(Review by Selwyn Berg; Hole reviews by Garry Kennedy)
Is this possibly Australia’s best golf course? That’s the question several judges invited to King Island to preview Cape Wickham Golf Links on a windy day in late March will be asking themselves for the next several months as the course grows in over winter ahead of its official opening in November 2015.
Quite simply Cape Wickham is constructed on the most spectacular dunes, ocean, cliff and beach combination that consultant and co-designer Darius Oliver has ever seen – and his ten years studying more than 1,200 layouts in 45 countries surely make him one of the best-travelled and most respected observers.
As a former partner on ausgolf, Darius is well known to us, as is course developer Duncan Andrews. It was Duncan who gave Australia The Dunes some 20 years ago and initiated the renaissance of high quality links style golf for green fee players. The GOLF Course Guide ranked The Dunes our best public access course in 2001, a position that Barnbougle Dunes has held captive since 2006. One senses that Duncan is keen to grab that title back, and comparisons with Tasmania’s twin coastal gems near Bridport just a tad further south across Bass Strait will be inevitable. But the owner’s ambitions do not end there, clearly recognising that in order to be viable the course would need to achieve world status. With its lighthouse, comparison with Old Head (Kinsale, Ireland) is obvious, and for the sheer beauty of the coastal site perhaps in time with Mackenzie’s masterpiece Cypress Point. The involvement of Darius, Duncan, and American Designer Mike Devries – a disciple of Alister Mackenzie who has worked with Tom Doak – whet our appetites and told us this course would be special. There is no doubt in our minds that this course deserves to debut well inside the World Top 100.
Our first glimpse from the air confirmed that the land at Wickham is far more dramatic and isolated than that at Barnbougle, and also that the holes are built right on the coastline. There’s not a tree, a house or even a farm shed in sight. Civilisation non-existent save for the coast’s sentinel - the hugely impressive Cape Wickham Lighthouse – Australia’s tallest at 48m – that dominates the site and adds the icing to a photographer’s paradise. This is a tourist Mecca for its ocean scenery even without the golf!
From the clubhouse one looks out over at least eight greens, including the dramatic finishing hole that runs along Victoria Cove with the sandy beach an integral part of the course and in play! All around are sweeping fairways amidst rugged coastline. On a clear day, one can look across Bass Strait and see the Otways some 100km away.
Already the holes blend naturally into the landscape and look as if it they have been here forever. One is reminded of The Dune’s catchphrase “God made it – we just mow the grass”. The bunkering is minimalist, mimicking the sandy blowouts that feature prominently elsewhere on the raw landscape.
There are stunning ocean vistas from every single hole on the course. Nowhere else have I experienced the sensation that the surf was breaking right on the greens. The change in elevation on the fairways is dramatic, and yet the course is very walkable (carts will be permitted). The routing is superb, and there is no weak hole. On the contrary, every hole is a standout and without seeming contrived almost half the holes run right beside the ocean and still others have a coastal backdrop. All credit is due to the persistence of the creative team in persuading the authorities to permit construction within the environmentally sensitive Crown Coastal Reserve.
For many the fear factor will be high, with holes demanding that a ball be played towards certain doom beyond the green, and yet there is often more space than was first apparent. Those content to use the strokes their handicap affords can risk little if they so desire. Wind will often dictate the choice for many, but the fairways are particularly generous for the drive, and seldom demand a significant carry from the tee.
With sporty all-fescue surfaces the fun of the ground game is particularly evident, with the ability to judge wind and elevation change more important than length.
With so many great holes it’s hard not to recount each and every one – but that may spoil the anticipation of a visit so better to preview a few of our favourites…
After a chip and putt at the perched practice area, you stroll to the edge of the practice green that seamlessly becomes the first tee. The exhilarating ocean views distract you from the knee jerking challenge of the very first shot. It is certainly an adrenalin-charged opener. There’s perhaps 120m of dune and links scrub to carry as the coastline bends around to the right. As daunting a tee shot as it is, there’s a fairly accommodating fairway to aim for, although it’s hard to sense that from the tee, and if you slice your ball it will be lost to Bass Strait! Once safely on the short grass you’re left with a mid-iron to Cape Wickham’s first of many “infinity greens”. Just as infinity pools give the illusion that they disappear into the ocean beyond, the green’s back edge visually falls into the surf behind and it makes for a stunning backdrop. (The first hole - Drone photography by Jayden Lawson)
Jumping to the inland fourth pays no disrespect to the cliff hugging second and third. At the fourth you aim away from the water while still enjoying ocean views. In the distance of this longish par four is the lighthouse – a perfect aim for the best route to the slightly hidden green.
Again we jump three great holes to the eighth and it’s this stretch of holes through to the twelfth that demands more than a word or two about each. On eight you are challenged to find a target line to the green for the tee shot is a blind carry across rugged scrub and you really have no idea what lies beyond. Suffice to say a generous valley will capture most shots. Commanding and dramatic dune and ocean views from the tee are quickly replaced as you descend into a valley where huge dunes near and far line the stretch to the green and well beyond.
Hole nine (left) is a world class par five and may be my favourite. The snaking fairway falls from the highest point on the course to the green. Beyond the drive a deep ravine bites into the fairway from the left, and although the bravest low marker may attempt an heroic carry, most will seek to position their second shot right. Near the putting surface a high dune protects the left, another craggy dune and perched bunker protects the front right and both perfectly frame another infinity green with blue water behind. It’s an incredible green setting but a nerve-racking approach.
The tenth tee is elevated, more wonderful ocean views, played to a fairway that drops steeply to the green nestled on the very edge of the rocks that are the barrier to the wild waters beyond. Down closer to the green and pounding waves throw up great sprays of water like an aquatic fireworks display while you putt.
Eleven (left, photo Loren Justins) is probably the signature par three, cutting across a rocky cove to a compact green with high grassy dunes, a magnificent sculpture eroded from the sandstone right and water left. Behind the green (but not really in play) is another hidden picture postcard ocean inlet.
Hole 12 is a reachable par four providing some highlights and heartache as the risk/reward tee shot teases game players. Again following the water and rocks to the left, you are tempted to bite off as much of the journey as you dare to find a green perched on the edge of a drop to the rocky surf. Like all the holes at Cape Wickham, mere mortals can lay-up or bail out, although a series of bunkers on the safe side demand careful club selection. The shot into the green will still be waiting.
Uniquely it’s the thirteenth hole that brings you back past the Clubhouse for the first time before the final five holes. Lighthouse views on the 14th and 15th dominate the landscape, sixteen and seventeen again hug the coastline with spine tingling carries, sensational views and even a short walk right near the edge of the wild surf.
Then it’s the finishing hole, an even more dramatic climax to the round than the knee wobbling opener. The beach of Victoria Cove follows the fairway on the right all the way to the green cut into the huge dunes that hug the left side and rear of the fairway. In play, the pristine beach is not the easiest lie for the second shot, so the optimal line is as near as you dare for the shortest and simplest approach to the green.
Whatever your result you’ll never forget the final hole here – a standout finish for what’s destined to become a standout course on a world scale. (Pictured above looking across Victoria Cove to the first hole. Photo by Loren Justins)
Thankfully, for perhaps not the best putter in the world, the greens are quite straightforward and putting is a relatively simple matter. The quality of the 12 month old putting surfaces is already close to perfect. Only the seventeenth, a medium-length par three, has the proverbial ‘buried elephant’ and this is more of a challenge to arrange one’s tee shot appropriately in order to completely avoid it.
With Graham Grant building another course, Ocean Dunes, near Currie there will be the opportunity for visitors to play two different 18s plus the delightful King Island Golf Club described as possibly the best nine holer in the country.
Apart from the stunning coastline, impeccable golf and the lighthouse itself, Cape Wickham includes sanctuary areas set aside for the Mutton bird population that migrate annually to and from the Arctic, and these are yet another tourist fascination. Then there’s King Island Dairy, rock lobster, beef and even the mutton birds themselves for a taste sensation.
There is also the option to continue your flight to Barnbougle and take in two more world class courses.
Course Opened 2015
18 holes, Par 72, 6150m
Flights from Moorabbin and Tullamarine