Oddly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic may become a salvation for golf in regional Australia.

The world came to a standstill in 2020 and continued through 2021. Australians were forced to look internally rather than externally as the world we knew came to an abrupt end.

In the short term with international travel prohibited, regional golf courses have received a bit of a boost from Australian golfers looking inbound for a holiday. Now with people accustomed to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, more Australians are considering to reside in regional areas as an attractive alternative to the hustle and bustle of city life.

And if more golfers holiday or migrate to the regions, it stands to reason that tired, run-down golf courses would benefit. Oddly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic may be a salvation for regional golf. If that means an extra 200 rounds a year at a regional course – with, say, an average spend of $100 on green fees, balls, food and beverage – that regional golf club would be better off to the tune of $20,000.

Links Hope Island on the Gold Coast, where the regional-golf boom began.

“Australia used to be awash with tennis courts in every single backyard. They’ve all disappeared for land values. The city used to be awash with good municipal courses. They’re starting to disappear. But guess what? Regional Australia is awash with great golf courses. Get out there,” says Ray Ellis, chief executive officer of First National Real Estate.

Many regional golf clubs lack the large membership base of metropolitan clubs. Hence the budget for things like course maintenance and essential infrastructure isn’t as large. Their marketing budgets are minimal or non-existent – which explains why they aren’t front-of-mind for most golfers.

Ellis, who is on the Real Estate Institute of Australia board of directors, thinks an initiative where inner-city clubs ‘sponsor’ regional clubs would have a dramatic impact. “Why doesn’t a city course have a reciprocal course in the country where they help develop it and offer that to their membership?” Ellis asks. “So when they go on a sojourn to the country, they have a reciprocal arrangement with them.”

Historically, that’s how Barwon Heads Golf Club came to prominence as an offshoot of Royal Melbourne. That’s also how Sorrento Golf Club has prospered from having affluent members of Metropolitan Golf Club
in its membership ranks.

In theory, what if 10 members of a big city club migrated to a country town? They’re all used to playing an immaculately conditioned golf course and they want a similar standard of conditioning at their new home course.

“They’ll be happy to raise the annual fees if it means having a better golf course,” Ellis says. “You spend $500,000 on a good country course and you’ve got a very good golf course. And it then becomes a feature of the town. People are going to come there.”

And that may just be the silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these regions have wonderful golf courses. The real fun is travelling to these out-of-the-way destinations and looking beyond the golf.

For the time being, however, let’s celebrate golf in regional Australia with a special focus on courses that are worth a visit right now.

Bonville remains an icon of regional golf.

Gold Coast: The birth of great ‘regional’ golf

Who could have imagined 40 years ago the swamps and low-lying land south of Brisbane could be transformed into a canal-inspired tourist mecca? Today, the Gold Coast is not just one of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations but one of our favourite golf destinations.

Credibility for Gold Coast golf came when Arnold Palmer put his signature upon Sanctuary Cove’s Pines layout in 1989. But it was 1993 when Peter Thomson’s imprimatur on Links Hope Island turned the Gold Coast into a verifiable golf destination. Pundits could scarcely believe the temerity to build a ‘links’ in humid south-east Queensland. With its splattering of 128 pot-style bunkers, Links Hope Island became a marketing sensation that has stood the test of time.

Resort golf on the Gold Coast helped changed the mindset of Australian golfers who were used to green fees at the cost of a movie ticket. Whereas Australian golfers once baulked at paying exorbitant fees, they’re now accustomed to paying $100 to receive a top-shelf golf experience.

While the Gold Coast is no longer considered part of regional Australia, the Sunshine Coast still has a distinctive regional feel due to a cap on high-rise developments. Brisbane’s selection to host the 2032 Olympic Games should raise the profile of Sunshine Coast attractions. Property analyst CoreLogic expects the Sunshine Coast to benefit via transport infrastructure, including upgrades to the M1 Pacific Motorway and Bruce Highway, which could be accelerated.

Bathurst Golf Club has vastly improved its course.

 Palmer Coolum Resort is likely to be a chief beneficiary as its Robert Trent Jones Jnr layout is simply outstanding for its design and native fauna. Elsewhere, three top resort courses have launched a co-operative called the ‘Sunshine Coast Golf Pass’. Designed for convenience, the three-round pass provides green fees with carts at Noosa Springs Golf & Spa Resort, Peregian Golf Course and Twin Waters Golf Club. At $239 per player, it represents a total saving of approximately 20 per cent.

For sheer aesthetics, Bonville Golf Resort near Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales North Coast has no peer. Since opening in 1992, Bonville has attracted legions of fans and acquired the reputation of ‘Australia’s Augusta’. Routed through a forest of flooded gums up to 50 metres tall, each hole is secluded from the next for a tranquil golf experience. Playing companions may include swamp wallabies, kookaburras and water dragons.

Regional NSW is spoilt for golf destinations. The township of Pokolbin in the Lower Hunter Valley has become more than just a weekend away for wine lovers. With two superb courses, Pokolbin has what can best be described as ‘Vineyard Golf’. Diehard, single-figure markers will appreciate Greg Norman’s classic bunkering and green complexes at The Vintage.

Across town Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort is thriving after recent improvements to the Steve Smyers design. A drought emergency plan, use of effluent water, bunker reconstruction and an organic gardening program have been implemented by course superintendent Craig Molloy, the 2021 ASTMA Excellence in Golf Course Management Award winner.

Dunsborough Lakes is a drawcard layout south of Perth.

Elsewhere in the Hunter, quick access to Newcastle Airport (with direct flights to Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast) has proven to be a desirable feature for residents and members of Pacific Dunes (designed by James Wilcher). Situated at Medowie, 25 minutes from the Newcastle town centre, the 135-hectare Pacific Dunes community is located at the gateway to the Hunter mining industry and is just 20 minutes from the water world of Port Stephens. Pacific Dunes has enjoyed strong employment growth from major infrastructure projects in mining, road and rail, port facilities and the expansion of Newcastle Airport and the RAAF base.

The NSW South Coast has a bunch of interesting courses from Mollymook all the way to Pambula Merimbula near the Victorian border. For a family-friendly vacation it’s worth considering Bateman’s Bay or Moruya. Club Catalina is a 27-hole facility that celebrated 100 years of golf in Bateman’s Bay in 2020. The underrated Moruya Golf Club is home to the South Coast Open and has the unusual feature of a double green on the ninth and 18th holes. Within 15 minutes of either town, non-golfers can amuse themselves at Mogo Wildlife Park where they can see African lions, cheetahs, southern white rhinos and plains zebras.

‘Gourmet Golf’ would be a marketing phrase to apply to several regional courses in NSW. The city of Orange has reinvented itself as a gastronomic delight. Duntryleague Golf Club is a fitting accompaniment, having co-hosted the 1998 Australian Boys’ Amateur won by Adam Scott. Duntryleague’s heritage-listed mansion provides an exquisite backdrop to a round of golf. Built in 1876, the 14-room guesthouse gives an insight into life of the landed gentry from a bygone era.

Bathurst Golf Club has undergone a huge transformation over the past five years, enabling it to host multiple Golf NSW championships. The key has been the sourcing of bore water in three wells that has seen the conditioning of the course improve significantly while reducing the club’s water bill from up to $100,000 per annum to as low as $11,000. Continual upgrading of Bathurst’s clay-based bunkers is a key priority moving forward.

Wagga Wagga is another NSW town attracting city slickers with its food and wine, art galleries, gardens and heritage. Situated on the banks of Lake Albert, Wagga Wagga Country Club is arguably the finest course in the Riverina. Established in 1930, the original layout was designed by Dan Soutar, whose work includes Kingston Heath, Elanora and Concord. The club’s claim to fame is that it’s the course where Major champion Steve Elkington once honed his game, winning the club championship in 1979 and 1980.

Wagga Wagga Country Club is the best course in the largest inland city in NSW.

The Fleurieu Peninsula is a hidden gem for Australian golfers. In fact, the majority of people outside South Australia probably wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the Fleurieu on a map. But away from Adelaide’s big four private golf clubs, the quartet of Links Lady Bay, Mount Compass, McCracken Country Club and Victor Harbor offer some of the finest public-access golf in the country. The best of which is Links Lady Bay, co-designed by Jack Newton over gently undulating land (where sheep and cattle once grazed). The exposed site poses a wonderful challenge to avoid its deep bunkers and master the unpredictable breezes off St Vincent Gulf.

The Margaret River region continues to flourish in the west. The drive south from Perth provides plenty of regional courses to play. Finish off in the wine capital of Western Australia but take three days to drive down and play sensational golf courses such as The Cut, Secret Harbour and Meadow Springs.

In Margaret River, the Dunsborough Lakes residential golf development (Wallis Property) has prospered off a marketing campaign focused on living in a seaside town less than three hours south of Perth. Dunsborough Lakes is 200 metres from the beach and a short stroll into town. Apart from a championship-length course designed by PGA of Australia life member Alan Murray and Ken Wride, residents and members have access to plenty of walking trails and the region’s
glorious wineries.

Less than an hour from Melbourne’s CBD, Hidden Valley Resort at Wallan is a world away from the trams of Collins Street. The former country estate of businessman Robert Holmes à Court is a good base to explore attractions at Daylesford and the Macedon Ranges. Resort guests can stay in deluxe Tuscan-inspired townhouses with full use of the country club’s facilities, including a fine 18-hole layout designed by Craig Parry in the shadows of the Great Dividing Range.

One of the most anticipated golf course openings in recent times has been the revamped Lonsdale Links on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. The team of Ogilvy Cocking Mead has paid homage to the wonderfully designed layouts built during the golden age of golf course architecture around the turn of last century. Lonsdale Links has quirky features such as rectangular tabletop greens and a church-pew like bunker. Its template holes – Redan, Biarritz, Punchbowl and Road Hole – make Lonsdale Links as irresistible as seeing the Great Ocean Road for the
first time.

Thirteenth Beach is a focal point of Bellarine Peninsula golf.

Less than 10 minutes down the road, Thirteenth Beach Golf Links sets the benchmark for what a golf facility should aspire to be. While the residential development has been a resounding success, the host venue for the Vic Open has won plenty of admirers. Tony Cashmore’s Beach course has arguably the best collection of par 3s in regional Australia while Nick Faldo’s Creek course complements its sibling by using inspiration from Melbourne’s Sandbelt in its design.

Golfers are spoilt for choice across Port Philip Bay on the Mornington Peninsula, which is synonymous with great golf (The National, The Dunes, Portsea, Sorrento, St Andrews Beach). But there is no more formidable test of character than Peter Thomson’s Open course at Peppers Moonah Links Resort. The five-times British Open champion considered it to be his magnum opus. It is a leviathan for the sheer scale of the putting surfaces, the gaping size of bunkers and daunting slope of runoffs around the green complexes. Perhaps it’s little wonder many golfers gravitate towards Moonah’s Links’ superb Legends course for a somewhat fairer examination of their game.

Once upon a time the Murray River was the escape for Victorians eager to spend a weekend on the ‘pokies’ at clubs on the NSW side of the border. The introduction of casinos and gaming in Melbourne changed that dynamic and golf clubs on the Murray suffered as a result. However, Murray golf is undergoing a resurgence.

Rich River features two courses in an alluring part of the Murray region.

Breathing new life into the Murray is the Silverwoods residential community at Yarrawonga/Mulwala built around the outstanding Black Bull Golf Course (Thomson Perrett). Silverwoods has two kilometres of lake frontage and a marina, drawing comparisons with Sanctuary Cove on the Gold Coast. The Sebel Yarrawonga is the focal point of a $35 million recreational hub that features a 300-seat conference centre, swimming pools, health spa, gymnasium, tennis courts and boat-parking facilities.

Feeding off its neighbour is Yarrawonga Mulwala Golf Club Resort, which promotes itself as The Mecca of Murray Golf. It’s an appropriate label with 45 holes spread among the spectacular River Red gums that line the fairways. The resort has a variety of accommodation from spacious family-friendly villas to rustic two-bedroom cabins for the most avid of golfers, all within easy access of the marvellous Rutherglen wineries.

More top golf can be found at Cobram-Barooga and Tocumwal, while the journey to Rich River Golf Club at Moama is well worth the visit. The long-time host of the Rich River Trainee Classic has a 63-room motel with all the creature comforts. The resort offers a luxurious Murray River Paddlesteamers Package with an all-inclusive two-night cruise and 36 holes of golf on Rich River’s two championship layouts. Non-golfers can enjoy excursions to the Barmah Wetlands for a small-boat eco cruise and a winery luncheon with time to explore Echuca’s boutique shopping precinct.