KING ISLAND, Tasmania - There is an island so remote that it feels like a mythical place which only exists in golfing lore.
Tasmania's King Island is golf's Isla Nublar, the home of Hollywood's Jurassic Park. Finding King Island is a golf pilgrimage to the edge of the world that only the most dedicated travelers attempt. The reward is a fantasy land of oceanfront golf.
There are actually three courses on the tiny island - more on that later - but it's the World Top 30 Cape Wickham and Australian Top 10 Ocean Dunes that compel golfers like me to fly thousands of miles just to experience their craggy coastlines and bogey their compelling holes.
King Island sits in the middle of the Bass Strait halfway between Australia and Tasmania, a tumultuous part of the planet prone to violent storms and big winds. But when you catch it in the soft breezes of summer in February, there's no better place to tee it up on earth.
After playing more than 1,000 courses in 22 countries in my lifetime, I can say without hesitation that King Island ranks among my favorite golf destinations of all time, outclassing more famous golf islands in Hawaii, the Caribbean and elsewhere (obviously larger islands like Ireland and Australia don't count).
How could such an obscure outpost with only two gas stations and fewer than 1,800 residents win me over so easily? Because it felt like the ultimate golf odyssey. It didn't hurt that Cape Wickham shot to the top of my bucket list as the best course I've ever played, and Ocean Dunes constantly surprised me. It's almost as good.
How do golfers get to King Island?
Most international golfers get to King Island from Melbourne on small prop planes run by Sharp Airlines. The weight in your golf bag is strictly monitored, so make sure you're not overstuffed with too many golf balls. Since King Island was my last stop on a two-week adventure Down Under, I actually flew in from one of Tasmania's small regional airports in Launceston near Barnbougle Dunes.
Before flying to Tasmania, I wisely left a backpack of souvenirs and dirty clothes at the hotel I had scheduled for my final night in Melbourne before my flight home to California. It was a savvy move to avoid a headache of costly baggage charges or, heaven forbid, having to ditch some clothes or balls for good before boarding Sharp Airlines.
If you're looking for the ultimate bucket-list Australian/Tasmania itinerary to check off all the Top-100 courses, a tour operator I met said most American groups fly into Sydney to play New South Wales, then fly to King Island next, followed by another flight to Barnbougle in Tasmania. A flight to Melbourne for a handful of rounds on the Sandbelt courses is the grand finale before flying home. I had played NSW previously, and hate the idea of rushing from place to place when ideally, Melbourne/Tasmania and Sydney should be treated as two separate trips.
The beauty of Ocean Dunes
Just minutes from King Island's only airport, Ocean Dunes is easily played on arrival or departure day. Comparing the Graeme Grant design to Spyglass Hill of Pebble Beach fame seems appropriate for two reasons - it would be the star of the show if not for its more famous neighbor and its starting four-hole coastal stretch is as grand as any in the game.
But whereas golfers veer left on the par-5 first hole to see the ocean at Spyglass, they turn right after the par-5 first at Ocean Dunes. That reveal kick-starts a heart-pumping cart ride along the ocean for the next hour. The first fairway tumbles downhill to the green, often into the wind.
The second thrills as a short 300-yard par 4 along the water to a narrow, tilted green. If you've started strong, the long par-4 third, the no. 1 handicap hole, might slow your roll. The fourth introduces a foursome of par 3s as good as any. The 143-yard tee shot must be flighted properly under the crosswind over an ocean inlet as waves pound the rocks. Although golfers leave the coast for par-5 fifth hole, the views never cease. Only two holes don't glimpse the ocean.
The par-3 10th returns to the salty sea, boomeranging around a small bay below the temporary clubhouse. The uphill climb on the 300-yard 13th and fun, scenic drop shot at the 140-yard 14th provide great variety from one moment to the next.
Ocean Dunes, whose green fee maxes out at 305 Australian dollars (roughly $205 U.S.) with a cart for international players, was recently purchased by a group of Melbourne-based investors who hope to build a clubhouse and lodging. If those upgrades ever come to fruition, Ocean Dunes could join the conversation for a world ranking. It's that intriguing a place.
Staying and playing Cape Wickham
I'll try to be fair in my assessment of Cape Wickham, but it's hard not to gush superlatives for what Mike DeVries and Darius Oliver created in 2015 roughly 45 minutes from the airport. I played the course twice - once from the tips 6,700-yard tips in a soft breeze and once from the 6,300-yard whites in a stiffer gale - and drove it in a golf cart two other times at dusk and dawn looking for the perfect photographs and flaws in its routing that just aren't there.
Even without the glamour of the Cape Wickham lighthouse towering over many of the holes, it's the flow of the land and how it's used that truly inspire. Eight holes play directly along the dramatic coast of Cape Farewell and Victoria Cove. The first three holes roam the highest cliffs before an extended inland break for the next six. Blind shots through the dunes and tricky angles to demanding green sites keep this stretch engaging.
Standing on the 10th tee introduces what's been dubbed "OMG Corner." Good drives into the teeth of the wind will reach a ledge in the descending fairway that funnels balls near what looks like an infinity green. One of my best drives was swiped by a pesky crow, a moment I'll never forget.
I'll let the pictures in our gallery and video do the talking for the par-3 11th and short risk-reward cliffhanger at no. 12. That would be the climax for most courses, but Cape Wickham just keeps bringing the drama. The downhill par-4 14th (to a cool Punchbowl green) and the par-5 15th play toward the lighthouse before switching direction for one last glorious, oceanfront run. If there is a minor complaint, the par-4 16th might need to be softened because the fairway kicks balls severely from left to right toward high grass. The tricky par-3 17th and bending-around-the-beach 18th end the day in style.
Like Ocean Dunes, Cape Wickham is under new, upgrade-minded ownership. The 16 temporary suites and clubhouse are perfectly comfortable, but don't match the level of other top-100-caliber retreats. Even so, the food is very good, and you can't come all this way and not stay at least two nights.
Cape Wickham might also be the best "value" play in the World Top 100. It's the highest-ranked course in the world bookable through GolfPass, and even without the potential discounts of a Hot Deal, the exchange rate makes the $385 greens fee plus cart more affordable - roughly $260 U.S. dollars. It's worth every penny.
Discovering the King Island Golf & Bowling Club
Normally, I wouldn't tell golfers to visit a local course when an extra round at Ocean Dunes or Cape Wickham is the smarter play. However, the King Island Golf & Bowling Club in Currie (the island's capital near the airport and Ocean Dunes) is too cool not to mention. It's cared for entirely by volunteers from its membership, so it's not in top shape. The fact it's got 12 greens and 17 different tees combining to deliver 18 unique holes makes it a fun exploratory experience to see how the locals enjoy their golf.
King Island - also well known for its seafood and cheeses - is unlike any other island I've ever visited. Besides the off-the-charts golf, I immediately felt a connection to everyone I met. It's a close-knit community where visitors - even foreigners like me - feel welcome. That's a wonderful thing thousands of miles from home.