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.