Above: Palmer Coolum Resort has a chequered recent history but the golf course remains a Sunshine Coast icon.
A favourite saying of mine suggests that “change is mandatory but progress is optional”, the insinuation being that nothing in life stays the same, however we can control whether the changes are positive.
Queensland’s Sunshine Coast has always fallen into that category of destinations where vast potential for growth hasn’t become suffocated by soulless exploitation. Well, almost. There can be no discussion about the region these days without mentioning the ‘P’ word: Palmer. As in Clive. But more on him later.
My first visit to the Sunshine Coast came in 1990 as a teenager and I reckon I’ve returned as many as 20 times since. As a golf-struck 14-year-old, I was introduced by my golf-playing aunt and uncle to the various offerings the coast had to offer: Tewantin-Noosa, Noosa Valley, Mount Coolum, the lot. But the Holy Grail for me was always the then-named Hyatt Regency Coolum course.
When we finally scored a tee-time there, I made only one score better than double-bogey and drowned more balls in 18 holes than I’d ever remembered, but never lost heart. I adored Coolum for the same reason so many golfers grew to love it over the years: it’s a supreme challenge but so enjoyable throughout. For everyday golfers, it’s like hopping into the boxing ring against Mike Tyson in his prime, being beaten to a pulp yet loving every minute of it.
Gradually new stars turned the start-up into an entourage. Twin Waters came next, in 1991, with Noosa Springs and Pelican Waters opening either side of the new millennium. Suddenly a four-pronged assault had emerged, each one with as much drawing power as the last.
Golf on the Sunshine Coast took off for three principal reasons: an uncomplicated and well-located airport with regular flights to and from, mostly agreeable year-round weather and a healthy hierarchy of top courses with a better-than-you-might-expect supporting cast. Indeed, the real finds of a Sunshine Coast golf sojourn might just be the courses you least expect.
A New Player
Of course, the ‘Big Four’ layouts represent the established go-to destinations for golfers but there is a new player on the scene. After a protracted and much-publicised relocation from the former Horton Park Golf Club, Maroochy River Golf Club was born in 2015 to bolster the Sunshine Coast’s offerings.
Horton Park began in 1950 and spent the next few decades growing and prospering. When the Maroochydore area was ‘discovered’ by tourists and new residents, pressure slowly built on the growing scarcity of land. Eventually, midway through last decade, that pressure became too great as the Sunshine Coast Council signalled its intention to take back the land, forcing the club to look for a new home. It eventually did so, to the site of a former canefield a short drive away at Bli Bli.
There’s something incongruous about an open, links-style course in a decidedly non-links climate like steamy Queensland. Yet somehow Maroochy River fits – proof that adaptability is one of golf’s great assets. The Graham Marsh-designed course spawned from a lacklustre site that required the veteran course architect to delve deep into his reservoirs of vision and creativity.
Maroochy River asks players to be judicious about how they flight the ball, especially when the wind whips across the exposed, treeless layout. However, it’s the landforms and turf as much as the breeze that forces flight control. The maxim in golf decrees the game is far more interesting when the ball is on the ground than in the air. As the turf matures, it will allow golfers to display more ingenuity and imagination. Marsh’s design includes ample water hazards and sand but is otherwise not a ball-chewer. Its early reputation as a difficult course is largely down to golfer unfamiliarity and the potentially capricious conditions.
With aspirations to become the Sunshine Coast’s premier course in the next few years, the rise of Maroochy River is very much a case of a ‘Big Four’ swelling to five.
The momentum began, of course, with the mighty Hyatt Regency Coolum, now known as Palmer Coolum Resort. And if you think Horton Park/Maroochy River’s recent history is chequered, it’s got nothing on this place. The unrest began late last decade with the loss of the ‘across-the-road’ holes to make way for a new development. Robert Trent Jones Jnr was called back in to add a new opening six holes to the course he penned in 1988. Utilising previously unused space to the left of the original first hole (which became the seventh), Trent Jones Jnr and his team added a series of intriguing and strategic holes to complement the 12 remaining from the original layout.
The new six were largely impressive, although the tiny par-3 sixth drew some criticism during the Australian PGA Championships held there, with Wayne Grady once declaring in commentary it was merely “a way to get from the fifth hole to the seventh”. But by and large the new additions were a good fit. The real storm was still to come.
Dinosaurs, political slogans, veiled threats and tournament play: not your standard recipe for golf in this country. The 2012 Australian PGA Championship – the last staged at Coolum in a run dating back to 2002 – nearly didn’t take place there courtesy of demands new resort owner Clive Palmer made in the days and weeks leading up to the tournament. Complicated contingency plans were in place to relocate the tournament if necessary. It was maelstrom of melancholy not befitting a tournament of any calibre, let alone our national PGA.
The first oddity was “Jeff” the dinosaur, a 10-metre model T-Rex standing adjacent to the ninth green – replete with his own Twitter account – that heralded the new mood at Coolum. (Sadly, Jeff became ‘extinct’ in a 2015 electrical fire.) Next came an assortment of vintage cars scattered throughout the resort, then slogans painted on the fairways during the ’12 PGA. The tournament-week dealings between the billionaire political aspirant and the PGA Tour of Australasia must have made for spectacular listening for those in the room. Later came the closure of the extensive resort accommodation.
The flow-on effect for golfers has been confusing. Was the course open? What condition is it in? Is it open now? The good news is the course is very much open. The resort isn’t, but locals and visitors to the region continue to fill the fairways in sporadic numbers. A reduced maintenance team cares for the playing surfaces, which are in good shape rather than great but more than acceptable given the limited manpower.
Palmer’s acquisition of Coolum hasn’t removed the core of the on-course experience, which remains a hallmark for shot-making precision and patience. Trent Jones Jnr’s famous contours are ever-present but take something of a back seat to the system of lakes and tropical foliage. The tee shot to the downhill par-3 11th and approach to the equally well-guarded par-4 18th are pulsating moments regardless of your ability or score. Long may that continue.
The trendy beachside town of Noosa is arguably the best-known locality in the region, but for many years it lacked a top-class golf course to match its upper-echelon mystique. That changed in 1999 when the Graham Papworth-designed Noosa Springs injected panache into the coast’s golf scene.
Set on the shore of Lake Weyba, Noosa Springs is a serene piece of paradise amid the vibrancy of Noosa. Part rainforest, part residential, the course weaves between settings and strategies. One par 4 – the 329-metre fifth – is about as multi-faceted as a two-shotter can be. A lake lines the entire right-hand side but peninsulas of fairway jut into the water at various intervals to create multiple playing options from the tee. You might hit a 5-iron then an 8-iron or a 3-wood then sand wedge – or the bold player might try to blast a driver up near the green. It’s a cool hole where the danger doesn’t end until you’re plucking the ball out of the cup.
Papworth designed the course before the modern explosion in distance and the 6,500-plus-metre courses that followed. Instead, the layout stretches to 6,180 metres from the back tees as the focus remains on brains over brawn.
“Our aim with Noosa Springs was to design a course that, while not lacking in challenge, was fun to play and took full advantage of its picturesque setting,” Papworth said. “The result is a strategic layout that offers the full gamut of hole lengths and shot values. There are heroic play options for those willing to take a risk to lower their score, however all players should enjoy a fair challenge and eminent golfing experience.”
Noosa Springs is about much more than just golf. The resort and spa represent fantastic places to stay and pamper oneself just a stone’s throw from trendy Hastings St and the many beaches. Numerous packages remain on offer throughout the year and are perfect for couples, groups large or small and either short or extended stays.
The resort now also offers a number of spectacular houses in The Oasis, the final residential precinct, as short-term holiday homes for visitors looking for something special. The residences are unique in their quality, luxury and prestige and overlook the 17th hole. Single and double-storey homes are available, each with state-of-the-art finishes, situated conveniently close to the resort’s clubhouse, spa, restaurant, tennis courts and fitness centre.
Twin Waters Golf Club is one of those absorbing Thomson/Wolveridge courses that looks simple enough on paper and at first glance yet has the capacity to eat your lunch. I must have played the course a dozen times or more over the years and not threatened equalling my handicap once. Conversely, Peter Lonard missed carding a 59 there by about four dimples during the 2002 Jack Newton Celebrity Classic. Lonard drew back his putter only 20 times that day, leading the laconic pro to quip: “Who said I couldn’t putt?”
Another fan of Twin Waters is part-time Sunshine Coast resident Ian Baker-Finch, who says, “It is the ideal resort experience: not too long and with firm, fast greens, and everything is visible from the tee.”
Baker-Finch is long-time friends with Twin Waters’ general manager, Stephen Hutchison, and the pair plays a late afternoon nine holes whenever the 1991 British Open champion is in town. Hutchison, whose association with the club dates back to 2001, says Twin Waters is blessed with the dual advantages of position and condition.
“We’ve always been the most popular course because of our location,” he says of the mid-coast locale, right near Sunshine Coast Airport. “And the grass quality is second to none. No one has ever seen it in bad quality because it never is. There’s not a weed to be found.”
Twin Waters stages the annual Sunshine Coast Masters Legends pro-am, an event that has won the Queensland Golf Industry Awards’ Tournament of the Year on the past two occasions – an accolade voted by the participants. It’s that sort of place, one where golfers of all abilities feel comfortable every time they show up.
It’s also a sneaky-good golf course. The par-3 second hole might be one of the tougher holes on the coast when you consider its distance: 166 metres. The prevailing wind combined with the angle of the tilted green makes for a tough shot-making fit. Many players savour Thommo’s tribute to the Road Hole on the Old Course at St Andrews that is Twin Waters’ eighth. There is no hotel to fire a tee shot across – there’s a lake instead – but it does have a tabletop green alongside a demonic pot bunker. It’s also the toughest test of the 18 holes.
Greg Norman’s ties to Queensland are well known, but the Great White Shark retains a particularly special link with Pelican Waters Golf Club near Caloundra. Norman’s parents are residents in the estate adjoining the course and Toini Norman has drawn headlines in the 17 years the course has been open courtesy of her competition victories and even a hole-in-one on the 14th hole.
For all the fine collaborations between Greg Norman and former co-designer Bob Harrison, it might be Pelican Waters that Australian golfers know least about. The ribbon was cut in 2000 at a time when a raft of excellent courses also opened, so perhaps it was lost in the rush to a degree. Such a conundrum is unlikely to happen again in the current golf-course climate.
In truth, Pelican Waters is one of Norman/Harrison’s best bodies of work. The bunkering is particularly striking – one of the pair’s hallmarks – and the sand takes on a Sandbelt-like persona for strategy. Water is in play although it is not used excessively, and the journey moves through varied terrain. As you peer down the super-narrow 16th fairway, a par 5 flanked by a veritable forest on either side, it’s difficult to recall the open front-nine holes and think you’re still on the same golf course.
Another Norman/Harrison trait reveals itself at the closing hole. Like so many of their layouts (The National Moonah, Brookwater, The Vintage, Sanctuary Lakes), the 18th is one of the toughest holes on the course if not the toughest. Pelican’s final hurrah is a 417-metre par-4 twisting left towards a bunker-guarded green. Only two good wallops will set up a birdie putt.
Down the road, Caloundra Golf Club was long known as the club where Baker-Finch completed his traineeship before embarking on a decorated professional career. These days, it’s an authentic, secluded layout with abundant flora and fauna and a solid test for all. The healthy stands of gums and assorted other trees combine with a little water and a bunkering scheme that’s not overdone across a 5,987-metre excursion.
Like Caloundra, Headland Golf Club might be viewed as something of a ‘sleeper’ course on the Sunshine Coast – a category courses like Peregian Springs Golf Club (now open again after a period of closure), Mount Coolum Golf Club and the nine-hole Noosa Valley Golf Club could also easily fall into.
Located between Twin Waters and Pelican Waters, people come for the golf and stay for the views at Headland, the Queensland Golf Club of the Year in 2015. Named for its extensive views across Mooloolaba, Headland is one of those quintessential “good members’ courses”. It’s memorable, scenic and with enough length (6,086 metres) and undulation to make things interesting time after time.
A traditional club, Headland began 50 years ago thanks to volunteer labour and gradually expanded from the initial five holes to nine and eventually 18. Those early visionaries knew their stuff because not much has needed to change since those early days – and the putting surfaces remain the talk of the region.
“We consider our greens the best on the Sunshine Coast,” says general manager Ben Dobson. And the 328 Bermuda surfaces need to be resilient on a hugely popular layout that welcomes 60,000 rounds annually.
For so long those legions of players had to face the club’s Valley of Death, a deep hollow fronting the green of the par-3 18th in the shadow of the clubhouse. But three years ago the club filled in the valley for a variety of reasons, some of which included drainage and pace of play.
It’s one of the great things about the Sunshine Coast – although things might change from time to time, it’s almost always for the better.
The 5 best things about the Sunshine Coast
The Sunshine Coast’s favourite golfing son shares his top-five favourite things to do there:
- I love the pristine golden sandy beaches – especially Mooloolaba, my favourite beach in the world.
- The Glasshouse Mountains are where I grew up and all the hiking trails keep me fit over my Christmas break.
- The easy-going, laid-back, healthy, outdoor/beach lifestyle, plus the spectacular views of the entire coast from Maleny to Montville and the inland ranges.
- The close proximity of the hinterland to the famous surf beaches makes the Sunshine Coast a wonderful family environment and community.
- And, of course, the Sunshine Coast Masters, played over the coast’s best golf courses, the final Legends Tour event of the year. – Ian Baker-Finch
WHERE TO PLAY
Caloundra Golf Club
Charles Woodward Dr, Caloundra QLD
(07) 5491 2626
Green fees: $49
Headland Golf Club
Golf Links Rd, Buderim QLD
(07) 5444 5800
Green fees: $52
Maroochy River Golf Club
David Low Way, Bli Bli QLD
(07) 5457 0900
Green fees: $65
Mount Coolum Golf Club
Lumeah Dr, Mount Coolum QLD
(07) 5446 3125
Green fees: $48
Noosa Golf Club
Cooroy Noosa Rd, Tewantin QLD
(07) 5447 1910
Green fees: $50-$55
Links Dr, Noosa Heads QLD
(07) 5440 3333
Green fees: $120
Noosa Valley Country Club
Valley Dr, Doonan QLD
(07) 5449 1411
Green fees: $30 (nine holes)
Palmer Coolum Resort
Warran Rd, Coolum Beach QLD
(07) 5446 1234
Green fees: $98
Pelican Waters Golf Club
Mahogany Dr, Pelican Waters QLD
(07) 5437 5002
Green fees: $69-$99
Peregian Springs Golf Club
Peregian Springs Dr, Peregian Springs QLD
(07) 5471 5400
Green fees: $69
Twin Waters Golf Club
Ocean Dr, Twin Waters QLD
(07) 5457 2444
Green fees: $49-$79