No other Australian state offers the variety that’s on offer during a road trip in New South Wales.
Spend any amount of time behind the wheel in regional New South Wales and several things become apparent. The road network, so long maligned for its inferiority and legion of ongoing upgrades, is the vehicular equivalent of painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – the job is never complete. Roadworks and the sight of hi-vis-clad roadworkers are ubiquitous. Getting around our most populous state by car has perhaps never been easier, but you need to pack a healthy dose of patience.
The next most striking feature is the diversity in countryside. As a resident of NSW for most of my life, I’ve long marvelled at how one state can be so geographically and climatically different. Where else offers beach, desert, outback, alpine, rainforest, mountain, coastal, urban and rural landscapes all without traversing a border?
These attributes were reminded to me during a four-day, late-summer road trip within the northern half of the state that entailed driving 1,900 kilometres, four pitstops for fast food, eight visits to golf courses (many not seen in years), three lost balls, a pair of birdies and attending one PGA/WPGA Tour of Australasia tournament – all done strictly in the name of research. Which led to a third takeaway: golf in country NSW is as beautiful and diverse as the scenery.
My journey was part coastal, part rural and took in what you might term a group of four time-honoured ‘favourite’ courses for golfers as well as four ‘finds’. The latter quartet was either a layout I’d never encountered before or one I was rediscovering after some time. Either way, it was an inviting collection of courses worthy of any NSW golf road trip.
Bonville Golf Resort is a favourite to a lot of Australian golfers, many of whom return frequently. It’s perhaps the quintessential beloved facility for the way it blends a tremendous golf course that weaves through a setting that is difficult to surpass, an exceptional restaurant, on-course accommodation, plus a dedication to service that places the golfer at the forefront.
Bonville has always been one to march to its own beat. No other top-tier course in the country sits on the same latitude, and the Coffs Harbour region owns a particularly tempestuous microclimate. Now in its 32nd year of operation, Bonville’s owners and operators made the correct decision during the 2000s to convert the course’s bentgrass greens to the Bermuda 328 strain, which is better suited to the semi-tropical conditions. More recently has come a renovation program to the course’s 48 bunkers. In assessing the best options for a location where heavy rain is common and bunker washouts are a factor, the club opted to shy away from the in-vogue Ecobunker system and instead chose a less intensive yet completely effective mat method that better suits the course’s bunker shapes and drainage requirements. So forgive Bonville for playing by its own rules – it’s had to.
Those rules changed slightly a couple of years ago when non-member and non-accommodation-guest access to the course became restricted to Mondays and Tuesdays. It was a move made principally to enhance the experience for those who book the 30 on-site accommodation rooms and to emphasise the focus on service, but everyone can still book tee-times for those two days each week.
Of course, the giant flooded gums that create such a distinctive backdrop to every hole don’t know what day of the week it is. Two sensory elements of playing golf at Bonville are hard to beat: the resounding crack of club on ball that echoes through the trees then the spellbinding sight of a ball in the distance, framed by a wall of enormous gums for those few seconds after it reaches its apex and descends. I notice it most tellingly at the elevated second tee, but it happens on a few holes. They’re moments that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
Like a lot of golfers, I’ve had a love–hate relationship with Pacific Dunes. The now 18-year-old layout at Medowie on the inland part of the Port Stephens region certainly has my affection, it just doesn’t love me back. I find the course difficult, however not unfair, which is why I keep coming back. The Jekyll-Hyde nature of playing the James Wilcher-designed layout was reinforced to me during my most recent round when the first hole, which might be the course’s easiest, ate my proverbial lunch with a triple-bogey but then I managed to par most of the rest of the holes on the front nine until a birdie at the ninth.
Pacific Dunes is a course that keeps you on your toes. The outward half features ribbons of tight fairways as huge gums couple with ground-level scrub to wrap each fairway, while the back nine opens up to reveal a series of holes where water defends most targets. Two nines with far different settings, yet both complement the other and neither feels out of place. It’s very much a blend of design styles on flat land that works well. The course’s two short par 4s exemplify the unity. The 297-metre third hole asks golfers to challenge (or lay-up to) a medley of fairway bunkers set at differing distances from the perched green. At the 288-metre 10th, a lake protects the left side of the fairway and sits flush against the left side of the green in a clear distinction between good and bad outcomes. The dangers are more subtle at the third than the 10th, but both certainly have their place.
The club is looking to revise its eighth and ninth holes, most likely reversing the par 3, par 4 sequence to 4-3. It stands to be a welcome change to a layout that’s needed minimal renovation since opening and has become an integral part of the Port Stephens golf scene.
One of the aspects of The Vintage Golf Club I’ve always liked is how the entire place was ready on that January day 20 years ago when it first opened. Often, new courses will send golfers onto their virgin fairways and deal with adding a clubhouse later. Not at The Vintage. Every facet of the course, practice range, clubhouse, restaurant and clubhouse precinct – even a chapel – was ready to go on Day One. However, plenty of growth has happened since, including the addition of the Chateau Elan hotel, Grand Mercure apartments and the expansion of the residential estate, along with a few course refinements.
There’s an elan to the golf course, where the bold features intertwine with mild undulations to provide a hearty challenge, all in a setting that oozes Hunter Valley charm – neighbouring vineyards and hills, plus distant mountains. One minute, the Greg Norman/Bob Harrison design asks you to thread a drive down a tight fairway, like at the skinny second hole, then later it calls for a heroic carry over water, such as at the eighth, 10th or 17th. Sprinkled in between are more pulse-quickening shots, often played to voluptuous greens that tease and tantalise. It’s a shot-maker’s golf course, yet one where cavalier and cautious golfers can ride side by side.
Afterwards, there are few better places to deconstruct a round over a meal, a few drinks – or both – than the outdoor deck area overlooking the 18th green and later the restaurant inside. I’ve toured The Vintage in the height of a scorching summer and the bowels of a frosty winter. While autumn and spring are arguably best, there’s no question it’s a place for all seasons.
My visit to nearby Cypress Lakes Resort coincided with the TPS Hunter Valley event, won by Brett Coletta after a dazzling 61 to close. The timing meant I didn’t get to play the course, but I didn’t need to. We go way back, Cypress and me – right back to the start, in fact. I was there in April 1992 when the first nine holes opened. I remember birdieing the first hole (now the 18th) after a pinpoint 5-iron approach. It’s almost certainly the only time I’ve carded a 3 there.
The course has endured ups and downs of both financial and weather origins, especially in recent years when it comes to the latter. Yet the TPS event this February and the 2022 edition highlighted how far the place has progressed. Last year, unfathomable rainfall drenched the course and forced the tournament to be cut to 54 holes. Yet the fact any golf was playable at all was testament to the recent efforts invested into the course, particularly with drainage and bunker fortification in mind. Not too many years ago, a deluge like that would have cancelled a tournament at Cypress Lakes. Instead, it cost the course and the event a mere day.
This year, between five and 20 millimetres of rain was forecast for the Tuesday night of tournament week, yet the rain gauge revealed 110mm fell thanks to the arrival of a major weather cell. The Wednesday pro-am was cancelled – but only just – and the tournament went ahead unscathed. In fact, by the weekend the course was looking firm and in fine fettle.
Like a good Hunter Valley wine, Cypress Lakes has matured into a winner. It started the golf revolution in the wine-growing region of Pokolbin, and the 90th-ranked course in Australia deserves every accolade that comes its way.
The Tuncurry course at Forster Tuncurry Golf Club was once a member of an exclusive but unwanted club: my banned list. I first played the Kel Nagle/Mike Cooper-designed layout on the northern edge of the twin towns in mid-2000 and returned about five years later. Both times, I found it too tight and too claustrophobic to want to return – and the count of lost balls in our foursome confirmed its difficulty. It was a nice course in a tremendous location, but it was simply too tight to be enjoyable.
Parts of the course were a maze of tall timber that surely hypnotised a few quivering golfers into seeing more trees than cut grass. A sign that’s still on the third tee reveals the history: “The pines trees on the course are remnants of pine forest planted by detainees of a World War II Italian prisoner of war camp, which was located just north of the course.”
Thankfully, it’s far more palatable and playable today. A concerted effort to reduce the thickness of the vegetation lining the narrow fairways – mostly banksia and ti tree – has not only helped golfers recover from only marginally errant shots, it has also let the course breathe. You can now see much more at ground level and even fairway to fairway. The course looks and plays so much better thanks to the clearing work.
Meanwhile, in recent years Craig Parry’s design company has added bunkers on three holes and enlarged several greens, while the clubhouse – once nothing more than a shack – is now a modern and inviting venue. It is now officially ‘unbanned’ by me and rates as a must-play in the Great Lakes region.
Like many clubs along the NSW North Coast, Wauchope Country Club has endured two years of hardship. If it wasn’t a bushfire, it was floods – with a dash of COVID thrown in to really test the limits. Part of the club’s resilience can be credited to its ability to attract regularly returning visitors. Their loyalty is partly attributable to a sneaky-good golf course but also due to the availability of tee-times and the value to be found. Club professional Clark Joyce, when explaining to two visiting golfers that the cost will be $96 including a motorised cart, says the response is often, “What? Each?” before he informs them that’s the total price for two players. “You guys have no idea how good you’ve got it,” is a common refrain, Joyce says.
Plaudits for Wauchope come from professionals, too. The annual pro-am generates a sea of compliments for the course, usually for the exceptional condition of the greens, while the rest of the layout forges memories. Many of those are formed at the 116-metre fourth hole, with its Postage Stamp-style green. Small, push-up greens are common design features at many country golf courses and Wauchope is no exception. The little fourth, though, might be the most striking rendition. A hole as short as that merits a small target and this one is tiny. A lone bunker guards the right side of the putting surface, yet it’s the drop-offs short, left and long that provide the most arduous areas from which to scramble for par. Also notable is the par-5 17th, where a chain of four tiny ponds lines the right side of the fairway in the final 50 or so metres before the green.
I recall playing Longyard Golf Course during a blistering hot summer’s day in early 1991. I was not quite 15 and didn’t break 110 (even though the temperature, in ‘old money’, certainly did). I hated my score but not the golf course, although for 32 years I didn’t go back. Tamworth and I have a little history, plus I despise country music. This road trip may well be the first time I’ve done more than just drive through the town since ’91, but I’m glad I stopped on this occasion.
I remembered some parts of the Longyard course – it was mostly the growth in the number of peripheral houses that shocked. It offers a sound contrast to Tamworth Golf Club, which is more treelined. Longyard, on the southern edge of town – right near the famous Big Golden Guitar – is more expansive and coaxes you into making free swings with the big stick, just as its designer would have you do.
Two little-known facts about Longyard are that the course once hosted a PGA Tour of Australasia event – the 2002 NSW Masters, won by Perth’s Steve Collins – and that Greg Norman, along with former long-time co-designer Bob Harrison, penned the 6,239-metre layout. The entrance road is even called Greg Norman Drive. Norman and Harrison gave golfers ample room at Longyard. Being shut out by trees is unlikely, but you’ll have to navigate plenty of bunkers, several ponds and more than likely a strong breeze in the open spaces.
Strictly speaking, Scone Golf Club was also anything but a find. In the late 1990s, I lived only a 20-minute drive away and was a regular at the club – just not to play golf. Friday nights at the Scone “Golfies” was something of an institution for someone in their early 20s in the Upper Hunter. I went there numerous times yet never set foot on the nine-hole course. I wouldn’t have recognised it today anyway. From 2017 to 2019, the course underwent a complete transformation. In a curious turn of events, a redesign first penned by Harley Kruse later evolved into becoming a project headed by Phil Ryan from Pacific Coast Design. The new layout bears the fingerprints of both course architects and is essentially a whole new course for the club laid across previously unused rural land owned by the Upper Hunter Shire Council. The club had played on its previous site since 1946, but a highway bypass planned to be built across the existing course (which ultimately opened in 2020) forced the club into making alterations.
Some fairway corridors from the old layout were retained in the redesign; in the case of the first and ninth holes, they were reversed to have the boundaries on the left side of both holes rather than the right. Upkeep is carried out by the greens staff of the nearby Ellerston course, the private domain of the Packer family, so you’re guaranteed to find it in peak shape.
Golfers playing the new Scone layout pay the green fee ($15 for nine holes for visitors, $25 for 18) by swiping their credit cards at a keypad positioned along the pathway that leads from the carpark and clubhouse, under the bypass and towards the first tee. What awaits is an excursion that incorporates the site’s creeks, gullies and river red gums to great effect, while those playing two loops of the nine-hole course see different tees for the second nine that change the angle on several occasions. The difference is most evident at the eighth hole, where the two teeing grounds on the par 3 alter the length by 17 metres and switch the angle by approximately 40 degrees.
“We had more than enough land to do nine holes but not enough to do 18, so we made sure to provide alternate playing options and angles,” Ryan says.
Alternate routes might be recommended for nine-hole courses, but they’re equally important for golf trips. Sometimes a second lap – even after a long hiatus – is well worth the sense of rediscovery.