The world's best 36 hole day?

The world's best 36 hole day?
By KM

With construction coming to a close, Adam Lawrence takes a first look at Lost Farm, the new course at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania.

Australian golf was shaped by one man in one visit. Dr Alister MacKenzie’s two month stay in the country towards the end of 1926 is unarguably the most productive sixty-odd days in the history of golf design. In that time, MacKenzie not only laid the foundations for world-class courses at Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath and New South Wales; he set the country’s mindset as to what a good golf course should look like. The result is that Australia has arguably the highest ratio of good to bad courses of any country in the world, but also the most homogenous. Take a look at listings of Australia’s best course: nowhere else has one man had such a role.

Now, though, Australian golf is embracing a different style. True, links golf has been an important influence on the country: the Melbourne sandbelt may not be right by the sea, but the firm turf and abundant micro-undulation of Kingston Heath, for example, is not unlike a warm weather version of several older UK links without big dunes. Across the water in Tasmania, though, and now Australia’s third ranked course, Tom Doak and Mike Clayton’s 2004 design at Barnbougle Dunes is a beast of a very different shade.

Barnbougle, first envisaged by local golf enthusiast Greg Ramsay and brought to fruition by landowner Richard Sattler, with help from the visionary American developer Mike Keiser, has provided Australian golfers with a very different experience from the MacKenzie-derived courses that dominate elsewhere in the country. It is one of the world’s great new links; voted the thirty-fifth best course in the world by Golf magazine only a couple of years after opening. Holes such as the amazing short two-shot fourth, with its L-shaped green protected by a huge dune, on which the best line off the tee can vary by up to 80 metres depending on the position of the flagstick, the tiny par three seventh and the wonderful twelfth would grace any links, anywhere. Sattler, whose ‘dumb spud farmer’ act, as he refers to it, conceals a sharp operator, has created a mini-resort where quality is everywhere it matters. There is brilliant food and drink, great golf and simple, but perfect accommodation in cabins designed to mimic Melbourne’s famous Brighton beach huts; yet the feeling of unnecessary, wasteful luxury so common at golf resorts elsewhere – staff to take your bag out of the car being the most obvious example – is absent. At A$98 (that’s US$86 or £54) a round, Barnbougle is one of golf’s greatest bargains.

Soon, though, it will get better still. The US design firm of Coore and Crenshaw, creators of Sand Hills in Nebraska, generally acknowledged to be the starting point of the current revival of classic golf, has just about finished the construction of a second course. And, without doubt, it will be a terrific addition, creating one of the world’s great two-course clubs.

Lost Farm, as the new course has been named, is to the east of the existing Barnbougle links. Sattler’s land extends to 4,000 acres along the coast, although obviously only a small part of it is dunes. The original course has two distinctly different nines; the front side, to the west of the clubhouse, runs through the biggest dunes, while on the homeward loop, the land is more open, and the holes cross the ridges to a greater extent. The eastern boundary of the first course is a river, or rather cut, which drains the surrounding land.

Lost Farm sits on the far bank of the river, and contains a mixture of terrain. There’s plenty of the high dunes for which Barnbougle is famous, but there is also a substantial flat area right at the heart of the property.

This flatland represented a potential problem for architect Bill Coore and his team. It couldn’t be avoided, but with such spectacular terrain all around, holes laid on the area might well be seen as disappointing by golfers expecting large-scale thrills. This, though, is a challenge Coore and Crenshaw have dealt with before: at Friar’s Head on Long Island in the USA, the exciting duneland provided space for most, but not all of the golf course. So Coore and his team created six holes in a former potato field; the transition is commented on, but the course is good enough to have been voted the twenty-first best course in the US by Golf.

I toured Lost Farm with Coore and Crenshaw associate Keith Rhebb in early November. Rhebb, who has been on site for most of the last year during the construction of the course, had hoped to be seeding the last few holes at the time of my visit, but Mother Nature got in the way, as she so often does on the links. We arrived at Launceston airport in Tasmania, an hour’s drive inland from Barnbougle to find a very windy day; if it is like this here, we pondered, what will it be like on the coast? The answer soon became clear: with winds gusting to 100km/h, only one hardy soul, who had no choice as he was leaving the following morning, was trying to play golf, and on the Lost Farm site, the sand was blowing wildly. Naturally the crew had the irrigation system going full tilt in an attempt to keep the shaping in place; this made our course walk tougher, as routes had to be picked to avoid the water. Upwind of a sprinkler was simple – one could go within two metres of the head and feel not a splash, but downwind, up to a hundred metres clearance was needed if one didn’t wish to get wet. It was a tough walk.

Nevertheless, even through the wind, it was easy to see that another exceptional course is taking shape. Lost Farm will, I think, be a different kind of experience to Barnbougle itself; fewer holes play through defined dune corridors, and the course will be a little more open in feel – more akin to the existing course’s back nine than the front.

And there are some very different touches as well: take the fifth hole, with its tee and green both set above the river. A huge dune at the water’s edge means the fairway landing area is out to the left, but the green can be seen to the right of the dune from the tee. In the gale force conditions of my tour, a long hitter might have fancied his chances of taking the ball out over the water and finding the fairway only just short of the green, but this is scarcely a tactic that could be recommended in normal weather.

Coore’s team have built twenty holes at Lost Farm. One of them, numbered 13a, is a fabulous knob-to-knob par three built in the high dunes close to the Bass Strait. It’s there because Mike Keiser, who remains involved at Barnbougle, was uncomfortable with the uphill one-shotter that the architect proposed as the seventeenth hole. Personally, I thought the seventeenth was splendid, a tough but not unreasonable biff to a wonderful green framed by dunes – but I'd have been sad not to see the additional hole built too. Hole 13a did, though, require a fairly substantial cut into a dune ridge to provide a view of the green; it’s clear from talking to Keith Rhebb that the minimalist philosophy of Coore and Crenshaw would have preferred to let nature be. Nevertheless, the hole they’ve produced will, I’m sure, be among most golfers’ favourites on the course.

The following hole, number fourteen, is destined to be the most photographed on the golf course. A sweeping par four in a natural dune valley, it turns to the right and heads straight towards the ocean. From the tee, the view is spectacular, although intimidating: the position of the dunes makes the fairway look narrow in the extreme. A confident drive, though, will reveal plenty of width; some of the Lost Farm fairways stretch close to 100 metres, necessary in such a windy environment.

When Lost Farm opens in the Australian springtime (current thinking is for an October debut), Barnbougle will go from being a glorious oddity, a stunning links course at what to non-Aussies seems the end of the world, to one of the very greatest of golf destinations. There is no doubt in my mind that the course will join its predecessor in receiving universal acclaim, and will elevate the resort in global eyes, especially as Sattler has just begun work on a new lodge and spa complex, ensuring that more of the unique Barnbougle hospitality will be on offer. Those in the know will be delighted that trips to Tasmania can be extended in the knowledge that another great course awaits them. To those who find the idea of not one but two great links sitting on the north coast of an island in the south Pacific, I would recommend investigating the price of plane tickets to Australia. GCA

This article appeared in issue 20 of Golf Course Architecture, published Jan 2010

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