There may not be a more remote or unlikely place for world-class golf than faraway King Island. Situated in the middle of Bass Strait halfway between the northwestern tip of Tasmania and Australia’s Victorian coast, this relatively small (682 sq m in area, less than a third the size of Long Island) and sparsely populated island (by humans anyway, some 1,800 compared to half a million wallabies), is principally known for wrecking sailing ships on its rocky shores, its vast cattle ranches, and its luscious smoked cheddar and blue-vein cheeses. Yet today King Island is on the verge of becoming one of the globe’s most exotic golf destinations, with two new 18-hole seaside layouts offering not only spectacular views of the Great Southern Ocean but also challenging windblown golf holes that will shipwreck all but the best navigators. Already one course, Cape Wickham Links, designed by Michigan-based Mike DeVries (creator of Kingsley Club, Greywalls, and Pilgrim’s Run), on the northwestern tip of the island, is ready for play. Another 18-hole layout, Ocean Links, designed by Victoria’s Graeme Grant (architect of Kooyonga and Indooroopilly) is scheduled to open next spring.
Architect DeVries, when introduced to the project by golf writer Darius Oliver, immediately saw the tremendous potential of Cape Wickham. But he also recognised, as Oliver did, that extra land would make for a better, world-class routing. Enter Duncan Andrews, the experienced owner of the Dunes Golf Links on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, who bought the adjoining land, invested in the overall Cape Wickham project, and turned the creative DeVries loose.
The stunning result, Cape Wickham Links, formally opens in October 2015. The namesake and icon for the course is the Cape Wickham Lighthouse, on the most northerly point of King Island, some 56 miles from Cape Otway on the Australian mainland. Built in 1861 to guide ships easing their way through the dangerously narrow passage between the two capes on the way to Sydney, the Cape Wickham Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere. The structure, 48m tall, also dominates the golfing landscape and adds a friendly yet fearful character to the golfer’s play.
It may be an exaggeration to say that the holes along Carmel Bay at Pebble Beach don’t hold a candle to Cape Wickham, or to make that comparison to such scenically beautiful courses as Cruden Bay, Turnberry, or Shinnecock Hills. But it is certainly fair to say that no coastal course in the world is more dramatic or breathtaking than Cape Wickham Links. An unforgiving rocky coastline, with rows of sand dunes stretching mostly parallel to the sea, has lent itself to the design of a golf course second to none in terms of its natural beauty. Most courses are lucky to have a handful of holes running along a coastline, yet at Cape Wickham there are nine.
The par-72 layout can be stretched to 6,725 yards, a fearsome distance when confronting the hearty winds often battering the cape. The number-one handicap hole is the 412-yard sixteenth. It plays from near the foot of the lighthouse back snug along the coastline toward the clubhouse, a small temporary structure awaiting completion of the final design which is under construction high above the first tee and eighteenth green. The 179-yard par three seventeenth plays chillingly from tee to green tight along the beachhead, and the eighteenth, at 431 yards, shoots over Victoria Cove, with its beach very much in play, ready to snare a pushed drive or wide-right approach shot. Invariably, the trio of closing holes will produce spectacular results – but not many birdies or pars.
Unlike golf courses where one must wait for the few holes with ocean views, Cape Wickham features them start to finish. From a tee high among the dunes, the opening tee shot plays beautifully down to a generous fairway, with ocean to the right and in the distance beyond the first green. A favourite hole for many will be the tenth. It is not long, a par four of 357 yards, but it plays boldly downhill all the way from tee to green right to the sea, with large dunes framing the entirety of the hole, especially at the green.
It is a wonderful routing showcasing the beauty of the site, beginning with the tightrope walk along ocean bluffs before turning inward and upward to panoramic views and then again to the ocean so closely that a player can taste the salt air.
The layout over the 160.6 hectares of coastal land is made up of three basic loops: the first five holes on the Cape Farewell headland, the next eight in dune land to the south of Cape Farewell, and the last five in the lighthouse/Victoria Cove zone. Directions of the holes constantly shift, with par threes and par fives playing to all points on the compass. All 18 holes enjoy views of Bass Strait. On most days golfers can see surfers out in the water, as King Island is a veritable surfer’s paradise, with some of the best breaking waves in Australia.
If Cape Wickham alone was not enough to bring golfers to King Island, another brilliant 18-hole layout 30 minutes away should do the trick. Ocean Dunes, scheduled to open in March 2016, is the design of Graeme Grant, the former superintendent of Victoria’s Kingston Heath who is known for his hands-on designs and for love for the architecture of the legendary Alister MacKenzie.
Although arguably not quite as spectacular a property as Cape Wickham, Ocean Links, in some key respects, shows a more thoughtful approach to the hole-by-hole design. Laid out over 115.4 hectares, the golf course masterfully incorporates rolling dunes with its portion of the majestic coastline. Heroic golf abides at Ocean Dunes, with a number of risk/reward tee-shots and two of the par threes playing spectacularly over the surging ocean, one of them to a Redan green. From the back tees the front nine will play over 3,600 yards to a par of 37 (three par fives). The back nine, when finished, will play somewhat shorter, to a par of 35. The subtly rolling bentgrass greens should play firm and fast, while the fescue tees and fairways should add nicely to the pristine conditions.
“My instinct is to keep Ocean Dunes under wraps until is absolutely finished,” Grant explains. When the grand opening comes next spring, the featured event will be a friendly match between King Islanders and Australian mainlanders. Likely to become an annual competition, the sponsor of the event will be Vortex Air, the principal air charter service between the mainland and Tasmania, including the islands of Bass Strait.
There is a third course on King Island and, although a nine-holer, is nothing to sneeze at. Situated in the little town of Currie (population 746, but the largest township and administrative centre of King Island), the links belonging to the King Island Golf & Bowling Club, also set amidst coastal dunes that meet the Southern Ocean, deserves its local reputation as one of the world’s great nine-hole courses.
Actually, the club’s golfers often play the course as a composite 18 holes, with alternate tees and greens, as well as an extra fairway, playing to a par 72 and a length that can fool you at ‘only’ 5,988 yards. As Graeme Grant has commented: “It seems that everywhere you look as you travel around this island there is terrific golfing land.” In fact, a third new layout, to be located on the southern coast of the island, is planned, with Aussie golfing legend Greg Norman in charge of the design.
No major hotel chains have built on King Island, but there are a number of motels, bed-and-breakfasts, coastal cottages, cabins, and holiday homes along the western coast offering friendly service, comfortable beds, and close ocean views. A handful of restaurants and cafes offer a range of dining opportunities with menus stuffed with fresh seafood (notably crayfish), locally-produced 100 per cent organic vegetables, succulent grass-fed beef, and the prized high-quality cheeses produced at the island’s fromagerie.
As is the case with many remote golf resorts – think Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia, and Barnbougle in Tasmania – Cape Wickham Links and Ocean Dunes, too, will soon have high-class, on-course accommodation, with an integrated golf package to include the golf along with both lodging and meals.
As a golf destination, King Island suffers from some serious disadvantages. The Searoad Mersey ferry visits the island weekly but carries freight only, no passengers. So the only way to get there is a 50-minute flight in a propeller-driven airplane carrying nine to twelve passengers, which departs from Moorabbin Field (Melbourne’s general-aviation airfield) and sets down at King Island’s tiny regional airport (near Currie) in what typically will be quite breezy conditions. But the trip is worth every drop of passenger sweat.
Most likely, the island’s two new courses will be played mostly by mainlanders or Tasmanians. But a true trip of a lifetime will undoubtedly be made by golfers around the world – from Melbourne, to King Island, to Tasmania, and ending in Sydney.
The time to go is December to March, Australia’s summer, the warmest and driest months, with average highs hovering around 21 Celsius. As in both Victoria and Tasmania, however, the weather on the island can vary dramatically, even during the same day, but some brilliant sunshine is promised at some for virtually every day.
“If you want pristine, come to King Island,” has been the slogan for the island’s tourist board for the past many years. With the opening of Cape Wickham and Ocean Dunes, there may not be a need for a new one. A panoramic photograph of either course – which is bound to be stunning – with that slogan attached to it, should be all King Island needs to attract the world’s most avid golfers in search of what will surely turn out to be the experience of a lifetime.
Dr James Hansen is professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, and author of the recent Robert Trent Jones Sr biography ‘A Difficult Par’
This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture magazine - Issue 42.