It's a lonely drive from King Island's empty airstrip to the planet's most celebrated new golf course. Aside from a farmer on his tractor who we pass a few kilometres up the road – when the surface was still bitumen and my teeth weren't yet rattling from potholes in the gravel road – there's nothing much but paddock after paddock of the island's world-famous cows that produce all that world-famous cheese; and the occasional wallaby and Cape Barren goose that sees sense in playing chicken with the only car that's ventured over this side of the island today. Wind turbines beside us spin faster and faster on the rising sou'-westerly, while the stunted trees that line the gravel roadway all have twisted, gnarled trunks deformed by decades of Southern Ocean gales. We take a left turn that's barely sign-posted; when I wind my window down for a moment for fresh air, I can hear waves crashing in the distance.
And then, just like that, we're there, at the golf world's 24th best course (and Australia's third best). There's no fanfare: no fancy road to a fancy clubhouse where a course superintendent will tell us what time to tee off. There are no caddies in matching bibs and overalls, no bar with fancy liquor, no restaurant with fancy fare. The road is gravel, and the clubhouse isn't much more than a demountable. There are only two cars in the car park, which I'm guessing belong to the girls inside making the ham and cheese sandwiches and selling the meat pies. For there's no one else around, not a single golfer on a course that stretches across some of the golfing world's most perfectly undulated links terrain.
Eighteen fairways roll straight down to gigantic sand dunes and ridges above an angry ocean. Five-metre-high Southern Ocean swells crash onto bare rocky reef, the explosions sift spray through the air, making it so sticky with salt residue I almost feel myself begin to corrode. We're it for the day, then – this motley crew of hackers fresh in from Melbourne, 35 minutes' flying time across Bass Strait on a nine-seat Cessna. Ninety minutes ago I was in rush hour traffic around Essendon's private airport; now I'm faced with one of the juiciest prospects in world golf.
That King Island is the setting for this – the world's most exciting new golfing destination – is a surprise to just about everybody (especially the locals), bar the brains behind King Island's two brand new courses. Opening to rave reviews in November 2015, three months later Cape Wickham rocketed to the hallowed high reaches of US golf bible's, Golf Digest, World Top 100 courses (which noted it was one of two of the "hottest new lay-outs on the globe"). Co-investor Duncan Andrews wasn't surprised, if anything he's expecting Cape Wickham to rise even higher in the next year or two. "I remember thinking that if ever you were going to build a golf course in the top 20 in the world, then this would be the place for it," he told Executive Style. "I got off the plane and (saw it) and my jaw dropped."
Add to this the credentials of Ocean Dunes – another potential world top 25 golf course which is due to open September 1 – and you'll understand why King Island farmers, and the workers at the cheese factory that employs half the island, are scratching their heads each time new folk drive past wearing Callaway slacks and smart cardigan sweaters. Not since Barnbougle Dunes opened on a desolate, wind-ravaged stretch of northern Tasmania in 2004 – rocketing to the top of the world's best courses with a bullet – has Australian golf caused such a ripple across the globe.
But King Island could go far bigger than Barnbougle (which now has two courses on site within the world's top 100), there's talk Greg Norman might build a course here on terrain further south that's every bit as picturesque and challenging as Cape Wickham and Ocean Dunes.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. For now, until word really gets out that King Island might just be the biggest thing to happen in world golf in decades, golfers have the opportunity of playing two of the globe's best courses – almost entirely by themselves.
I've arrived on a private golf charter with seven other golfing tragics. There were no security checks at our airport, nor did anyone stop me taking freshly poured cappuccino onto the plane as our pilot wheeled our clubs across the runway behind us. Within minutes, I'm bouncing above a busy Melbourne cityscape, tracking south-west to an island that receives just one commercial flight a day.
As we approach, Cape Wickham comes into view on the island's north-west cape – just beside an historic lighthouse (the southern hemisphere's tallest) that's done its best to deter 150 years' worth of passing ships from coming to grief on its rugged, rocky shore. Fishing boats bob about in the waters off the course, while a lone surfer chances his luck between the rolling lines of swell hitting hard from the north-west. On one hole below me – the 18th, which bends around picturesque Victoria Cove – the beach (and surfers) actually come into play. Below, purple heath stretches to emerald-green sea, interspersed with white-caps. "Watch it or you'll send your drives on the current to Antarctica," I'm warned.
The drive to Cape Wickham takes 35 minutes; then it's just us lot taking on a course with teeth as sharp as the copperhead snakes' that feed on mutton birds that nest along the fringing sand dunes. The first hole has a green right beside the ocean but on this course, all 18 holes incorporate the sea: eight holes are built parallel to Bass Strait, two holes have greens on the ocean and three other holes have tees right beside the water. A wedge-tailed eagle flies above, and there's wallaby poo in some bunkers; and on the 11th green, thick foam from the sea spreads itself across a portion of the putting surface. "This is nothing," the course superintendent tells me. "Last week we had seven-metre seas and the water came right across this green." It's as wild as links golf can get – on this course, flags last only a week, what with all the sea spray (specially designed flags are now used, which still last only a few months). The sun comes out on the back nine holes and the howling wind drops down to a dainty puff; and Cape Wickham becomes another beast altogether.
On some holes we drive our carts across wooden bridges built over the coastline, on others tee-shots call for heart-in-your-mouth stabs across gaping chasms and white sandy beaches. And then, when it's done, and we sit in the makeshift clubhouse watching the sun set across the ocean with a cold stubbie of beer, a lone dolphin jumps high above a sea scorched gold in the dusk. If we'd been here yesterday, apparently, we'd have seen a whale do it instead.
Accommodation is still pretty rustic in these parts. While in years to come, high-end domestic and international golfers will no doubt demand fancier roofs above their head, for now I stay in a motel room; and eat meals in bistro-style surroundings – though King Island beef tastes five-star no matter where it's served. Owners of sprawling beach houses along King Island's desolate coastline are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of well-heeled golfers set to touch down. But I prefer it this way for now, enjoying the simplicity of life on an island that's not big on blowing its own trumpet, or being anything it's never been.
Next morning, we miss the signs to Ocean Dunes – because there aren't any yet. We open a gate keeping cattle at bay, and drive along a rocky path to a course half-way down the island's rugged western coastline. The clubhouse is another makeshift affair – it's short on food for now so I stock up on salt and vinegar chips for sustenance. But the course is all gourmet fare – destined to enter the world's top 50 courses. It's even more challenging than Cape Wickham; on some par threes I'm forced to hit across water entirely, to greens surrounded by razor-sharp ridges of rock where errant balls ricochet into Bass Strait. When the wind blows hard – which it does from mid-morning – playing Ocean Dunes is as challenging a task in links course as anywhere, Scotland and Ireland included. But it's as pretty as a picture: and each tee-off requires careful plotting, and each green slopes away to valleys where any approach shot short of perfect invariably resides.
There will never be a more novel way of playing two of the world's top 50 courses. While other courses in the world's top 25 demand $500-plus a round green fees, and often require ballot draws just to secure a tee-time (you try getting onto St Andrews this year). On King Island I can play with no one for company but curious wallabies, and sea eagles riding the thermals above; on courses that are ready to play, but are still years away from comprehending just how good they truly are. But then – after gauging the typical King Islander I meet at the island's only pub – something tells me a big ego wouldn't sit well round these parts.
Air Adventure offer two-day golf packages including flights from Melbourne, golf rounds at Cape Wickham and Ocean Dunes, accommodation and transfers from $880 a person twin share. They also offer day tours and three- and four-day tours which include Barnbougle Dunes. Phone 1800 033 160; see golf.airadventure.com.au.
Craig Tansley was a guest of Air Adventure Australia