It’s here where you will find the world’s largest expanse of subtropical rainforest right alongside mountains created by ancient volcanoes and some of the biggest rivers in Australia – the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed – flowing right through it.

The area’s obvious natural attractions are rivalled by the rich food and art culture, the plethora of water sports and, of course, great golf.

And it has never been easier to visit the Northern Rivers, with freeway expansions to the north and south in recent years bringing Sydney and Brisbane closer for the road-trippers. If you want to fly, the Ballina Byron Gateway Airport lies at the heart of the region and has direct flights from Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The 5th hole at Ocean Shores and its massive green beyond the water and sand. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Ballina, on the banks of the Richmond River, has been a popular tourist town for many years and it seemed the logical place to set up base with good golfing options to be found within an easy drive to the north and south.

My first port of call was an old favourite, Ocean Shores Country Club, about 40 minutes’ drive north of Ballina and only 15 minutes from Byron Bay. The panoramic outlook from the clubhouse is the first thing that impresses on arrival. Looking east from the stylish bistro deck, there are beautiful ocean views from Cape Byron to the Gold Coast. To the west, there are vistas of the lush rainforest hills of the Nightcap Ranges and Mt Warning towering majestically above the surrounding hills to the north-west.

Ocean Shores celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and the first major changes to the layout in its five decades are due to begin based on a masterplan from course architect Richard Chamberlain, who assessed the course for improvements without losing Ocean Shores’ current scorecard of six par-3s, 4s and 5s.

Chamberlain has a good canvas to work with. Set in an area of natural flora with tidal lakes, rivers and mountain ranges as a backdrop, it is a beautiful course.

The testing final approach into the long par-5 11th hole at Ocean Shores. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The layout was originally designed by Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge (the same collaborative design team that transformed Sydney’s The Lakes course when a freeway cut the layout in two during the late 60s) and opened for play in 1972. It was part of a $100 million real estate project involving a huge U.S development company that had as one of its main investors, well-known American entertainer Pat Boone.

While the planned real estate development never took off, the golf course survived and was taken over by the club’s members in the 1980s. It has since blossomed and in 2021 was ranked No.90 in the nation’s Top-100 Public Access Courses.

A feature of the layout is the size and quality of its greens. The putting surfaces cover 13,000 square metres of the course property with the 5th green alone accounting for 1,100 square metres – enough land to build a four-bedroom house with a sizeable backyard. During my visit for this feature, the greens were firm, rolling fast and fantastic to putt on.

Water comes into play on 14 of the 18 holes and most of the time these hazards can be easily avoided by players of all abilities.

In my opinion, some of Ocean Shores’ best holes are to be encountered on the inward nine, with one of the highlights opening the back half. The 394-metre par-4 10th plays much shorter than the scorecard says, with the fairway descending gradually before plunging steeply down towards the green beyond the corner of the sharp dogleg right. First time players might find themselves stuck halfway down the hill here, offering a very difficult second shot to a massive green protected by equally large bunkers short left, right and long left. A narrow opening at the front right of the green is really the only opportunity to hit a running shot onto the green here.

Water comes into play on 14 of the 18 holes and most of the time these hazards can be easily avoided by players of all abilities. But the 186-metre par-3 12th hole demands a total water carry to find the 35-metre wide but shallow putting surface. A closely trimmed front edge of the green, slopes markedly back down into the lake and will easily repel under-hit tee shots, while a large bunker cut into the back of the green traps the over-hit tee shot.

The final hole is a 494-metre grinding uphill par-5 where birdies are extremely rare. Having completed your round with a walk up this closing hill, adjourn to the clubhouse occupying the hilltop high above the course.

Teven Valley is the only course in Australia to have the superb Sir Grange Zoysia grass from tee-to-green and, as you might expect from a super of Gumbelton’s experience, the playing surfaces are outstanding.

While Ocean Shores looks forward to its course upgrades, a gem of a nine-holer has emerged as a ‘must-play’ course in the region after a complete rebuild.

Teven Valley Golf Course, in the hinterland about 15 minutes’ drive north west of Ballina, has been transformed in recent times. My lasting memory of a round there about a decade ago was of a course that didn’t really deliver on its potential given its beautiful location and the terrain. The course that greets today is a massive departure. It is a layout rich with interesting, well-manicured and fun holes.

The simple but beautiful uphill closing hole at Teven Valley. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Set on 10 hectares of stunning rolling terrain, the makeover began with new owner, Curt Zuber, who brought in Paul Gumbleton – then the course superintendent at Sydney’s Monash Country Club and formerly of the famed Kingston Heath– to rebuild the course alongside Tour player turned course designer, Craig Parry.

The rebuild saw some established holes reversed, some shortened or re-routed to extract the best and most interesting golf from the terrain, with particular attention paid to the Tifeagle greens and their surrounds. The layout now boasts 10 new greens, tees, redone fairways and a host of new bunkers.

Teven Valley is the only course in Australia to have the superb Sir Grange Zoysia grass from tee-to-green and, as you might expect from a super of Gumbelton’s experience, the playing surfaces are outstanding.

Parry’s design is also a highlight. The uphill par-3 9th hole is a memorable one but, for mine, the 2nd hole – which can be played as a short par-4 from the Black tees, or a mid-length par-3 from the White tees – is worth the green fee alone. A snaking brook lines the left of the fairway and cuts diagonally in front of the green, before wrapping around the right edge of the narrow, dramatic sloping putting surface. A lone bunker left of the green can cause some problems too.

Teven Valley’s 2nd hole can be played as a short par-4 or a par-3 depending on the tee you play from. PHOTO: Brendan James.

After a short drive back to the freeway, I then headed south towards one of my favourite towns on the north coast, Yamba, about a 70-minute drive away.

Wedged between the southern bank of the Clarence River and the Pacific, Yamba is a picturesque holiday town where you’ll find plenty of good restaurants and places to stay. If you can spare the time, buy a kilo of Yamba prawns, sit on the back of the beach and soak in the serenity.

Located on the appropriately named (for this region) River Street, is the Yamba Golf and Country Club – arguably the hidden gem among the courses featured here. The course is close to the centre of town, with two loops of nine holes stretching out from the clubhouse and several holes lying within earshot of the breaking waves on nearby Pippi Beach.

This area was once known as Yamba Common and when a group of enthusiastic golfers were looking to establish a course in Yamba in the mid-1950s they didn’t have to look too far from their meeting place to find ideal golfing land.

The beautiful Pippi Beach lies beyond Yamba’s short dogleg par-4 4th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The layout has since expanded to a testing 18-hole par-71 course that combines an enjoyable mix of wide avenue-like fairways and tight, intimidating holes bounded by dense bushland. While Yamba is an easy-walking journey there are few flat lies to be experienced with most of the fairways featuring a natural ripple above the sand base below.

Yamba features several standout holes. One of the prettiest holes occurs early in the round at the 152-metre par-3 3rd hole. The fairway skirts the edge of a large tree-lined pond to the right, which then cuts into the fairway about 30 metres short of the large putting surface that is protected by two deep bunkers, one left and another right.

The next hole, a short dogleg left par-4, brings you within a pitch shot of the beach but trees obscure the view, but not the wind so any high lofted approach can easily be knocked down short of the putting surface.

Several holes of the back nine are cut through thick stands of melaleucas and patches of semi-tropical rainforest. The short par-3 12th, par-4 16th and long par-3 17th are simply designed and are virtually isolated from the rest of the layout. This trio, for mine, are the absolute jewels in Yamba’s crown.

Heading out of town, I followed the Clarence River south to the tree-lined streets of Grafton, which is renowned as the Jacaranda city but is also littered with colourful poincianas and Illawarra flame trees, which inspired the Cold Chisel hit song Flame Trees, written by Don Walker about his return to Grafton in search of a past girlfriend.

There aren’t too many jacarandas or flame trees to be found at Grafton District Golf Club, but there are plenty of big gums flanking the edges of most fairways.

Grafton has been transformed in the past dozen years, with its smallish Queensland blue couch greens replaced by larger Bermuda Tifgreen 328 putting surfaces, which are well-presented. All of the ‘new’ greens have also been beautifully shaped and many incorporate visually and strategically impressive bunkering.

The green of the par-5 2nd hole at Grafton is tucked behind trees, mounds and bunkers. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Grafton is a rare course with both nines opening with a par-3. The 135-metre downhill 1st hole calls for no more than a short iron for most players to find the green, which has been angled diagonally left-to-right and features a tier cutting through the middle. Two bunkers right and another to the left add a little spice to a hole many will expect to at least par but might be disappointed early in their round.

The following hole has improved dramatically with the addition of bunkering and a massive subtle-breaking putting surface raising the challenge on what was previously a pretty boring hole. The 462-metre par-5 2nd rates as the easiest hole on the scorecard index but I don’t see that as much of a guide. While most of the journey is downhill, which brings the green into range for longer hitters seeking an eagle, there are pitfalls along the way. Small creeks either side of the fairway at the bottom of the hill can catch the mis-hit while four huge bunkers – scattered short, left and right of the green – can create some headaches too.

Back in Ballina, you will find one of the prettiest courses in the Northern Rivers region.

Like many of its north coast neighbours, Ballina Golf Club is not the same course it was at the start of the 21st century thanks to a green rebuilding program and tweaks to the design that have turned it into a modern, challenging parkland layout.

For mine, the 314-metre par-4 11th is one of Ballina’s more memorable holes. It is a terrific short par-4 where sound strategy is required from the tee and pinpoint accuracy is a necessity for the short approach. The drive must be threaded into a narrow neck of fairway between gum trees left and two large bunkers right of the fairway. The ideal line into the green is from the left half of the fairway as the green is set on a slight diagonal left-to-right. The Richmond River forms a picturesque backdrop to the green that is guarded by five bunkers cut well into the edges of the green creating steep slopes off the shoulders. A flat putt on this green is a rarity.

The changes at Ballina are nothing compared to the improvements that have been made 25 minutes up the road at Byron Bay Golf Club.

The club, which has been the long-time host of the Legends Tour Australian PGA Championship, has blossomed beautifully in the past decade and was ranked No.81 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Public Access Courses in 2021. Not bad for a course that was first established as part of a working bee back in 1957.

Sunrise breaks over the beautifully manicured 9th hole of the Byron Bay course. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The one hole every player who tackles Byron Bay will remember is the 538-metre par-5 13th hole. This is Byron’s signature hole, for good reason. From the elevated tee you get a glimpse of the ocean off in the distance. Below and in front of you is a tight driving hole with tall gums flanking the fairway left and right. Halfway to the green, the fairway turns right and brings the flag into view for the first time – set on a two-tiered green tucked in behind a lake cutting in from the left and nestled hard against the edge of a pond to the right. Two bunkers through the back of the massive undulating putting surface will catch the player taking too much club to avoid the water, while a bunker short left grabs poor approaches. It is a wonderful hole where birdies are rare but when they find the scorecard here, they are well earned.

You won’t find another hole in Australia like Mullumbimby's 274-metre par-4 11th hole.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me on this trip was the quality of the par-70 course at Mullumbimby Golf Club, about 25 minutes’ drive north west of Byron.

Wedged between tracts of grazing land and cane fields, Mullumbimby is laid out on relatively flat terrain on an almost perfectly square property. The views to the Koonyum range to the west and Mt Chincogan to the north, have been dominating the backdrop to a round at Mullumbimby since the course opened 90 years ago.

Water can be found left, right and long of the green on the par-3 12th at Mullumbimby. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Natural and man-made watercourses regularly come into play, especially on the back nine and no more so than on two gems early in Mullumbimby’s back nine.

You won’t find another hole in Australia like Mullumbimby's 274-metre par-4 11th hole. A line of tall trees, separating the left edge of the fairway from an out-of-bounds fence, ends at the edge of a large pond, which feeds into a creek that cuts the fairway in two before it doglegs left towards the green. Just how to play the hole successfully, I’ll leave up to you but needless to say I would keep the driver in the bag.

Like the 11th green, the putting surface at the next is bunkerless … but that it doesn’t lessen the challenge one little bit. The 158-metre par-3 12th hole is surrounded by lakes on all sides, but at a distance from the edge of the putting surface. But the subtle downslopes off the fringes can give you a fright on a mis-hit. It is a simple hole but a wonderful challenge.

A fair indicator of Mullumbimby’s stern test is the course record stands at four-under 66.

One of the great hinterland drives via the Tweed Valley Way can be followed from Mullumbimby, 45 minutes north across the Tweed River, and into Murwillumbah. Along the way you will catch glimpses through the trees of Mt Warning and the beautiful Wollumbin National Park.

One of the best views you will get of the mountain and surrounding bush is from Murwillumbah Golf Club and, in particular, from the 10th green.

Murwillumbah’s uphill par-3 10th hole with the majestic Mt Warning in the background. PHOTO: Brendan James.

It’s not hard to be distracted by the panoramic views of thousands of hectares of national park covering the Great Dividing Range to the west, with large tracts of sugar canefields lying between you and the range.I wonder how many people three-putt the 10th green after being mesmerised by the scene. It is rated the second easiest hole on the course, but I’m sure it offers up plenty of three-putt bogies and double bogies. At 136 metres from the back pegs, it is only a mid- or short-iron tee shot up to the elevated green, which is surrounded by large bunkers, but if you happen to miss the green it’s a tough up-and-down to save par.

For mine, the 10th comes at the end of a wonderful sequence of undulating holes that cover the most dramatic terrain of the Murwillumbah layout. The toughest and best of these holes is the 416-metre par-4 7th where the fairway rolls up and down across the side slope of a hill as it veers slightly left. The last 150 metres is uphill to the green, which is cut into the side of a hill and is guarded by bunkers left and right. Poor club selection on approach is heavily penalised, especially for over-clubbing as a steep drop-off from the green leads down into trees and rough.

The long par-4 7th, with its narrow-terraced green, is Murwillumbah’s hardest hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

What impressed me most about the Murwillumbah course was its fantastic conditioning, especially considering the layout had been drenched with more than 100mm of rain in a day just 48 hours before I arrived.

It is a gorgeous course with so many different species of trees – with gums, camphor laurels, pines, African tulips, silky oaks and hardwoods among them – and superb playing surfaces.



Green fees: $45 (18 holes). Weekly and monthly green fee passes available (pictured right).


Green fee: $60.


Green fee: $50 (18 holes).


Green fee: $70 (18 holes, two players in
a cart).


Green fee: $50 (18 holes).


Green fee: $75 (18 holes)


Green fee: $35 (18 holes) (pictured right)


Green fees: $40 (18 holes, weekend), $35 (weekdays).