SOUTH Australia’s Riverland, nestled beside the iconic Murray River, is home to some of the most underrated golf courses in the country.
The Riverland in South Australia is where the waters of the Murray River nurture a vast agricultural wonderland of grape vines, citrus trees, almond groves and wheat crops.
The Mighty Murray is the constant factor sustaining all this vibrant farming activity in a picturesque region easily reachable from Adelaide, Sydney or Melbourne by car or towing a caravan.
Crossing the river is made easy with road bridges at Paringa, Berri, Kingston and Blanchetown, along with free vehicle ferries at Waikerie, Cadell and Morgan.
And when the sun sets, visitors should allocate time to check out the red ochre cliffs rising almost straight up from the river banks.
The best spots to view this colourful slide-show are from the road side or even the deck of a house boat. The Riverland boasts five major towns located in a compact area of land that is very easy to navigate.
Closest to Adelaide, about a 90-minute drive away, is Waikerie. The other major population centres are Barmera and Berri, fairly close together. Renmark is a bit further upstream toward Mildura and Loxton is the most southerly of all.
Each town has a golf course. All are a little different in terms of design and playability, with enough challenge to maintain the interest of all players. Fairway and green maintenance varies but in general is of a high standard.
And the good news for travelling golfers is that plans are well advanced to tap into the ever increasing demand for drive-in play and stay packages.
Successful Waikerie businesswoman Julie Steinert bought the local golf course two years ago from the Waikerie Hotel. The sale included the course, clubrooms and a licensed function centre along with an ongoing lease agreement with the Loxton Waikerie Council to use recycled water for course irrigation.
“I saw an opportunity,” said Steinert. “We have already finished some redevelopments starting with wrapping a deck around the clubhouse so that people are able to sit out with a glass of wine.
"Forming partnerships with local wineries and food producers is a key strategy for growing our visitor base, to attract more and more golfers, non-golfers, diners and events to the club.”
Steinert is a Waikerie local who started playing golf about 15 years ago and fell in love with the game. The family has a potato and onion farm with a packing shed. They also own a transport company that services the region.
Her vision for www.waikeriegolf.com.au is based on providing holistic stay and play packages—upmarket accommodation, a quality golf experience combined with the food and beverage.
“There’s Caudo Vineyards just down the road, so wine and golf,” Steinert said.
“And there are river cruises that come past us too. So we’re in a good spot and will really be going into that market when the timing is right.”
First stage of the capital works program at the Waikerie Golf Course involves the construction of architecturally designed eco villas that compliment the look of the existing clubhouse. Materials selected to build these villas were inspired from the surrounding rural area.
Corrugated iron, steel, rammed earth, polished concrete and hardwood timber are used to create plenty of appeal from the outside, while the interiors are set to be warm and cosy with timber cabinetry, stone bench tops and functional appliances to feature.
These new units will accommodate a total of up to 38 people per night in various configurations to suit group numbers.
“We’ll start small and get bigger over time,” Steinert explained. “We’re looking for the tourists, golfers from Adelaide and interstate, even people travelling in from overseas.”
All 18 holes at Waikerie are well conditioned with the type of grass on the fairways providing consistent lies. There are nice elevation changes impacting play, meaning some of the uphill holes playing really long if the carry fails.
The front nine includes a lovely par 3 along the ridgeline while the 16th that doglegs right over the hill is really clever given the angled green features just enough movement to allow plenty of options in rotating hole locations.
The southern banks of Lake Bonney house both the township and golf course at Barmera. Polished St Kilda defender Sam Fisher hails from here and was a very talented junior golfer with aspirations of turning pro before deciding to concentrate on AFL footy and was subsequently snapped up in the 2003 national draft.
Barmera’s greens are generally on the smallish side and tilt toward the lake, so if you miss, do so on the lower side, making recoveries more straightforward.
The 15th hole is memorable with a vegetated crater-like gully impacting the landing zone around 140 metres out from the green. This forces all golfers to lay up before taking aim at the distant target that is quite narrow and difficult to hit.
Straying off fairways also means the inevitability of facing up to an encounter with what locals refer to as yum-yum trees, salt bush that eagerly swallows and devours golf balls.
Berri Golf & Country Club is a reasonably flat par-71 layout and given the terrain, is easy to walk. Small dips, rises and bunkering break the landscape with natural mallee trees lining the fairways and kangaroos often resting in the shaded areas.
The round opens with a par 3 played from a tee framed by roses and native shrubs to a green surrounded by gum trees. Other highlights include the fourth with a tee shot over the peak of a rise with four bunkers surrounding a green.
On the back nine, be ready for the 11th hole with a bunker guarding the corner of the dogleg and others clustered about 80 metres short of the green.
More than 10 years ago the Berri Hotel Group invested in the motel and restaurant at Renmark Golf Club. Three years ago they took over the management and operations of the club entirely.
During that shorter period of time, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to enhance the existing playing surfaces and irrigation systems along with several other recreational facilities on site.
The reworked layout with orchards marking parts of the boundary has now settled into play with new bunkering and water features increasing the playability and enjoyment for both members and guests.
Bigger and truer Pencross greens were also designed, built and grown in. The design is unique given the first three holes are routed to return to the clubhouse, which is no doubt gratifying when temperatures are on the rise.
Loxton is a vibrant town in one of the most productive agricultural regions of South Australia. Its par-72 golf course measuring just over 6,000 metres is a delight to play.
There is a great mix of holes and the difficulty is heightened if you miss the tree-lined fairways given the rough is a mixture of dirt, sticks and leaves. Tough lies to hit a recovery shot from.
This quaint layout with a number of uphill dogleg holes was built by diggers after they returned home from the other side of the world when the war ended in 1945. The 16th is a standout hole bending right with a slanted landing area and trees pinching in on the left.
The little clubhouse overlooks the 18th green with two bunkers at the front needing to be carried with a short iron in order to earn a birdie putt in front of members and guests taking in all the action.
My overnight base while exploring the delights of the Riverland was the local pub in Waikerie, located in a prominent position near the roundabout facing the river. The main entertainment area is worth seeking out with open-plan bars and eating areas encouraging social interaction.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available seven days a week with chefs utilising the abundant local produce to provide pub fare that hits the mark. All year round the kitchen serves up great burgers and really tasty hot chips.
My pick from the menu was a beef rump with a nice char topped by a really generous helping of mushroom sauce and supported underneath by mashed potato. Buttered dinner rolls completed the job. As for the accommodation, the rooms were, well, roomy with modern fittings and fixtures adding to visitor comfort.
All the Riverland courses welcome visitors with open arms and that’s what devotees who pack their clubs when taking to the road relish.
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