In the middle of Bass Strait, on the northwestern tip of remote King Island, sits Australia’s tallest lighthouse and one of the world’s most spectacular golf sites. Cape Wickham Links opened for public play on October 30, 2015.
Above - welcome to Cape Wickham, the early morning view from the 1st tee.
Australian Golf Digest, October 2015 Issue
You’re building a golf course where?
It was a common question asked of those involved in the development of the new Cape Wickham golf course on King Island. Isolated and seemingly inaccessible in the middle of Bass Strait, King Island is known on the mainland for its cheese, its beef, its seafood and, perhaps if a really eager historian, it’s maritime narrative. The western coastline here was once regarded as among the most dangerous in the world. In the 1860s, after several deadly shipwrecks, action was taken with the building of the Cape Wickham lighthouse near the island’s northwestern tip. Measuring close to 50 metres, it remains Australia’s tallest.
In the shadows of this epic structure is an irregularly shaped shoreline and sand dune system seemingly left on earth for the purpose of great golf. This really is the ‘kitchen sink’ site of links golf, with everything from a dramatic rocky headland, sandy white beach and cove, enormous dune corridors and holes set right down on the rocky shoreline thrown into the mix. Plus you have the highest lighthouse on any golf course in the world. From all angles the Cape Wickham development looks a winner, with the course likely to debut highly in Australian Golf Digest’s Top 100 list in March. Despite its many accolades already, this was far from a sure thing and an almighty risk for developer Duncan Andrews to take.
Above - waves crash beyond the par four 2nd green at Cape Wickham.
The Cape Wickham site was actually discovered by Andrew Purchase, former boss of golf course construction company Programmed Turnpoint. Purchase first ventured onto the island in 2011, falling in love with the site and buying a large chunk of freehold land immediately south of the lighthouse. The Purchase land was dramatic but steep, and overlooked some of the most spectacular coastal frontage anywhere in golf. After enlisting the help of Planet Golf’s own Darius Oliver to study the land and explore the possibilities, it became clear they would need to access crown land along the ocean as well as some additional dunes further to the south.
It was around this time that Oliver introduced little known American golf course designer Mike DeVries and successful golf entrepreneur Duncan Andrews to the property. Andrews, the owner and developer of Thirteenth Beach and The Dunes over in Victoria, was immediately smitten and agreed to finance the project subject to a long-term lease being issued by the Tasmanian authorities to use the coastal crown reserve. This land was essential to the routing of the golf course, with parts of the first three, final four and 10th through 12th holes touching this government land.
While the virtues of a golf course on some marginal dune land on a remote island might have seemed an easy argument to mount, in the case of Cape Wickham it was anything but simple. Building the golf course would mean destroying several thousand Short-tailed Shearwater burrows on the site, some of which were on the crown land. Shearwaters, or mutton-birds as they are more commonly known, are the most abundant seabird in Australia and breed in colonies across mainland Tasmania and its islands. Cape Wickham is home to as many as 40,000 burrows, and permission to build the golf course relied on the development team convincing the authorities, as well as the environmental lobby, of the project’s social and environmental upside. These upsides included obvious benefits like jobs and tourism onto the island, but equally the protection of the mutton-bird colony.
Above - looking back toward the 16th green, set against the rocks.
Each of the birds displaced by golf course construction at Cape Wickham would have ample room to relocate, and protection into the future through the closing of the rookery for local recreational harvesting and the removal of invasive weed species and threats such as cattle and feral cats. Although there were some areas initially where the birds tried digging into the fescue playing surfaces, generally the relocation has been a big success with the birds and the golf holes surviving and thriving harmoniously. Golf often gets a bad environmental rap, but here on King Island is an example of sensible planning and sensitive development working together to produce very favourable results for the island. There are certainly lessons here for future developers to follow.
Beyond the success of the planning process, the chief lesson to take from Cape Wickham is not to compromise on the golf. As Andrews and Oliver both pointed out, the only way for them to combat the remoteness of King Island was for the golf course to be singularly outstanding. ‘It would be hard to see this thing making any financial sense at all unless you were able to build something truly world-class.’ Oliver says. ‘We knew from day one that the site was good enough, and after considering hundreds of different options that the routing was as well. It was then just a matter of building great holes.’
The greatness of some of those holes is apparent at first glance. Others take a little more time to get a feel for. The opening stretch is incredible, and played atop a rocky peninsula the locals call Cape Farewell. It seems an appropriate name for the journey golfers embark upon. The very first hole features about as exhilarating a tee shot as you’ll find anywhere in the world, with big Bass Strait views and water lurking down the right. Although the fairway is quite wide, the landing area seems to shrink when the crosswinds pick up. The 2nd fairway is even wider and almost impossible to miss unless aggressively trying to drive up the narrow side. Its green rests spectacularly at the western tip of the Cape, near a collection of rocks often populated by visiting fur seals. The 3rd is then a longish par three played toward a pair of offshore islands, and with disaster waiting for those missing right. Fortunately there is a huge bailout area to the left and a green of 1,000 square metres to hit.
The most incredible part of the opening sequence is not how good the holes are, but how quickly they appear overwhelmed by the rest of the golf. The finishing run is ridiculously scenic. In between are some glorious inland holes and a four-hole stretch (9-12) around the turn that might trump anything we have in Australia.
Above - the extraordinarily spectacular par five 9th hole.
Pleasingly, the course that DeVries and Oliver designed is extremely wide and forgiving for the average golfer and bunkered sparingly around the greens to allow all sorts of creative approach and recovery shot options. The coastal scenery is ever-present but varied, and the lighthouse stands like a beacon on a number of holes, most notably the 4th where the golfer first turns inland and hits straight toward the giant target.
The vegetation is another beautiful feature, and wonderfully diverse with a mix of native grasses like marram and dune tussocks, to an array of low growing succulents and bushes along the shoreline.
The risk of sensory overload at Cape Wickham is very real and at times unexpected. Of the inland holes are a couple of genuine showstoppers, each with design features or settings not seen in this country before. The tiny par three 7th is angled like the 12th at Augusta but played across a pronounced chipping valley rather than a creek and with the back of its shallow green set at the base of a rock escarpment rather than a flower bed. Again the lighthouse stares you down as you hit the tee shot. The next is an intimidating par four with a partly blind tee shot played across a natural sandy waste, to a fairway that is enormously undulating and far more forgiving than it appears from the tee. Just as the rocky bank on 7 was unexpected, so too is the dizzying valley fairway that most closely resembles what you find somewhere like Barnbougle Dunes. The final inland hole is another beauty. Played downhill and with the prevailing wind, the long par four 14th bends around a string of bunkers and heads toward a charming natural punchbowl green set at the base of an enormous 80-foot sand dune known to the design team as ‘The Beast’.
The next is a par five that gets closest to the lighthouse, and a green pushed against the water looking out toward Victoria. The final three holes are also set along the ocean and are, quite simply, unforgettable. The views from the 16th fairway and 17th tee across Bass Strait and toward the Cape Farewell holes are sublime, while the 18th will make strong claims for the best finishing hole in the country - its fairway bending directly above the Victoria Cove beach, which is in play from the tee and also on the approach. The design here couldn’t match the setting any better, just one solitary bunker front left of the green to complicate play for those who drive too safely away from the water.
Above - Cape Wickham's beachside par four finishing hole.
All told, there are eight holes at Cape Wickham that run along the coast and another couple with greens that appear directly on the water. Every hole has an ocean view, and it’s hard to imagine any course anywhere on earth with quite as many thrills. Pebble Beach is the most obvious comparison because of its irregular coastline, but Wickham’s inland holes have far more drama and interest than Pebble’s and the site itself is much more rugged.
Ultimately Cape Wickham is a one-off and hard to compare to anything else. It’s a credit to Andrews, DeVries, Oliver, Purchase and all those involved in its creation for having the patience and resolve to see the project through and pull this off. Whether golfers visit King Island in sustainable numbers to play the course remains to be seen, but what is clear is this - those who do visit will get to experience one of the world’s best golf courses.
The Editors of Australian Golf Digest