ELLERSTON GOLF COURSE - EXCLUSIVE REVIEW
by Darius Oliver, from Australia's Finest Golf Courses
above - the remarkable Ellerston Golf Course All images by Loren Justins
Ellerston Golf Course
Course Opened – 2001
Designer – Greg Norman, Bob Harrison
Locked away in the secluded high country of the New South Wales Upper Hunter lies Ellerston, a veritable Shangri-la preserved for the exclusive enjoyment of Australia’s wealthiest family. For lovers of the Equine pursuits this remarkable property has long been a landmark for within its natural valleys and tumbling hills are pristine Polo fields recognised as the finest throughout the world. The property has now set a new benchmark – this time for golf.
Despite its total inaccessibility, cataloguing the country’s finest golf courses without including the Packer family’s private facility would leave the directory incomplete. Simply put, this is the most extraordinary golf course built in Australia since the Great Depression.
The inspiration behind media tycoon Kerry Packer’s decision to build his Ellerston course is unclear, but when he propositioned Greg Norman Golf Design in 1999 his objective was unambiguous. The firm was to build him Australia’s toughest and most spectacular golf course. With budget unlikely to be a problem the critical issue became selecting the best site. Initially cliffs overlooking Byron Bay were considered but when they proved inadequate the design team was given carte blanche to select any site within his 70,000-acre sanctuary.
Following several days scouring the vast area, the fast-flowing and beautiful Pages Creek was discovered and instantly recognised as the perfect location to build the dramatic course Packer desired. The creek is the central feature of the layout and incorporated into no less than nine holes, including five where it dramatically cuts directly in front of greens. Wary of its overuse however the design was balanced by building almost half the course in higher country leading away from the hazard. Rather than suffering by comparison these elevated holes are every bit as breathtaking and provide some of the rounds most memorable moments.
Fanatical about the difficulty level of the course, the client’s determination to provide the ultimate challenge to the world’s best players was unyielding. This attitude enabled the designers to take more risks than usual, creating shots and sequences that simply would not be possible on a more accessible course and building a number of spectacular green sites hard against the edge of the rapidly running creek. One such site, the 6th, was actually washed away by heavy rains shortly after the course opened. This had not been entirely unexpected given the areas propensity to flood and to alleviate the worry and expense of continually rebuilding the green an elevated alternative was suggested. However without hesitation Packer ordered the green be rebuilt exactly where it was and to do so each time it washed away.
Without a single indifferent moment the highlights come thick and fast at Ellerston, especially through the front nine which contain the bulk of the awe-inspiring scenes. The opening tee shot sets the tone for the round with a glorious set of bunkers built into a gentle rise to not only define the driving line of the first fairway but also the journey you are about to embark on. Falling away as it nears the green this fascinating par five introduces golfers to the lowland features of the site. Holes then continue on this lower ground, alongside the creek, before heading into the high country from the 8th and not returning until a rousing downhill plunge on the par three 15th.
The long and demanding par four’s are particularly impressive, and relentless on your driving with each requiring a long bomb positioned in the premium part of the fairway to ensure an unimpeded line into the treacherous greens. Eight of these measure between 430 and 460 yards yet as a set they are remarkably diverse thanks to constant elevation change and the sometimes subtle, sometimes salient use of contrasting hazards. 7 and 8 are wonderful illustrations with the downhill 7th measuring 50 yards longer but generally playing at least a club shorter. The tee shot here is truly incredible with an elevated tee built into the side of a hill and forcing the drive to be played down the length of a river toward the fairway some 200 yards away. The intimidating 8th hole then heads back up the hill with its approach crossing a cavernous gully toward a green perched virtually out on a ledge.
Equally thrilling are the back to back par five’s at 9 and 10, both with incredibly attractive green sites and fairways that demand strong and precise tee shots. The 9th is a risk/reward drive across a series of diagonal bunkers followed by a steep downhill plunge through a narrow forest while the 10th requires a full throttle uphill drive that needs to work off a large Gum in the fairway. A gully then runs up the length of the hole with the pitch across the hazard to a beautifully contoured green one of the course highlights.
With relative respite offered through the 15th, the excitement returns in spades at the audacious 16th, a totally unique concept I suspect the designers had never previously dared consider. The approach here is an awesome ‘all or nothing’ carry up the length of the creek, toward a spectacular target framed by a sheer cliff face and encircled by the creek’s running water. Spray the shot and you will need to reload but pull it off, as I did with my four iron, and it’s just about the most exhilarating feeling in golf.
Throughout the round the variety and beauty of the green settings, whether dramatically pushed hard up against the creek or set in natural gullies or atop small ridges, is quite striking. Most are framed visually by the impressive Norman/Harrison bunker shapes, although bunkerless targets like the 5th, 10th and 16th are among Ellerston’s most attractive. The actual putting surfaces are immense and without equal, rolling as fast and true as Royal Melbourne’s in their prime yet without a single blemish. Designed for great speeds the contouring can be quite subtle and generally follows the movement of the surrounding landscape.
The presentation of the golf course is impossible to fault and indeed it would be foolish to try because analysis of even the worst turf here makes every other course in Australia seem substandard. Pure Santa Ana Couch is used in the fairways and Pennlinks Bentgrass on the greens while the short roughs comprise a Buffalo mix to provide a contrasting colour and texture. This Buffalo grass does not wear particularly well and is unsuitable for courses with even moderate traffic levels; fortunate therefore that Ellerston averages just three rounds per week!
Although I am a strong advocate of quality design over quality grooming, a pampering at Ellerston opens your eyes to what can actually be achieved on a golfing field. Prior to my visit there had not been a single round in six days and with the fairways double cut what I experienced was pure golfing opulence.
In terms of site, design, conditioning, challenge and exhilaration, the bar has been raised impossibly high with the quality of each modern course in this country, regardless of the superlatives used in their review, relative to Ellerston.
Ellerston Golf Course – Greg Norman
For me Ellerston was a very special project. It had taken me more than ten years to convince my good friend and passionate golfer, Kerry Packer, that he should build his own golf course and when the decision was finally made, he ensured the brief was unique. Create the best golf course possible with as few tees as possible, in other words, build a golf course that penalises poor shots, makes the golfer think and play hard. He got all that plus more.
The land at our disposal was ideal and the natural features as well as the flora and fauna were so spectacular that very few routings were actually done as the holes virtually mapped themselves. We had no need to consider forward tees, resort traffic or weaker hitters and could make the carries demanding and the holes as formidable as required. The whole process proved particularly enjoyable, as we were able to create a course that a golfer of my calibre would love to play everyday for the rest of his life.
Even more pleasing was being able to tour the property shortly after construction with a delighted owner as he surveyed his finished course for the first time. From the outset, we knew the potential was enormous, but I am nevertheless ecstatic with the result, as Ellerston is clearly one of the best golf courses in Australia.
This review features in Australia's Finest Golf Courses (RRP $49.95).
For more details on the book click here.
Green Fee access - Access to this private course is restricted to guests of the Packer Family. ausgolf can advise about playing other private courses in New South Wales, or for travel advice please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org