If you’ve played Bandon Dunes or Chambers Bay or the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay, you’ll have experienced some of the theatre of Kingsbarns, the stunning links just south of St Andrews in Scotland. Gnarly dunes, salt-licked winds, hillocks, basins, bulbous fairways like billowing green sheets of water frozen in time, greens of truth and justice. It’s world-class golfing real estate carved from the heather. It’s a sexy green beast, Kingsbarns.
But head down south – way down south – to Australia and the island state of Tasmania and you’ll find not one but four golf courses considered Kingsbarns’ equivalent, even its better. Recently-opened Cape Wickham on King Island immediately debuted at No.24 in Golf Digest’s world Top-50. Its neighbour Ocean Shores has just opened and will likely receive similar rave reviews once enough people have actually played it.
But for now, Kingsbarns’ established competition in the gorgeous-gnarly-green-beast stakes are the two courses on the north-east tip of Tasmania – Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm. And they’re a bit special. They are a long way away. But therein, perhaps curiously, lies their appeal.
When friends of potato-farming cattle man Richard Sattler heard that he’d be building an 18-hole golf course on the non-arable “links” land on his property “Barnbougle” – the one with the winding, trout-filled streams and lush chocolate soil that has produced so many award-winning Black Angus – they thought it was a joke. A golf course? Yeah, good one, mate. Knock up a roller disco, too. When it became apparent Sattler was going to build a course there by the little town of Bridport on the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, they though he’d lost his mind.
Today many of those doubters work for Sattler, be it on the course, in the bar, in the pro shop, or shuttling people between Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, the award-winning courses that have for so long occupied spots in most pundits’ top-50 courses in the world.
In the self-deprecating ways of the locals, Sattler calls himself an “old spud farmer”. But he’s actually a genius. He doesn’t really play golf, yet he somehow realised the potential of the land in terms of creating a “Scottish” links golf experience. And that were he to build something world-class in such a remote and unlikely location, that very unlikelihood would be part of its charm and one of the hooks. It was a classic case of if you build it they will come.
No such worries for Kingsbarns in Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife. Though relatively new (it was opened in 2001) compared with near neighbours such as the Old Course at St.Andrews (where golf has been played since 1552), it has never struggled to attract golfers. Kingsbarns is in the Kingdom of Fife which is right in the middle of golf’s middle earth.
And here we are. Or more to the point here you are, American golf tourist, considering where to go for your next world-class bucket list golf trip. And here I am, Australian golf travel writer, offering a few tips on choosing between Kingsbarns – which I have played and thoroughly recommend – and Barnbougle – where I hope one day to be buried. They are both fabulous. Subtly different in some ways, extremely different in others. It’s like the choice between Christmas or your birthday – both come with gifts. But if you absolutely must choose, here’s one man’s head-to-head assessment.
Kingsbarns wins this one. Kingsbarns is Barnbougle without the rough edges. Well, Barnbougle doesn’t have “rough” edges. It’s in world class condition. But Kingsbarns is mint. Kingsbarns is pure. Kingsbarns is Barnbougle but with b’rns and tam o’shanters and whisky and haggis. Kingsbarns is jaw-dangling gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it – Google up some pics, ogle the webcam. Kingsbarns is Barnbougle with a manicure. And the Scots have more money to pretty it all up.
Tie. Can’t split ‘em. Barnbougle is Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC – wild, with unquenchable lust. Kingsbarns is Raquel Welch in Bandolero! almost as wild but with greater refinement. As for the sexier one, it’s a moot point – it’s relative. They’re both so gorgeous and photogenic they are golf course porn. And if you love links golf, and rolling bowls and caverns and chutes, and all by the raging tempest of the sea from which fly licks and welts of salt water, then this is the golf for you.
Barnbougle. At about $100, the green fees at both Barnbougle courses are the cheapest of any of the world Top-50 courses. Kingsbarns’ greens fees are closer to four times that amount. Because golf in Australia is a highly-accessible game, because every town in the country has a golf course and anyone can play, competition is strong, and even the best courses can’t price themselves out of the local market. And somewhere like Barnbougle, with its cussed streak of egalitarianism, it would be seen almost as snobbery to “over-charge” for golf. True story.
Effectively unavailable at both courses. Barnbougle has one (1) cart for the use of those who can’t or won’t walk, and charges over-the-odds for it. Kingsbarns advises that “Kingsbarns is a walking experience golf course, however we have two buggies available for mobility restricted golfers by advance reservation”.
Kingsbarns by some margin. As at many courses in Scotland, caddies are a big part of the experience. The bag-toters at Kingsbarns are knowledgable and very good golfers. They know the putting lines, know where the danger is, know how many clubs you’ll need into the prevailing wind. But at Barnbougle – and it’s the same throughout Australia – caddies aren’t really a “thing”. You can employ a caddie at Barnbougle but it could be one of 25-handicappers from the local 9-hole Bridport Golf Club who will offer up little in the way of putting lines and club selection, and whom you might be almost ashamed to make carry your clubs given his advanced age.
Kingsbarns opened in 2001 and has since hosted many Dunhill Links Championships. But the story of how Barnbougle came to be is a tale of inspired, original thought. It’s an outlier event. A world-class links golf course built on one of the most unlikely, remote lumps of land in the world, and just because a man had a plan. And today there is Cape Kidnappers because there is Barnbougle. And there are now two courses on King Island – an island off the island state off the island continent of Australia – because of Barnbougle. So: Barnbougle.
Kingsbarns. Range balls placed in a pyramid are setup and waiting for you to whack away at. At Barnbougle you can buy a bucket and smack them out into a paddock. Both courses have fine short-game areas, though Kingsbarns’ look prettier.
Barnbougle. The Lost Farm’s restaurant perches high over the course with 270 degree views of many holes and Bass Strait. In the long dusk of summer evenings it’s beautiful. And the food is divine. Scallops and rib-eye steaks, the finest local wines. The Dunes’ restaurant is also very good, with many of the same dishes. Kingsbarns has delicious steaks and can do things with haggis that have to be eaten to be believed. But “Tassie tucker” tops it.
Kingsbarns. Part of Barnbougle’s charm is its remoteness. But it’s a 16-hour flight from LA to Melbourne, a 45-minute flight Melbourne to Launceston and then an hour-long drive to the north-east tip of the island state. There is an option to fly charter from Essendon Airport straight to the course. And the course has a shuttle bus if you don’t fancy dodging kangaroos, wombats and many other species of wild beast while navigating on the left-hand side of the road. Barnbougle also has a helipad if you have, you know, a helicopter. Kingsbarns, meanwhile, is 90 minutes from Edinburgh International.
Tie. The Scots are golf people. They understand. They know the wandering golfer and their needs. The locals in “Tassie” are as apt to be fishermen or cattle farmers or quite taken by the local version of football, Australian rules football which from a cursory glance one might gather has no rules, Australian or otherwise. But for friendliness and hospitality, you can’t separate these people.
Barnbougle. At both the Dunes and Lost Farm, the accommodation is on-site. You can walk out of your cosy room, onto a nice little verandah – perfect for pre- and post-round refreshment – and onto the first tee. The Dunes’ bungalows nestle around a chipping practice area. Lost Farm’s have views over many holes. Kingsbarns of course is well served by B&Bs and such in Fife.
Close – but Kingsbarns, given that a 20-minute drive north lies the town of St Andrews, which you may have heard has several excellent 18-hole golf links including the Old Course, which is probably number one on any golfer’s bucket list. But the two beauties on King Island are must-visits while you’re in that part of the world, while a short hop across Bass Strait is Melbourne which is home to the famous “Sandbelt” courses, along with many stunners further south in the Mornington Peninsula. Google them all.
Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm
Story by Matt Cleary