New South Wales’ Hunter region seemingly has everyone covered with enticements to visit the area, less than two hours’ drive north of Sydney’s northern outskirts.

Surfers have a wealth of brilliant beaches to find a wave. Foodies can certainly rejoice, while lovers of good vino are spoilt for choice in this famed wine-growing region. And if you like packing the golf clubs in the back of the car and heading off to discover yet unplayed courses, you won’t miss in the Hunter.

In fact, if you have three days to spare, you can easily play four Hunter region layouts that are all ranked in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses for 2019.

I would certainly recommend starting any golf trip to the Hunter right in the heart of wine country.

The Vintage’s short par-4 13th requires a strategic approach from the fairway and the tee. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Any time is a great time to take in the sights of wine country, but summer into early autumn is perhaps the most vibrant and exciting time around the vineyards.

Towards the end of January, vintage begins and the Hunter Valley becomes alive with both hand and machine picking in the vineyards. Warm days mean mornings on the course, afternoons exploring the vineyards and evenings cooling by the pool with a glass of some local wine in your hand.

November through to March is also a great time for ‘Day On The Green’ concerts when Hunter Valley wineries like Bimbadgen and Roche Estate play host to big name acts. Recent performers have included Jimmy Barnes (who probably took his golf clubs), Kylie Minogue, Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond and Bruce Springsteen.

Appropriately named for the region, The Vintage Resort & Spa, has been satisfying golfers’ pallets with its mix of challenging holes and beautifully manicured playing surfaces for nearly 16 years. Not surprisingly it was recently listed No.17 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses ranking.

“The bunkering is a memorable feature of any round at The Vintage. They are not only a hazard to the golfer but their cosmetic appeal is breathtaking.”

Designed by Greg Norman and Bob Harrison, the land where the par-72 layout now lies was first earmarked for a championship course back in 1983. But the course did not get the green light for construction until 2000 when massive financial backing was secured and the $450 million golf course resort and residential community project became a reality.

The significant budget afforded Norman and Harrison allowed the team to extract the best possible holes from a landscape that varies from relatively flat to dramatically undulating. Where possible, native trees on the property were kept and several small creeks and waterholes were incorporated into the course routing, which follows the traditional two loops of nine holes.

A split-level fairway with bunkers in between is a key feature of Cypress Lakes’ par-4 17th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

A fine example of this natural design can be found early in the round at the 2nd hole – a 356-metre par-4 L-shaped dogleg right that is bordered by stands of Casuarina trees left and right. Good strategy, rather than long hitting, is needed here to position the drive to leave an unobstructed view of the relatively small green, which is totally surrounded by trees and bunkers.

The bunkering is a memorable feature of any round at The Vintage. They are not only a hazard to the golfer but their cosmetic appeal is breathtaking and a recent renovation has them looking better than ever.

For mine, the back nine offers the greatest variety of holes and, as a result, is arguably the most fun to play. Two favourite holes on the inward half are at either end of the spectrum in terms of distance.

RIGHT: The long par-3 8th hole at The Vintage. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The 552-metre par-5 10th is the longest hole at The Vintage but the first two thirds of the fairway are downhill. The remainder of the hole is dominated by a lake to the left and a steep sloping fairway that rises to a green that lies just beyond a cliff overlooking the lake and is protected by a bunker to the right and a mound to the left.

At 331 metres, there is nothing too gruelling about the journey from tee to green on the par-4 13th. But you must be accurate and avoid the line of five bunkers that are wedged between the fairway and tree line to the right, and the wetland flanking the short grass to the left. The putting surface here slopes markedly from right-to-left and is far more receptive to short iron approach shots flying in from the left half of the fairway. If the flag is in the left half of this green, take aim at the right half of the green and watch your ball feed around to the flag.

The Vintage’s nearest golfing neighbour, just a few minutes’ drive south into the heart of the Pokolbin wine growing area, is the extensively renovated Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort.

Cypress Lakes quickly established itself as one of the country’s best golf resorts after opening in 1992 but the 2000s saw a gradual decline in the quality of the golf course, designed by American Steve Smyers in collaboration with former Aussie touring pro Bob Stanton.

But the past five years have seen Cypress Lakes gradually return to its former glory, after the resort was purchased in 2013 by Thai hotel group, Minor International, through its Australian entity, Oaks Hotels & Resorts.

The new bunkers of the 18th hole at Cypress Lakes. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Now known as Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort, the new owner has invested heavily in the course with designer James Wilcher overseeing upgrades to the layout, including a $1 million bunker restoration program. The overall condition of the course has also dramatically improved and led to Cypress Lakes re-entering Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Course ranking in 2019 after an eight-year absence.

One hole that has changed little since the early 90s, and is arguably the most memorable and visually impressive hole at Cypress Lakes, is the 491-metre par-5 6th. From an elevated tee you get a nice view over vines in front of the tee and then beyond to the fairway and further afield to nearby vineyards.

From one of the high points of the course, you can send your drive into orbit and gaze, as it appears to stay in the air forever, before hitting the wide fairway below. The fairway then rises sharply, past staggered fairway bunkers right and left, up to a smallish green that is protected by more bunkers short left and to the right.

Some of Wilcher’s finest renovation work can be seen with the bunkering on the 17th and 18th holes. The large sandy pits dividing the split-level fairway on the par-4 17th have never looked better, while the new fairway traps in the left half of the 18th fairway have added some bite to the closing hole.

And if you are still not convinced Cypress Lakes is on the rise consider this … the resort was voted the Best Golf Hotel in Australia and Oceania at the World Golf Awards in 2018.

Before heading east out of the valley to the coast, stock up on some high-quality cellar door wines. Tamburlaine and Brokenwood are right next to Cypress Lakes and I can’t speak more highly of both.

Newcastle’s famed par-3 7th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.

After a day and a half in wine country we made light work of the 60-minute drive (via the relatively new Hunter Expressway) to Newcastle Golf Club – the highest ranked layout of our four-course excursion.

Newcastle – just a stone’s throw from the towering sand dunes of Stockton Beach – was listed recently as the No.13 layout in Golf Australia magazine’s biennial ranking of the nation’s Top-100 Public Access Courses. The course burst into the elite top-15 of that ranking nearly a decade ago on the back of a dramatic leap in presentation and some minor tweaks to the design and it has been entrenched there ever since.

The course hasn’t looked back since the late ‘90s when the conditioning hit a new benchmark and is now achieved on a monthly, if not daily, basis. This presentation of beautiful couch fairways and firm, smooth-rolling bentgrass greens now fully complements the fantastic Eric Apperly design and construction work of Fred Popplewell Snr, which has stood the test of time since it opened for play in 1936.

RIGHT: The underrated gem of a par-5 10th hole at Newcastle. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Apperly, who had already created Sydney’s Avondale and original The Lakes courses, was commissioned to create the second nine holes of the original layout that had been laid out by founding members of the club 22 years earlier. Apperly recognised the quality of those holes and incorporated seven of them into his 18-hole design that has not changed dramatically in 75 years.

Carved out of a forest of eucalypts and angophoras, the fairways at Newcastle bend, twist, roll and sidestep their way over a sand dune-based landscape unequalled in the region. Although the course is situated only a few kilometres from the busy port of Newcastle, the density of trees separating the fairways give a feeling of complete isolation from one hole to another.

In my opinion, the entire course oozes world-class features. But there are three holes that always deserve even higher acclaim. The trio of the 368-metre par-4 5th, 367-metre par-4 6th and 148-metre par-3 7th are not only standout holes on the front nine but these holes are among the best sequence of three holes in the country.

The par-4s in this group offer wonderful examples of changes in elevation and call on the player to position their drives perfectly for a shot to the green. The tee shot at the 5th is a blind one over a hill, which then cambers right-to-left with the slight dogleg and descends to the green.

At the 6th, heading in the opposite direction, the fairway rolls left-to-right with a steep hill cutting into the fairway from the left. The fairway turns around the base of a hill, turns left and up to an elevated green protected by two deep bunkers cut into the front of the putting surface.

"Belmont is the only true links layout in the Hunter region and offers some of the best examples of links golf holes in Australia."

If these two holes don’t get your heart pumping, the classic short 7th will. There is no room for error from the tee as your shot must be nailed through a chute created by dense clumps of tall timbers and all care must be taken to avoid a pod of bunkers short right and another long and left. Missing the putting surface makes for a difficult chip and putt to save par.

The club is set to announce later this year an extensive redesign with the 16th, 17th and 18th holes to be developed and new holes, designed by the acclaimed Bob Harrison, to be built between the current course and the beach.

Another Newcastle course that has already had the bulldozers in is Belmont Golf Club; a 40-minute drive south of Newcastle Golf Club via the city.

Belmont has always been one of my favourite courses since I first experienced it back in the 80s playing the Lake Macquarie Amateur and Foursomes Championships.

The beachside green of the par-3 13th hole at Belmont. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Located on the southern fringe of the greater Newcastle metropolitan area, the course lies on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and picturesque Lake Macquarie.

The course has come a long way since it first opened for play as a seven-hole course in 1952. Course architect Prosper Ellis designed the links layout, which was a full 18-hole route within five years of opening.

In recent years, there have been plenty of improvements made to Ellis’ original design with new holes and greens being added. Among the most recent developments, to a plan by course designer James Wilcher, has been the creation of a short par-3 16th hole built right alongside the adjoining beach as well as a new green and bunkering on the par-5 15th hole.

The course that greets today is, in my opinion, far better in terms of challenge and presentation than it was during its years as host of the Lake Macquarie event, which attracted plenty of great local and international players over the years including Aaron Baddeley, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald, Mark O’Meara and Vijay Singh.

Belmont is the only true links layout in the Hunter region and offers some of the best examples of links golf holes in Australia.

RIGHT: The tough par-5 15th hole at Belmont. PHOTO: Brendan James.

Among them is the 401-metre par-4 14th, which is completely exposed to the vagaries of the wind as the fairway doglegs slightly left across the gently rippling fairway flanked by sandy wasteland and scrub-covered dunes to the left. The approach shot presents the real challenge here, with a long club required into a large target surrounded by trouble with two deep bunkers left and awkward mounds and drop-offs long and right.

The most memorable hole for our group was the diminutive new 16th. At 110 metres it should be no more than a pitching wedge or 9-iron to find the middle of the putting surface. Our round was played in strong winds and punch 6- and 7-irons (we thought) were the order of the day. When these tee shots fell short, we couldn’t resist the urge to reload with longer clubs. This new offering is a fun hole and typifies what a round at Belmont is like.