Golf’s most cherished form is played on linksland, where the game originated. Its combination of fast running turf, sandy soils and wind-shaped terrain is irresistible. Yet, the opportunity to work with such land is rare and most modern architects must content themselves with the ersatz, faux links.
In Tom Doak’s portfolio the one course unequivocally set on linksland is Barnbougle Dunes. Plenty of his other sites – inland Ballyneal, clifftop Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers have their own attributes – but by the strictest definition, only Barnbougle Dunes is 100% pure links. All the contours were there and by modern golf architecture standards only teaspoons of earth were moved in its creation.
How the course came to fruition is interesting. When Australian Greg Ramsay was in his early 20s, he traveled around Tasmania to prepare a detailed report for the island’s government on how its golf offerings could be improved. As government is prone to do the report was ignored.
Yet, the intrepid Ramsay had identified a superb strip of dunesland that stretched 3,000 metres along the Tasman Sea. He approached Richard Sattler, the owner of the land, about building a golf course and simultaneously contacted Tom Doak and Australian professional golfer and architect Mike Clayton. A remarkably successful potato farmer, Sattler knew that the dunes were of little use for farming but the idea of golf seemed a stretch. Nonetheless, he gave Ramsay an option on the property and Ramsay set about to try to bring the course to fruition.
Initially, Bruce Hepner from Doak’s office toured the property with Clayton. Wonderful landforms for golf abounded making the site’s potential clear. What was murkier was how to finance such a project. Enter golf’s magic man for remote settings, Mike Keiser. Ramsay contacted Keiser, who had just seen his second course (Doak’s Pacific Dunes) at the hugely popular Bandon Dunes Resort open to world top 25 acclaim.
Over Christmas 2002, Keiser and Doak met at Barnbougle to compare notes. A first nine was somewhat self-evident in that golf holes needed to be nestled in the deep valleys that punctuated the landscape in an east/west direction. So narrow are the dunes that any par 4 running north/south would have extended into the neighboring farmland.
Tweaks along the way to the routing included breaking the planned par 5 third into today’s third and fourth holes. This first draft par 5 would have finished behind the awesome blowout bunker now on the fourth but against the prevailing wind was thought too fierce.
Another key piece of the puzzle arose when Clayton suggested pivoting the seventh and sending it in a westerly direction as opposed to the run of holes around it that head east through valleys. This tiny little one shotter plays to an exposed shelf green and as such, made for a distinctly welcome contrast to the other one shotters with their sideboards and punchbowl features. Clayton recalls, ‘I remember standing on what became the 7th tee with Tom and Brian Schneider when Tom asked if we thought it should play toward the beach (at a right angle to what it is). It looked better to both Brian and I heading the way it did – it reversed the direction of holes and playing amid strong crosswinds would have been brutal.’
Initially, co-designers Doak and Clayton had much of the back nine reversed. The tenth played down today’s eighteenth with the beach on the left like the first at Machrihanish. Keiser thought the course needed to end with more punch than an eighteenth playing up today’s comparably flat tenth fairway.
Tom went back for another look around. At first, he had shied away from the low lying area that today’s seventeenth fairway occupies. Watching the wind whip the sand and deposit it into this valley seemed like a battle best avoided. Yet, climbing up a far dune, turning west and visualizing this 400 metre hole to a natural green site was ultimately too compelling. Keiser was equally impressed and convinced Sattler what a truly special piece of ground he had and invited him to Bandon to see how a resort could be run. Sattler bought into the vision, the money was raised and construction began in 2003.
In the end the routing became a classic figure 8 with the clubhouse in the middle. Herbert Fowler demonstrated the merit of such a configuration at Eastward Ho! on Cape Cod in 1922 and Pete Dye popularized it at two of his most noted designs, The Ocean Course at Kiawah and Whistling Straits. Within these loops at Barnbougle the playing corridors regularly shift 15 to 25 degrees from the preceding hole. Such subtle changes in direction make the golfer continually re-calculate the wind’s effect on any given hole/shot.
Doak considers Barnbougle to be the windiest site upon which he has worked. Normally, there is a headwind going out to the fifth tee. Clayton notes, ‘ The prevailing winds were a big consideration during construction. Except for 17 and 18, all the ‘short’ holes play into the normal wind and all the ‘long’ ones play with the wind behind. It works well – but when it does blow the other way (it’s never that strong when it does) 1 (because it’s reachable with two great shots) and 4 are more fun – especially 4 because it gives so many more a chance to take on the bunker and the green. The run of holes 5, 6, 8 (a three shotter when it’s into the wind) 9, 10 and 11 are really strong and fun to play. Downwind, 7 is very difficult but 12 becomes drivable (it would be so much fun to watch really top-class players trying to drive the ball onto that green).’
He goes on, ‘Surprisingly, I’ve found, in a way, the course to be more difficult with no wind. It sounds silly but there is no help on the ‘long’ holes (5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14) and they play much harder. 5 goes from being a 6 iron with a normal, decent wind to a 2 iron. 6 is a drive and middle iron as are 9 and 10. 8 is brutal and controversial. I like it and Tom would say it’s a hole which clearly demonstrates why Geoff Ogilvy is a much better player than I am. I would have to hit a good drive and a 3 wood but he rips it onto the green with a 6 iron. Holes where I hit a 4 iron and he hits a 9 are less demonstrative. Maybe every course needs a hole like that?’
During construction, Clayton regularly flew in from Melbourne while Brian Schneider, fresh from Cape Kidnappers, lived on site as Doak’s Lead Associate. Talented interns including George Waters, Kyle Franz, Chad Grave, Philippe Binette from Renaissance Golf Design came and went during the project. Ashley Mead ran the project for Clayton and when you add in the skills of Jason McCarthy, the highly talented shaper from Clayton’s firm, there was amassed an unusually gifted set of people. Best of all, these appreciative twenty-something year olds knew that they might never work on such pure linksland ever again – and they were determined to make the most of it.
Throughout the endeavor the camaraderie was excellent and their enjoyment is reflected in the final design. From Schneider’s perspective, Barnbougle Dunes is both his favorite project and course to play. In part, he says with a smile, because many of the holes suit his game. He contends that to call a 300 metre hole ‘drivable’ is a bit silly when most of us don’t hit it past 230 metres. Therefore, a hole like the fourth that requires but a 200 metre carry to “open-up” the punchbowl green is welcoming. Schneider most admires how the hole is ‘…in reach for a broad spectrum of players without necessarily being any easier for the man off scratch.’ As is true at Machrihanish and North Berwick, everyone seems to enjoy the thrill of the shots asked of them at Barnbougle while the tiger never quite seems to score as low as he hopes.
On a return inspection here in February 2016, Schneider was delighted to find that the purity of the fescue (70%) and seaside bent (30%) grassing scheme remains high. He states, ‘the turf has matured beautifully, better than I could have hoped with fescue strongly predominating’ and that means that the course invariably plays firm and running. Schneider places great importance in the fact that you ‘…can’t just pull a wedge and hit to a set distance, you have to play shots around this course.’ We see what he means below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 505 metres; By definition, remote courses require travel and the first swings of the day aren’t guaranteed to be a stiff traveler’s proudest moments. Hence, some of the world’s best remote courses (Sand Hills, The Red Course at Dismal River, Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs, and here) begin with a par 5. It’s a nice way to edge into a highly anticipated round, even if pace of play experts wince. Besides, Barnbougle is rarely chock-a-block for tee times.
Second hole, 380 metres; The merits of Barnbougle Dunes are straightforward: the highs are high (i.e. world class holes are laced throughout) and lows don’t exist. Some quibble about the first and second holes as they don’t occupy scintillating dune country. Yet, the approach to the second green, especially when the hole is in the back half of the deep green, is among the most vexing shots on the course. Thank goodness the architects didn’t junk up the landscape at the start with silly features. Instead, a trio of low profile fairway bunkers down the left combined with a long, narrow raised green that opens from the left make for an endlessly interesting dilemma. The hole might look effortless – and perhaps simplistic to the undiscerning – but the quality of the golf more than carries the day.
Third hole, 340 metres; Take a look at the design elements brought to bear here. First, the tee placed high and right in the dunes creates an attractive diagonal carry into the fairway. Second, a 80 metre long natural hog’s back ridge was exploited to perfection down the middle of the fairway. The fairway’s high right side (blind from the tee) is often the preferred spot for one’s tee ball. If the golfer plays “safely” toward the wide, visible fairway left, the ridge shunts his tee ball into an ever disadvantaged position. Third, a magnificent blowout bunker was sculpted on the outside of the dogleg to ‘turn’ the hole right. Fourth, the orientation of the green is toward the right portion of the fairway with one caveat: a wonderful back right hole location that is best accessed from the far left of the fairway. Finally, the green is one of the deepest on the course and of the fallaway variety, meaning it slopes away from the player in the fairway. Time has shown at courses like Yale and St. Andrews that getting a short iron close to a flag on a large target is perversely difficult. So, are we in the dunes? Yes. Is that what makes the hole enduring? No. It’s all those thoughtful architectural elements.
Fourth hole, 270 metres; Barnbougle Dunes showcases several distinctive short par 4s. This one is of the drivable genre and because the green is located in a natural punchbowl, there are countless ways for a tee ball to be gathered down onto the putting surface. A golfer is rightly irritated when conditions permit if he doesn’t take a mighty swipe at the green from the tee. Of course, to create the proper tension between architect and player, a downside for a failed attempt must exist. Indeed, the deepest blowout bunker on the course is on a direct line from tee to green as well as a pair of other bunkers on the farther dune. All three are hazards in the truest sense to be avoided. Doak recalls, ‘I will never forget the day I went out to flag the bunkers for #4. The big one to the right of the fairway was a natural blowout, but I was worried about people losing balls in the marram grass on their pitch shots, so I decided to add the two on the dune short left of the green … there are quite a few bunkers at Barnbougle which were added for that reason, as we were on a tight budget and didn’t have the money for a lot of extra irrigated turf. The combined effect of the three bunkers, each smaller than the last, took me by surprise, but it was then I realized how special the hole was going to be.’
Fifth hole, 200 metres; The golfer turns toward the clubhouse and plays easterly for eight of the next ten holes. Hunkered down in its own valley, this green complex accepts a wide variety of shots. What the author particularly admires is that there is no clear delineation between the tight fescue playing surface surrounding the green and the putting surface. The fescues blend harmoniously and constitute one massive playing surface snuggled in the dunes. In this elevated form of golf, the spot for one’s ball to land isn’t the green itself but its surrounds. Inventiveness and imagination soar when compared to the deadly dull brand of point-to-point golf where the ball lands with a splat on a soft surface.
Sixth hole, 380 metres; Holes can look good and sometimes play as well as they look. This wild and wooly one is a natural, played through a valley to a green high on a dune. In truth the dunes might actually be a bit too big but what a good problem for the architects to have to overcome. Conflict is created by a dune’s shoulder that protrudes from the right as it compromises the golfer’s desire to approach the green from that side. As the player edges left, his angle of approach progressively worsens due to the green’s left to right tilt and steep right bank with tight fescue that shunts balls away.
Seventh hole, 110 metres; Evil incarnate, this little monster deserves its place beside other card wrecking short one-shotters like the seventh at Pebble Beach and County Down and the famous Postage Stamp at Troon. Under equal wind conditions, it would be fascinating to see which of this quartet would play the hardest for the tiger. This green is wider than a couple of those … but that’s the sole comfort. All four frequently play in the wind, which amps up the misery index. To say that instant death greets a ball left or long is wishful thinking as recovery generally turns into protracted agony. Not dissimilar to the twelfth at Augusta National, there is relief when the golfer puts this outstanding hole in his rear view mirror. Doak gives Clayton gobs of credit for envisioning this hole and it joins the fourth and thirteenth as Tom’s three favorites on the course.
Eighth hole, 445 metres; No doubt this hole has the ‘fair police’ gnashing their teeth. It is the longest two shotter on the course AND plays over the most raucous, tumbling land. Split into an upper and lower fairway, the upper left side is the more direct route home but the lower one is wider and provides more level stances. What to do? There is no clear answer, which is quite refreshing. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, the golfer is always left after each round with a few shots to mull over that he might tactically play different the next time.
Ninth hole, 400 metres; Fescue fairways are a luxury for a skilled architect. Downwind, such fairways can be used to help the golfer (e.g. the eleventh hole where a well struck tee ball receives a boost forward and brings the green within reach) or hurt him (e.g. here where a diagonal drop in the fairway propels long tee balls farther right (and out of position) from where several deep bunkers must be carried on the approach). Clayton writes, ‘The fescue makes it the only course (later, Lost Farm and Cape Wickham) using the proper grass for golf. Here, the feel of club on turf and ball is unmatched in Australia where almost all the golf is on bermuda or kikuyu. People often complain about the condition because they are so used to fairways they consider perfect at Kingston Heath and Metropolitan. IMO, they don’t understand how much better the club, ball contact is from fescue. And, of course, there is ‘perfect turf’ and turf that is perfect for golf. Barnbougle (and Lost Farm) feature the perfect turf for golf – and IMO make them the best conditioned courses in the country because it allows for the best form of playing the game. Hitting an iron 40 yards short and left of the 9th green and watching it feed all the way around the hill and onto the green is so much fun.’