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‘I’m sorry sir, we are going to have to offload you from the flight - you won’t be travelling today’. The words of the Qatar airlines check-in agent at Edinburgh airport didn’t make for the most auspicious start to my much-planned, once in a lifetime (etc etc) golf trip to Australia.
The problem was that my assumption that I had applied online and been granted a visa for my trip was flawed. I had applied, but for the wrong visa, and it hadn’t been processed yet. The check-in team at Edinburgh had hoped they would get an automated approval if they submitted the correct form, but because I share the same name as a person of interest to the Australian authorities, I was being offloaded.
There followed a rather concerning few hours before Australian officials decided I posed no threat to the good people of Australia and I managed to get myself booked on an Emirates flight via Dubai to Melbourne from Edinburgh that evening.
The plan had been to arrive in Melbourne early evening and then have a bite to eat before getting a good night’s sleep and onto the right timezone. That was all gone to pot. I arrived in to Melbourne airport at 5am and had to hotfoot it to meet up with my two friends (Greig and Dave) who had already arrived, before heading to a little airfield to go straight over to King Island.
A word on the jetlag. Going over, none of us really suffered that badly. Sure, I was tired the first couple of nights, but it wasn’t too bad and in no way impaired our ability to play golf. On the way back it took a few days for us all to get over though. It seems that is not unusual experience..
As I was leaving Edinburgh I posted on Twitter, detailing our itinerary. Rather overwhelmingly this got more engagement that anything I had previously posted and the warmth (and advice) from Australian golf fans was tremendous. I was pretty sure we were in for something special!
20 years ago I saw pictures of Melbourne sandbelt golf and ever since I’ve dreamt of visiting. Now I’m sitting in Edinburgh Airport and a packed itinerary awaits. Apologies for the gratuitous #humblebrag pictures to come. I suspect I’ll have sore feet if it’s any consolation! pic.twitter.com/0XxEg78C7p— UK Golf Guy (@ukgolfguy) March 4, 2019
DAY 1 - KING ISLAND
King Island is small island, officially part of Tasmania, just under an hour’s flight south of Melbourne. It has a population of 2,000 and until recently the only reason visitors came was because of its cheese. That all changed with the arrival to the island of two very high quality golf courses.
I had heard great things about Cape Wickham, and the other course, Ocean Dunes, had received pretty good reviews too so we had decided to add a stop here on the way to Barnbougle Dunes in ‘mainland’ Tasmania.
The only way to get to King Island is by plane. There are scheduled flights on Rex and Sharp Airlines from Melbourne and then onto Launceston in Tasmania. However, we opted for the more bespoke charter flight with Vortex Air as we could choose our flight times and also land directly at Barnbougle Dunes’s airstrip which helped to maximise the time we could spend on the golf course.
It was quite a luxury for us as there were only three of us, but if you were a party of 8 this would not be much more expensive that taking one of the scheduled airlines, and massively more convenient.
While I’m not a nervous flyer it wasn’t without trepidation that we set off from Moorabin airport, home to seemingly hundreds of small aircraft, about 30 minutes south of Melbourne city centre.
Some people have asked what the experience on the plane was like, as it had put them off making the trip. Firstly, it is great being able to load your clubs directly into the wings of the plane and have no anxiety as to whether or not they are going to make it with you. We were also able to use our phones all the way and there was plenty of room for us to stretch out, given there was only 3 of us on board.
One of our party, Greig, is a somewhat nervous flyer but the pilot was very reassuring. We could see a lot of heavy rain showers around us and there was quite a wind, so the flight was a little bumpy but it really wasn’t a bad experience at all. For those who are put off making the trip by the transport I would really encourage you to give it a go. What awaits you there definitely makes it worthwhile!
On arrival at King Island we picked up a hire car from the very helpful lady at King Island Car Rentals. It was A$100 a day (just over £50) for a perfectly serviceable Mitsubishi Overlander. Before we were allowed out of the airport we had to have our golf clubs and shoes inspected and were sent to do a bit of cleaning up before making it through. They are keen to keep the native grasses unsullied.
ROUND 1 - OCEAN DUNES
First stop was Ocean Dunes - just 5 minutes from the airport. Ocean Dunes was opened in 2015 and is already ranked in the top 10 courses in Australia. The clubhouse is still a temporary building but we got a warm welcome from the staff there, although they were slightly trepidatious about the weather.
It was a very windy day for sure and the temperature was hovering around 10-12 degrees celsius. The showers that we had navigated around on the way over were now hitting the island with some force. While we were waiting for a shower to pass, before heading out, a group of ladies came in to say that they had had enough after 9. The only other two groups booked into play in the afternoon called to cancel. However, when you are aiming to play 12 rounds in 8 days you don’t really have the option of cancelling a round, so off we went.
The helpful gentleman checking us in had very strongly suggested that we take buggies. This wasn’t really what I had in mind when planning the first round of our trip - I am definitely more of a walking golfer - but he explained there were some very long walks from green to tee (over 500 yards in one case). And there was a 30mph wind. And I had just come off a flight from the other side of the world without much sleep. So we decided to put our principles to one side and use motorised transport. Thank goodness we did..
The course starts with 4 great holes along the water - for many, the highlight of the course. The storm really had got up by the time we got to the 4th and this may have been the windiest conditions I have ever seen on a golf course, and it can get pretty blowy at the top of Gullane Hill! We did have a couple of wet and cold holes but fortunately that passed and, while the wind didn’t drop, the sun did make an appearance for most of the rest of the round.
Ocean Dunes was definitely a good golf course, and we enjoyed it a lot, but there are a couple of flaws. Firstly, the routing has it really stretch out over the large property and some of those walks from tee to green are just crazily long for the walking golfer which is a real shame. If there is ever a course to take a buggy (cross reference Monte Rei and PGA Centenary Gleneagles) this is it.
Secondly, they need to do something about the rough here. It is punishing in the extreme - if the ball is in it, it’s lost. The official line is you get a drop out because of the snakes (and I have no doubt there’s something in that!) but you wouldn’t be able to find a ball anyway.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the course. We still rated it a 17 which puts it in great company and there are some lovely holes, but it is a tough course that, in a wind like we had, verges on the unwalkable/playable.
Overnight in Currie
We headed into the hotbed of nightlife in King Island Currie. Our accommodation was the Ocean Dunes Hotel in the centre of the town. It is a perfectly serviceable pub/motel accomodation. Think pretty much an own label version of Holiday Inn or Premier Inn. The room was a perfectly fine kind of 2 or 3 star standard. But for A$180 a night (about £100) and given the amount of time we were spending there it was perfect.
We had planned to play 9 holes at the King Island Golf and Bowling Club in the evening, a 9 hole course which comes with many accolades. However, we were just too windswept and jetlagged to take the clubs out of the car. I was slightly ashamed of my falling at the second hurdle of my Twitter itinerary so kept the decision to myself! We had a wander up to the club and had a glass of wine in the clubhouse, overlooking the course. It definitely looked like the kind of place that warranted a game if you had longer. There were plenty of trees and bushes around (something we didn’t see much of elsewhere on the trip) but it looked in good nick and good fun to play.
We had a drink in the Social Club and John at the bar regaled us with stories of life on King Island. John was a guy in his early 50s who had been away from the island over the years but kept coming back - ‘it’s just that kind of place’. It is hard to imagine what a life would be like on an island of 2,000 people which is frequently battered by the elements and where the only way in and out is by plane. The pace of life is slower than many of us can comprehend, but John was clearly very happy with his lot and you could see why. The views were phenomenal and the people so friendly.
Apparently there were some mixed emotions when golf came to the island. It has brought plenty of visitors to the island and with them plenty of jobs. However, the rhythm of people’s lives has changed too. On balance, those we spoke to thought it was a good thing. We were told occasionally when a group of golf tourists have got out of hand they are quickly reminded that they are guests on the island and brought back in line!
After a stroll around the town (10 minutes max required) we headed for another drink in the pub/bookies at the hotel and then next door to Oleada for a lovely meal. Tripadvisor rarely lets me down and this place got the nod for the best food around. Fresh seafood, great steak, nice Tasmanian wine - all was good. By 10pm we were pretty beat (I had wisely lost touch with how many hours I had been awake for now and what the time was in Gullane) so headed to bed for the night. It was to be an early start the next day.
DAY 2/ROUNDS 2 & 3 - CAPE WICKHAM
The drive from Currie to Cape Wickham took us about 40 minutes and we had our first sightings of wallabies and kangaroos as we headed north to the top of the island. A bit like seeing an antelope on a safari in Africa, the first one was exciting but by the end of the trip we were taking these curious animals a little for granted. In many ways Australia seemed very familiar to our British eyes but these fellows gave us a good reminder we were a long way from home.
I had heard and read quite a lot about Cape Wickham. Darius Oliver, the golf course enthusiast and co-architect of the course, had contributed to my Top 10 Favourite Course series and I knew he believed that he had created something truly special. Others who had made the journey had also given me clues about what to expect but it is hard sometimes to see through the PR and puffery for the reality of what is to come.
Pictures and videos online can flatter many courses and I am sometimes skeptical about what to expect. However, we discovered one of the truly amazing places in golf. I will always smile when I think of Cape Wickham and can only talk about it with some awe in my voice. It is a truly phenomenal golfing experience.
As you walk down from the car park to the clubhouse the view is breathtaking. Before you, the 1st and 18th holes sweep around the cove. I am not sure I have ever seen a more spectacular setting for a clubhouse in golf.
Like Ocean Dunes, there is still no permanent clubhouse structure at Cape Wickham but, again like Ocean Dunes, the welcome was very warm. The manager, Rick, was a pleasure to talk to and his enthusiasm for the place shone through
We breakfasted very well indeed, read the warning about the snakes and strode up to the first hole. We were off at 8:30 and there were only a couple more groups out in the morning so we knew we would be able to get around at a good pace. Darius had strongly suggested that we played 36 holes here and already we were sure that was a good choice.
Almost everything about Cape Wickham was wonderful, and I can genuinely think of no criticism. The first tee has a literal cliff edge on the right but plenty of room too and it isn’t a scary shot. This is a classic course for being playable from the tee, but to really score you will need to put it in the right place. As a 14 handicapper, I love this. It means that I will get a few pars, plenty of bogies and few disasters. Having said that, the last 3 holes will test you off the tee for sure, with the water coming into play if you don’t hit it pretty straight!
The turf on the course is wonderful - it’s fescue from tee to green and while the ball doesn’t roll as a true links, the ball sits up beautifully and you can run the ball up the the greens. If you are in any doubt by now - this place is a joy to play.
I would find it very hard to pick out either a favourite hole or highlight of the round, such is the consistency. Tom Doak, in The Confidential Guide, says the 1st and 18th are two candidates for the strongest opening and closing holes in golf. The 9th is also a fantastic risk and reward par 5. Short enough to tempt many golfers into trying to get there in 2, but with a potential horror awaiting if you miss the narrow green, with tangly rough in the front and a cavernous drop through the back.
The finish along the coastline will take your breath away and the walk back from the hill to the clubhouse after 18 may be steep but you will have plenty to talk about.
One of my partners, Dave, made a really great comment as we walked off the course. He said ‘It’s everything Pebble Beach should be’ and that’s so true. Pebble has the drama and views at a handful of holes; here they are ever-present. If you were to get 100 people who had never heard of either course to play them both (this will not be easy to do!) I reckon Cape Wickham would be the overwhelming favourite.
I have awarded Cape Wickham a score of 19 on my ratings and (and I know this will be quite a controversial call) am putting it second, only behind St Andrews on my course rankings. I know, I know. Crazy talk. But go and have a look first before disagreeing!
After 18 glorious holes we came back for a lovely lunch. So high was I on the experience that I had a couple of glasses of wine. The combination of that and the jetlag meant that unfortunately my afternoon score dipped below my morning round. If you are coming here you simply must do 36 holes - especially as it’s only another $30 for the second round. This is a course you can score on (32 points for me in the morning) and you will feel challenged but not beaten up.
They have big plans at Cape Wickham. The course is under new ownership - a Vietnamese property conglomerate - and they are willing to invest. There are three main prongs to the future plans. Firstly, the clubhouse will be replaced with a permanent structure, the owners have been to Barnbougle for inspiration. Secondly, the accommodation on site (which has spectacular views but is fairly rudimentary) will be replaced with something more upmarket with the current structures re-purposed for staff accommodation. Thirdly, and most excitingly, the owners have bought a lot of land to the north and are looking at a potential second course.
The land there is apparently even more spectacular than the current course and many of the leading architects in the world (Doak and Hanse associates) have been to look at it. There are very few places left in the world that could compete with this real estate and the mind boggles if a course of the same quality as Cape Wickham could be constructed here.
The unspoken question though, is how on earth can they make it financially viable? This is a small island and the airport only allows for small aircraft from Melbourne to land. You would think that the surrounding infrastructure would need to expand to make it economically viable. Mike Keiser has shown what is possible with remote locations, and Barnbougle has thrived, but this would be testing the concept to the extreme.
I really hope that it does work out OK. Cape Wickham is a thing of wonder that needs to be seen and this isn’t a high-end US golf course, inaccessible to most. This is a public golf course which anyone can enjoy, 7 days a week.
I do worry about Ocean Dunes though. The owners have a very good golf course, but Cape Wickham just blows it out of the water. Conventional wisdom says if you are coming to the island it makes sense to play both. Given what they are up against though that may not be a given, and if Cape Wickham adds a second course then it may be an even harder call.
I hadn’t even been in the country for 36 hours but we had played 3 rounds and had some of the most amazing experiences ever on a golf course. Expectations of Barnbougle were high, but King Island was going to take some beating!
Onward from King Island
After our second round we got back in the car and headed to the airport. The joy of the charter flight was really apparent now. We were able to fly to Barnbougle Dunes as the sun was setting. The scheduled flight would have taken us to Launceston, an hour and a bit drive away from Barnbougle. Instead we landed on the property and in time for dinner looking over another bucket list course.
The flight was much smoother this time and the views over Barnbougle as we came into land whetted the appetite. Our initial impression of the resort was a little sullied by having to wait 45 minutes for the courtesy bus to find us on landing and take us to the hotel, but that was a minor irritation (and very first world problem, I know!). Tomorrow promised to be another special day!