OCEAN DUNES GOLF COURSE - 17 POINTS
Lying a short flight from Melbourne is the tiny King Island - with a population of just 2,000 and two of Australia’s very best golf courses, Ocean Dunes and Cape Wickham.
Inspired by the success of Barnbougle Dunes, the owners of Ocean Dunes and Cape Wickham are both hoping to turn King Island into one of the southern hemisphere’s ‘must play locations’.
Ocean Dunes is, in many ways, a very good golf course and there is plenty to celebrate. However, comparisons with its neighbour, Cape Wickham, are unavoidable and unfortunate. The course is a very good attempt at a modern day links course but it has some challenges that it will find very difficult to overcome.
There is so much good here. The first 4 holes have amazing ocean-set greens and dramatic approaches that will make you gasp in awe. The holes that take you inland seem to be a disappointment for many of the critics, but I think that this is a little unfair. No-one complains when the same happens at Turnberry for example, and on some of the other greatest links courses in the world you can’t even see the sea.
When the course decides to give itself a little width, it becomes joyous. One of the highlights of the course for me was the beginning of the back nine where it opens up a little and allows you to try to find the right line to the green, rather than just find your ball.
The back nine is of a very high standard and I’m sure with more benign weather we would have enjoyed it more. This is definitely one of the most spectacular courses I have played; the par 3s on the back nine were phenomenal and there were some wonderfully imaginative, short par 4s.
The course was really well presented. Some apparently don’t like the brown fairways caused by the hot summer, but this was a selling point for me. The greens have some quite formidable undulations in parts and as such the greens were around 9 on the stimp. They rarely get above 10 which would be unplayable. For me, neither of these things are issues at all but they may bother those who like their golf as close to the PGA Tour standard as possible.
The golf course is spread over a very large area. It has some dramatic holes on the ocean but perhaps they have tried to maximise these views to the detriment of the golfing experience. Some of the walks from green to tee are just unacceptable for the walking golfer. On several occasions you are faced with a walk of over 500 yards to get to the next tee box. This means you will have a disjointed experience, and is too contrived for it to become a truly great course. A cart is near essential and that will never be a recipe for success. This problem is most acutely felt between the 11th and 12th where you will walk the length of a whole par 5 from green to tee.
While the routing is cumbersome, the main concern I had with Ocean Dunes was the punishing nature of the rough. It was simply unplayable. There were times that our group would miss a green by a couple of paces and the ball was lost. We were told that because of the snakes there was a local rule in place to to just drop one down for a penalty stroke. While the reason may have been valid, the fact is you would never find the ball there anyway. They desperately need to find a way to create a transition from the fairway to the rough to make this a more playable course. Without that they will simply get a reputation as a course so difficult, the fun gets sucked out of you.
This is only compounded by the wind that so often will buffet and bully you here. We played in an excessive (but not unusual) 40 kmph wind. That meant that, at times, the ball would sail away from the pin and rather than find a run-out area, it would be lost. It is easy to winge about this not being fair, and some would say just don’t hit it there, but it certainly takes some of the fun out of a round.
The significant number of blind approaches and surprises that await can confound the first time visitor and not many people are going to have the luxury of playing this course so many times that they will know it like the back of their hand.
I fear Ocean Dunes will suffer unless it deals with some of its fundamental flaws. They need to tell people, although it is the antithesis of what I enjoy, that this is simply not a walking course. Admit that you chose to spread the course over a mammoth area and deal with it. Secondly, sort out the rough so the average golfer doesn’t leave with their tail too far between their legs.
Golfers will come to King Island because of the majesty of Cape Wickham. Ocean Dunes should be a natural second course to play but, at the moment, I don’t think that’s a given. It seems to me to be crying out for an architect to make it accessible to the leisure golfer. For it is these golfers who will determine the success of the project. Around 70% of golfing visitors to the island make it to Ocean Dunes but there is a risk that that number will dwindle and the business model will sink if word gets around that it is too punishing. Their are only a few thousand rounds a year being played on the course and that’s just not sustainable. When we were playing, midweek in March, there were only three other groups on the tee sheet and two of them had cancelled because of the wind.
The property has been up for sale for some time and there is quite a lot still to finish. The clubhouse isn’t built, there is no strokesaver (which is vital to the punters’ enjoyment on some holes) and some of the paths and waste areas need attention. I really hope they get the investment they need to develop the course to the next stage. The passion and enthusiasm of those who run the pro shop and restaurant really came through and they are a credit to the place. This is a good golf course, but to compete with Cape Wickham down the road it will need to take it up another level.
BOOKING THE COURSE
They are keen to welcome visitors at Ocean Dunes and given this is a course really just set up for guest play (and pretty darn inaccessible!) you should have no problem getting a tee time any day of the week. The Melbourne courses can be much harder to play at the weekends so this is an obvious time to make a visit.
You’ll find plenty of details on the website here regarding green fees (A$230, or roughly £125 at time of writing). To book, I sent them an email and they responded straight away. A good service! Look out on the website for some good offers combining accommodation, car hire and a round at Cape Wickham.
The only way to get to King Island is to fly from Melbourne. We did that with Vortex Air - a charter company who then took us directly to Barnbougle Dunes - but there are other (and cheaper) options with Rex Airline and Sharp. If you book well enough in advance you can get return flights for around A$300 (£160). It’s only an hour away from Melbourne, although if little planes which shake a lot in the wind aren’t your thing you are in trouble as there is no other way onto the island.
We picked up a hire car at the airport from the welcoming and efficient King Island Car Rentals. We paid $100 a day (about £60) for a perfectly serviceable Mitsubishi Overlander that did the job just fine.
Ocean Dunes is right next to the airport and 5 minutes from the thriving metropolis that is Currie. The island has 2,000 residents and about half of them are in Currie which has a couple of hotel options. We stayed at the King Island Hotel, owned by the same people as the golf course - expect 3 star motel standard and a warm welcome.
Be aware that when you land on the island your clubs and shoes will be inspected for grass and dirt on them and you will be asked to clean them if there is much on them - they are trying to protect the grasses on the island.
For evening entertainment we had a walk to the King Island Golf & Bowling Club. There’s a little 9 holer here (although we decided it was too windy and we were too tired to head out) and wonderful views from the terrace towards the ocean.
We had a lovely meal at the Oleada restaurant (it’s pretty small so I would advise booking).
It’s about a 45 minute drive north to Cape Wickham and the joys that await you there. From there, if you are heading to Barnbougle, there are daily flights to Launceston on Tasmania.
You can read more about my visit to Australia on my blog here.
Phone: +61 3 6462 1633