Location: Ellerston, NSW
Architect: Greg Norman & Bob Harrison
Date Played: 24th March 2017
Probably the most private golf facility in Australia, Ellerston golf course, with some claiming it is even harder to access than Augusta. This was always going to be one of the biggest challenges faced trying to complete the Australian Top 100 Golf list. It seems to be the closer I get to the finish, the easier access becomes, with plenty of people offering for to assist playing various courses. I had envisaged writing numerous letters to the Packer family explaining my quest, in a hope to play. But fortune fell in my favour before that happened. Luckily a contact, friend of a friend made the offer to assist after reaching ninety courses played. A few months later that offer was accepted.
Located in the upper Hunter Valley, close to Scone, it is around a 3 1/2 hour journey from Sydney. Once you see the sign for Ellerston, the dirt roads stop, replaced by paved roads before reaching the security gate. I had been told a bit by a fellow employee, who likes to ride trail bikes around the area, that he was amazed by the size of the property, around 67 thousand acres, even having its own licensed premises. The principle purpose is cattle and sheep, but what most people see is the polo and golf of the inner property. Having at least 5 polo fields, rated some of the best in Australia, there are also quite a few stables for the many horses bred for the local team.
Ellerston Golf Course Map
But it is the golf which we are most interested in. Designed by Greg Norman and Bob Harrison, Kerry Packer (original owner of the property) main brief, to make the course tough. After seeing what little photographs were available, showing the most picturesque holes, some drone flyover footage became available. The course certainly looked to have met expectations. Running along Pages Creek and also into the highlands, there are some dramatic, but tough shots required.
The first noticeable thing after arriving, there is no pro shop. So make sure you take enough balls for a start. Tees, well there is a bucket full of them on the cart and they are quite durable. That also means no souvenirs 🙁 so take a handful of tees. Next this is a cart course, no walking, well not for sane people. This becomes obvious as you traverse the course with noticeable drives between some holes.
A mixture of tees is available at the course, back which may leave a long carry to the fairway or difficult shot through trees. Medium, although not enough of them, slightly forward then the forward tees, probably best suited for the majority of players, avoiding some of the trouble off the tee, but shortening the course. On our day of play it was a mixture of tees, which I was quite glad. Playing every hole from the back tees would be best left for professionals or masochists.Drone flyover of the Ellerston golf course
As there is a strict no photography policy enforced at the course, unfortunately no images can be shared. Thankfully a drone flyover of the course was created and is available to the public, giving a feel for the course. Funnily it was one of my fellow top 100 list enthusiasts who found this originally. It was quite interesting to find how quickly this spread through out the golf community. Being somewhere so private and with little information to the general public certainly helps.
Hole 1 – 489 meter par 5
Starting the round, which is a continuous loop, the easiest index hole on the course. The first shot requires one of two carries over Pages Creek on the hole. A long shot is required to reach the wide fairway, where a large bunker awaits to the right. For those long enough to reach in two, the shot should be center or slightly left, allowing for the clearest approach at the green. Interestingly a majority of bunkers are down the right, which would suggest this being a better line, but not the case, with smaller trees blocking a direct route to the green.
For most, finding the appropriate spot to layup for the second shot on the narrowing fairway is required. This needs to be positioned well to allow the second carry across Pages Creek before reaching the smallish green. Guarded by a front bunker and another three behind, these are not just for visual effect, as the green feeds down into the sand. The green slopes slightly to the right with surrounds falling away strongly this side.
This hole certainly gives you a feel for what is ahead.
Hole 2 – 145 meter par 3
Next is the shortest hole on course, but don’t be fooled into thinking the course is easy. From an elevated tee, a narrow but long green awaits on the other side of the creek. A large bunker is front left, whilst another four run down the right and rear. An opening exists at the green front for anything short which is the only place to safely miss. With the creek turning to run up the left, finding anywhere right potentially could bring the water into play.
Nicely designed short hole where finding the green is advisable, as missing in the wrong spot can be heavily punished.
Hole 3 – 383 meter par 4
After being eased into the round with some of the easier holes, the course now asks a lot from the player. This longer par four requires a carry over a small ravine to reach the fairway, which continues to rise. A bunker is located either side of the fairway, which turns to the right before reaching the green. Sloping here mainly goes to the right, bringing trees beside the creek into play. Being too far down this side also blocks the view to the green.
Ideally finding the top of the ridge will allow an easier approach to the green, which must carry an offshoot of the creek. There wasn’t as much run due to heavy conditions on our day of play, so I knew my limits, deciding to layup short. A large tree sits isolated to short left of the green, so anything slightly off line could rebound into trouble. With a large putting surface, two bunkers are located towards the rear, awaiting those with longer iron shots. The first green to have some larger undulations towards the middle.
This was the wake up hole to let you know the course has teeth. Strong design where shaping and features come into play, with some question asked on the line of play, but more about distance control.
Hole 4 – 387 meter par 4
A similar length hole to the previous, however this plays with a dogleg left. A wide fairway is available to land the tee shot, but it is the second which requires a lot more accuracy. Having to carry cross bunkers angling from left to right, which are short of the putting complex, a narrow landing area is found, sitting between the creek and another green side trap. The putting surface is much longer than it is wide.
Left of the green complex slopes back towards the putting surface, but a large bunker also sits this side to catch anyone trying to use the slopes. Anyone not confident on bunkers shots will want to avoid the left bunker at all costs, otherwise holding the narrow green will become an issue.
Hole 5 – 370 meter par 4
A large carry over native grass and a bunker leading into the fairway are found on the 5th tee. By now if you are struggling to carry the ball around 100 meters from the tee there will be temptation to give up. This won’t stop so keep your head up and be positive. Again a wide fairway is found for this hole which turns to the right, with the creek found down the same side.
If you haven’t hit the ball far enough, there is a big question on the next shot. The green sits some distance from the fairway, with the creek snaking around it, but is relatively small and dry. There are also a few smaller trees waiting to bring the ball crashing to the ground. The putting surface sits elevated, narrowing towards its rear, but also sits with a bunker to the left. Anything off to the edges will likely run away. I did hear talk of potentially filling the surrounds of the green with water, which I’m not a big fan of. This would make the approach almost impossible.
Hole 6 – 149 meter par 3
Coming to the signature hole, a the mid length par 3, which is the easiest index hole on the course. Playing from an elevated tee, the creek snakes around the front of the hole before running up the left. This makes a carry necessary to reach the green area. Sitting not much higher than the creek itself, the right of the hole rises up to a cart path, with numerous bunkers between. For those not confident, this is the side to bail out or play safe, although finding one of the traps would leave an interesting shot back towards the water.
The green complex has had to be rebuilt numerous times, due to high water levels washing away the site. I couldn’t imagine the green being placed anywhere else. It is very scenic but also challenging, making it a standout hole.
Hole 7 – 410 meter par 4
From the easiest index hole to the longest par 4 and hardest index hole, this is a monster. Probably the toughest tee shot of the day, playing between staggered trees as well as over the creek, to a narrow fairway which angles away to the right. We actually played this hole from the rear and mid tees, with the later much lower down. It probably allows more focus on the area to hit, as much of the scenery is hidden.
Not only is it a tough tee shot, but also a difficult second shot, even though it doesn’t look so bad. The green is quite narrow, especially towards the rear, where our pin was located on the day. Large bunkers are located down the entire left of the complex, with some sloping bringing leading the ball away. Beyond these is heavy rough. Finding this leaves a tricky shot back into the narrow green, which has the water running down its right side. Deserving of its index, this hole is a true challenge from tee to green.
Hole 8 – 308 meter par 4
I always love the golf architects mind when consecutive holes are polar opposites. In this case going from the longest to the shortest par 4 at Ellerston. With a blind tee shot played over a hill, it is important to know your distances. Blazing away with a driver could see the ball roll down the ravine, between the fairway and green. Allowing for the large slope from right to left of the fairway is also important. Being out to the right allows more room with the length of the green, although it still must carry the ravine.
Numerous bunkers, seven in fact, are found leading into and surrounding the green. From the fairway it can be extremely scenic, but intimidating at the same time. There is the option to lay up right for those not confident, as being left will see the ball repealed down the slope. Testing hole for both the tee shot and approach.
Hole 9 – 506 meter par 5
Finishing the first nine is the longest hole on the course. Playing through a small chute of trees, the ball must carry some distance before reaching the fairway, which runs along the side of a hill, sloping dramatically from the right. This brings four or so bunkers into play down the left. Being fairly generous in width for the tee shot, don’t expect the same for the second. Heading down slope the fairway narrows between trees, before turning almost at a right-angle left, over the creek where the green complex lays.
For those adventurous, there is a possibility of flying over the trees when perched high on the hill. The putting surface has some gentle slopes and a small hump towards the rear, leading to some interesting putts. I am not a fan of the second half of the hole. It seems overly penal and really becomes target golf. However the request in designing this course was to make it tough, which is exactly what it is.
Playing at Ellerston is an exclusive experience, but also a memorable one. Usually lunch is put on somewhere around the course, in our case it was on the 6th tee (although usually a bit later for most). Home made pies and sausage rolls were on offer, which had a lot more taste than your average ones from the local bakery.
The other thing was the fact we were the only group playing on the day. We could see some of the green keeping staff ahead, conducting any necessary maintenance, but also some behind, cleaning up as well as setup for the following day. That is not to say that we didn’t fill divots, pitch marks or rake bunkers, but they like to keep the course in championship conditions.
Hole 10 – 473 meter par 5
Starting the back nine is the shortest but most difficult index par 5. From the tee a small water body must be carried before reaching a fairway with a tree almost in the middle. Ideally play is to the left of the tree, otherwise the second shot will be longer and minimal chance of attacking the green. Although to be honest it is unlikely as the hole plays mainly uphill.
A creek cuts through the fairway before meandering up the left side. Again the green is found at a right angle to the left, with a creek separating it from the fairway. This green has subtle slopes, with a small ridge to the left. The hole really plays as a three shot hole, with trees coming into play blocking the green.
Hole 11 – 395 meter par 4
Next is the easiest index par 4, even though it plays at a long length. This is negated slightly as you play downhill all the way to the green. A large group of trees are found to the right, which separates the 10th and 11th fairway, which is the main danger on the hole. A wide accommodating fairway is available to land the tee shot.
Angling away to the right, the putting surface also slopes a bit from front to rear, requiring some thought with the approach. Bunkers either side of the green leave an easier approach from the left of the fairway. A nice simple hole with some clear strategy, makes this a joy to play.
Hole 12 – 155 meter par 3
The only par 3 hole which plays uphill, is found at the 12th. With a putting surface sitting quite elevated, protected by three traps. Don’t expect finding the green to be simple though, being fairly narrow, with a bunker on the left, and ground sloping away on the right.
The putting surface slopes from the rear towards the front, making distance control from the tee much more important. Playing this hole was almost like hitting into a funnel, with the hills surrounding all protecting the green. Good to see at least one variation with the par 3 holes.
Hole 13 – 408 meter par 4
Playing along one of the highest points on the course, this hole runs along the peak of a hill. Hitting across some scrub before reaching the fairway, two trees are either side to narrow the target. Another wide fairway which has bunkers on the right, located on the inside of the turn, awaiting to catch anyone trying to shorten the hole. We played from both the back and forward tees here, with varying angles to the fairway and green, totally changing the hole.
For the approach, it will be one of the most scenic shots of the day. The green is built into the hill, rising dramatically behind, whilst the front falls away steeply, although five bunkers are found on the lower side to capture any short balls. Beyond the green the ground falls away, with the mountains not to distant. A long putting surface is available, angling away to the right, but also containing a depression through the middle.
Hole 14 – 339 meter par 4
Another hole playing along the ridge of the hill, this shorter par 4 requires the tee shot to carry part of a go cart track. Since this is a cart course, there was the temptation to take them for a quick spin around, but these are golf carts and not very fast. The fairway is below the elevated tee, playing mostly downhill. Bunkers line either side of the fairway, leaving a narrow landing area. Finding the ideal line is along the right to center, although more traps are down this side.
Ample room is out to the left, but may see the ball lead away down the slope or an awkward stance. The kidney shaped green is protected on either side by bunkers and slopes away on most sides. Effective design where taking the correct line will offer risk on the tee shot but reward with the approach. Plus how many golf holes are you going to play where you carry a go cart track?
Hole 15 – 218 meter par 3
To get off this hill, we play a monster one shot hole, the longest and hardest index par 3 at Ellerston. The hill is quite steep so you can take 20 meters off the length, but it still remains a long hole. Sitting in the middle of eight bunkers, is a small green, with large surrounds. You can miss short or right without too much trouble.
Not my favourite par 3 of the day, certainly a challenging hole, but when I have to think about hitting a wood off the tee for a one shot hole, its just not as enjoyable as some of the others.
Hole 16 – 396 meter par 4
Starting the journey back to the starting point, can’t say clubhouse as there isn’t one, is this long par 4 which turns to the left. From the tee you carry the creek, before finding a wide fairway, with water one side and bunkers built into the slope on the other. Ideally you play tight to the creek on the left, to allow an easier shot to the green.
This green complex sits in an unusual spot, as the fairway curves its way over a hill back towards the green. So why is it unusual? The fairway to the right is almost further away than the green, well its not really but with a large tree between the green and the hill, it makes it a less ideal route along the short stuff. So this is probably the most heroic shot to hit on the day. Carry the creek and you are on the green. Personally taking the tree out would improve the hole dramatically, which is the main thing I don’t like on the hole. You are offered great risk verse reward on the tee, which leads into how the second shot is handled. One of the memorable holes, for the right and wrong reasons.
Hole 17 – 476 meter par 5
The penultimate hole requires a long carry diagonally across the creek, as well as the bridges taking you back to the tee. Two fairway traps are just short of the fairway, which will make the hole even harder, whilst another three sit a bit further along on the ideal line to the green. Again the creek runs along the hole, this time on the left, before crossing the fairway.
So on the last hole we had the hero shot for the par 4 holes. I would say this is the biggest hero shot for the par 5 holes, as it is achievable for a greater range of golfing levels. Taking on the creek to find either the other side of the fairway or the green itself. The left fairway offers the better angle into the green, in my opinion anyway. Why would you take on the risk if there wasn’t some reward there?
On the green surrounds are two traps. Depending on where you are coming into the hole determines the actual location. From the main fairway either side of the green. From the left fairway, front and right, leaving the left section open. A few slight undulations were found on the green just to make putting a little trickier. My favourite par 5 for the day as it offered a few different strategies.
Hole 18 – 382 meter par 4
Finishing the round is a long par 4 playing relatively straight. From an elevated tee, a carry is required over the creek for the last time, to a wide fairway. Ideally hitting down the center. Left, the creek runs the entire length of the hole, whilst right finds trees encroaching and a bad angle to the green.
The second portion of the hole narrows dramatically, with bunkers lining either side, although more on the right, before reaching the green which slopes away on the left and rear towards the water. A demanding approach shot to finish the round, requiring a bit of accuracy. As for the putting surface it slopes mainly from the rear to front. Decent design which makes you think about each shot and where the ideal place is to play. Solid finish to a challenging golf course.
Well I have to start by saying how extremely lucky getting an invite was. With so little rounds being played on a weekly basis, the percentage of golfers ever getting to play here is so low. The course is certainly top class with some amazing holes found throughout the property. In trying to ensure the best locations for holes were found, the routing has had to be sacrificed, hence the reason for this being a cart course. There is a huge variety in elevation over the 18 holes, more than I had suspected. from running along lower lands next to creeks, to playing along the ridge of a hill top.
Having played quite a few Norman/Harrison course designs, I would rate this and The National Moonah as two of my favourites. Usually I find their designs quite penal, more due to excessive rough off to the sides in close proximity to the fairways. Ellerston went away from this trend with quite wide landing areas, although had a lot more penal aspects in forced carries.
Looking at the course makeup:
- Hole Directions – There was a huge variety in the direction of holes, allowing for varied conditions to have wide ranging effects during play. I have never seen such an even split in hole directions on a course actually.
- Hole Lengths – Par three holes had a good variance in distance, the majority in mid length. Par four holes ranged from short to long but heavily stacked in the later category. Since this makes up the bulk of the course it became a tough slog at times. Not a course for higher handicappers, even from the front tees. Par 5 holes ranged from short to long with the latter being the majority
- Hole Layout – There was a great mixture in how the holes played (turning left or right), being evenly split where two shots or more were required to reach the green. The only criticism with the layout, three quarters of the par 3 holes played down hill to the greens
Beyond doubt this was one of the most immaculately conditioned courses I have been too. With so little play, at most 10 rounds a week, it is quite easy to keep in good shape. This ranged from tee to green. Dead flat surfaces on the teeing area, with little wear. Perfectly manicured fairways. Bunkers with not a spec of sand out of place. Greens devoid of pitch marks, something so common at courses with heavy traffic. It was truly surreal. With the green staff not far behind our playing group, it is easy to see how they ensure that perfect look. A cull back on some of the trees around the property would serve the course well, as they did infringe on some playing corridors, to the extent where the player is forced into a strategy. I had expected high wispy rough off to the sides of fairways. This was kept well back so only truly wild shots would find there way into this.
Ellerston certainly is a memorable course, but is it for the right reasons? Some great scenic holes, which did have strategic merit. In fact on most holes there was a bit of strategy, but there were also a few where target golf was required. It was not the toughest course I have ever played, that title still belongs to Bethpage Black, but certainly had some demanding shots and asked big questions at times. The standout holes for me were 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 13, 16 and 17. The par 5 holes were probably the weakest in design, with only one standing out (17).
My biggest test with a course is would I return to play it? Well I always like to play a course twice at minimum. By that time I know whether I like the course and would return, or cross if off the list banishing it forever. I need to return to Ellerston before that decision can be made. My main question does this course belong in the top 10? A majority of people believe it doesn’t as access is so limited, which is a great point. But it is still a golf course in Australia so should be looked at. For me it’s more a case, is it really better than some of the other greats around the country. That is a question I still ponder.
How to play at Ellerston Golf Course:
1. Be invited to play
2. Win a charity auction for tee times at the course (min $2.5K per person)
3. Be a high roller at Crown casino (although this is likely to cease soon with Crown selling off its interests in Golf Courses)