13 Jul 2020 | Clubs & Facilities | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Hidden gems sparkle brightly

by Mike Clayton

Newcastle's fourth hole is a rare beast these days, but remains both beautiful and challenging. Picture: GOLF AUSTRALIA MAGAZINE, Brendan James
Newcastle's fourth hole is a rare beast these days, but remains both beautiful and challenging. Picture: GOLF AUSTRALIA MAGAZINE, Brendan James

Hidden gems are just that – hidden understated courses in out-of-the-way places the mainstream golfers never discover.

And if they do, there are generally two reactions – they either fall in love or completely miss their point.

Brora, high up in the north coast of Scotland, was a favourite of Peter Thomson, Brad Klein writes lovingly of Astoria in Oregon and Jeff Mingay is an admirer of the Highland Links at Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.

In Australia, we have a few courses likely to attract more adulation if they were in a more populated part of the country, but even the majority of local golfers pay little attention to wonderful places such as Port Fairy, Portsea and Horsham in Victoria and Newcastle Golf Club, two hours north of Sydney. This quartet might be the best of Australia’s unpretentious courses.

A glance over the list of Newcastle’s reciprocal agreements with other clubs reveals some of my favourite courses and they, too, tend to suffer – or rejoice, depending on how you look at it – with reputations at odds with their real architectural quality.

Woodlands on the Melbourne Sandbelt, Portsea on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula and Paraparaumu Beach an hour’s drive out of Wellington, New Zealand, are three of my favourite courses and one could happily add Newcastle to the list and play wonderfully contented golf for life.

Mainstream golfers fed on a diet of flashy new courses and a perception of American golf gleaned from observing Augusta on television don’t study golf architecture to any perceptible degree and a course usually needs a big reputation to earn the respect of the masses.

The subtlety of Newcastle or Portsea is lost and because they have the misfortune – or perhaps the fortune – to operate with limited maintenance budgets. Those impressed by the “perfect” conditions might mark them down, but high-priced maintenance budgets don’t really add a lot to the game.

Newcastle is a tough mining town a couple of hours north of Sydney and the home of Jack Newton, one of our best ever golfers, and Nathan Green, the 2009 Canadian Open champion and one of our most under-appreciated players.

It is easily one of the best handful of courses in New South Wales, including the stunning New South Wales high on the cliffs at La Perouse. It should come as no surprise the two courses share a design pedigree.

Overseas golfers will automatically associate NSW with Alister MacKenzie and he did have a significant influence there. But the routing and construction was largely the work of Eric Apperly, a local designer and a fine player.

MacKenzie came to Australia for a dozen weeks at the end of 1926 and the way he thought the game was best organised altered golf forever in Australia. Without the MacKenzie influence, we’d all be playing a much less interesting form of the game. If you don’t think so, look at the places he didn’t visit.

The Scotsman couldn’t possible have designed all perceived in his credit without the help of men including Apperly, Mick Morcom, his Melbourne constructor, and his Australian design partner, Alex Russell.

Newcastle shows off several design quirks likely to be disapproved by those keen to highlight unusual features and label them as faults.

You will find shots here you will not see anywhere else in golf.

Indeed, its quirks are its strengths and what separate it from the conventional.

The opening hole plays away from the modest (to be read as a compliment, not a slight) clubhouse, then the second plays right back to a green just short of its verandah.

The third and 16th holes are both par-threes demanding tee shots with woods, or very long irons for the really powerful. They never seem to be greatly popular with the majority and neither would be singled out as a “great” hole, but in an era of ridiculous emphasis on power, both demand fine long shots from those hoping to make a three.

The third is followed by a complete dinosaur, a 415m par-five. The green at the fourth sits atop a high dune protected by bunkers built into the face of the hill, but still it’s a hole long hitters easily reach with middle and short irons.

The reality of the modern game is it’s a two-shot hole for the scratch player and a three-shotter for the majority, yet anyone playing the third and fourth in a combined eight shots is entitled to be encouraged.

Following immediately is the brilliant combination of the fifth and sixth, two tumbling par-fours played over some of the most dramatic land for golf in the country.

The former turns left with the blind drive over the dunes rewarding a shot turning from right to left. Anything played too far right leaves a long second off a hanging lie – not unlike Augusta’s 10th – and most likely out of the rough as well. It’s not a shot many players in the world are proficient at hitting with any confidence.

The sixth plays back in the opposite direction, this time with all the trouble on the left. The easier, level lies are more likely found to the right of the centre of the fairway and rather than going down to the green with the approach as the fifth does, the second is played up to the green guarded by bunkers on its right flank. These two beauties are the best holes on the course.

The long 10th is another unique hole, one perhaps criticised for its blind tee shot over a dune with a landing area protected by bush left and right. You can lay back with a long iron off the tee and play it as a three-shotter, but those driving long and straight from the tee face another confounding decision with the blind second shot.

Do they lay back with a long or even a middle iron, or boldly go with another long wood in hopes of reaching or getting close enough to make the pitch and putt a realistic hope? It is fun, it’s quirky, it confounds you and if you are tired of playing the hole, you’re tired of golf.

The course finishes with a short drive and wedge hole played along the boundary. It’s not a particularly difficult finisher in the traditional sense of the familiar long par four we see so often in Australia, but the short finishing holes at Grange West, Kooyonga and Royal Adelaide show a drive and pitch hole is no detriment to a first-class course.

Newcastle and its like-minded reciprocal clubs are important golf courses in Australia, –and New Zealand in the case of Paraparaumu Beach – because they are selling accessible golf which is neither particularly difficult to play, nor expensive to access.

All demonstrate wonderful, cerebral architecture guaranteed to fascinate sporting golfers long after the flashy, style over substance, expensive newer “resort” courses have lost their appeal.

Of course, they would all be deemed “too short” for tournament play, but with firm greens – never an issue at Woodlands or Portsea – they would prove to be a deal more interesting than the current diet of tedium served up at many tour events around the world.

Long may they live and thrive, for they draw people to the game at a time when expensive golf can only hurt its long-term viability.

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