half and a steep tier separating the two sections, plus a deep bunker fronting the left portion. The 11th green, and others, will eventually receive the same treatment.
Look for a frenetic finish to the tournament or, in fact, any round, as the final quartet include four of Thurgoona’s seven toughest holes. The 15th measures a robust 409 metres from the back tees before the fiendish 16th, a water-carry par 3 with sand also in the way of the target and two further strong par 4s to finish. For visitors flying into Albury Airport, Thurgoona is a convenient 10-minute drive away, meaning your golf fix can begin within minutes of touching down.
Venturing along the river to the west, Howlong Golf Resort is a classic case of great things coming in small packages. How 18 holes fit into such a compact site is a triumph of design ingenuity. Handily positioned 20 minutes from Albury-Wodonga and 15 minutes from the famed Rutherglen Wine Region, Howlong is well worth adding to your list of stops – especially with open competitions running seven days a week.
The 5,646-metre par-70 layout defends its lack of length by slotting in the odd longer hole or tightening others through strategic decisions, say, by requiring either a shorter shot to be played or making the longer, bolder play more risky through the placement of bunkers or groves of trees. The layout is routinely in great shape. Course superintendent Paul Irvine, a Murray River local who spent five years working at Royal Melbourne, certainly knows how to keep the surfaces in immaculate condition.
Corowa Golf Club used to be one place where kikuyu fairways prevailed before the club converted them to Santa Ana couch. The 27-hole complex, where European and Australasian Tour stalwart Marcus Fraser honed his game and still regularly returns to, is a hive of activity right now. Alongside the switch in grasses have come bunker renovations that saw several removed, rebuilt or decreased in size. Many of the greens are slowly being replaced, too, as the course and club surge forward. Off the course, the club will open a cinema within the clubhouse before the year is out and has plans to renovate the area around the 19th tee that sits between the clubhouse and pro shop.
There’s terrific variety at Corowa, as the newest nine (if a course opening in 1980 can be considered new) is long and open in comparison to the original 18. How much more open is it? The ‘new’ nine – which takes in holes one to nine – uses almost as much space as the original 18 that houses holes 10 to 27.
Once upon a time, there was going to be a fourth nine added on the attractive parcel of land along the river to the left of the club’s entrance drive. However it never eventuated, leaving the club to focus on the 27 holes it already had. The original 18 is a wonderful test of control and accuracy, but the ideal combination of 18 holes should take in the newer nine. A highlight of this loop is the fourth green, which is 73 metres long and can turn the 137-metre hole into anything spanning a wedge shot to a mid or long iron.
The first full double act along the river is Yarrawonga Mulwala Golf Club, which is actually a 45-hole extravaganza with an underrated (but, it must be said, not underused) Executive nine. With a quality collection of courses, the club in recent times has sought to strengthen its non-golf offerings, of which there are plenty. Yarrawonga can validly call itself a complete destination, so much so that if there were no other golf courses nearby golfers would be unlikely to need to leave. Aside from the abundant golf are various styles of accommodation, bistros/restaurants, tennis, bowls and croquet, a health and fitness centre and even a cinema.
The fifth hole on the Murray course is the only hole along the entire river where the great watercourse is legitimately in play. It’s a seminal moment in any Murray River golf journey. The chance to strike a ball directly alongside the mighty ‘stream’ is inspiring enough, but the added lure is that the fifth is a reachable par-5. Length is not the primary defence of this hole, rather a split-level fairway that cants towards the water and a huge river gum smack-bang in front of the green – plus a deep greenside bunker – are the main obstacles.
The Murray course gets the nod as the superior layout but the Lake offers more variety within its 18. It climbs up and down more than the almost dead-flat Murray course, with several sharp elevation changes at key points of the Lake course. Water is in play throughout but not in the abundance the name suggests, rather at selected and strategic points during the round.
What’s new at Yarrawonga? As if the place were not already complete enough, in January the club unveiled a new short-game practice area near the pro shop that used to be a croquet lawn (the hoop-and-mallet types still get to whack their coloured balls on a new, larger playing surface over by the last green of the Lake course).
Thirty minutes up the road, Cobram Barooga Golf Club has been a mainstay of golf trips to the region seemingly since Methuselah was a boy. Twenty-three of the club’s 36 holes sit on the opposite side of the road to the clubhouse, including the entire West course. Head professional Justin Spierani says the Old course is marginally more popular among visiting golfers, but the West remains the tougher test based on competition scores.
Subtle differences distinguish the two layouts. The Old is shorter and tighter and the West more open, but where the two courses share the same parcel of land, minor differences in style are evident, such as the more push-up style of greens on the West. Speaking of greens, in recent years course architect Richard Chamberlain took on the task of redesigning several putting surfaces, while the courses have a slightly different look these days after a tornado in 2013 felled numerous trees. If there is a trait common to the Old and West layouts, it’s firm, fast greens that keep golfers on their toes.
For those keen to head to the Murray in what’s left of this winter, Spierani gave me a salient piece of advice: in the cool winter air, each shot plays every bit of its yardage – so don’t be shy about clubbing up. He also shared another useful tip for dealing with the loamy sand of the bunkers up and down the Murray: favour the ‘chunk-and-run’ shot where you hit well behind the ball, splash it out and let it run to the hole. The sand rarely lets you nip close to the ball and spin it.
In much the same mode is Tocumwal Golf & Bowls Club, located where the Murray River intersects with the Newell and Murray Valley highways. The 36 holes at ‘Toke’ offer the greatest diversity between layouts of any of the multi-course Murray clubs, with the longer and more open Captains course the perfect foil for the shorter, narrower Presidents.
The Presidents layout now boasts a new par-3 18th hole, designed by Phil Ryan at Pacific Coast Design to create space for two synthetic bowling greens to be built. Elsewhere, there’s ample room for golfers to roam the 42-hectare site, whichever of the two courses takes your fancy.
Another double-header in the Murray’s central area is Rich River Golf Club Resort, the longtime home of the best-known PGA of Australia trainee tournament. A $5 million clubhouse renovation is currently underway to a venue that is time honoured for more than just aspiring pros. With on-site accommodation – which, truth be told is a convenient and affordable feature of almost all Murray courses – a host of non-golf facilities and a midpoint location, Rich River ticks a wide range of boxes.
Both layouts are neat and uncomplicated designs, with enough obstacles to challenge golfers of every ability level without confounding them – another recurring feature of Murray tracks. Tackling all 36 in a day is not going to wear out too many players nor exhaust their golf ball supply. The pair feature undulating greens where it pays to park your approach shots on the correct portion of each surface relative to the pin position. A few long, meandering putts where speed and line are equally hard to read await misdirected approaches.
Not much separates the East and West courses for design quality, although the nod generally goes to the East, which is fortified by a strong closing nine. Rich River pro Richard Caiolfa warned me before teeing off on the East course about the dangers of the par-4 17th hole. A seemingly innocuous 326 metres from the white tees, there are two lines to take – a conservative one to the right or a more daring play across the water to the left that shortens the approach. On this day, that riskier option opened up a preferable angle to the right-side pin position. So I went for it. A few times, in fact. In a “Tin Cup” moment, it took me three whacks from the tee taking three different lines before I found dry land (and even that ball finished under a tree). So, just like I was, considered yourself warned.
King In The West
Four hundred and twenty-five kilometres separate Thurgoona Country Club Resort in the east and Murray Downs Golf & Country Club in the west (plus another 229km if you elect to push on towards the half-dozen more courses in and around Mildura). It’s a mighty river – and mighty in length – which makes navigating the entire distance of the Murray difficult to do in one visit. Difficult, but worthwhile.
Nearing the western limits of the region, Murray Downs Golf & Country Club is the course credited for so long held as the best along the river. The Swan Hill region might be a trek to reach, but Murray Downs makes it worth the effort. Built next to the spectacular surrounding Mallee plains, the arid scrubland borders several holes, a vivid reminder of the transformation required when brothers Ted and Geoff Parslow designed Murray Downs 27 years ago.
The course is as beautiful as it is challenging, with backdrops of river gums, artfully formed lakes and several tricky holes. Most notable is the 194-metre par-3 fifth, which features a daunting carry over a lake that also works its way along the right side of the deep green, while bunkers guard the left side.
Large greens – large everything, again – are a feature of the near-6,200-metre layout. It’s an ideal course for strong iron players as the large putting surfaces allow sharpshooters to hone their focus directly at the flag, although several difficult long putts are the punishment for a wayward strike.
Murray Downs’ resort accommodation spans 50 individually air-conditioned and well-appointed family rooms and two-bedroom units. And, as is the case with much of the on-course accommodation along the river, the golf course is only a few hundred metres away, meaning you can be on the first tee at first light or warm and dry moments after wrapping things up at the 18th (or 19th). And if you’ve played this far along the Murray, chances are you’ll be in high need of a comfortable place to rest a golf-weary body.
Where To Play
Black Bull Golf Club
1-7 Silverwoods Boulevard, Yarrawonga VIC
(03) 5744 0044
Green fees: $48
Commercial Golf Resort Albury
530 North St, Albury NSW
(02) 6057 2801
Green fees: $32-$36
Corowa Golf Club
Hume St, Corowa NSW
(02) 6033 2162
Green fees: $35
Howlong Golf Resort
186 Golf Club Drive, Howlong NSW
(02) 6026 5822
Green fees: $34-$38
Murray Downs Golf & Country Club
100 Murray Downs Drive, Murray Downs NSW
(03) 5033 1427
Green fees: $50
Rich River Golf Club Resort
Twenty Four Lane, Moama NSW
(03) 5481 3372
Green fees: $50
Thurgoona Country Club Resort
1 Evesham Place, Thurgoona NSW
(02) 6043 1902
Green fees: $32-$36
Tocumwal Golf & Bowls Club
Barooga Rd, Tocumwal NSW
(03) 5874 9172
Green fees: $45
Yarrawonga Mulwala Golf Club
Golf Club Rd, Mulwala NSW
(03) 5744 3983
Green fees: $50 (or $75 per day)
Cruise and Play
The river itself is the iconic feature of the Murray region but rarely do any of the courses touch the great watercourse, which is why spending a little time on the river is a great way to connect with it.
Murray River Paddlesteamers at Echuca operates a three-day, two-night ‘cruise, play and stay’ golf tour based aboard the magnificent PS Emmylou. Blending golf and the paddlesteamer experience, the cruise also takes in sumptuous food, campfires, swimming and more. The golf component comes at nearby Rich River Golf Club Resort, covering both the East and West courses during the three days.
The majestic PS Emmylou is one of the most recognisable and iconic paddlesteamers along the Murray River, often featuring as the unofficial flagship of Echuca. Named after the country singer Emmylou Harris, the PS Emmylou has hosted thousands of people, delighting even her namesake during the late 1980s. Alongside the PS Pevensey, the PS Emmylou starred in the TV series “All the Rivers Run” in which she was renamed the PS Providence. Powered by a beautifully restored 1906 Marshall and Sons steam engine, the Emmylou journeys along the Murray offering a range of cruises.
Play and stay golf cruises begin from $695 per person, which includes the cruise, meals, golf (with carts) and all transfers. Phone (03) 5482 5244 or visit www.murrayriverpaddlesteamers.com.au for more information.
Four More To Try
Moulamein Rd, Barham NSW
(03) 5453 2971
Green fees: $40
Deniliquin Golf Club
1 Golf Club Rd, Deniliquin NSW
(03) 5881 3333
Green fees: $35
Mildura Golf Resort
287 Twelfth St, Mildura VIC
(03) 5022 8089
Green fees: $33
Wodonga Golf Club
10 Clubhouse Place, Wodonga VIC
(02) 6059 1552
Green fees: $35
See www.visitthemurray.com.au for more information