Resorts with their own golf course or courses are not a new or rare phenomenon. But one particular sub-species of this beast is the accommodation that is known more for its accommodation and it just so happens to have a course for guests. Sure, the public can come and play at many of these, but it isn’t a well promoted animal and the course is treated by the facility as simply one of its many amenities and has no known affiliations with golfing bodies. My favourite of these has always been the 9 hole par 3 course at Pacific Bay resort in Coffs Harbour. Five minutes up the road from them is Opal Cove with the same concept, although I can strongly advise all travelers looking to drop in on one for a hit should choose the considerably more superior and better maintained Pacific Bay. Unlike Pacific Bay, most of these tracks are looked after to rather basic standards, catering for holiday makers who want a bash rather than golfers looking for a decent round. At many, you feel like you are at a pitch and putt at a caravan park.
Stonelea Country House at Acheron has a full on 18 hole course and it is a 5448m par 70 track. The resort is not huge and is not always heavily booked, so the course must rarely if ever get busy outside of the occasional corporate stay over the entire place where a game is locked in for all as part of the activities. If heading up to Eildon from Melbourne, the route through Healesville that winds up through gorgeous fernery past Marysville and through Taggerty (where the proposed Michael Coate designed ripper is sadly showing little potential for future signs of life at this point), Acheron is the last locality before hitting Alexandra.
Playing the more undulating front nine, it isn’t until
the 7th that you first see signs of the back nine all laid out in
a gorgeous valley below.
The first thing that must be said is that this location is simply beautiful. Acheron is surrounded by the stunning Cathedral Ranges and all manner of other minor ranges heading up towards the high country, and it makes for a setting for the round of golf far nicer than most others. As dry as it is right now which can be seen in a number of the photos, it is no detraction from the profoundness of this perfect place they’ve found to lay out a golf course. Regardless of the quality of the course, the enjoyment of the place was never in doubt.
For house guests, a game is $25. For those not staying like myself, the compulsory package is golf and lunch for $55. For those who are foodies, this is actually a great deal. For those who don’t fancy anything more than a sausage roll and coke after the game, it isn’t. Stonelea has a chef’s hat in the Age Good Food Guide and roundly deserves it. I had a two course meal that to be matched anywhere in town at the better restaurants would have to have been a $25 main and $10-12 dessert at the very least. So I’m probably on better terms than if I’d paid the $25 house rate and not eaten. Granted this is a golf forum and many here have no time for being bundled into a premium meal, but for those who like a better than average bite at times, this is a great day out. Service was impeccable and the staff were wonderful. Don’t expect pro shop savvy interaction when paying for golf, as these are hospitality staff first and foremost. But I left far happier and more relaxed than one normally does from a golf course. I’d return for the welcome alone. The only other expense which adds fuel to the value hunter’s fire is that I strongly recommend riding rather than walking. Carts are $30 for 18 holes, and the front nine is not a walking nine. From the first green, an almost 200m trek through the vineyards to the base of a steep hill awaits. Climb the hill, and another 150m further on, you have reached the second tee. The return journey down the hill is from #8 to #9. From the second tee, I looked down over the hill, past the house vineyards and ninth tee to the distant first green and pitied anyone who decided to walk when playing here. The paths for those walking would also test the bag boy’s suspension in a few places.
#8 green at the top of one of the majestic rises, played to
from the right of pic
The maintenance here is left to one full timer, who apparently recently injured himself and is at less than full capacity. But it hasn’t hurt the course. The one major criticism is that the greens are shockingly over watered. They redefine the term spongy and I felt like I was trying to walk across a bouncing castle with a dozen kids at a birthday party tearing around. The greens and tees were also left a little long, but this is perfectly understandable given not only the green keeper’s health, but that we are in the heart of dry bushfire country having just had two consecutive days over 40 degrees and with another coming up today. With the course not heavily crowded, I wouldn’t stress myself out either to provide immaculate conditions for only a small handful of golfers per week at a time of year where keeping turf from harm from the heat with only one bloke to do it makes more sense. The fairways were mown that morning, and all playing surfaces from tee to green were thickly carpeted and in superb knick given the budget. The stench from the sprinklers informed me it wasn’t town water.
The tees weren’t level everywhere, but you can find spots to hit from. Tees that aren’t flat are a bugbear of mine, and I found playing from the tips (there are three sets of tees, often each about two metres apart) gave the flattest spots to commence from. There are no bunkers on the course (Jim, I did a fastidious recount to make sure), but banked greens and the occasional use of the surrounds to craft a green complex of some interest were the norm. Like a few other tracks run by non-golfing people, they hang their hat on the fact that the greens are of USGA construction, a term slightly useful to an agronomist but not to the player.
The first couple of holes are a humble beginning. #1 is played over 294m to a green plonked between two enormous majestic old gums. Both well out of play if you are back in the fairway, they frame an otherwise simple hole. After making it to #2, a 329m par 4, the first signs of the rolling hills to follow are evident. #2 is a hole miss-fitted into its spot but the inconvenience of the hills means that a few holes have quirk to get from one point to another. But the hole works. Aim left on a risky line for a shorter pitch in, or use the ample width to the right.
#2 from tee to green winding up the hill to the distant middle
left of pic
The tee shot on #3, between the two main trees and then
bending slightly right
#3 (302m) is over more practical terrain, and weaves gently right between the pair of eucalypts and down to a green cut in the side of a gentle left to right slope. The green is thus banked more steeply along the right, though the chipping areas aren’t overly intimidating. #4 plays similarly to the previous hole only it is a tad longer at 340m. The second shot sets up attractively over a mini thin strip of long grass 30 odd yards short of a pretty green nestled into a small amphitheatre.
From behind #4
#5 is the first variation from shortish par 4s which have all gradually worked the golfer in the one main direction to the furthest point on the course, and is the first of two consecutive short holes. 158m (and a long walk to the mens’ tee), it plays up a gentle rise that plays a club and a half longer than on the flat. The hole is luckily/cleverly located, as this is perhaps the most appealing looking and practical point at which to send the golfer away from the property’s edge and up the slope to cover new ground.
Essentially, #6-8 come back along the parallel route of #2-4, but never are close by and are on higher ground. #6 is a bit of a signature hole. A mighty 99m, it is played from an elevated tee to a two tiered green over a pond. Behind and to the right of the green is banked to collect and assist balls but when the flag is on the front tier, both the back tier and the water tighten the opportunities to succeed. At worst, it is a fun hole. There’s nothing Mickey Mouse here and it can only add interest.
The signature #6 from the tee
From behind the green the tier can clearly be seen. The tee is
to the left from this view of the hut you can make out under the
#7 is a dinky par 5. The front nine grounds probably dictate that where #3-4 are is perhaps the only reasonable spot for a par 5 on this nine, but then again if that were done then this land would still have to be crossed in some manner to get back, so better to make a fist of a longer hole here. Played to a very wide fairway from the tee, it then turns right and up a hill with the entire fairway for the second shot hidden from view by long grass and the initial crest of the climb. Defining gums line the left side to provide a line, so there is no guessing at least. Longer players can get home (but miss and you won’t have a clue where it is), whilst the rest of us play to a point from which over the last bump in the rise, the fairly plain but forgivingly large green can be seen resting in another well chosen setting.
#8 is a short four played from one heck of a gorgeous spot at the top of the entire property and overlooking a significant portion of planet earth to another peak 288m away, crossing a concave valley of wide fairway below. If you can, you have to go for it. The shot to the fairway leaves an uncomplicated second and it doesn’t play like a significant climb. Having ended the play amongst the peaks, the everlasting journey back to the ninth tee begins. #9 is a nothing short par 4 who’s main attribute is that it returns the golfer to the house and within reach of the back nine. A more forgivable walk is that to the tenth tee, across the front of the cottages and historic house and over the quaint bridge to the second half of the game.
#10 in one direction and #18 in the other are a pair of par 3s connecting the parcel of land on which #11-17 are on to the house. With flatter terrain on the back, those building the greens have utilised the opportunity to be more daring in spots, and although their attempts miss the mark in places, I applaud the ridges and bumps in many of the greens as at least an urgency to get away from the safe and mundane. #10 is played to a big green with a couple of such bumps. Another major downside is that with the exception of the little sixth hole, all other par 3s are between 153m and 161m. Granted #5 plays up the hill and therefore longer, but with five one shotters, there is not only room for at least one longer and more taxing one, but on a resort of comfort and informality and a course played on by house guests of irregular golfing habits, another shorter one probably would have been a good choice.
#11 is a par 5 that restricts the player poorly to a long iron or a heavily sliding 3 wood. If one hits driver, it has to do a lot more than slide baby. A JJJ snappy might be the only option of etching out more mileage. After the sharp right hander, the fairway doubles back to the left in front of the green in a much more considered and sensible manner than the first bend. #12 plays to a green with a creek right which crosses behind the green and gradually becomes jungle left. Miss short or don’t miss. The ridge in the middle left edge of the green across to the centre is one of the better executed examples of internal contouring.
From behind the green at the par 3 #12
The tee shot on the dogleg right #13
#13 second shot
#13 pictured above has another example of a better gently undulating green. Creased like the sheets of an unmade bed, it makes me wish I could see these greens without the dumping of water all over them so the sport in these breaks could be enjoyed. You wouldn’t even need to lower the cut significantly if at all to do so. A return to the long walks comes next. Given the lie of the land on this half of the course, the walks between #13-14, #14-15 and #15-16 are all a bit labourious. #14 is a 416m par 4 that doesn’t play its full length due to gently easing down the slightest of hills, with the fairway extremely wide but looking deceptively tight by being almost a gentle bowl shape with the right hand side and distant green site both gently falling off the highest point of the rise in the fairway. The fairway is bordered on the right by the same gunky creek that frames #12 green, and it serves to both separate the two and ensure the shot into #14 isn’t carefree.
#15 is just 315m and doglegs hard left by being extremely straight but with the tee well off to the left and up a rise. Nobody in their right mind can likely convince themselves to hit the ball on a line that a driver can take and still stay in the fairway, thanks to it being over thicket in the foreground (low and out of play but blinding any chance of having a clue where your ball has gone) and with horrid long grass lining the fairways. Instant lost ball, because Mr Common Brown, Mr Tiger and Mr Copperhead would be everywhere. Taking on the chance is about a similar risk as the boomerang long hole at The Coast on the back nine where a similar “what the heck” attitude is required. The two tiered green awaits at the end.
#15 green looking back
Holes #15 through #17 from right to left. Looking a little
benign from here, unfortunately those strips of long grass are
impenetrable in places and it is hard enough to try and climb
into them, let alone start looking for a ball without getting
bitten by something. Nice view though
#16 is a nothing 384m par 4 that winds between two dead rough zones to a green set in an opening at the end of the corridor. Despite just being a parallel hole to that before and after it, it is really in a nice spot and so much more could have been achieved if the strict corridors of terror weren’t in vogue. #17 is a cool par 5 of 503m that from the distant back tee down in a valley, plays over a rise and turns right gradually, before then turning left just short of the green. This is far better use of the existing excellent terrain than the opportunity the previous two holes squandered.
From behind #17 looking back down the best of the par 5
#18 from the tee. Both the green and the tee are built on peninsulas jutting off the parklands in front of the house to the right. There’s 40 yards of room short, so the bark is worse than the bite, but enough to distract some
The closing hole plays to the pond behind and right of it, with bad gunk set off about twenty yards left of the green. There’s plenty of room short and even more to the short right, and it is a pretty enough shot with the look of being on some English country estate, as is much of the course.
In summary (for those who have made it down to here, don’t you wish you skipped all the rest?), for those into good food and happy to intake a classy meal, and love the gorgeous drive up through the ferns and state forest on the way, it is a bargain. Value the lunch at over half the price and it is a steal. The target market isn’t centered around the $20 golfer who just wants a bowl of chips and a coke afterwards, so it can’t be chastised for not catering to them. I honestly thought I was going up to blow my dough and be under whelmed but at least I’d be able to tick the course off on my list. Instead, I found the course to be much better than expected and the lunch and people superb. I’ll happily return with a like-minded playing partner.