A DAY ON THE BEACH
At Pacific Dunes, Eli Jameson plays a round – and pulls out his sand wedge
Port Stephens, NSW – Getting a chance to drive up the coast and play a round of golf is always a special treat. And it’s a double treat if it takes place on a weekday. And if the golf is to be played not on a well-worn public course but a top-flight resort facility, well, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Pacific Dunes Golf Club, just outside Newcastle on the New South Wales coast (a two-and-a-half hour drive from the Sydney CBD), is a brand-new course and residential development managed by Troon Golf, the world’s premier golf management company. The centerpiece of the facility, of course, is its 18 championship holes, but there is plenty more on offer, including clubhouse facilities and, for those who don’t want to go home, an eventual 450 homes – many lining the rich, green fairways.
My playing partner and I arrived from Sydney at around lunchtime, and were immediately greeted by helpful attendants who had us sitting in a buggy with our bags strapped on the back in a matter of moments. From there, it was off to the first tee: a confidence-building 329-metre par 4.
Now here’s something you should know: I am not one of those golfers who confidently whips out his driver and hammers a Titleist 280 metres straight down the fairway from every teebox. My drives are a bit more, shall we say, anemic, and I don’t get to play anywhere near as often as I’d like to keep my handicap in fighting trim. So I was pleased to see that the course opens gently, even if there was water snaking through the middle of this fairway (as it does on many, if not most, holes here). Even better, I cleared this water hazard – my balls normally head for the drink faster than Ted Kennedy at last call – with my shot landing comfortably on the happy side of the river, just a short iron into the green.
‘Great’, I thought. ‘Not playing for the past two months obviously hasn’t hurt my game any’.
Oh, there is one more thing to keep in mind. There are dozens and dozens of bunkers scattered around this course, both along fairways and ‘protecting’ the greens. (I’ve always loved that turn of phrase) And even if I never found water once, I think I found the sand on just about every hole, which led my playing partner to give me the new, rather undignified nickname of ‘Sandy’.
That’s the thing about Pacific Dunes: it’s a challenging course that doesn’t reward sheer brute force, but rather clever and careful shotmaking ability and course management. To really play the course well, one should have a really strong idea of how far every iron in his or her bag will fly, and be able to judge distances with precision. Like a game of chess, players have to think not just about the shot they are playing, but their next move or two down the track, with a close eye on what the course is looking to throw up in response.
(This more cerebral sort of game is also more democratic; since it doesn’t need to be overpowered, but rather out-thought, it can be enjoyed by just about anyone with a good knowledge of their own individual game).
Taking an easy bogey on the first hole, we moved on to the second, and the third, which was a particularly sneaky, 297-metre par 4: again, not daunting in terms of length, but with fairway bunkers and a false-fronted green, a serious challenge.
Moving through the front nine, my playing partner and I began to get the sense of the course, and the architects behind it have definitely given it a real personality, like an intellectual friend who one doesn’t always understand, but who is never short of challenging ideas.
Rounding the clubhouse turn we stopped for lunch, and had a pair of hot gourmet sandwiches washed down with a couple of beers, and headed off to attack the rest of the course. Along the back nine, we saw what will be much of the heart of this new facility, the properties that line the course and will form the basis of the Pacific Dunes community, and mused about what fun it would be to get out of our inner-city Victorian shotgun shacks and adopt a live-to-play, play-to-live lifestyle, though we quickly came back to Earth when we realized that our non-golfing wives might take an exception to this.
Having gotten the rhythm of the course over the front nine, the back end of the course is a real challenge – as if the landscaping itself is saying, ‘you think you know me, but you don’t’. The 10th features a creek that runs all the way along the left side of the hole; the 11th has water that cruelly runs around the front of the green, making what would normally be a simple approach shot a fraught and tense gamble.
If one is short, one is wet; otherwise, you’re in the woods.
Again: risk and reward, and the requirement to be disciplined.
Another striking thing about Pacific Dunes, at least for the city-dweller, is the way in which it is designed in such close sympathy with nature. The sheer number and variety of birds on the course had me wishing I had brought my field guide, and by the time we hit the 14th, we had to be careful not of hitting other golfers, but the kangaroo families that suddenly emerged out of no where for their afternoon tea.
As we pulled in from our round, twilight was approaching and about a dozen locals were sitting around a couple of picnic tables, finishing their wines after a long day out on the course. It wasn’t clear whether they were all old friends, or just comrades thrown together by their love of the crazy game of golf. They were having a great time, though, and one thing was for sure: they’ll be back.
As will I.