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Fergal visits the land down under

27 April, 2014

Fergal visits the land down under

Fergal continues his quest to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. His latest stop was Australia

New South Wales
Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed this course just south of Sydney in a place called La Perouse, which is a sand-dune peninsula overlooking Botany Bay. The land that the course is built on remains within the boundaries of Botany Bay National Park, and certain modifications to the course still have to go through the Park council. The present suburb of La Perouse was named after Comte Jean Francois de Galoup La Perouse as this was where the last recorded sighting of him and his ships occurred. On 29th April 1770, Captain Cook dropped anchor just inside the headlands on the southern shore of Botany Bay. In seeking to replenish his water supply, he was unable to locate fresh water on the south side of the bay, so he dispatched a boat to the northern shores where suitable fresh water was located in “Captain Cooks Waterhole”. This is located about 200 meters below the 17th tee and is still visible more than 200 years later. In addition to the great history that surrounds the location of this golf course, the architect who laid out the 18 holes is no stranger to carving his own name in golfing history either.

Much has been written about the condition of this course, and I’d like to make a few comments about the strategy that it entails. As with all other original MacKenzie layouts, length is not the requirement. The third hole is 410 yards, but a 90-degree dogleg left. From the back tee, it’s a blind tee shot over a hill, with just a small opening in the horizon to suggest that there’s actually a fairway out there. Upon climbing over the hill, you’re faced with an uphill approach shot to raised green with a huge fall off on each side. Every ounce of skill you have is constantly being tested. The crescendo on the front side is the world famous 5th and 6th holes. The view from the crest of the 5th fairway down the hill to the green with nothing but the Pacific Ocean adjoining the putting surface will render you speechless. Follow that up with a 210-yard par three over the ocean from the rocky peninsula, and the blueprint of Cypress Point basically surrounds you. 5 and 6 could well be the best back-to-back holes I’ve played.

There are times on the golf course where you feel like it’s a little too wide open. I remember getting that impression when I realised that the 4th, the 8th and the 12th play parallel to each other and you wouldn’t get punished if you sprayed the ball wildly in any direction. Similar feeling with the 9th, 10th and 18th running parallel, almost losing definition between fairways and plenty of room for error off the tee. The toughest stretch of this golf course begins on the 13th tee box. Everything tightens up as the holes are tree lined, some of which offer well defined doglegs across rolling terrain. There’s no playing out under trees or chipping out side-ways. If you miss the fairway, then re-load. The 14th is just 360 yards, but has the trademark forced carry to a sharply pitched fairway which kicks the ball hard from right to left, and the green is a small target at the top of the hill. Your depth perception is tested off the tee at New South Wales and choice off the tee becomes paramount on the back nine due to the forced carries and doglegs to consider. The 15th and 16th are the index 1 and 3 respectively and severely punish any drive which doesn’t land in the small landing areas. The 15th is a blind drive over a hill to hole that moves from right to left. This is then following by the 16th hole (I personally thought should be index 1) which is a dogleg left with a corridor of trees down to one small putting surface guarded by three menacing bunkers on the left side of the green. These holes into a stiff breeze are almost unreachable in regulation for most golfers. The brilliance of MacKenzie’s design is that he tricks you into thinking that you can carry bunkers, hazards and vegetation, when in fact you’re just a sitting duck waiting to get gobbled up. You cross the sand-wasteland of the par three 17th and set off down the par five 18th back to the clubhouse 560 yards away. The hazards are so well placed that the risk of taking driver frequently convinces you to throttle back and play the hole like the architect wanted it to be played almost 100 years ago. Marvellous hospitality and one of the greatest strategic tests of skill you can experience.

Royal Adelaide
When you arrive at the club, you quickly feel like you belong there. It’s palpable how the members are proud of their club and its history. With such a low-key nature to the club, I quickly felt at home and all visitors are made extraordinarily welcome. With a rich history of hosting the Australian amateur championship and Australian open championships, this Alister MacKenzie layout has a lot going for it. The novelty of having an active train line running through the course didn’t disappoint as the train shuffled its way through the course on a number of occasions during our round. If only the passengers on that train were aware of how historic that stretch of railroad ties were that meandered through the golf course. When Dr. MacKenzie visited the club during the Golden Age, he re-routed many of the holes to take advantage of the natural sand dunes, much to the delight of the golfing population.

The short 3rd hole, barely 300 yards from the tips, is arguably amongst the short-list of greatest par fours in the world without a bunker and is your first experience of playing through the dunes. The wise man will leave the driver in the bag. During the Open, the club grew the rough up along the dunes surrounding the green, which wreaks havoc with even the slightest of wayward tee shots. An honourable mention goes for the tee shot on number 4, the tee box was lowered and you play back through the dunes over a hill through a corridor of tall trees, with the landing area nowhere to be seen. It is quite a striking visual compared to the openness of so many other tee shots. On the front side, the 4th through the 6th are a very tough stretch of long par fours, especially the 6th hole, tipping out at 440 yards. With a wind in our faces, and a back pin, even the best of players would be proud to hit this green in regulation. Tom Doak has been working on a number of holes at Royal Adelaide over the past year. On the 6th hole, which mostly runs parallel to number 4, he joined a portion of the two fairways together so it’s one larger apron. Furthermore, there used to be a large bunker on the right side of number 6, which has now been filled in per consultation with Tom and his team. It was interesting to see old photographs of the 6th hole in the clubhouse to witness how it has evolved over time. In addition to number 3, the other signature hole on the front side is the spectacular par three 7th hole. The front of the green is surrounded by a ring of pot bunkers which is an impressive sight. The new blue tee is lower and back to the left of the old tee box, offering a new view of the hole over the sandy wasteland.

As with every MacKenzie layout, length is not a requirement. He’ll test your skill and feel for distance until the cows come home. Bring your imagination to Royal Adelaide. The only hole that has a name (and it’s going to stay that way!) is the 11th hole, known cordially amongst the membership as “The Crater Hole”. Although the property appears relatively flat, you’ll find a number of holes where you can’t see the landing area or the green from the tee box. The gentle rise in the land up the 11th fairway is one such example. The sandy wasteland is never too far away from you, no matter where you are. The 11th green is surrounded by huge sand dunes, which used to have many trees that have recently been cut down to restore the hole to its original look. There is a large landscape photograph on the wall outside the pro-shop showing the Crater hole back in the 1930s, which you can’t miss upon arrival. It’s almost as memorable as the famous BBQ sausage you get before you tee off on the 12th! There’s something so pleasing about hearing a man with an Australian accent asking “can you smell the Barbie?” as you walk away from the Crater. It just feels so right. The subtly of Royal Adelaide is what makes it so tough. Trying to hold the 220-yard green on the 12th bewilders golfers, trying to hit the 13th in regulation and make birdie was the hardest challenge for the professionals when the Open last visited, and trying to even make a par on the brutally tough 14th hole will be the reason why it will stay the number 1 stroke hole forever into the future. You cross the train tracks again walking up the 14th as you hit the home stretch. The whole experience at Royal Adelaide reminded me of Ganton, due to its simple nature, its world-class challenge and its eternal legacy for epic architecture sitting gracefully on God’s green earth. It’s the type of place where modern day architects come to learn what greatness is all about. The routing through the sand dunes was key to elevating the course to the upper echelon of golf course strategy and design.

I had the great honour of being the first golfer ever to play the newly designed 17th hole at Royal Adelaide Golf Club. As the guest of the Club President and Captain, and as part of my Top 100 course review, they asked the Superintendent to cut a hole in the green. The history lesson they gave me while standing on the tee box included insight into how the previous version of the hole was famously disliked by the membership and didn't fit with the rest of this fabled layout. With the entire rough cut away from either side of the fairway littered with new grass seed, and still behind the ropes, your attention is brought to the eye-catching bunker complex up the middle of the untouched fairway. The two front bunkers split the fairway and are very well positioned in the landing zone. This hole measures 440 yards from the tips and you immediately have to make a decision to go left or right off the tee. The left side of the fairway is slightly higher than the right side, and with a strengthening wind in my face, I struck the ball up the right fairway. As we walked down the short grass together, the turf around the bunkers was newly sodded and marked as GUR. I noticed a carefully shaped speed-slot down the left side of the fairway, which I hope that golfers will take advantage of – only if you can hit it far enough! The right side is tighter, but potentially more rewarding. If you hit the ball into a fairway bunker, you'll have to hit a career shot to make it on the green, otherwise, you'll be chipping out and then faced with a 165-yard approach shot. Architecturally, the hole now offers bunkers that fit with the rest of the sand-traps around the property; especially the three bunkers located five paces behind the back of the green which reduce the "noise" around the putting surface. They frame the hole so well, and I doubt will get much use, but still very effective. Dr. MacKenzie was the expert at designing bunkers to frame a hole and give challenging perspective for your next shot. The bunkers behind the 17th serve that exact purpose. Most noticeably, a huge chipping apron surrounds the subtle green. This feature is noticeable from down the fairway, as the architect has given players of all abilities the option to run the ball onto the green. Despite the vicious looking new bunkers positioned front-right of the green, there is still an element of fair play as the left side of the green is accessible. You can't see the entire green surface from the fairway, and even though they placed the flag in the centre of the green, to the naive golfer, it looks like there is no room right of the flag and the putting surface appears to be the size of your kitchen table. Once again, you have a decision to make which I really enjoyed. Many of the approach shots at RAGC are played along the ground, and this spirit is incorporated into the new 17th hole. After we finished the hole, the Captain asked the Superintendent to remove the flag and fill in the hole – to the entertainment of the members on the surrounding fairways. After our round, the new 17th hole was the talk of the clubhouse and has been fabulously received by the membership. Once the grass matures and binds together, this hole will be as legendary as the architects who have put their stamp on the land. It was a real honour to be the first golfer to play this new hole and I am excited for its future.

Although the course remains in the rotation for the Open, due to its location and lack of proximity to large-scale hotels and infrastructure, the Australian PGA gives annual preference to the clubs in Victoria and New South Wales. We can always keep our fingers crossed that they will once again invite the professionals back to Adelaide sooner rather than later.

Barnbougle Lost Farm
If you’re interested in golfing at the end of the earth and spending a weekend with kangaroos, then book a flight to Launceston and make your way up to Bridport, Tasmania. Upon reaching the resort, you follow a 4km dirt road to the clubhouse at Lost Farm. It’s a surreal feeling when you make it there due to the staggering distance and effort it takes to travel. As expected, it’s a pretty quiet place with 20 links holes (yes, 20, they took a leaf out of Pat Ruddy’s book and made two additional short par threes) on a tract of land between the Tasman Sea and useful arable farming ground. The spa and restaurant are on the highest piece of land on a perch which offers spectacular views of the course and surrounding ocean. When Bill Coore set out to make the second course at Barnbougle, one of his guiding principles was to make it more playable than the Dunes course, which is definitely the tougher challenge. Lost Farm is a big golf course with big fairways and big greens. Even the kangaroos have a hard time finding a place to hide.

The opening stretch is a birdie fest with a reachable par five opener, followed by 330 and 280 par fours respectively. Coore does design spectacular par threes, and keeping with the spirit of keeping the course playable and fun, most of the six par threes are wedge/9 iron yardage for a scratch golfer playing from the tips. The 15th is a longer par three (on paper), but it plays downhill into a punchbowl green, which again helps the player knock it close. On the front side, the standout hole is the 490-yard par four 5th hole (index 1) with a semi-blind tee shot and an enormous spine working diagonally across the fairway with a dogleg from left to right rising gently up to the deep green. It’s a rude awakening compared to the opening four holes, which are pretty much a doddle. Coore keeps the golfers on their toes with the 440-yard par four 7th, which almost presents a split fairway due to a huge mound feature in the middle of the landing zone. Make sure you take a look at it from a few angles and consider if it reminds you of the 17th hole at Cruden Bay. The 600 yards par five 8th hole continues the theme of blind approach shots and rolling terrain. Despite the distances, the golf course is huge and does everything it can to keep your ball in play and move things along.

The back nine opens with another straight away 600-yard par five, followed by what I personally thought was the most unusual hole on the property. When you’re in the pro-shop, the pro coaches you on the blind tee shot on the 5th and the 11th holes. As I stood on the 11th tee, I could see my target in the background over the hill as he had advised me. It’s a testing tee shot as it visually pinches and requires a pretty accurate tee shot. As I reached the crest of the hill, I felt like the hole lost its character. After the challenge of the tee shot, you’re once again back to the feeling of huge expansive space as the enormous fairway meanders down the huge green. Just as I was thinking the course would toughen up, you could continue to muddle your way around this isolated farm. My favourite holes at Lost Farm were just around the corner. The 13th hole is a dogleg left and plays between huge sand dunes that wrap around the fairway. They frame the hole so well and the natural setting is world class. I struck my 1 iron off the tee with a slight draw and watched the ball trundle down the fairway. If there’s one thing you do have to consider on this big golf course, it’s that the ground is really firm and if you smack a driver on a dogleg, then even Skippy the bush kangaroo hasn’t a hope of finding it. The approach shot reminded me of home, so I took out a 6 iron from 100 yards and played the traditional ‘bump & run’ shot along the ground onto the green. The shots you can play at Lost Farm echo the fabled stories of Barnbougle Castle on the Firth of Forth, with Edinburgh in the distance. It’s ironic that Barnbougle is generally accepted to mean “wind warning”. I know that this course can turn nasty at a moment’s notice; however, on the day I played it, it was a far cry from a Tasmanian devil. “13a” is the name given to the 134-yard par three which is cut magnificently out of the side of a sand dune. Top notch work by Bill Coore and his team for finding this hidden gem, and believe me, the height of the surrounding sand dunes do their very best to keep this hole hidden. The signature hole on the back side is number 14. It’s a 300-yard downhill par four through a v-shaped valley of encroaching dunes with the Tasman Sea in the background. You lick your chops standing on the tee as your mind tells you to lay up, but your hand is already taking off the driver head-cover. This is one of those times in golf when you debate “I may never be here again”. After the 18th green, you have the option of playing the short par three “18a” hole to settle those bets and welcome you back to the house.

It made perfect sense to build a second golf course at this venue, and further validates the rational for making the long journey. I know many publications have this course ranked in the World Top 100, but I question the rationale, especially when I see the class of courses ranked below it. With that said, if I never spend a day with golfing with kangaroos again, I might actually be disappointed. Fun stuff down under.

Barnbougle Dunes
In 2004, golf on Tasmania had a whole new meaning. Since it burst into the rankings in 2005, it has stayed in the world top 50 for good reason. It’s been well documented that the farmer who owned the land couldn’t grow crops on the sand dunes throughout the links land, so he decided to sell the land to the delight of the golfing community. I believe he’s the only “member” at this resort to this day. Over the past few years of playing the Top 100 golf courses in the world, there are always certain venues that stick out as being a mammoth journey. Barnbougle Dunes is definitely on that short list. While driving through the front gates, it really started to sink in that I was there and it was about to become a reality. I still look at the world map and smile when I think of the effort it takes to get to Barnbougle – from anywhere!

The staff are so friendly, the banter in the small clubhouse is always present, the cottages are simple as life goes on day by day without a care in the world. The club takes a minimalistic approach to its facilities, locker room and dining – which is perfectly fitting for the location. It’s the type of place where you show up an hour after the kitchen closes, and they’ll still make you a toasted sandwich to avoid you going to bed hungry. The employees are really down to earth, delighted to meet you and everything is really informal with no frills. Just the way it should be. Try to imagine Sand Hills just with kangaroos and wallabies hopping around the fairways.

Tom Doak designed this Tasmanian masterpiece and opens up the golf course with a 560-yard par five. Having played Lost Farm before the Dunes, I could even tell as soon as the 2nd hole on the Dunes course that it was going to be tougher and a lot more demanding on accuracy and skill. Time to put your thinking cap on. The 3rd hole is a dogleg right with a blind tee-shot over the dunes; you can bite off as much as your nerves will allow you to. The 4th hole is just 300 yards, but magnificently cut out of the enormous 100-foot sand dunes to a raised punchbowl green. This was one of my favourite greens as the short-game imagination is on over-load trying to figure out how to play your approach shot. For those who take the risk of going for the green, the results could be awful. On this golf course, danger is all around you and will exploit weaknesses in a heartbeat. The signature hole on the front side is the mouth-watering par three 7th hole. At just 120 yards, the putting surface is slightly bigger than your dining room table with bunkers the size of your house 15 feet deep below the green. If you miss the green, you’ve a great chance of seeing grown men cry. If this hole had a name, it would be called “Tom’s Terror”. The 8th and 9th holes are long par fours that bring you back to the clubhouse. The par four 8th hole gets an honourable mention. This beast represents 495 yards (index 1) with a huge mound splitting the fairway requiring golfers to decide which route they’ll take off the tee and an elevated green that repels balls at its convenience. It’s tight, it’s tough and emphasizes that this is a championship golf course.

The back nine starts off where the front nine left off, with a 460-yard par four to an elevated green surrounded by a large bunker complex on either side. The 11th is a 510-yard par five, which on face value seems like a birdie opportunity, but with two forced carries and a pinching landing area off the tee, suddenly the hole feels a lot longer. On the back-side the short 285-yard 12th is most people’s favourite. It’s a raised fairway that moves gently to the right. There is a bunker in your line of side to the green which suggests you throttle back and play it down the left, leaving you with the bump and run approach shot option. It’s a great strategic short hole amongst the giants that surrounds it. After the long 14th hole, you finally turn around and play the last four holes along the Great Forester River back home to the clubhouse. A number of alternative teeing grounds were built on each hole to ensure the course is playable in all weather conditions and to give golfer constant variety – a trademark move by Tom Doak.

As your round progresses, you aggregate the toughness of this layout with the simplicity of its natural creation. The crater like bunkers with their rustic look were simply dug out of the sand-dunes and look like they have stood the test of time from one century to the next. This is the Pacific Dunes of Australia, with the exception that you don’t have families of kangaroos skipping around Oregon. There is a consistent feel that the greens are just a simple continuation of the fairways, with plenty of humps and bumps along the way to uphold the spirit of how this game is played along the ground. The routing of the entire 18 holes resembles the figure eight, which was superbly done as the prevailing wind is from the northwest and holes have been designed with this in mind. Pack your bags and make the trip.

Article written and photos courtesy of our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World.


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