The proof is there before you even hit a ball from the 1st tee. You only need to stand on the clubhouse veranda and gaze at Flooded Gum’s tree-lined 1st, 18th and 8th holes – with their near-perfect playing surfaces and scenic water hazards – to be convinced.
It hasn’t always been such a strong case to argue.
“There was nothing really striking about the property,” recalls Ted Stirling, who was commissioned to design Bonville in 1989. “There were, however, lots of tall, beautiful trees because it was a property reforested area that had once been owned by Australian Paper Mills.
The challenging par 4 opening hole requires solid strategy and execution from the start. PICTURED: Brendan James.
Stirling and course superintendent/builder Terry Watson were brought into the project by Coffs Harbor businessman Bob Johnson, who had just sold the holiday town’s biggest tourist attraction – the iconic Big Banana – to Japanese investors.
“And that’s how Bonville started… selling the Big Banana,” laughed Stirling.
“He (Johnson) wanted to build a world-class golf course on this reforested land in Bonville that belonged to his mother.”
“We just thought if we could leave a lot of trees and move the holes around them, it would look great. And it did…and it still does today.” – Bonville course designer, Ted Stirling.
At Stirling’s disposal were approximately 250 hectares of spectacular rolling land covered in flooded gum, blackbutt forest and small pockets of subtropical rainforest.
“We had to find the best location for the clubhouse before we could set up the routing,” Stirling said. “The current site was not the first choice. Landing behind what is now the par-5 7th tee was preferred at the time. But the pavilion’s current site was ultimately chosen because of its easy access to the nearby Pacific Highway.
With the pavilion site chosen, Stirling set to work on the difficult layout within the property boundaries, as well as avoiding an easement and two private towers dissecting the property.
Armed with aerial photographs, contour maps and boundaries, Stirling and Watson scoured the densely forested site half a dozen times to find where they could and could not build golf holes. All the while, Stirling added to his mud map, but some of the course’s most detailed terrain wouldn’t reveal itself until the holes on offer were cleared of trees and thick undergrowth.
RIGHT: The final approach to the par-5 10th green is fraught with pitfalls. PICTURED: Brendan James.
“When we walked through the site you had all these big, beautiful trees that would frame the holes. But the big plus for the site was the huge movement of the landscape, which allowed the water to move in certain directions. If the site was flat and with Bonville’s annual rainfall, you would never have been able to build a course there,” Stirling said.
“And the trees were just beautiful. People said, it’s “Australia’s Augusta”, well, we never thought of it that way. We just thought if we could leave a lot of trees and move the holes around them it would look great. And he did and he still does today.
“I used to walk in the bush and discover golf holes. It’s an artistic enterprise. There are no rules and regulations.
“One of the unusual things I’ve had in my life is my ability to see the finished product early in the process. Most designers work the other way around and have an end result in mind before they begin.
Staggered bunkers on the par-4 9th hole may tempt you to be too greedy from the start. PICTURED: Brendan James.
“When you walk a course and have a contour plan, it’s not until you take a first clearance that you get a real feel for the details of the course and that’s how we discovered most of the holes in Bonville.
By the time Stirling and Watson had finished building Bonville, new owners were in place and the first official gun went off on January 3, 1992.
Stirling’s design immediately impressed every golfer who visited it. But over the next seven years, Bonville’s inconsistent conditioning let him down. The course has fallen victim to its own beautiful setting, with the tall trees isolating each fairway casting shadows across many greens for long stretches each day. This lack of sunlight resulted in poor growth and stress on the original Penncross bentgrass greens.
But a change of ownership in 1999 saw the establishment of a long to-do list that has seen the layout improve year on year over the past two decades. Today, he is entrenched among Australia’s best in the national rankings.
When current owner and president Peter Montgomery took over Bonville, it was decided to raise the bar for course presentation. It was a watershed moment for the course, which is now widely regarded as one of the best conditioned in the country.
All greens were quickly converted to the tougher 328 Bermuda grass, while trees shading some greens were removed or heavily trimmed. The putting surfaces soon began to flourish and today they are among the best surfaces in Bermuda Australia.
In 2009, a bunker reconstruction program was put in place. Each bunker has been remodeled with better drainage and bunker mat material installed. The bunker mat is a three-dimensional sand retention and drainage mat, which is laid on the steep slope of the bunker faces. The sand is trapped in the open fiber structure, allowing the sand to be held in place. Even in heavy downpours, the mat allows water to flow into the drainage at the base of the bunker without dragging sand.
High quality white bunker sand was then imported from the Sunshine Coast of Queensland to remove the obstacles and the result – visually and in terms of playability – was first class. Bonville plans to undertake a similar program again in 2022.
One of the memorable aspects of a game at Bonville is the strategic quality of its par-5s. Each requires attention to detail and, just like Augusta, getting your shots in the right position off the tee and into the laying areas will reap the benefits.
RIGHT: The uphill par 3 8th hole is an exercise in selecting the right club off the tee. PICTURED: Brendan James.
The 485-yard 4th is a great driving hole with a saddle-shaped fairway that channels even slightly off-line shots into the center of the mowed part. The aggressive player can consider going for the green in two shots here, but it’s a shot that needs to be solid and formed slightly right to left around the dogleg and the wall of Flooded Gums flanking the fairway. Longer hitters may also need to lay down from the tee to avoid a deep gully that bisects the fairway. Two fairway traps and a huge bearslip, both about 60 yards from the green, are in play and can complicate the errant second shot layup.
There is no better example of par 5 risk and reward strategy design than that found on the Bonville closing hole. The 460m course is on the crest of a hill between deep rows of towering flooded gums that line the path to the green, which lies just beyond a pond and stream. Standing on the crest or clubhouse side of the hill, gazing down the sloping green past a meandering water hazard, you are faced with a few questions. For many players, it is never a question of going to the green in two shots or not. In a theater as wonderful as the 18th offers, it’s hard not to add to the drama by throwing off the shackles and risking a lost shot or two by playing aggressively… downhill lying or not.
All of this would please Stirling, who considers Bonville his finest design work.
“Bonville has grown well beyond my expectations. The condition of the course is 1000% better than when we built it,” says Stirling. “I talk to people who visit Bonville, stay a few days and play golf, and they think it’s just fantastic.
“The work that has been done, the money that has been invested and the expertise that has been used to improve and build Bonville’s reputation has been exemplary. It’s a wonderful thing.
ADDRESS: North Bonville Rd, Bonville, NSW.
CONTACT: 1300 722 444; (02) 6653 4544 (professional shop)
DESIGNATE: Ted Stirling and Terry Watson (1992).
GREEN FEES: Social play tee times available Monday and Tuesday only – $160 pp (September to May); $150 (June to August). Departure times for members and house guests are seven days.
PLAYING SURFACES: Couch (fairways), Bermuda 328 (greens).
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Daniel Dossen.
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Aaron Banks.
MEMBERSHIP: Single, couple, intermediate, foal, junior and sub-junior subscriptions are available. Applications are available via the website or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
STAY, PLAY AND DINNER: Bonville has 30 well-appointed rooms, including 17 Resort Rooms, eight Executive Spa Rooms and five Executive View Rooms, all overlooking the scenic 1st Fairway. Then there’s the award-winning dining experience at Flooded Gums restaurant to look forward to. Check website for seasonal packages.
RANKINGS: Bonville was voted Australia’s favorite course by Golf Australia readers over the past five years. He is also ranked No. 40 in Ranking of Golf Australia’s top 100 courses for 2022.
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