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A Battle with The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island

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“The hardest golf course in the United States.”

Easily the most intimidating group of words ever assembled. As subjective as the honor might be, when the folks at Golf Digest awarded The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island with this dubious distinction, it wasn’t without cause. One needs to look no further than the second round of the 2012 PGA Championship and its average score of 78 — including 13 rounds of 85 or worse — as proof of Pete Dye’s ultimate gift to the masochistic golfer.

What fate could that possibly hold for a devoted patron of the local muni with a 6 handicap? I was scared to find out.

The history of The Ocean Course was close to mind as the resort shuttle meandered through the marshes of Kiawah Island. “The War by the Shore.” Calc’s shank. Langer’s putt. Rory’s pre-toothache dominance. The opportunity to walk alongside this history was a treat of the bucket list variety. The only question was whether at the end of the day I’d have two things in common with Mark Calcavecchia: A love of the Florida Gators and nightmares from Kiawah Island.

The greeting from The Ocean Course caught me a little by surprise. The gentle breeze I had observed back at The Sanctuary hotel was now a 20 to 30 mph onslaught, striking an even greater fear of Dye’s notorious monster. In addition, a nearly empty golf course meant that I would take on this beast alone; just me, my caddie, and four hours of forced conversation amongst strangers. The upside, I assumed, would be just a single witness to the carnage that was about to take place.

And then I birdied No. 1.

Two straightforward pars were to follow, and brought with them that inevitable voice in every golfer’s head. Maybe, just maybe, today was my day. A day where David would take down Goliath and declare victory for weekend warriors everywhere.

And then I tripled No. 4.

The Ocean Course was just toying with me, opening with a serving of downwind kindness, before turning into the teeth of the wind for nine straight holes of battle. Breaking putts stayed straight, balls wobbled on greens, flagsticks bent in unnatural states, and easy 7’s became hard 4’s. By the 14th tee, where we finally turned for home, I was a worn down shell of a man.

The scorecard told a slightly different story. Like the opening holes, the round had mixed flashes of brilliance — draining a 50-foot birdie on No.8 — with equal doses of harsh reality –- another triple on No. 13. Yet I had somehow managed to keep clear of the sand dunes and wire grass, and the voice in my head returned to kindly point out the chance of a score starting with “7” rather than “8.” A result that seemed impossible back on the first tee, but that was still five long holes away.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island

The wind may have been in my favor now, but The Ocean Course and my brain were both plotting against me. The former sought to use the crashing waves of the Atlantic to distract me, while the latter constantly displayed a one-man leaderboard. When my 7 iron found the green on No. 18, the call from Ben Wright rang out:

“He’s got a chance. He’s got a very good chance for a 79 on the hardest golf course in America.”

And then I three-putted for an 81.

At the start of the day, I had predicted a score of 92. The end result should have been a reason to pop a bottle of champagne like the 1991 Ryder Cup team, but instead I felt utterly defeated. The Ocean Course had taken everything out of me, using the wind, natural beauty, and an incredible layout to lull me into a state of vulnerability. In a way she’s like the girl in history class that you help cheat on tests. She let’s you believe you’ve got a chance, but in the end, you never really do.

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D.J. Jones is a lifelong golfer and plays to a 6 handicap when he’s not too busy pursuing his other great passion – travel. Tag along with his golf and travel adventures on his blog, The World of Deej.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. JR

    Apr 29, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Nice read…played it in feb and had a similar experience. I made the turn at 38, Then the in your face 25mph winds and rain came. 10-14 Bogie, double, double, bogie, bogie beat me down. In the picture you used of #12 (or 11), I was in all 3 of those bunkers that day.

  2. rulle35

    Apr 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    HA! Good article. I enjoyed reading it and I was pulling for you after reading about the start, my heart sank for you on no.4. 🙁

    I love personal stories of golf triumph. Better luck next time!

  3. Michael

    Apr 19, 2013 at 8:52 am

    I’ve been able to play the Ocean Course a few times and it’s still the most visually intimidating/confusing course I’ve played. Like you, I managed to birdie #1 and #2 a few times and had visions of even par in my head. The back 9 brought all of that back to earth…very tough course but very fun. 81 in those conditions is a pretty darn good score. Great writeup!

  4. David

    Apr 19, 2013 at 5:03 am

    I played The Island course back in March 2013, I agree with you it was one of the hardest courses I have played. Our green conditions were 13 on the meter and 20 mph wind, I felt like you ,beat down when I got through shot a 86 that felt like a 68. Very good test of human body and golf.

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Courses

Kingston Heath: The Hype is Real

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We touched ground late in the afternoon at Melbourne Airport and checked in very, very late at hotel Grand Hyatt. Don’t ask about our driving and navigating skills. It shouldn’t have taken us as long as we did. Even with GPS we failed miserably, but our dear friend had been so kind to arrange a room with a magnificent view on the 32nd floor for us.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The skyline in Melbourne was amazing, and what a vibrant, multicultural city Melbourne turned out to be when we later visited the streets to catch a late dinner. The next morning, we headed out to one of the finest golf courses that you can find Down Under: Kingston Heath. We had heard so many great things about this course, and to be honest we were a bit worried it almost was too hyped up. Luckily, there were no disappointments.

Early morning at Kingston Heath C) Jacob Sjöman.

Here’s the thing about Kingston Heath. You’re driving in the middle of a suburb in Melbourne and then suddenly you see the sign, “Kingston Heath.” Very shortly after the turn, you’re at the club. This is very different than the other golf courses we’ve visited on this trip Down Under, where we’ve had to drive for several miles to get from the front gates to the club house.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Nevertheless, this course and its wonderful turf danced in front of us from the very first minute of our arrival. With a perfect sunrise and a very picture friendly magic morning mist, we walked out on the course and captured a few photos. Well, hundreds to be honest. The shapes and details are so pure and well defined.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Kingston Heath was designed by Dan Soutar back in 1925 with help and guidance from the legendary golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who added to its excellent bunkering system. Dr. MacKenzie’s only design suggestion was to change Soutar’s 15th hole from a 222-yard par-4 (with a blind tee shot) to a par-3. Today, this hole is considered to be one the best par-3 holes Down Under, and I can understand why.

I am normally not a big fan of flat courses, but I will make a rare exception for Kingston Heath. It’s a course that’s both fun and puts your strategic skills to a serious test. Our experience is that you need to plan your shots carefully, and never forget to stay out of its deep bunkers. They’re not easy.

The bunker shapes are brilliant. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Kingston Heath is not super long in distance, but it will still give you a tough test. You definitely need to be straight to earn a good score. If you are in Melbourne, this is the golf course I would recommend above all others.

Next up: Metropolitan. Stay tuned!

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Courses

Barnbougle Lost Farm: 20 Holes of Pure Joy

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Another early day in Tasmania, and we were exploring the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-design, Barnbougle Lost Farm. The course was completed in 2010, four years after the neighbor Barnbougle Dunes, resulting in much excitement in the world of golf upon opening.

Johan and I teed off at 10 a.m. to enjoy the course at our own pace in its full glory under clear blue skies. Barnbougle Lost Farm starts out quite easy, but it quickly turns into a true test of links golf. You will certainly need to bring some tactical and smart planning in order to get close to many of the pin positions.

The third hole is a prime example. With its sloping two-tiered green, it provides a fun challenge and makes you earn birdie — even if your tee and approach shots put you in a good position. This is one of the things I love about this course; it adds a welcome dimension to the game and something you probably don’t experience on most golf courses.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The 4th is an iconic signature hole called “Sals Point,” named after course owner Richard Sattler’s wife (she was hoping to build a summer home on the property before it was turned into a golf course). A strikingly beautiful par-3, this hole is short in distance but guarded with luring bunkers. When the prevailing northwesterly wind comes howling in from the ocean, the hole will leave you exposed and pulling out one of your long irons for the tee shot. We left No. 4 with two bogeys with a strong desire for revenge.

Later in the round, we notice our scorecard had a hole numbered “13A” just after the 13th. We then noticed there was also an “18A.” That’s because Barnbougle Lost Farm offers golfers 20 holes. The designers believed that 13A was “too good to leave out” of the main routing, and 18A acts as a final betting hole to help decide a winner if you’re left all square. And yes, we played both 13A and 18A.

I need to say I liked Lost Farm for many reasons; it feels fresh and has some quirky holes including the 5th and the breathtaking 4th. The fact that it balks tradition with 20 holes is something I love. It also feels like an (almost) flawless course, and you will find new things to enjoy every time you play it.

The big question after trying both courses at Barnbougle is which course I liked best. I would go for Barnbougle Dunes in front of Barnbougle Lost Farm, mostly because I felt it was more fun and offered a bigger variation on how to play the holes. Both courses are great, however, offering really fun golf. And as I wrote in the first part of this Barnbougle-story, this is a top destination to visit and something you definitely need to experience with your golf friends if you can. It’s a golfing heaven.

Next course up: Kingston Heath in Melbourne.

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Courses

Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf

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We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.

Launceston Airport, Tasmania. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.

The locals at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.

“Tom’s Little Devil.” Hole No.7 at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.

After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.

The walk between the 4th and 5th holes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.

After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!

As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.

To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.

The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.

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