Fergal O'Leary returns to the land down under

22 January 2017 Respond to this article

Fergal O’Leary returns to the land down under

A return journey to the Sandbelt highlights just how fortunate our Aussie friends are to have so many world-class golf courses in such close proximity. With various reciprocal relationships among the clubs, it promotes the opportunity to enjoy them all. With the rise of golf in Tasmania and on King Island, golf in Australia is arguably the hottest destination on the planet these days. After fifteen hours in the air, I was staring out the cabin window hoping our landing pattern would take us over the Sandbelt allowing my Google Earth research to come to life.

Royal Melbourne West course

Royal Melbourne (West) continues to be number one in the Australian rankings. This is due to the fabulous piece of land the holes sit on, but more so the genius of the green complexes. It certainly feels like the golfing cathedral of the southern hemisphere, armed with the ability to break a man’s heart as he begs for more. The course continually asks for heroic approach shots judged to perfection, or face almost impossible ups and downs to save par. It’s Australia’s toughest examination of your skill set.

Kingston Heath 5th hole

With that said, I developed a deeper love for Kingston Heath on this trip and was fortunate to play it on three occasions with various Pennant (interclub team scratch match play competition) level members. Although on a flatter piece of land, the strategy for ball placement is truly paramount in order to get the best angle into the greens. MacKenzie continually asks golfers to hit the ball as close to hazards/bunkers/doglegs as possible. Of all the golf courses in the Sandbelt, I would hands-down choose to play Kingston Heath the most. The simplicity of its creation married with the genius of the strategy to negotiate each hole, offers up what I consider to be the greatest course in Melbourne. No matter which way the wind blows, no two rounds are the same and this old lady deservedly wears a crown.

Victoria Golf Club

While the back nine at Victoria Golf Club has possibly the greatest collection of holes in the Sandbelt, it is sometimes let down by conditioning, especially on the greens. Victoria was my favourite course on my last trip to the Sandbelt and I jumped at the opportunity to play it again.

Some people knock it due to its back-to-back par five conclusion to each nine and the fact that three of the four par threes play uphill. Having played the course multiple times myself to establish my own independent perspective, you see something new every time. Admittedly, I did find that the 18th hole downwind is not an exciting or stimulating finishing hole. Furthermore, I continue to personally dislike the design of the greenside bunker on number 12, it’s very “un-Sandbelt like” and out of character with the rest of the bunkers on the property.

I will forever absolutely love the course and the clubhouse accommodation experience, and it’s only after playing it multiple times that you appreciate different aspects. The large strategic MacKenzie bunkering, mouth-watering rolling topography and impressive raised greensites continue to keep Victoria in the upper echelon of Sandbelt golf. Given the proximity of Royal Melbourne (West) to Victoria, if God ever combined the back nine at Victoria with the main paddock of Royal Melbourne, there wouldn’t be a better golf course known to man.

From a development perspective, the mouth-watering renovations at Peninsula Kingswood (in the Sandbelt) being undertaken by Michael Clayton and the construction of Cathedral Lodge Golf Club by Greg Norman, two hours north of the city, are just more reasons to get excited about world-class golf in Melbourne. I took a tour of Cathedral Lodge, and it looks like Ellerston has a rival.

The Barnbougle resort on mainland Tasmania proves that man will literally go to the end of the earth to find sand dunes worthy of championship golf. The popularity of the resort among both domestic and international golfers is certainly on the rise, especially with both Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm ranked comfortably in the Top 100 Golf Courses in the World. The onsite accommodation and an increasing number of airlines making the journey is a great foundation for an enjoyable golf trip. Then came King Island, also governed under Tasmania. A forty-minute flight from Melbourne across the Bass Strait introduces us to two more world-class golf courses. Like we needed another reason to travel to the bottom of the earth!

Ocean Dunes 13th hole

All 18 holes at Ocean Dunes were completed in June 2016. This coastal masterpiece was built by Graeme Grant, who has a decorated CV, including being head greenkeeper at Kingston Heath for 16 years. I had the pleasure of Graeme’s company for the trip – so his in-depth personal insights were wonderful.

Land down along the west coast of King Island is rugged, and the opening stretch of Ocean Dunes brings you straight out into the rocky action with ocean-pounding backdrops. There is no delay in exposing golfers to the magnificent violent coastline with dramatic changes in elevation, heroic carries over water and danger in all directions. The turf has a lot of maturing to do, and many dollars are needed to support the conditioning of the course. Given the land they had to deal with, and the rock that needed to be moved, this course was considerably more difficult to build than Cape Wickham. A tremendous amount has already been written about the glory of the golf course, but I focused heavily on the skill it took to merely construct the layout. Graeme lived onsite for three years, having to deal with extreme winds and brutal conditions. Fairways had to be planted multiple times, sacrifices had to be made in certain parts of the property. But I am of the opinion that Ocean Dunes certainly holds its weight architecturally with its neighbour up the coastline.

The infinity greens and fabulous short par fours were a delight to play. As with any dramatic coastal golf course, the holes along the water typically get all the attention. Admittedly, many of my favourite holes at Ocean Dunes were not immediately on the water. For example, the short uphill par four 13th hole plays up an enormous dune to a tiny infinity Biarritz style green. Its beauty will be etched in my memory forever. I had the benefit of getting a tour of the course from the air before we landed, and was fascinated with the contours of the land. It always helps when the pilot of a small airplane is a keen golfer.

Ocean Dunes 14th hole

Walking the course, you can see how Graeme found breath-taking green sites, which include a Biarritz, a large punchbowl, a short over water and a boomerang. It was disappointing that the final couple of holes don’t bring you back to the ocean for a vivid climax – instead you finish in an amphitheatre of dunes. It doesn’t require rocket science to work out from where they got the club name. It was clear that they had already used as much of the coastal land as they owned.

The largest and most immediate challenge for Ocean Dunes is funding. The course doesn’t yet have a clubhouse or onsite accommodation. Another current logistical challenge for the entire island is that the airport does not (yet) have refuelling capabilities for aircraft. Ocean Dunes club purchased a hotel in the nearby town of Currie, which I stayed at and thoroughly enjoyed. The Ocean Dunes ownership has a big challenge regarding onsite accommodations in order to stay above water financially. Furthermore, the current green keeping staff are poorly trained and not taking care of a number of the greens and tee boxes, especially those along the coast. Drainage issues have also impacted spots on certain fairways that have not been fixed properly. Filling in patchy areas with sand is not the agronomic solution. However, the bones of this layout are glorious and with investment to help with conditioning, the sky is the limit for this infant course.

The property at Cape Wickham was the number one choice on King Island for golf developers. Mike deVries, with input from Darius Oliver, serve golfers from the same menu by launching into the dramatic coastal holes. The fairways are generous and the fun is endless. Play it on a typical windy day and you’ll certainly have your hands full. On both nines, there are holes with forced carries off the tee, which won’t suit every level of player as this makes a number of holes unplayable due to the strong winds. This was my main issue with the course. The course and coastline are so beautiful, that you need to play here multiple times just so you can concentrate on the architecture. After the mind-blowing opening stretch, the course begins to move inland with plenty of raised greens and wonderful contours. Cape Wickham will overload your imagination like nowhere else, as it’s a guessing game as to how the ball will react once it lands.

Cape Wickham 11th hole

Holes 9 through 12 are the best stretch, despite how good the opening introductory holes are. The 9th is a double-dogleg par five to a perched green, the 10th is straight downhill to an ocean-side green, 11th is a mind-blowing par three playing over the rugged coastline and the 12th is a short cape hole that wraps along a cliff-edge to an exposed green. You have to see it to believe it. I travel the world to see golf like this. The 13th is an inland par five that actually brings you back to the clubhouse, before you migrate to the other side of the property next to the iconic lighthouse.

The view from the 14th tee highlighted a difference in my mind between Cape Wickham and Ocean Dunes. Many of the holes at Cape Wickham were sitting on the land and could be visualized a little easier. The cambered fairways, the greensites and even the positioning of the tee-boxes are all there for the taking. Ocean Dunes, I felt, was a much more difficult project. Cape Wickham certainly has a cracking closing stretch with one epic hole after the next. The par four 16th is a fabulous short hole touching the water’s edge and gives you glimpse of the final two holes ahead of you.

Cape Wickham 18th hole

The 17th is a downhill glorious par three, giving players plenty of tee-boxes to choose from. The waves crashing into the shoreline just add to the excitement. The tee-shot on 18th across the body of water to a diagonal fairway will be on every postcard home. It’s truly a roller coaster golf course that offers more fun than you could ever expect. The course also has the benefit of superior conditioning and beautiful playing surfaces thanks to the owner's solid financial structure. Overall, I rate Cape Wickham higher than Ocean Dunes, but only by a whisker. The golfing public need to give Ocean Dunes a chance to mature and appreciate how impressive the layout is. I just hope you like small airplanes and don’t mind being asked how much you weigh boarding an aircraft. Yes, that’s the joy of King Island Airlines.

The Australian Golf Club

Heading North up the eastern coastline, golf in the Sydney area doesn’t have the same level of attraction as that of Melbourne or Tasmania. I did play The Australian Golf Club and made a welcome return journey to New South Wales Golf Club. The Australian is a prestigious club with a pleasant golf course. Water comes into play on at least nine holes, but it’s still an easy walk on a relativity tame piece of land with little to no traces of Alister MacKenzie’s original design. We all know that Jack got his hands on this place 30+ years ago and the writing was on the wall from then on. I can’t imagine rushing back from an architecture perspective, but for general member play or if looking for a good game while in the area, it’s certainly a great day out. One peculiarity I’ll mention was that none of the ladies’ apparel in the pro-shop has the club logo, as apparently the lady members don’t like the logo on their clothes. Make sure your wife knows this in advance.

New South Wales Golf Club is so good that even members of the Sandbelt courses give it praise. While discussing various Australian cities and giving compliments to somewhere other than your hometown, I laughed when one of my Melbourne mates said, “it’s just not the done thing, it’s like going to Sydney and admitting that you liked it”. The routing at New South Wales is jaw dropping, and MacKenzie certainly took advantage of the La Perouse coastline.

New South Wales 6th hole

Much has been written regarding the downhill approach shot into the par five 5th hole and with good reason, because it is among the top 20 long holes in golf. Heartbreakingly, I learned that the public walkways between the 5th and 6th holes are forcing the relocation of the world famous par three 6th green, which will move 30 metres away from the position it has occupied for the past 90 years. The greensite is now deemed a health and safety risk to the public. The clubhouse has explanations of the legal situation pinned up on the walls, accompanied by drawings of the proposed new tee box and green locations. This is very sad in my humble opinion, but unfortunately craziness like this is too common in today’s world. Little do the protestors realise what they are doing to one of the most photographed par threes in Australia.

I still maintain that holes 11 to 17 at New South Wales are the toughest closing holes of any back-nine you’ll play in Australia. The last hole is a bit pedestrian, but with additional bunkers, the hole is much more commendable than in the past. It would be fantastic if more professional events were played at NSW, rather than insisting we watch Royal Sydney or the Lakes on TV late at night! I just hope that the character of the 6th hole will be maintained and the dramatic tee shot from that rugged piece of exposed rock will continue to win the hearts of golfers from all over the world.

Moving east across the Tasman Sea lands you on the North Island of gorgeous New Zealand. The most celebrated architects of today’s golfing world do not let distance hold them back from creating a masterpiece on a fitting piece of land. In the past ten years, we’ve seen the introduction of Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs, and with the addition of the spectacular Tara Iti, two hours north of Auckland, the talents of Tom Doak have no end in sight.

With the backing of financial powerhouse, Ric Kayne, Tara Iti Golf Club has burst onto the golfing map with emphatic fanfare and exclusivity. The history behind where the club got its name from is intriguing. The New Zealand fairy tern, also known as the Tara-Iti in Maori native language, is a small tern which breeds on the lower half of the Northland Peninsula of the North Island. It is the smallest tern breeding in New Zealand and is a subspecies of the fairy tern. There are only forty fairy terns left in existence and they are all based at the far end of the golf property. The golf club has dedicated its name and logo to this rare bird.

Tara Iti 17th hole

The land on which the golf course is routed was once a dense forest along the Te Arai coastline and the trees were growing over magnificent sand dunes. The most difficult aspect during construction was the removal of tens of thousands of tree stumps. The result was a wide expansive area of sand perfect for golf.

Ric Kayne commissioned Tom Doak to create the layout, which is fun for all levels of golfer. The visuals throughout the course in all directions are those of large sprawling sand areas, often negatively affected by the strength of the gusty winds. There are rippling contours with humps and bumps to ensure you have a wonderful walk.

My main gripe with the layout is that the visuals throughout the course get repetitive, leading to a lack of approach shot variety. Despite the visual intimidation and deception, it’s almost impossible to lose a ball which helps with pace of play. The ‘ground-game’ is paramount at Tara Iti as you continually use the rolling tumbling topography to navigate your ball towards the flagstick – it reminds you of The Old Course. The coastal scenery is without doubt spectacular, but the real prize is the genius of Tom Doak and his use of the land.

This is a very private club with the routing permitting a view of the ocean on all 18 holes, as it meanders through natural dunes. It’s a true seaside golf experience with fescue grass from tee to green, and although there is sand as far as the eye can see, there are no official bunkers. An important note is how playable it is for all levels, which is a major plus in my book. My wife, a beginner, said it was the most enjoyment she’s ever had on a course. The layout is all about having fun, playing quirky imaginative shots and enjoying this private retreat.

Tara Iti 18th hole

Highlights for me include the short par fours at the 4th and 7th holes which test the limits of your course management, and also the remarkable 11th and 12th holes, which run parallel to each other – Doak has christened them as his “Par 9”. The 11th is a par five and the 12th is a par four, however depending on the direction of the wind, the par of the holes will flip. The overall expectation is that nine strokes will be taken on these two holes on any given day. Rumour has it that Doak has wanted to implement this design for a long time. It reminded me of his unique concept at The Loop.

Additionally, I did cherish the par threes at #15 and #17 that hug the coastline and emphasize Doak’s skill to find incredible greensites – the course shaping team were the best that money can buy. Everything at Tara Iti is world class – including the course conditioning, the accommodations, the chef, the hospitality and certainly the handpicked members. In addition to the golf on King Island, this Oceania region of the world now has a third candidate that will surge into the Top 100 world rankings.

Jack's Point 7th hole

While the North Island has by far the superior golf, the South Island gifts us with a snow-capped mountainous landscape of Hollywood proportions. Sitting at the base of Queenstown mountain range known as “The Remarkables”, the South Island showcases some commendable golf courses too. Jack’s Point, designed by John Darby, will be the most awe-inspiring course you’ll ever play. People will look at photographs and think it’s fake, but it’s really that perfect. You’re essentially playing golf in a Lord of the Rings movie set. Your head will be on a swivel looking at the enormous mountains that tower over you and Lake Wakatipu. It’s arguably the most sensational, almost surreal, setting for a golf course. Thankfully the layout is pretty good too! Along with dinner at ‘Fergburger’, Jack’s Point must be on every golfer’s wish list while visiting bustling Queenstown.

Arrowtown Golf Club

The jewel in the South Island’s crown from a golfing perspective is Arrowtown Golf Club. It’s a short bundle of fun that flies under the radar of its more famous neighbours: The Hills and Millbrook Resort. After Tara Iti and Paraparaumu Beach, I confidently hold Arrowtown in my top 3 favourite courses to play in New Zealand.

Despite its short length, the tight fairways and seemingly unbelievable landing areas, this mountainous terrain will get your heart racing. It’s the type of golf course where you’d love to learn the game and can’t wait to step back onto the 1st tee.

Article and photos by Fergal O’Leary