Barnbougle, Tasmania

Words: Jack Carswell
Photos: William Watt & Dave Carswell

Spend some time around any golf course in Australia and you can count the seconds until you overhear ‘Barnbougle’ spoken about in hushed tones. We thought it would be a good place to start our adventure into the world of golf. We were right.

Jack Carswell worked at Barnbougle for nine years — first as a caddie and then as a greenkeeper.

I first walked Barnbougle Dunes a few years prior to its December 2004 opening, at a time when nearby Bridport was known only for its fishing and wild New Year’s Eve parties. Tours of the course-to-be were offered to those interested, or as many people that could pile in the back of a Landcruiser. The notion of people travelling to sleepy Tasmania to play golf on a potato farm seemed pretty far-fetched, even to a golfing fanatic of 12 years. The tour ambled through the dunes on the front 9, driving each hole as it was to be played even though a preliminary routing was all that had been conceived. We stopped at a few locations to reference the map with the contours and proposed green locations. The point was made by the guide that very little earth moving would be required to maintain the true links feel, a promise that was certainly honoured. Years later, in a conversation with course co-designer Mike Clayton, he attributed the difficult task of routing the course to the original topography created by the wind and sand, maintained over the years by the marram grass.

Barnbougle Dunes was the brainchild of Greg Ramsay, a golf tragic (he would say entrepreneur) who grew up on Australia’s oldest golf course, Ratho Farm in southern Tasmania. Ramsay stumbled across the land, owned by potato and cattle farmer Richard Sattler, after spending time in Scotland and developing a deep passion for links golf. Bridport was a regular holiday destination for Greg and his family and it wasn’t long before he found the highest point on the hill to gauge the depth of the dunes over at Barnbougle, within sight of Bridport town across Anderson Bay. Ramsay contacted Sattler by phone to discuss the idea of a golf course, however initial attempts were met with extreme hesitation. In fact Greg was labeled a madman. It wasn’t until Greg arrived unannounced on Richard’s doorstep that he was taken seriously. After some serious persuasion and a few Scottish whiskeys (I’m guessing), the links land was offered for the experiment, with Richard having little to lose. He considered the land effectively useless – potatoes don’t grow particularly well in sand and cattle prefer greener varieties of grass. Fast forward 12 months and Ramsay had Mike Keiser (owner of golfing mecca Bandon Dunes, Oregon), Tom Doak (renowned golf course architect) and Mike Clayton (former Australian professional turned course architect) in agreement that a world class golf course could be built at Barnbougle.

And so it was: the birth of Barnbougle Dunes. Between the time the idea had been launched to the media and the opening, a lot had been said about the expectation of people travelling the world to play golf in Tasmania. I too had my doubts until the official open day when I caddied 36 holes and didn’t meet one Australian golfer.

Granted, there was never going to be an endless supply of cashed up Americans, but it was clear that this golf course was something special and that the golfers would come from all corners of the world. And boy, did they ever! The numbers over the ensuing years have been phenomenal. As the course started to mature, the accolades began to roll in, with the course immediately ranked in the world’s top 100, and soon becoming Australia’s best public access golf course.

Typically, with any great golf course there will be a number of holes that are spoken about with awe at the 19th and on golf trips for years to come. For Barnbougle Dunes it could be said that it is easier to speak of the less spectacular (yet still visually enticing) holes 1 and 2. Everyone who I caddied for would be blown away by the natural beauty and elegance of the first few holes without knowing what lay ahead of them. The stretch from the 3rd to the 7th provides some of the most mind blowing visuals of any course in the world, from the behemoth bunker protecting the direct line to the 4th green, to the postage stamp green of the aptly named 7th, ‘Tom’s Little Devil’. Both holes play easy on paper, yet they’ve seen the demise of some of the best golfers in the world.

The course was designed with the prevailing north-westerly winds in mind – all the short holes play into the wind and the majority of the lengthy holes are downwind. The exception to the rule would be the 17th and 18th, both long par-4s stretching along the coast back into the wind, making holding onto a good round difficult. Many of the great golfing holes in the world tend to be drivable par-4s, of which Barnbougle Dunes has two (arguably more if you hit it like Bubba). 

Lost Farm

It didn’t take long for Barnbougle Dunes to etch its name in ‘must play’ lists across the world before the concept of a second course was conceived. Anyone with a keen eye would have noticed the spectacular landscape across the Forester River, which runs adjacent to the 15th  of the ‘old’ course – a perfect setting for the Barnbougle story to continue. It would have been the easy option to keep Barnbougle course designers Doak and Clayton on board for this project. The area’s remarkably dissimilar topography would have provided a strong contrast even if it had been crafted by the same architectural team. Yet Richard Sattler was determined to offer a completely unique experience to that of the older course. He enlisted the help of prolific course designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose handiwork is stamped all over courses like Friar’s Head and Pinehurst No.2.

With more dramatic topography and overall land area available to work with they were able to explore their absolute limits in course design. An experience completely removed from the original course, Lost Farm provides golfers with an opportunity to experience the transition from rugged coast to farm land. It’s a style of course only possible on some of the most remote land in the world. There were so many great holes available that they ended up with 20 instead of 18. Two short par-3s were left in the mix and act as the perfect segues between the holes either side, with Hole 20a perfectly positioned to square off any outstanding ledgers at the end of the round.

Lost Farm is remarkably different to Barnbougle Dunes, a product of both the natural landscape and the vision of the designers. Working with more length perpendicular to the

coast, course designers Coore and Crenshaw achieved a variety of hole orientations that work well with the prevailing coastal wind. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t its fair share of coastal holes – in fact some argue that the holes hugging the water at Lost Farm are better placed to expose the views of the Bass Strait. Each hole leaves the shot placement and hole management squarely in the hands of the golfer, which is perhaps the biggest difference in course styles from the Dunes. Whereas the Dunes enforces a straightforward approach, Lost Farm grants the golfer more discreet options off the tee, as well as alternatives when approaching the green. That is encouraged by the vast area that many of the fairways cover, requiring twice the number of sprinkler heads to irrigate – good news for the erratic drivers out there. While there is certainly more forgiveness in fairway width, the portion between fairway and thick marram grass rough is almost non-existent, another contrast to its neighbour across the river.

As with the Dunes, it’s a heated debate as to what the signature holes are at Lost Farm. The 4th would be a front-runner, despite measuring in at just under 100 metres. Built on Sally’s Point (named after Richard’s wife, Sally, who penned this area to be a great location for a future house) it sits atop a thin peninsula, with Bass Straight claiming anything right, and the Forester River protecting the left side of the green. As with the 7th across the other side of the river, club choice can range from a short iron with no wind to a firm 6-iron if it blows the way it should. After you’ve got through that test, you’re met with the harrowing 5th hole – a mammoth par-4 that follows the river around to the right over a ten metre sand dune that allows just a sneak peek of the green from the tee to emphasise the arduous journey to a par. For me, it’s the 14th, a drivable par-4 down the hill to a slightly elevated two-tiered green with an open and vast backdrop of nothing but ocean, reminiscent of the vistas associated with Ballybunion in Ireland.

Barnbougle from above – feature video

A Greenkeeper’s Perspective

While there are enough differences to distinctively separate the two courses, there are a number of similarities that you might expect from a stretch of land separated by only a river. Both use the same grass mix, consisting primarily of fescue grass with minor creeping varieties added in small quantities to provide a consistent smooth playing surface. The fescue grass enables the same playing surface from tee blocks to the cup, meaning the transition from tee to fairway to green is almost unnoticeable. The perimeter cut of the greens is only mowed once a week to promote this topography. Fairways are mowed in such a way that you won’t find any Wimbledon-like shadows, rather maintaining a more traditional divide down the centre of the fairway. Greens are mowed at around 5mm and run at 8-9 on the stimp meter, which is comparatively slow to many courses. When the wind is blowing, many of the greens become unplayable at higher green speeds. This grass length also allows extreme contours to exhibit consistent turf cover, adding to the visual serenity that both courses provide. A significant advantage at Barnbougle is its proximity to a consistent supply of fresh water. Located either side of the Great Forester River estuary, the course has a limitless supply, effectively rendering it immune to drought.

Bunker management has evolved over the years. One of the apparent flaws in the design of Barnbougle Dunes was the orientation of some bunkers with respect to the prevailing wind.

Strong wind gusts would see the sand blown out of many green-side bunkers, resulting in greens covered in sand and bunkers with consistently changing geometries and gullies forcing unplayable lies. Greens staff would consistently be reshaping bunkers to their original shape and volume despite the intentions of the course designers. In a conversation between the greens staff and Mike Clayton, he suggested we leave the bunkers alone, remarking “let them move and evolve, you’re wasting your time”. That’s real links golf right there. The added advantage of this approach is not having to rake bunkers as part of the maintenance schedule, rather leaving the wind to clean up players’ footsteps.

The two big questions I have been asked a number of times are: which of the two courses are better? And will there be a third? To answer the former, it’s a tough one to call. For the more astute golfers, the hidden gems and permutations possible with each hole of Lost Farm will most likely take favour. There is no doubt that Barnbougle Dunes will remain the favourite for the everyday golfer with its meandering natural beauty and in-your -face visuals, uncommon to any course in Australia. But really, does it matter what anyone thinks? They are right next to each other. Play both enough times until you have made your own mind up! As for a third course, the land is there and with Richard Sattler’s ‘build it and they’ll come’ attitude you would be brave to bet against it. I don’t see it happening for a little while yet. After all, building two world renowned courses in your backyard is something worth relishing for a while.

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