An island that was once home to little more than “two goats and a lighthouse”, is today the spectacular setting for one of Australia’s best golf courses.
There are few, if any, more beautiful settings on the planet to play golf than in the heart of Queensland’s world-famous Whitsunday Islands at the Hamilton Island Golf Club.
I’m certainly not alone in singing the praises of this Peter Thomson and Ross Perrett-designed layout and the million-dollar views you can experience from every corner of the course.
“It is one of the most beautiful golfing venues in the world,” says one of Queensland’s favourite golfing sons, Ian Baker-Finch.
“The Whitsundays are the Greek Islands of Australia, with better weather, spectacular beaches and an easy-going lifestyle and Hamilton Island lies right in the middle of it. I love it.
“The golf course is spectacular. It can be a tough course because there is always some kind of wind. But if you go there with the idea it’s going to be a beautiful day, and a great opportunity for some spectacular photography, take in the views and enjoy the course. Amazing!”
While most of Baker-Finch’s post-playing career has been spent behind a microphone as a TV broadcaster following the PGA Tour in the United States, he has also been involved in other businesses including course design, which saw him see the site of the current layout 12 years before it opened for play in 2010.
“I have a great affinity for the course,” Baker-Finch said.
“Back in 1998, I walked across the property through the tall grass and through the rocks laying out a course as our design company wanted the job of building the course. The army corps of engineers made it very difficult during the approval process, which is why it took another 12 years for it to happen.”
Dating back to the late 80s, there were plenty of people who could see the potential for a world-class golf course on Dent Island, Hamilton Island’s closest neighbour. All that was needed was significant funding as well as a willingness to move heaven and earth to bring the layout to life. In 2003, the first piece of the puzzle – money – was solved.
That was the year wine export pioneer and world-renowned yachtsman, Bob Oatley, purchased Hamilton Island for $200 million and the six years that followed he invested another $300 million into the upgrade of the resort isle.
A significant part of that investment included the construction of the Hamilton Island course on Dent Island, which, according to Ross Perrett, was one of the hardest sites he and Peter Thomson ever designed a course on.
“The course looks beautiful and serene now … I can tell you it wasn’t before it was built,” Perrett said.
“It was a hard build because it was rocky … very rocky. Before the golf course, Dent Island had two goats and a lighthouse and that was about it.”
RIGHT: A view and hole to remember – the long, downhill par-4 18th. PHOTO: Gary Lisbon.
Dent Island is a tropical tree and scrub-covered monolith that rises steeply, to about 145 metres at its highest point, from the aquamarine waters of the Coral Sea below. The course can only be reached by ferry from the Hamilton Island marina and as you cross the Dent Island passage there is little to suggest a golf course lies on the ridges and cliff-tops high above.
It only takes a few holes into the round to really appreciate what an incredible feat of engineering, course design and construction it was to create a layout across such dramatic and rugged terrain.
Perrett recalls the first visit he and Thomson made to Dent Island to “get a feel” for what lay ahead during construction.
“We couldn’t find any flat land to start with,” Perrett laughs.
It was early 2006 and Thomson was already in his late 70s. But his excitement for the job ahead could not be dented, despite the difficulties that lay ahead.
“Peter astounded me with his enthusiasm to walk around the site,” Perrett recalls. “He was dodging rocks bigger than footballs that were hidden in the high grass. But he was so keen to see how the course was going to take shape.”
“It was a hard build because it was rocky … very rocky. Before the golf course, Dent Island had two goats and a lighthouse and that was about it.” – Co-designer, Ross Perrett
There were 24 environmental impact statements completed – covering vegetation, water, the reef, wildlife and birds – before any land was turned on the course.
“So, there was a lot of work before we started. The Hamilton Island people who got the permits to build did a hell of a job,” Perrett says. “Many people would have given up but Bob Oatley had the belief that it could be done. He was patient and willing to tick the boxes to get it done.”
Once a construction date was set the first hurdle was to get all the heavy machinery onto the island, which was no mean feat given the steep cliffs, rocky shorelines and coral reefs that surround the island.
“The landing (jetty) that is there now came after the course was finished,” Perrett said.
“The landing we had to bring all the equipment on was very tricky. So, all the machinery – the bulldozers and earth-moving trucks – had to be barged across from the mainland and had to come onto the island at high tide.
“It was a difficult exercise and we had to be very careful because there is a coral reef right around the island. It was quite amazing really.”
Then came the task of clearing scrub, shaping the land and finding 18 holes across the dramatic landscape.
“The holes were tough to find,” Perrett says. “The first nine is in and around a valley and has a lake, which we raised about two metres, and that solved the water problem. The first four holes go out and then you loop back to finish the nine. The second nine was much more difficult to design.
“There’s a ‘razorback’ shaped ridge running south. The course runs out along the ridge but then there’s no way back, which is why there is a one-kilometre track between the 17th green and 18th tee. That also had its advantages because you get that beautiful view from the 18th tee to end the round.”
Building a golf course on an island was always going to be logistically tricky, and expensive. But the construction and design team became very resourceful to keep the costs down. When it came to sand-capping the course the cost could have blown the building budget.
“The cost to barge in sand from the mainland would have been prohibitive so we made our own sand on the island,” Perrett chuckles. “There were seven crushing machines on the island, and we crushed our own sand. We didn’t waste anything. Rocks the size of Volkswagens were crushed into beautiful sand.”
Hundreds of tons of crushed rock were turned into sand that formed the course’s foundations on which the Bermuda Tifeagle and couch playing surfaces would grow.
Then in August 2009, just days after Peter Thomson celebrated his 80th birthday, the first shots were struck on the layout that has since risen to become the No.14 ranked Public Access Course in Australia (Golf Australia magazine 2019) and one of the world’s most visually spectacular courses.
Asking Perrett to pick his favourite hole is like getting him to choose one of his grandkids over another.
“The land dictated where the par-3s would be and the course has a wonderful set of them,” Perrett says. “I think all the par-3s offer something different during the round.
“The course, as a whole, rates pretty good among all those (more than 230 courses) we were involved with designing.
“I’m very proud that we were able to overcome all the logistical challenges and build a course in a World Heritage marine park, which makes it unique in the world. That’s pretty special.”
It is, indeed, special.
The opening trio of holes – all cut into a ridge on the north side of the clubhouse – eases you into the round.
Then it is most definitely game on when you reach the par-3 4th, the first of Thomson and Perrett’s “wonderful set” of one-shotters. From the back markers, known as Hoop Pine, this 175-metre brute is played across a scrub-filled valley to a large, undulating green that is more exposed to the wind than any other hole on the front nine. The putting surface lies on a ridge where shots long and short left are gone for good. Played against the backdrop of distant Long Island and the mainland, as well as being beautifully framed by rocky outcrops, this is a hell of good hole. And if Perrett won’t say it, I will. This is the best hole on the course.
As Baker-Finch eluded to earlier, wind is ever-present during a round here. Even a zephyr can heavily influence the flight of shots as you find yourself regularly playing up and down dramatic slopes or across exposed ridges high above the ocean below. When your ball shoots up into the breeze here, you’re putting the shot result into the lap of the golfing Gods.
The trio of holes bookended by the par-3 14th and 16th holes, are not only visually spectacular but they ask questions of your ball-striking skill, club selection and golfing bravery.
The 14th can be played from tees spread from 150 metres, to 143 and as short as 113 metres. No matter where you peg your ball up, the tee shot needs to be perfectly struck. The only ‘good’ miss here is left of the putting surface as five bunkers ring the remainder edges of the green. Any ball dropping short or drifting right into the scrub will never be seen again.
The following hole can prove to be significantly longer than the scorecard suggests, despite playing downhill. From the tips, it is 387 metres to the green with the prevailing wind here into your face. The key here is keeping every shot from tee to green under the wind to avoid drifting wide of the narrow fairway and green. Make a bogey or better here and you can crack a smile and soak in the view as you walk to the 16th tee.
If the wind was into you on 15, it will be behind you on 16, which adds to the difficulty of club selection from the elevated tee of the 160-metre par-3. Perched high above the waters of the Whitsundays Passage to the right, the smallish green has been carved out of a steep hill to the left and only those tee shots that finish short or on the putting surface will provide the opportunity of making a par.
No matter what the scorecard looks like at the conclusion of your round at Hamilton Island, you will have had a great time. There are some fun shots and holes, there are also plenty of tough ones thrown into the mix. But there is also the sensory overload of visually striking views, the smell of the sea and feel of the tropical sun that guarantees any day on the course at Hamilton Island is bound to be a memorable one.
LOCATION: Dent Island, Whitsunday Passage.
CONTACT: (07) 4948 9760.
DESIGNERS: Peter Thomson and Ross Perrett (2009).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bermuda TifEagle (greens), Greenlees Park couch (fairways, tees and rough).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Brad Hole.
GREEN FEES: $160 (18 holes, including ferry transfers from Hamilton Island and GPS-fitted electric golf cart). Club hire: $45 per person.
FACILITIES: The stunning clubhouse offers views of Passage Peak, the Coral Sea and surrounding islands. As well as a bar and outstanding restaurant, there’s also a well-stocked Pro Shop and locker rooms.
ACCOMMODATION PACKAGES: Hamilton Island has a large range of accommodation options available from premium luxury through to affordable island bungalows.
The club is offering a Golf Getaway Package including three nights’ accommodation, daily breakfast as well as a round of golf starting from $645 per person twin share.
For more details visit the website www.hamiltonisland.com.au or call 1300 091 884.
* This package is available for travel between April 19 and July 31, 2021.