New South Wales’ Hunter Valley is rich in world-class wine and food, and since opening in 2004 The Vintage Golf Club has become the feature offering of the high quality golf in the region. And, like many of the top drops of the area, it just keeps getting better with age.
A player’s relationship with, or opinion of, a golf course often changes over time as they learn the nuances of a particular venue, or the layout itself evolves.
In some cases, both are true, and this is certainly the way my personal experience with The Vintage – located in the picturesque Hunter Valley – has played out.
Created by Greg Norman and then design partner Bob Harrison, The Vintage opened for play in 2004 to great publicity and it was not long after that I made the first of many visits to the par-71, which was No.47 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Courses ranking published earlier this year.
An almost frighteningly tough, well-manicured layout was to be found in the course’s early days. One with penal hazards – including Norman’s favoured bunkers with high flashed up faces, well-placed water and trees with vegetation surrounding that could be a golf ball graveyard – and fairways that were narrower than are to be found on the same property today.
The bones of a good golf course were certainly there, however keeping the ball in play was the main challenge at The Vintage in its original form. It was an impressive layout but lacking in some of the strategic elements that give good players options and a desire to return and figure out the best way to play the course, as well as offering a playable test for higher handicappers.
Having frequently visited since The Vintage opened, a significant swing in another direction has been noticeable and the course is certainly better for it.
Wider fairways and more receptive greens have played a large part in this, while the reduction of significant penalty from a slightly miscued shot has helped along the way.
Almost occurring in similar timing, a deeper personal understanding and appreciation for the risk-reward qualities of the layout has meant a greater enjoyment on each and every visit.
The slight softening of the challenge at The Vintage, whilst still maintaining enough teeth to keep players honest comes as no surprise to the vastly experienced Harrison.
“It is often the case that things start out narrow because someone insists on it, not necessarily the designer,” Harrison told Golf Australia magazine.
“The Vintage is a bit more forgiving now, that tends to happen with courses. It is interesting how many courses gradually widen and you want them to. The idea of The Vintage being more forgiving is good.”
“The Vintage is a bit more forgiving now, that tends to happen with courses. It is interesting how many courses gradually widen and you want them to.” – Bob Harrison
For a resort golf course like The Vintage, forgiveness and playability are important for many guests, while others, crave a tough test to challenge one another upon.
With the evolution of the course, playability has been greatly improved, while multiple tee options from under 5,000 metres to more than 6,000 cater for a range of players, including the more sadistic of visitors looking to seriously challenge their ability to play to their handicap.
This in itself is a good quality for a golf course to possess and one Superintendent Martin Crowe understands.
“It’s always been a growing project, I started here in 2005 and there’s always been a project or development each year, something new to expand on what we have and trying to improve,” said Crowe, who took over the reins in the top job from respected long-time super Stephen Harris in early 2018.
“We think it is a really risk verse reward course. So, if you’re not a single figure handicapper you can poke it around and play to your handicap with some golf smarts. But at the same time there are plenty of holes to open the shoulders and take it on.”
The ability of players to take on the course and exposing its risk-reward elements if possessing the requisite skills is one that Harrison also notes as among the strengths
of the layout just over two hours’ drive north of Sydney.
“Certainly at The Vintage it is wide enough for the risk-reward style of design, which was the idea, I mean holes like 15 where it really is a question of choice … there are a lot of them. The shorter par-4s give you those choices, and they are interesting holes,” Harrison said.
The risk-reward qualities of the course really come into focus on the back nine, which feels as though it has been built to provide drama and a guaranteed result when playing match play or skins.
From the par-5 10th, only reachable for the long hitter in two blows and featuring an approach to a raised green above water, to the par-3 12th, position from the tee is rewarded. However, it is upon reaching the short par-4 13th where the resulting score really falls into the player’s hands.
At just 313 metres from the back tees, the 13th owns one of the narrower fairways on the course with bunkers right and water left, so a conservative play with less than driver is favoured by many. However those willing to risk bogey or worse by taking the hole on, will be rewarded with a better look at the slightly raised and significantly undulating putting surface that is anything but welcoming to a shot hit with more than a short iron or wedge.
“The risk-reward qualities of the course really come into focus on the back nine, which feels as though it has been built to provide drama and a guaranteed result when playing match play or skins.”
Following immediately is one of three stern par-5s on the property, where the stronger and more cavalier driver can significantly shorten the hole by taking a line closer to the reed filled water hazard on the right rather than playing towards the large fairway bunker on the left. The more heroic line allows for a potential shot at the green in two, which will need to clear a small creek short of the putting surface, which appears smaller and more tucked into a corner the further left a layup second shot is hit, making par a good score.
But of all of Norman and Harrison’s work, it is the par-4 15th that best showcases their commitment to the risk-reward strategy spoken about by seemingly anyone with a knowledge of course architecture to visit the property.
An expansive wetland to the left on the winding 333 metre hole can be taken on with driver leaving a straight approach with a short club to a deep green making birdie a real possibility. For the shorter hitter or those with slightly diminished confidence, a straight tee shot to a fairway significantly wider than it appears from the tee is fairly straightforward. However, the subsequent approach is played blindly over some of the course’s deepest bunkers, making finding the correct level or even the green itself a far more difficult prospect.
The final trio of holes similarly offers chances to make up a shot or two with good execution, while also having the ability to make the player with a good score going a little nervous as they think of sampling one of the region’s drops in the clubhouse. Most notably the 18th, where the pressure of eyes from those having concluded their round watching on as golfers attempt to first find then correctly read one of the more interesting greens on the course can feel imposing.
Whereas the back nine displays the strategic side of The Vintage, its opening nine holes perhaps best displays its increased playability.
After a gentle opening hole played downhill and allowing for plenty of run in summer to give a little confidence boost, the early holes test most clubs in the bag for the average player, while offering few opportunities to lose a ball unless finding the water.
Of the first nine holes, the standouts come as you prepare to make the turn in the form of a rollercoaster-like par-5 and a long par-3 at the 7th and 8th.
Played alongside the Bimbadgen Estate winery to the left, the par-5 7th demands a blind tee shot, that if struck well and on the right line bounds down the fairway. A narrow green raised from its surrounds, yet well below the level of the fairway awaits, and a second shot with hopes of finding the green needs to be near perfect or a difficult up-and-down from the bunkers right or chip from the left to a green sloping away results.
Next, the longest one-shotter on the course again offers players of different abilities the chance to play the hole as it suits their skill set.
It is impossible not to notice the water down the entire right side when contemplating the correct club to hit towards the long and narrow green, while three bunkers left won’t
For better players, the choice is how much of the water to attempt to carry, particularly to a back right pin, with a fading shot landing on the front of the green and using the contours of the putting surface to move towards the flag generally the most prudent play.
However, for those lacking the power, or want, to take on the water, a mown portion lies short of the green and bunkers, allowing for a fairly stress free bogey or perhaps an unlikely par on a hole rated the fifth hardest on the course.
Throughout the progressive evolution and improvement of The Vintage as a strategic test in the more than 15 years since it opened, one constant has remained.
Despite the extreme weather variance, coupled with rain tending to either be scarce or constant, The Vintage is always in good condition, with true rolling putting surfaces the standout.
As Crowe alludes to, ongoing projects to maintain this high level of conditioning are in place, including planned extension of the irrigation system to the bunkers that have been slightly modified to maintain playability, increase stability of the clay base and appear more rugged.
Beyond the condition of a course that has well and truly found its balance as an enjoyable test for players of all abilities, an abundance of quality and varied golf options in both the immediate vicinity and wide Hunter region, plus the exquisite dinning and accommodation on site, The Vintage makes for a magnificent golf destination.
One that I personally discover more to like about each and every time I pay a visit.
LOCATION: Vintage Drive, Pokolbin, NSW 2320
CONTACT: (02) 4998 2500.
DESIGNERS: Greg Norman & Bob Harrison (2004).
PLAYING SURFACES: Santa Ana couch (fairways, tees), bentgrass (greens).
GREEN FEES: $109 (18 holes including cart, weekdays); $134 (18 holes including cart, weekends and public holidays).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Martin Crowe.
PGA PROFESSIONALS: Richard Mercer (Director of Instruction).
MEMBERSHIP: A range of membership options are on offer at The Vintage to accommodate golfers of all ages and with a wide variety of benefits.
Categories include Junior (5-23), Midweek, Individual, Couples, Corporate and more, allowing for varied playing rights, while Golf & Spa memberships are also available.
PLAY & STAY: The award-winning Chateau Elan located within the property offers the perfect mix of luxury, relaxation and golf.
With a variety of accommodation options, spa, restaurant and function facilities, Chateau Elan and The Vintage combine to cater to any group either visiting specifically for golf, or planning to explore the Hunter Valley.