Tasmania’s coming of age

By Robert J. Vasilak

People sometimes say that passionate golfers would cheerfully travel to the ends of the earth to play an impeccable links course. I don’t exactly know where “the ends of the earth” are, but lately I’ve been thinking that they must be in Tasmania.

For as much as our planet has shrunk since the advent of air travel, Tasmania remains a world apart, at least for North Americans. In an absolute best-case scenario, getting there via commercial flight from my home in suburban Washington, D.C., takes more than 32 hours. By comparison, many seemingly “remote” destinations for links golf — Bandon Dunes, the Sand Hills courses in Nebraska, and the famed Scottish and Irish venues — are practically just around the corner.

Even people who live in Tasmania know the pain involved in getting there. Just months ago, the head of the state’s golf council admitted that his most famous golf courses, at Barnbougle Dunes, are “an awfully long way from anything.”

Nonetheless, another Tasmaniac is born every day.

Barnbougle Dunes is the reason why. Tasmania has long fancied itself as a worthy home for golf. It has more than 80 courses, including the oldest one in Australia, but Barnbougle Dunes is unique among them. It was built to exacting standards, to provide uncompromising golf travelers with an exquisite, one-of-a-kind experience that sears land and a game indelibly into one.

The people who gave new life to rugged, ancient terrain in far-away Bridport understood the essential truth about destination golf: If a place is going to justify a 32-hour trip, it must aspire to perfection.

Barnbougle Dunes’ first 18, a seaside track that opened just seven years ago, was ranked as Australia’s top public course practically overnight. And today it’s generally acknowledged to be among the world’s elite. While it may sound like heresy to say this, the resort’s second 18, the Lost Farm layout, may someday rank higher. Michael Keiser, the developer of Bandon Dunes and an investor in Barnbougle Dunes, once said Lost Farm “could well be the best course since Augusta National.”

Greg Ramsay, who at the time was just a 23-year-old kid, who almost certainly couldn’t fully comprehend the grandeur of his ambitions and the risks he was asking potential investors to take, envisioned Barnbougle Dunes. His idea of a bankroll was a $5,000 loan that his grandmother had given him.

But unlike other young Tasmanians, who’d set their eyes on careers in Melbourne or Sydney, Ramsay had faith in the ground beneath his feet. He’d played many of the planet’s treasured coastal links, and he believed that Tasmania’s sandy, windswept shores could produce courses equally good, if not better.

Ramsay is a true believer and a tireless promoter, so some of what he says needs to be taken with a grain of salt. That being noted, he contends that Tasmania will eventually become not just the premier golf destination in Australia, but in the entire South Pacific, maybe in all of Asia.

His boast has been echoed by Michael Clayton, the co-designer with Tom Doak of the first course at Barnbougle Dunes. By 2015, Clayton had predicted, Tasmania will have as many as six of Australia’s top-20 tracks.

The cynic in me suspects that such talk is just promotional bluster. But there’s no disputing this: At least six new courses are percolating in Tasmania, including a Ross Perrett-designed track that’s currently being built on the northern coast of King Island, which lies just off the main island.

In addition, Barnbougle Dunes has a third course in its future, a par-3 track designed by Lost Farm’s architect Bill Coore, and it’ll almost certainly spring a fourth, maybe even a fifth and a sixth.

Unquestionably, this is a significant amount of development activity for a place the size of West Virginia.

To lure travelers, Ramsay foresees a trail of world-class links and links-inspired courses being built on Tasmania’s main island. The trail would begin in Launceston (which conveniently has an airport), and then head northeast to Bridport. From there, golfers would swing down the eastern coast on their way to Hobart, on the southern coast. Finally, the trail would wind its way back up north to Bothwell, Ramsay’s home town and the site of the historic course he grew up playing, his family’s Ratho Golf Links.

“Once there is a trail of courses,” Ramsay said, “golf will be one of the largest sectors of our tourism industry.”

The trail wouldn’t necessarily be a one-man show, but it appears that Ramsay wants to build at least part of it himself.

For starters, he’s proposed to build a course on the South Arm Peninsula, along Tasmania’s southern coast. The site isn’t ideal for golf. Ramsay has called it “degraded,” but it’s just a 15-minute ferry ride from Hobart, the island’s largest city.

Ramsay also has a vision for two potential trail stops on Tasmania’s eastern coast. These days he’s working with Bicheno Golf Club on a 9-hole addition to its 60-year-old, 9-hole golf course, and he’s been hired to revise the development plan for Solis, an idled community in Orford that was to feature a Greg Norman-designed golf course.

Presuming they’re built, Ramsay’s courses would complement one that Mat Goggin, an Australian golf pro, aims to build on Seven Mile Beach, a waterfront expanse just east of Hobart. Because the property is part heath land and part links land, news reports say that Goggin will create “a hybrid-style” layout that would be “the first of its kind in Australia.”

Clayton, the course’s designer, has set expectations extremely high.

“We believe we can build a championship course at Seven Mile Beach that could be rated in the top five courses in Australia from day one,” he said at the unveiling.

In other words, it could be another Barnbougle Dunes.

If Clayton is right, and if the other planned courses end up being as good as advertised, a significant part of golf’s future may indeed belong to the Tasmaniacs.

And that’s enough to make one hopeful about the possibilities for golf development at the other ends of the earth, wherever they may be.

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