Sitting on King Island in the middle of Bass Strait, Cape Wickham is one of Australia’s best golf courses.
Excited to be travelling to see Australia’s newest golf course, it was hard not to think: “This had better be good”.
Not because it’s a chore to play golf – I’d travel the length and breadth of Australia to play golf, but because this new golf course is in a seriously isolated location. And if this venture is to be successful, the golf courses need to be good, really good, to keep the customers coming back.
And by the time I left King Island, I’d already started planning for my next trip. Yes, it’s that good.
Cape Wickham is one of two new courses that have been constructed on King Island (about 100km north-west of Tasmania, in the middle of Bass Strait) in the last 12 months, the other being Ocean Dunes that is due to open all 18 holes in the coming months.
Flying is the only way to get to King Island (we flew via VortexAir from Moorabbin in Melbourne) and after landing at the newly refurbished King Island airport, it’s about a 50 minute drive north to Cape Wickham. The site was first identified as a perfect place for a golf course in 2011 by Andrew Purchase who bought the land and set about having it transformed into a world class golf course.
Duncan Andrews (owner and developer of The Dunes and Thirteenth Beach) and golf writer Darius Oliver were brought in as golf course consultants. Oliver and Andrews then got American golf course designer Mike DeVries interested in the project. DeVries’ design team had received plaudits for their restoration of Alister MacKenzie’s Meadow Club near San Francisco and their superb designs on difficult terrain including Greywalls Golf course in Michigan.
The sight of Australia’s largest lighthouse greets you as you arrive at Cape Wickham and it would have been the first thing DeVries saw when he first saw the property. Not long after he was on site to oversee its design and construction.
After passing the lighthouse, and you’re soon drawn towards the most striking aspect of the golf course: the 18th hole. The closing hole at Cape Wickham wraps around Victoria Cove and may well be Australia’s most spectacular golf hole.
It’s a tease to see before the round has even started but as we found out, it’s the icing on the cake of a very special place that ticks one very important box when it comes to a golf course; it’s loads and loads of fun to play. And one you’ll be wanting to come back to as soon as possible.
Despite the dramatic coastline, a sign of the subtleties course designers Mike DeVries and Darius Oliver have built into Cape Wickham are evident at the first tee. The greens, tees and fairways are all fescue grass and the practice green flows straight into the first tee with no discernible division between them.
This first tee area is a throwback to the way golf courses were originally constructed and in combination with the spectacular views, it is a perfect precursor to the course that lays ahead.
The view from the tee of the 340m par-4 opening hole is spectacular. The fairway hugs the cliff top and finishes with a raised, two-tiered green that will test your short game and completes one of the most memorable opening holes in Australian golf, if not the world.
The short, par-4 second hole is generally played from the tees to the right of the first green with the fairway extending along the coastline to a deceptive, big green that slopes from front to back.
I can highly recommend playing the hole from the left tee that forms part of a wonderful rolling pure links-style area that encompasses the first and fourth greens, and second tee. This tee offers a vastly different angle to the fairway where bigger hitters will be tempted to smash driver at the green but will likely finish in the left swale unless they find the narrow ledge on the right leading to the green.
On first impressions, the par-3 third hole looks a brute, especially playing into the prevailing wind. But the bunker-free green complex is a generous one and while most golfers will need a long-iron or more, you’ll be staring at a straight-forward chip and putt if you get the ball anywhere around the green.
The lighthouse looks like the perfect line from the fourth tee. And while it offers a nice spot to play your second on the 393m par-4 fourth hole, there is plenty of fairway to the right that will leave you a shorter but more difficult approach – one that must come in over two small bunkers placed 30 metres short of the green. In true links style, a bump-and-run is ideal for getting close to the hole on what is a deceptively difficult green to stop the ball.
The short par-4 fifth hole heads back towards the ocean and a good drive down the narrow fairway will leave you a short pitch to the green. It’s a good place to catch your breath before playing the roller-coaster par-5 sixth that begins with a relatively straight forward drive – the right side giving you a better angle, and shorter avenue to the green.
But the approach to the green is where the fun really begins.
A left-hand pin means a blind approach over a dune that commands the front left and a miss to the right will see you facing a tough uphill chip or putt. Multiple swales and valleys on this green mean there are many different ways of getting the ball to the hole. It also means a two-putt is not assured once you’re on the short stuff.
The 7th hole is a curious par-3. Upon first look it seems you need to carry the ball all the way to a green perched in the dunes, but after a couple of tee shots you’ll soon realise that the bulk of the danger is behind the green.
A short pitch over the left hand mound can surprisingly feed close to a few pin positions, while finishing short and right (which at first appears a no-go zone) is not such a bad miss compared to going long. You’ll be wanting to replay this hole straight away, no matter what you scored.
A blind tee shot starts the eighth hole that opens up into a wide fairway set in a valley before rising to a green guarded by a few bunkers on the left. Although I particularly loved the natural fairway amphitheatre, it’s all but forgotten by the time you’re negotiating the next four holes – one of the most exhilarating stretches of holes in Australia.
The drama ahead isn’t obvious from the tee at the 488m par-5 ninth hole. A drive across dunes looks innocent enough but you’ll be mentally challenged standing over your second. And possibly third.
Long hitters will be tempted to have a go at the most exciting shot on the golf course, while shorter hitters will be in two, three and four minds about which club and direction to lay-up.
In short, there is no easy approach to the ninth green that sits on the far side of a deep gorge – one mound on the front right, a big dune on the left and a steep drop off the back. It’s a beautiful thing to see and will have golfers gnashing their teeth or pumping their fists.
It’s one of the most unique pieces of golf architecture in Australian golf, that arguably could be made even more interesting if the front hillock was tightly mown allowing for some extra craziness on the approach shot.
The 320m par-4 10th hole heads dramatically down to the ocean, finishing with a rolling green nestled among some dangerous bunkers. Finish in the wrong part of the green here and you’re facing a two-putt at best.
The 136m par-3 11th hole will be the most memorable for many golfers. And rightly so. Sitting among the rocks on the ocean edge, the tee shot requires accuracy to a green that can be difficult to hold down-breeze. It’s a stunning setting that ensures whatever goes on the card is largely irrelevant.
Like a playlist featuring all your favourite songs, the hits just keep on coming at the 12th hole – a short par-4 that bends from left-to-right around the coastline. The green complex is bigger than it looks from the tee but the fairway narrows at around 200 metres, so you may find yourself second-guessing your tee shot. Big hitters can go for the green but go left at any point and you’re all but dead in the water.
The par-5 13th hole takes you back away from the ocean with a generous landing area for your drive. The right-hand side is the best place to lay-up, but three small bunkers await down the right/centre of the fairway making for an awkward second shot. Another small bunker sits just left of the green for those who pull their shots a little left that can leave you without much of a back-swing depending on where you finish. I know it well.
The 14th hole begins the closing set of holes on the lighthouse/northern side of the golf course. Golfers may get a sense they can open up from the elevated tee that needs to avoid a string of fairway bunkers on the left. The blind approach to a punch-bowl green will have golfers annoyed and exhilarated in equal numbers. You’ll need to play this hole a number of times to know if a bump-and-run or a lofted shot is most appropriate. I’m still not sure.
A small bunker to denote the forward tee and an escarpment to the right does a great job to throw off your perspective the first time you play the 532m par-5 15th hole. But we found the split-level right-to-left fairway on the approach to the green a little awkward.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a wonderful golf hole and the closest point to the imposing Cape Wickham lighthouse but we don’t think it allows for as many options to get the ball home – in contrast to very nearly every other hole on the golf course.
The difficult par-4 16th begins the final three holes coming back along the ocean. A good drive to an undulating fairway will leave a long-iron in hand (especially into the prevailing wind) with a sloping lie; classic links golf. My only other criticism (which says a lot about the golf course) comes on the approach to this hole.
With a big drop-off behind and to the right of this green, the low punch shot into the wind (so synonymous with links golf) is ideal here, however it’s thwarted somewhat by the central bunker in front of the green. I wonder if this could have been a better hole (and more fun for high-handicappers) without the bunker, thereby attracting more bump-and-run options along the high ridge-line, with the swale on the right a solid penalty for anything straying off-line.
Note: It says something about this golf course when my only criticisms feel like nit-picking at minor aspects of two holes at Cape Wickham.
I loved the par-3 17th hole that may be under-appreciated due to so many other great holes at Cape Wickham.
An elevated tee to a green nestled across a rocky shoreline means a left-to-right shape is ideal but there are some fun results if the ball happens to skirt some of the mounds to the left of the green. The hole can feel very different depending on if there is a front or back pin due to a central ridge in the middle of the green.
[bctt tweet=”The 18th hole at Cape Wickham may well be the best closing hole in Australia.” username=”AussieGolfer”]
As we mentioned earlier, the 18th hole at Cape Wickham may well be the best closing hole in Australia. The tee shot requires a carry across to a fairway that hugs the beach at Victoria Cove – and it’s up to you how much beach you cut off.
If your tee shot sprays right, you’re welcome to play from the beach which is considered in play. It offers one last opportunity at ‘hero’ status that may see plenty of golfers taking the perilous, sandy short-cut.
If you’re a little less erratic and you find the fairway you’re left with an approach shot to a narrowing fairway and green. The bunker placed short and left is genius – not overbearing and detracting from the natural look of the hole but playing in the mind of those desperate to avoid the ocean on the right.
You’ll be grinning from ear-to-ear if you can complete the round with par or better here. Either way few golfers will be a without a smile as they leave the 18th green, knowing they’ve just played one of the best holes in Australian golf.
Despite its spectacular setting and a treat on the eyes, the most appealing thing about Cape Wickham for me is its subtleties.
It would have been tempting for course designers Mike DeVries and Darius Oliver have let the land do the talking at Cape Wickham and nestled in a wonderful golf course that can quite proudly claim to be one of Australia’s best.