One of the treasured qualities of the acclaimed links layouts of Great Britain and Ireland is the natural setting – wild windswept holes rolling between sand dunes that have been in existence for centuries are the norm.
Ocean Dunes would not be out of place on the east coast of Scotland or along an isolated beach in south-western Ireland. Instead, it occupies a stretch of King Island coastline seemingly purpose built by Mother Nature to be home to a links course.
Routed alongside, over and between massive unspoilt sand dunes, Ocean Dunes is a dramatic links where the golf is fun and challenging.
To construct a dramatic golfing playground in such an isolated place calls for great vision, which is where designer Graeme Grant and acclaimed course builder Bernie McMahon stepped up.
As a result of their determination, Ocean Dunes is as strategically stimulating as it is visually striking and can rightly take its place among the world’s best seaside courses.
The unpredictable nature of the conditions combined with the dramatic site ensures Ocean Dunes offers multiple personalities. One day it will be calm, even serene, with plenty of birdies on offer. Later that day, or the next, the wind will start putting a significant bend in the flagsticks and turn Ocean Dunes into a bogey-spewing brute. This is when it is recommended that you avoid the back tees (unless of course you’re a touring pro) and choose one of the three forward options.
All that said, my most enjoyable rounds at Ocean Dunes have been played in the wind, ranging from one-, two- and three-club breezes to a roaring westerly off the Southern Ocean. As far as I’m concerned, the wind brings out the very best of Ocean Dunes. Grant’s design, for the most part, encourages the far more interesting ground game and strategic approach rather than a power-hitting aerial route.
The course begins with a sidewinding par-5 where the opening drive needs to skirt a huge eye-catching blowout bunker right to find the two-tiered fairway. From the elevated tee, you can see the putting surface beyond the massive pit, lying close to the shoreline. The downhill approach into the green is the first of many visually striking moments during your round.
The next hole is all about strategy and features a green complex unlike any other in Australia, but more likely to have been created in the late 1800s in Scotland or Ireland. The 280-metre par-4 ends with a sliver of a target that’s 45 metres wide but only ten metres at its deepest point. All but the far-right edge of the split-level green is secreted between two dunes, which determines that the best approach is from the right edge of the fairway … not far from the out-of-bounds markers. An approach from the left, well away from any trouble off the tee, will leave a blind approach that needs to be played with a lofted club … hardly ideal in any wind.
One of the true highlights of a round comes at the 130-metre par-3 4th hole. Grant and McMahon were so determined to build one of the most exciting par-3s in Australia, the green – just metres from the ocean at high tide – was re-laid several times during construction after being inundated by sea foam. But they pushed on and the result is outstanding.
The tee shot is played over an inlet in the rocky coastline to a wide, shallow, two-level green perched just across the far side of the cove. A lone bunker cuts into the front of the green, while Disphyma (Pig Face) – which the hole is named after – covers some of the ground between the putting surface and the rocks. When the Pig Face is in bloom it just adds another level of majestic beauty to the hole.
The last time I played Ocean Dunes, the flag was in the right half of the green and the wind was blowing hard, very hard, off the right from about 3 o’clock as you look at the flag. Nothing gets the pulse racing more than hitting a tee shot 40 metres out over the heaving ocean and watching it drift back over dry land to find the putting surface. Great fun!
A similar challenge awaits at the opening of the back nine. The par-3 10th begins with the waves of Bass Strait lapping against the rocks bordering the tee complex. It rivals the 4th for visual majesty but is up to 80 metres longer, which can strike some fear as there is seemingly more ocean than land between tee and green. But there is a reachable stretch of fairway short of the green for those players not keen on flying their tee shot all the way to the putting surface.
The course turns inland from the par-5 12th and into an area of the layout that required more earth-moving than next to the shoreline.
Grant and McMahon’s inland holes are superb, with the short par-4 13th being a standout hole for mine. Played into the prevailing westerly wind, the green is not driveable but when the wind turns it can be found but only with a perfectly struck drive. Tee shots ideally land in a valley within the dunescape before a pitch to a narrow green with a steep drop-off to the left. And if you think the 13th green is a tight target, the next green will widen your eyes.
The 14th, a 115-metre downhill par-3, is played from a tee set high above the kidney-shaped, two-tiered green and is one of the most exposed points on the layout. There is no hiding from the wind and you need to try and keep your tee shot down out of the wind from the elevated tee.
The putting surface rises up to a raised plateau in the back third with steep drop-offs and bunkers to the side and beyond. Here, the ocean is in the distance and simply adds to the beauty of the backdrop, rather than contributing to the strategy of the play.
The course closes with arguably the hardest on the layout. The 430-metre 18th features a split fairway and a raised green framed by dunes that hide a view of the ocean. Played into the westerly wind, a par will be well-earned. There are strategic decisions to be made every step of the way on the home hole, just as there are throughout the layout, which makes a round at Ocean Dunes so bloody enjoyable.
LOCATION: 369 North Rd, Loorana, King Island. Ocean Dunes is a five-minute drive from King Island Airport.
CONTACT: 0448 544 653 (pro shop); 0447 830 202 (enquiries).
DESIGNER: Graeme Grant (2016).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass (greens), fine fescue (fairways/tees).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Martin Rose.
GREEN FEES: $175 (18 holes); $140 (off peak times).
GETTING THERE: Flights to King Island operate from northern Tasmania and Melbourne (from Tullamarine, Essendon and Moorabbin airports) via several airlines, including Regional Express, Vortex Air, Sharp Airlines and King Island Airlines. Various tour package providers also include King Island in their golf holiday offerings.
PLAY AND STAY: Ocean Dunes offers a range of play and stay packages that include all golf on the island, car hire and accommodation.
ACCOLADES: No.6 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Public Access Courses ranking for 2021.