The World’s Most Exotic Golf Getaway
It involves flying halfway around the world.
The sole Tasmanian reference point I carried with me into middle age was the Looney Tunes character of the Tasmanian Devil, the whirling, snarling, unintelligible yet also weirdly likable creature Bugs Bunny tormented for my viewing pleasure on Saturday afternoons in the 1970s. It took about three decades for a second reference point to present itself, when the word “Barnbougle” (itself sounding vaguely Looney Tunes-esque) began to come up in golf-related conversations. Like Tasmania itself, the word was shrouded in a certain mystery: Barnbougle. Have you heard about it? Do you know anyone who’s been there?
As a seasoned observer of the game, I think it’s fair to note that Tasmania had until recently rarely moved the needle on golf (or anything, really). The intrigue has been centered on two primary factors: first, that the setting was so remote that few people had actually played the Dunes (which opened in 2004) or Lost Farm (which opened in 2010), and, second, that those returning from the Antipodes were all saying the same thing: the tracks were damn-near perfect.
Such was the grand total of my knowledge when I recently booked a flight and packed a bag. Next thing I knew, I was in a rental car in north-central Tasmania during a Biblical storm, listening to the panicky voice of a radio host begging for listeners to heed her advice. “If you have yard animals or pets of any size,” she said, “do not leave them outside today. Please.”
It was halfway between Launceston and Bridport—the charming seaside village a couple of kilometres from Barnbougle and near which J. K. Rowling is rumoured to have purchased land—that I had to start swerving to avoid downed trees on the road. At the bottom of one small valley, a narrow torrent had washed out the road. My rental vehicle was not a Land Rover but a small sedan with the same approximate clearance as my lawnmower. I popped the clutch, hit the gas hard, and plunged in. A fan of spray went up, and I was blind until the wipers revealed I’d made it through. When I pulled into the parking lot at Lost Farm about an hour later, the weather had improved only in that it had stopped raining. A little spit was still in the air, but the wind was flag-shreddingly stiff and a mere four degrees Celsius, according to the car’s dials. Battalions of gunmetal clouds powered across the sky at blimp height.
“Shocking,” said Roscoe Banks, the head pro at Lost Farm, when I entered the pro shop. I was the only person at the course. “Haven’t had a day like this in…well, ever. I’ve never seen it this cold, that’s for sure.” The Australian Weatherzone was reporting that, with the winds gusting up to 58 kmh, it “felt like” 0.3 degrees.
In other words, perfect golf weather. I was from Canada, had travelled from one end of the globe to the other to play these golf courses and I wasn’t going to let a bit of weather stop me. I headed for the first tee, toque pulled low over my forehead.
Richard Sattler is the owner and creator of Barnbougle. Sattler, a large and shaggy man with a friendly grin and a vise-like handshake, walks, talks and looks like the farmer he is and was when he bought the 13,000-acre Barnbougle farm 20-odd years ago without knowing that he was purchasing one of the greatest pieces of pure golf links land left. Originally from the Hobart area, Sattler and his wife settled in the region with the plan of doing some farming and perhaps opening a small hotel one day. They still run a working beef farm on the property, but the beef, while good, isn’t world-famous. Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm are world-famous. Ironically, Sattler is not much of a golfer, or at least he wasn’t when the idea took hold that his land was something special in golf terms.
“I hardly ever played,” he told me when I met him later my first night at Barnbougle, after I’d thawed out. “I still don’t really. Maybe once a month.”
I expressed surprise at this. He shrugged. “It’s not about me, it’s about the land. It’s just meant for these golf courses.”
The first smart thing Sattler did, once he realized the extent to which he’d lucked into some of the world’s purest remaining linksland, was speak with Mike Keiser (the man behind the justly celebrated Bandon Dunes in Oregon). Keiser advised Sattler to hire the lauded architects Tom Doak and Bill Coore to create Dunes and Lost Farm, respectively. At the Dunes, Doak created a difficult yet not punitive golf course, one that requires strategy over brute strength, and with the kind of views and hole routing that are so “right” you feel it in your bones. The course opened in 2004. Almost from the day it opened, the Dunes has featured in the Top 100 courses in the world in all the major golf publications. When Sattler decided to give another artist a chance to sculpt something unique with the next piece of land down the coast, he hired Bill Coore, the gentlemanly North Carolinian best known for his collaborative design work with Ben Crenshaw. Like the Dunes, Lost Farm immediately entered the list of the world’s best courses and both are now viewed as “must plays” by the game’s ardent followers.
The salient feature of the Barnbougle duo is the vast stretch of sandy linksland that runs along the shore of Anderson Bay to the east of Bridport. These dunes could have floated from the northeast coast of Scotland. Sometimes 20, even 30, metres high, topped by marram grass swaying in the breeze, the dunes run up a couple of hundred metres in from the shore to create a sturdy barrier that is both a perfect stabilizer for the sandy turf behind and an aesthetically heart-stopping palette from which to carve out, or rather uncover, golf holes connected to their natural environment. The result is a set of courses that are fun to play, gorgeous to look at, and—an underrated element of the golfing experience—tremendously energizing to walk. Centuries of accumulated hard-packed sand under the turf has created a surface that is firm without being harsh. It’s like walking on a spring-loaded dance floor.
A Tale of Two Courses
Given that the two courses are side by side, people will inevitably compare Lost Farm and the Dunes. Although such exercises usually end up identifying faults, it still has to be said that Lost Farm might be just slightly the better of the two. Both are so brilliant that the deciding factor, for me, came down to a patch of ground about 10 paces long and five wide. This is Lost Farm’s 5th tee, and it constitutes what might be the single greatest “turnaround point” in the world of golf (with the exception perhaps being the loop of holes 7 through 11 at the Old Course). Lost Farm starts out beautifully from the clubhouse, with the first few holes set back from the dunes, but as you reach the 4th tee, you find a lovely three par requiring a deft pitch into the crook of an elbow of land groping out to sea. Just left of the green the fairway grass runs off a shelf down to a small teeing ground that serves as the back box of the majestic, dune-laden par-four 5th.
Here you have to stop. Go back for a look.
One feature the courses share, and which makes it so hard to choose between them, are the footpaths between holes, particularly the path skirting the 4th, 5th and 6th holes at the Dunes and between the 14th and 15th holes at Lost Farm. In both cases—after playing the 4th at the Dunes and the 14th at Lost Farm—the golfer ends up high on the dunescape between the course and the beach, which is not more than 10 metres away, on a simple gravel path taking you from one hole to the next. These are inspired natural interludes. The genius of it, in terms of design principles, is that both Coore and Doak could have easily made the ensuing holes longer, thereby making the paths shorter or nearly non-existent. Most golf architects and course owners would have carved another 100 metres of golf hole out of those dunes, since there was certainly room to do it and the topography would have allowed it. But instead we are presented with a stunning natural moment atop the dunes, high above the beach, looking both inland and out to sea. The sand shimmers gold, the marram grass sways in the breeze, the air is so fresh it’s almost nutritional. These between-hole strolls become moments for reflection, and are precisely what makes golf so addictive.
The immediate reaction to playing golf at Barnbougle is to hope that they leave well enough alone, since there is no reason to tamper with genuine magic. That’s unlikely, given that there is room for many more golf courses. At Barnbougle, like Bandon Dunes, the brand and quality has now been established such that another golf course or two would probably help draw the golfers in numbers that would, in theory, ensure the long-term health of the enterprise. Not that there are any guarantees, because, let’s face it, it’s a hell of a long way away from North American tourism dollars. Still, Barnbougle doesn’t treat its remoteness in the way you might expect. Whereas some destinations might suggest you can have it both ways, that you can have the feel of getting away from it all without actually having to travel too far, Barnbougle likes being hard to get to. And again, let’s be clear: Bandon Dunes along the Oregon coast is hard to get to. Sand Hills in Nebraska is hard to get to. Royal Dornoch in the north of Scotland is hard to get to. But these are trips to the corner store compared to finding Barnbougle. This is part of the mystique it’s creating, and when you do finally arrive there is no doubting the sense of being in a special place visited by few.
The lore and mystique of Barnbougle is probably greater than for any new golf development in recent memory. Even still, there’s one inescapable truth about the place: no matter what superlatives you accord it, it lives up to it. They say that the best things are worth waiting for; once you’re standing on the 5th tee at Lost Farm, or 15th tee at the Dunes, it feels true—it feels like you’ve been waiting for this all your life.