DESTINATION REVIEW – Murray River Golf
By Garry Kennedy
“Timeless and full of surprises.”
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You could easily spend a month playing a different golf course each day as you followed the flow of the Murray River, from the twin cities of Albury-Wodonga in the East, all the way to Mildura in the state’s North West. This golfing Mecca has been claimed as Victoria’s own, although most of the courses sit on the NSW side of the border.
The Murray region has long been a Melbournian favourite – stemming back to when those poker machines only resided on the other side. Thousands would flock each weekend to tackle the one armed bandits, in a procession of cars and buses and trains. The imported money was spent by the Clubs with fury and the sporting bodies around were a major beneficiary. Lawn bowls, tennis courts, football ovals and alike all reaped the coin fed by the Mexicans – golf another of the recipients.
As a consequence the Murray River stretch has a lot to offer the golf enthusiast, particularly for those living in Melbourne. The journey is, on average, around three hours and via safe and well maintained thoroughfares. The region boasts more sunshine than the Gold Coast – always conducive to fair weather players.
Virtually every course dotted along the border is flat or gently undulating at best, making golf accessible for the young and young at heart.
And quantity doesn’t always mean quality but the Murray courses has that old adage covered too – a third of the courses in this golfing locale have been rated in the country’s Top 100 public access golf course list.
On top of all that, the region offers plenty of value for your golfing dollar. There’s lots of on course accommodation and it’s relatively cheap to sleep and eat only metres from the first tee and the average green fee is around $30.
The first cluster along this mighty waterway occurs at the eastern end, Albury-Wodonga. Within 10kms of the neighbouring towns, you have access to three nice tracks; Commercial Club Albury, Wodonga and Thurgoona. A personal favourite is Thurgoona – around eight minutes drive from Albury on the NSW side.
Designed by five time British Open champion Peter Thomson’s golf architecture team (Thomson, Wolveridge and Perrett), Thurgoona is a true championship course that can test the best golfer. Large greens and dramatic bunkering is a trademark, with some clever water hazard positioning adding to the challenge. The final hole plays to a virtual island green and it is a memorable finish. The club has excellent on course accommodation and the clubhouse has enjoyed fantastic renovations in recent times.
As you begin to move north-west, you rarely have to travel more than 30kms before the next small town appears, meaning it’s time to drag out the sticks again.
Your first stop is Howlong, a neat, short course that is tight, meaning brains not brawn is required to beat the card. One should note the unbelievable membership available here. For the princely sum of under $60 you can become a full golf member! Considering the daily green fee is $25, if you are looking for a cheap way to be a full golf member so you can become involved in club competitions, it doesn’t get any more affordable than Howlong.
Another short pitch and you’ll land in Corowa where there are 27 holes and three distinct nines. Holes 1-9 are the newest holes and they have an open, resort feel. Holes 10-18 command views of the river in a parkland setting. The final nine holes of the triumphant, holes 19-27, hold a mystical feel. Set on the flats and heavily lined by huge river red gums, it can get steamy on the fairways. You feel enclosed by the surrounds and you get the sense you are being watched at every stroke. The three different nines at Corowa are a highlight. Again there’s on course accommodation, a terrific clubhouse and recreation centre on the premises and remember you’re in the heart of the Rutherglen region. Famous for fortified wines, you’d be crazy not to seek out some of the nearby wineries while camped here.
Yarrawonga’s the next step along this golfing highway. For a long time the 45 holes at Yarrawonga held the title of the southern hemisphere’s largest golfing complex. With two eighteen’s and another nine, there really is something for everyone. The Executive nine is a short, fun layout and particularly suited to new students of the game, ladies and the elderly. The Lakes eighteen has, as the name implies, plenty of water hazards while the River course is the championship layout. There’s heaps of new on course units for couples or groups to enjoy and very nearby there are many other places to set up shop for a few days.
Another few kilometers and another thirty six holes, times two!
Cobram Barooga is the first. The Old course is probably the best known eighteen holes along the entire Murray. While time and advancement in equipment technology has had an impact on the Old course’s challenge, nothing can take away the quaint par three eighth’s charm, or the fifth’s trail or the fourteenth’s subtleties. The other eighteen – The West course – provides a totally different test. It’s longer and more open providing variety. Currently it’s closed (due to reopen Feb 07) while the club goes about an extensive recouching program. Again the two courses are served by a number of on course accommodation options – try the El Sierra Motel if you’re looking for value for money and exceptional group packages.
Virtually next door is Tocumwal, a pair of courses that always seem to be in pristine condition. The Presidents and Captains courses have their differences, but share delightful fairways, challenges and most importantly top rate greens. Again, the less agile and ladies will enjoy the flat landscape. And looking for somewhere to stay? The final 400 metres of the road that leads from the township to the course has some five motels and a caravan park flanking its side – you will not want for a bed and pillow.
Echuca is the closest Murray River township from Melbourne, and once one of the busiest shipping ports in the country. It maintains its mantle as the paddle steamer capital of the country. The Port of Echuca is a fantastic tourist destination with heaps to see and do, so it would seem logical that such a rich playground would have a decent course. Well it does – two of them!
The Rich River golf complex is a quick 5 minute drive from the NSW township of Moama, the town neighbouring Echuca on the “other side” of the Murray.
Rich River is very popular with golf groups. Its two courses literally surround the Clubhouse and on course accommodation. It’s your best example of play, stay and forget the car! There are even shuttle buses back into Echuca if you feel the need to leave the premises (but there’s no need to!)
The West course was traditionally called the old course at Rich River, but after a second eighteen was built on the east side they assumed their geographical titles. The East Course was reworked some time ago by Peter Thomson and his trademark pot bunkers and risk v reward challenges are very much a part of this newer eighteen. The oversized golf ball that sits atop of the Clubhouse is a lasting symbol that this was, in its heyday, the biggest and best golfing complex in the region – although now it has considerable competition.
As you continue to move north east with the flow of the river, the concentration of courses thins a little. Driving time and distance between tracks is a little more, but the quality and selection is not compromised.
Cohuna is around 60kms from Echuca and one of the few Murray courses that I haven’t seen. However reliable sources speak highly of this Victorian course – original home of Australian golf superstar Stuart Appleby.
While the highway between Cohuna and Swan Hill is a little inland of the river, a diversion to Barham is a must. Nestled on the banks of the river on the NSW side, Barham has recently undergone numerous course renovations. Many of the opening nine holes have been served a renovation rescue and it is in its best condition ever. Of course the huge bunker on the fifth hole appropriately named “Gallipoli” is still a feature, but now many holes jostle for the mantle of the courses’ signature hole.
The next major stop is Murray Downs Resort – minutes from Swan Hill. The resort name comes from the sheep station that the land of the course now occupies. In a word the course is sensational. Magnificent fairways, greens and tees are punctuated by water hazards, large bunkers and thickening tree lines. In golf terms the course is relatively young but each year it matures and the golfing challenge just gets better and better. The green fairways and surrounds punctuate the flat, brown surrounds and it is not too dramatic to call this an oasis in a desert. The undulations of the first fairway will instantly grab you. The signature par three, fifth hole with its huge water crossing from the back tees will examine the best golfer’s mettle. The narrow par five twelfth will require precision from tee to green and the two closing holes are as hard a finish as golf throws at you. To cap it off, the on course accommodation is, in my opinion, the best amongst the Murray River courses.
Now vast, barren and open country presents as you head to the other bookend of Murray River golf in Mildura. Along the way there are worthwhile stops at Tooleybuc and Robinvale, and finally another cluster of seven terrific courses.
Red Cliffs comes first, then Riverside, Merbein and Mildura – all on the Victorian side of the border. I once left Melbourne on a dark and drizzly August day that was expecting a top of 12 degrees. A one hour flight later and I was enjoying a clear, sun filled morning. Later that afternoon the mercury would top 26 glowing degrees – and I was in the same state!
Mildura and Riverside are gems, but it’s Coomealla Golf Course on the other side of the river that I like best. From the Clubhouse you can look down over the course to the water and it’s not unusual to see a number of house boats moored to the banks (a unique way to drive to the course).
Coomealla is heavily wooded and water drenched fairways evaporate under your feet as the sun climbs. It can be a demanding game in the heat of the day but a joy in the cooler times. Thick, green fairways and slick, true greens the course highlights.
Finally Wentworth in NSW and Renmark in SA end the long road of golf choices on this unique stretch. In fact there’s an event called the Tri State Masters held in the region in May each year. You guessed it – golf in three different states, all a mere drive from each other.
But this is Murray River golf – nothing should surprise!
At a Glance
Barham Golf & Country Club www.clubarham.com.au
Cobram-Barooga Golf Club www.cbgc.com.au
Cohuna Golf Club (03) 5456 2820 (weekends)
Commercial Club Albury www.alburygolf.com.au
Coomealla Golf Club www.coomeallaclub.com.au
Corowa Golf Resort www.corowagolf.com.au
Howlong Country Golf Club www.howlonggolf.com.au
Merbein Golf Club (03) 5025 6421
Mildura Golf Club Resort www.milduragolfclub.com.au
Murray Downs Golf & CC Resort www.murraydownsresort.com.au
Red Cliffs Golf Club (03) 5024 1531
Renmark Golf Club (08) 8595 1514
Rich River Golf Club Resort www.richriver.com.au
Riverside Golf Club (03) 5023 4255
Robinvale Golf Club (03) 5026 3286
Thurgoona Golf Club (02) 6043 1411
Tocumwal Golf Club www.tocumwalgolf.com.au
Tooleybuc Sporting Golf Club (03) 5030 5476
Wentworth Services Golf Club (03) 5027 3244
Wodonga Country Golf Club (02) 6059 1813
Yarrawonga & Border Golf Club www.yarragolf.com.au