Michael Donaldson takes a trip to Australia's golfing mecca.
Two golf courses. Four days. Eight rounds. Innumerable lost balls. Some blisters. Umpteen wallabies. Just one snake.
We're going to Tasmania, we said, it's a bit like New Zealand, there are no snakes.
"There's three types of snakes in Tassie," said the guy in the departure lounge at Melbourne Airport who overheard our conversation as we awaited our flight to Launceston. Holding up three fingers, he counted them off.
"Tiger, Copperhead and White-Lip — all poisonous."
The boys looked at each other with apprehension. Turns out our October trip to Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm — two of the very best golf courses in the world — coincided perfectly with snakes waking up from their winter slumber and we were warned not to rummage around in the tussock looking for lost balls because, well, hungry snakes.
To be honest, my real fear was the golf courses. What I'd read and seen suggested we'd have our work cut out on two exacting tracks on the northern coast of Tasmania where the wind was unrelenting. Turns out I didn't need to be scared of either snakes or the golf course. Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm were magnificent but playable for our quartet of mid-range handicappers.
Sure there was some wind, a bit of rain, chilly at times — also plenty of sunshine — but the elements only added to the experience. This was golf in the raw. Courses carved out of sand dunes with natural contours, valleys and mounds and it's unlike anything else you might experience in New Zealand with the exception of Tara Iti, the private club north of Auckland, where you're lucky if you ever get to play a round. For the price of playing once at Tara Iti we flew to Launceston, via Melbourne, stayed four nights and played eight rounds of golf.
While we went straight to Tasmania, there's great opportunity to add other courses to the itinerary. Coming through Melbourne you could add the magnificent Sandbelt courses such as Victoria, Huntingdale, Kingston Heath and Royal Melbourne. Via Sydney there's the compelling New South Wales GC and The Lakes. And if you're game for a little plane-hop, drop into King Island, between Tasmania and the mainland to play Cape Wickham. To extend your trip check out Australia's best golf courses.
Because we're the very essence of modern golfers we have all sorts of devices — except Dr Phil, who eschews technology — but even Dr Phil was excited to learn that each of those rounds was taking us on a journey of approximately 14km according to my Garmin watch ... this despite the fact the golf course is about 6km long. The extra distance was accounted for by our meanderings across fairways, in and out of bunkers, around greens, and of course looking for lost balls in snake country. In fact, looking for lost balls probably accounted for half the distance walked.
Over dinner one night — the food, by the way, at Barnbougle and Lost Farm is exceptional (Barnbougle being more bistro compared with Lost Farm's high-end; black angus beef burger versus confit of duck) — Dr Phil worked out that if we played three rounds of golf instead of our usual two per day we'd be able to say we did a marathon. At this point I ordered another bottle of Little River Pale Ale and pushed at the blister on the ball of my foot hoping it would pop.
I told Dr Phil — he's a not a real doctor, but a golf doctor, having fixed my errant swing with an astute observation early in the trip that diminished my lost ball count — that there wasn't enough daylight to play three rounds. We were on the first tee at 7am each day, done by around 11.30am or noon, had lunch (pizza and a bottle of Little River Pale Ale, please) went back out at 1pm, finished around 5.30-6pm, showered, changed, turned up to the clubhouse to watch the sunset around 7.30pm and have dinner.
But Dr Phil is golf's answer to Forrest Gump or the Energiser Bunny and one day he and Plugger managed to squeeze in 45 holes instead of the usual 36. Myself and our fourth journeyman, Missing, took half an afternoon off and joined them for the twilight nine.
Turns out twilight is the best part of the day to play: the wind had died, the wallabies were out happily munching grass and occasionally fighting, the ocean hissed across the white sand — it was bliss. Actually, it was bliss even when it was wet and windy because these are the two best golf courses I've played; definitely better than Cape Kidnappers or Kauri Cliffs and a shade better than Tara Iti.
Playing eight rounds of golf in four days is one of the hardest things I've done — comparable to the time I rode my bike around the East Cape — and much of the conversation in the latter part of the trip was the state of our various blisters. And we all got blisters in different places. The funny thing about four blokes taking to Tasmania to play golf almost incessantly for four days is that the conversation tends to be about golf.
Well, golf, other sport, food and beer. Okay, sometimes we talked about TV shows and occasionally books — including a discussion on the merits of Golf In The Kingdom, a new-age book that looks at golf through the lens of mystical experience and where the central character Shivas Irons talks about "letting the nothingness into your swing".
Towards the end of the trip I observed that, when I get home, my wife will want to know what we talked about. She finds it hard to believe that we have such limited repertoire of conversational tools. But the bottom line is that mentally it was one of the more refreshing four days I've spent.
We were so engrossed in golf nothing else mattered, not the weather, nor the snakes.
In that way it was like a retreat where our daily meditation was a marathon of successive golf shots followed by a reflection on the nature of those shots. We went to a gloriously, almost deserted, corner of the world and let the nothingness in.
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