Barnbougle at 18

Bridport, Tasmania

As it celebrates its 18th birthday, we delve into the history and development of the remarkable Barnbougle Dunes. Through conversations with Tom Doak, Brian Schneider and Mike Clayton, we explore the challenges faced during construction, the natural changes over the years, and the impact Barnbougle has had on golf in Australia and internationally.

Written by William Watt in conversation with Tom Doak, Brian Schneider & Mike Clayton.
Photography by William Watt & Dave Carswell.

The Kid Has Come of Age

“You do realise you’re lucky to be playing golf at all at the moment, right?”. It’s not the first time this has been suggested to me this week, usually from fathers much more experienced than I in the time pressures of looking after small children. At eight weeks, my son Winston is likely one of the younger travellers to be out on the golf tourism circuit at the moment, but so far he seems to be enjoying it. Thankfully life at Barnbougle, on Tasmania’s Northern coastline, seems to suit him. It helps that his Mum, my wife Rosie, is amazingly relaxed, organised and supportive of a lifestyle that can involve early alarms, remote travel and long periods of Dad disappearing over the dunes in search of golf balls or photographs. Winston too, after an initial six week burst of seemingly insatiable energy and appetite, also seems to be turning into a pretty relaxed character. Our flatmates in the four bedroom villa that overlooks the 1st fairway commented that they’ve barely heard a peep from him, despite our concerns that his late night screaming sessions might disturb their precious pre-golf sleep.

The reason we have taken up the challenge to come here, despite the unknowns and mistakes that are inevitable for first-time parents (always pack a full change of clothes for your baby on a plane flight, no matter how short it is), was really a question of “if not now, when?”. After more than two pandemic affected years of rescheduling, rebooking, rejigging and eventually just cancelling everything, the desire to get back out into the world and explore again overrode any fears we had of struggling to cope. So when Seed Golf, a direct-to-customer golf ball brand based in Ireland, approached us to produce some video and photography of their latest products, we decided to pull together a crew and head straight for the most Irish-looking golf course in Australia: Barnbougle Dunes.

Upon opening in December 2004, Barnbougle Dunes was unlike anything Australian golf had seen before. A bold, rugged, naturalist course with a strict walking-only mantra and open to all the elements that nearby Bass Strait could throw at it. It would have been unlikely to see it built anywhere in that time, let alone perched on the coast near the remote town of Bridport in what was then considered sleepy Tasmania. What seems like a raging success and a natural use of this land today, was certainly not assured or inevitable at the time. Much like a human birth, the early days of a golf course aren’t for the faint hearted – the risk levels are high, the unknowns are many, and it certainly helps to be in good hands. Which, fortunately for Australian golf, Barnbougle definitely was. Greg Ramsay encouraged Mike Clayton (who was working with John Sloane and Bruce Grant under MCGD at the time) to be a local guide for Tom Doak, who was extremely enthusiastic about the site. Still hesitant, landowner Richard Sattler met with Mike Keiser, whose revolutionary Bandon Dunes was really starting to take off, for some encouragement on the viability of the idea as a business. Again, enthusiasm abounded, and the Barnbougle Dunes project took off.

Today, as it celebrates its 18th birthday, Barnbougle has matured into a reliable staple of the Australian golf circuit for locals, mainlanders and international visitors alike. Any Aussie who seeks a deeper appreciation of the game than the occasional weekend whack around at the local has either been here, or is planning to come here one day. 

The timing of our trip, in early Autumn, has meant the sometimes ferocious winds that can hit the courses have been entirely absent this week (except for an epic storm on day five that caused me to abandon the round on the 11th fairway). This relative calm, both in the conditions and on a personal level, has allowed me to get to know the place a little better than previous visits. And I think Barnbougle knows itself a little better these days. It’s a place comfortable in its own skin, having gone through the fledgling early years as a rambunctious only child, before being joined by a sibling in 2010 with the more restrained 20-hole Lost Farm course being added. More recently a third course, the wildly fun 14-hole Bougle Run, has joined the stable. This has perhaps completed the Barnbougle family, although there are always whispers of another course around these parts. 

To gain an appreciation for how the course has matured over the years, we spoke with co-designers Tom Doak and Mike Clayton, and lead shaper on the project Brian Schneider, about the genesis of the project and how it has changed in the decades since. From speaking with these three key figures about the design and construction of the course, it becomes clear how fondly the course is thought of in their minds, and contrastingly how much of a gamble it felt like at the time the project first came to fruition.

Tom Doak

Contours: How did you originally become involved in the Barnbougle Dunes project?

Tom Doak: Greg Ramsay contacted me about it in 2001. I was busy, but my associate Bruce Hepner was making a trip to Australia, so I asked him to go and see the land and meet Greg. Bruce and Mike Clayton went together, and said it had the right stuff, although they struggled to understand the scale of the property and whether it was big enough for the course. So I asked Greg for topo[graphic] maps to start working on potential routings. I actually visited the site for the first time and met Greg in June of 2002, with Clayts and my son Michael, who was 11 at the time, tagging along. One of my memories of my first visit is having lunch at the Sattlers’ house with Michael and all of Richard’s kids who were mostly young teens. It was pretty hard to imagine then how important the project would be to his family, or that Penny would wind up being the GM of a substantial resort!

What are some of the most dramatic changes you have noticed to the Barnbougle Dunes course since its opening in 2004, both naturally occurring and through deliberate adjustments? 

TD: Unfortunately, I don’t get back that often to check on progress. The two biggest changes I’ve seen are the shrinking of the 7th green —  it has been eroding into the bunker at the left over time —  and the loss of dunes to the right of the tee shot on 17. They used to redig the ‘Cut’ straight out to the ocean every couple of years, but I don’t think they are doing it anymore, and the wind is forming a sandbar off Sally’s Point that makes the water cut back against the dunes on the 17th. There isn’t much buffer left between that fairway and the ocean!

To what extent did you try to mitigate the future natural evolution of the course, versus embracing it, at the time of construction? 

TD: We built the course on a very tight budget, so we sort of had to embrace the natural evolution of things.

One of Australia’s most imposing bunkers, on the short par-4 4th at Barnbougle Dunes, looks even meaner today than it did upon opening.

The famous bunker of the 4th has become even more dramatic over time —  why does this occur and is it possible for it to become too intimidating? 

TD: Wind erosion is a fact of life in those big sprawling bunkers golfers love — that’s why they are called ‘blowouts’. All you can do is replace sand, or break up the bunker into smaller pieces that will erode less. But everyone loves that big bunker, so we haven’t been asked to change it yet.

How much of a statement was the 7th, Tom’s Little Devil, at the time of construction? How has this hole evolved over the 18 years since the build?

TD: It’s funny that the hole is named after me, because that’s probably the one hole that Mike Clayton had the most to do with. The original 7th was going to play more to the north, but Brian, Mike and I all felt that would be an impossible shot in the left-to-right crosswind, so Mike suggested turning the hole back into the wind, and I knew where that green site was from an earlier routing attempt. My friend Tim Weiman had always talked about how much he liked those ‘little devil’ par-3 holes so that’s where the name actually came from. 

What are some of the signs that a golf course is maturing well? Are there any courses in your portfolio that you feel have aged particularly well/poorly?

TD: My old friend Dave Wilber, who was turf consultant for Pacific Dunes and Barnbougle, once said that if an architect’s courses are like his kids, then the greenkeeper is the guy we want our daughter to marry. They are really the ones who are going to take care of our baby long term. It’s going to evolve —  either for the better, or for the worse. We’ve been lucky at Barnbougle to have Phil Hill as the superintendent since it opened and he has certainly guided it towards the former. In fact, generally, the places where the superintendent we originally worked with is still in charge are evolving best: Pacific Dunes, Streamsong, and Tara Iti come to mind. By contrast, my original client at High Pointe went through six or seven superintendents over twenty years, before the course closed.

Is there a ‘peak age’ for a golf course in terms of balancing the designer’s intent and what evolves over time?

TD: It really depends on the place. Places like Bandon and Barnbougle are so dynamic in terms of the weather that I don’t think you can afford to fall in love with what it looks like at any given point. When we do get to rebuilding the 7th green at Barnbougle, we will have to overbuild it, because it will just start eroding again the moment we are finished.

What impact do you think Barnbougle Dunes has had on golf in Australia and internationally?

TD: Mike Keiser took an interest in the project as a case study – he figured if a resort could be successful in as remote a place as Tasmania, the model would work in a lot of other places, too. So, it really confirmed for him that the success of Bandon Dunes was not a one-off, if you got certain parts of the model right. Certainly, in Australia, Barnbougle helped to prove that golfers would travel to play a true links course, and Richard Sattler’s willingness to stick his neck out and develop it has spawned several other projects that now compete with the original.

Are there changes that you would love to see happen with the course over the next 18 years? 

TD: I’d like to move it closer to home, but sadly that is not possible.

It's going to evolve — either for the better, or for the worse. So, generally, the places where the superintendent we originally worked with is still in charge are evolving best: Pacific Dunes, Streamsong, and Tara Iti come to mind.

Tom Doak

Scenes From the Links

Brian Schneider

How did you first become involved in the project, and what were your first impressions of the site? 

Brian Schneider: We were nearing the end of our project at Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand when Tom first made me aware of the potential project in Tasmania. All of Tom’s team — Bruce Hepner, Brian Slawnik and Eric Iverson — were involved at CK and we had basically set up shop there for the better part of a year. That was only my second project with Tom, so I was the new guy in the group and the more senior associates were ready to head home after a long time away. Moving on to another project in that part of the world didn’t much appeal to them, but I was enjoying that time on the road and when Tom showed me a few pics of the Barnbougle property, I was all in.

We made a trip to Tassie a month or so later and I was absolutely blown away. The opportunity to work in coastal dunes right on the beach seemed too good to be true. It was as beautiful as any site I’d ever seen and I couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity to work in such a place.

How remote did Barnbougle feel at the time of construction? Travelling to the course today is relatively easy, and to an extent it has put Bridport on the map. But I imagine in 2004 this must have seemed like a long way from anywhere? 

BS: It’s still a long way from home but it certainly felt like the end of the world at that time. I think that’s part of its appeal. In reality, it’s a very easy (and affordable) trip from much of mainland Australia, which has been important to its success. It’s a very popular destination for Australians and an easy add-on for international golfers making the trek to play the great courses of Melbourne and Sydney.


Are there any holes that stand out in your mind as being particularly interesting to construct? 

BS: In my mind, there are essentially two basic hole types: those that are found and those that are built. Barnbougle is blessed with a high number of the former. Some of those holes came together very quickly and a few of the greens are almost entirely as we found them. The wild contours of the putting surfaces on the par-3 13th and par-4 17th, for example, are largely natural. The 4th, 7th and 15th are other favourites that took relatively little effort to shape.

The short par-4 12th fell on the other end of the spectrum. The entire hole was carved out of a high dune ridge and had to be rebuilt several times as it repeatedly blew away in the strong Tassie winds. It’s always been one of my favourite holes on the course but despite taking up a small slice of the property, it was probably the most difficult one to get in the ground.

What were some of the biggest challenges faced during construction? 

BS: Building golf in seaside dunes is extraordinarily fun, but the aforementioned wind was a constant foe and made for some pretty miserable working conditions on our worst weather days. The soft beach sand is prone to wind erosion, and shaped features are quickly wiped out when a gale rolls in. Most of the greens, bunkers and fairway contours had to be rebuilt many times.

Any time you’re working in an area as remote as Bridport, finding labour to build the course is a challenge. Nonetheless, we were able to assemble a terrific crew of locals to install irrigation and get the course grassed. They took a lot of pride in creating something special for their community and some of them are still Barnbougle employees two decades on.

How did you find working with the local community as excitement grew around the project? 

BS: I don’t think any of us quite knew just what the place would become, and it’s such a pleasure to get back to Barnbougle now to see how it continues to grow and evolve. The Sattlers are truly wonderful people and I couldn’t be happier for their success. It was a giant leap of faith on their part and their all-in commitment — along with the deep involvement of the local community — made it as enjoyable and rewarding as any project I’ve ever experienced.

To what extent did you try to mitigate or embrace the natural changes to the course that were likely to occur over the years?

BS: It didn’t take long to realise that what we built was going to evolve quickly. Mother Nature is a powerful force and it’s best to embrace change because fighting it is futile.

Areas of exposed sand are most susceptible to wind erosion. With that in mind, we tried to minimise the number of bunkers and to locate them in places where their evolution wouldn’t have a negative impact on the playing experience. There are relatively few greenside bunkers at Barnbougle and many are intentionally positioned at a slight remove from the putting surface so that blowing sand would be unlikely to alter hole locations.

You also learn quickly that getting too attached to the look of what you build is bound to cause some grief. A bunker may look great the day it’s grassed but by Opening Day, the details you’d spent hours refining have been completely wiped away. In all cases, things evolve towards a more natural aesthetic. In that sense, our work is constantly being passively improved.

What are some of the most significant changes you have noticed as the course has matured? Are there any nice surprises in this respect? 

BS: The best element of the natural evolution of any course is probably the maturation of its turf. Barnbougle has benefited greatly from having just a small handful of Head Greenkeepers in its lifetime and they’ve always done an extraordinary job of presenting authentic links conditions. 

The course plays exactly as you’d hope, offering the opportunity to play a wide variety of shots and allowing you to succeed with any style of play. The course was designed to embrace and even encourage the ground game and its greenkeeping staff have beautifully married the proper conditions to its contours.

How does Barnbougle compare with some of the other world class projects you have worked on? 

BS: As the first project on which I served as Lead Associate for Tom, Barnbougle will always be a special place to me. It’s also a really fun golf course and I can honestly say there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather play. 

In all cases, things evolve towards a more natural aesthetic. In that sense, our work is constantly being passively improved.

Brian Schneider

Mike Clayton

How did you first get involved in the project? And what were your first impressions of the site when you did make it down there?

Mike Clayton: Well, Greg Ramsey rang us and suggested that we should come have a look. He was talking about a collaboration with Tom Doak. I went down there with John Sloan and Bruce Hepner came over from New Zealand. Bruce was building Cape Kidnappers for Tom at the time. We walked over the site, and obviously it was great. And as we left the site, Bruce said of Greg Ramsey, “I’ve met that kid 100 times. He always gives you that ‘I’ll make you famous’ speech. It’ll never happen.” It was probably a pretty good assessment of where things were at, at the time.

Then Tom came down, within a year or so, and met Richard. Tom went back and spoke to Mike Keiser about it, who then came out, saw the land, and told Richard that he should do it. He took Richard to Bandon, showed him how that worked, and told the GM at Bandon that, “Richard’s here for a week, your job’s to teach him everything I know.”  So Richard was there for a week, saw how that worked, got some investors in and went ahead with building the golf course. 

It was incredibly unusual to find somebody who didn’t play golf, didn’t know anything about it, who was prepared to commit to such a big project. The brief for the clubhouse to the architect was, “If the course goes broke and no one turns up to play it, I want to be able to turn the clubhouse into my family home and we’ll just go and live in it.”

Tom and I thought it would work because we knew how good the golf course could be.  And Mike Keiser thought it would work from a business perspective, knowing how Bandon was operating. Everyone else I spoke to thought it was completely mad. “No one will ever go down and play there. The weather’s shit, it’s in the middle of nowhere” and so on. But they’d never seen the land, so they had no clue as to how good the course was going to be. 

At that time Bridport was not really known at all — Barnbougle has put it on the map to an extent.

MC: Bridport was a little sleepy fishing village where the population swelled up in the summertime. It was a nice little town. We enjoyed it. But it wasn’t exactly… there was the top pub and the bottom pub, they were the only two places to eat. In a sense, Barnbougle became another local restaurant as well. It’s been great for the locals. Barnbougle is the biggest employer in Northeast Tasmania now.

Can you talk me through that routing process and how long it took and how many iterations you went through?

MC: Tom had done some stuff on the contour maps and he had a rough idea of what he wanted to do. The first routing he had, the 10th hole was a great hole. It was from out the front of the clubhouse going backwards up the 18th. And then you played the 11th hole inland up a big valley behind what’s now the 13th tee. There were holes backwards down today’s 14th and 15th, and the last two holes were today’s 11th and 10th in reverse. So it was very different. Mike Keiser came out and said, “No, you’ve got to finish with the holes coming down the beach,” which was exactly right. So he was a big contributor to the back 9 routing. It basically got flipped after that comment.

Looking at the front 9, the 7th stands out today as a unique and memorable hole. Was it always planned that way?

MC: No. We went out there with Brian Schneider because he was down there a lot of the time and had a good feel for the site. We stood in the tee and Tom pointed one finger to where the green is now and another 90 degrees to the right, playing straight towards the ocean, which would’ve been a much shorter walk to the next tee. “Where do we go? Which one?” and Brian and I both said, “That one,” which is the one that got built.

The green site was basically sitting there, which was probably why we picked it. The other one would’ve been better in terms of the routing, but would’ve been a massive crosswind hole, which would’ve been really tricky on a short par-3. So I think it was better going the way we did because at least it’s straight into the wind, which is difficult but more playable than it would’ve been in a crosswind. I guess we could have built both of them, which would’ve been interesting.

When you were first looking and building the course, did you try to mitigate some of the natural changes that were likely to occur? Or did you just embrace the fact that was likely to happen?

MC: I played with Ben Crenshaw at Sand Hills one year and he said, “It’s amazing every time I come back here, the bunkers are different because of what the wind does to them.” It’s the same at Barnbougle — the bunkers have changed, and some of them have changed a lot. The left-hand bunker at 14 has changed a lot, and there’s that big mound there when you come off the green.

The bunker on the left to 7 has changed a bit. Bits of the green fall into the bunker. But we didn’t talk about it at the time. I guess if someone had said “Do you think the wind’s going to change these bunkers?”, the answer was probably, “Yep.” But it was hard to predict which ones it would change and how it would change them. So it’s just part of the evolution. It’s not like it’s gotten worse or better because of how the bunkers have changed. They’ve just changed because the wind changes them. And there’s not really much you can do about it, it is just links golf really. The road hole bunker has changed over the years —it doesn’t look anything like it used to. It’s just part of the evolution of golf by the sea.

The good thing is there wasn’t anything significant that needed to change. Like Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, the best courses in the country, there’s no need to change anything because everything got put in the right place to start with. It was a good routing. There’s not one green site you would move, or a tee position you’d change because that’d be a better angle from over there. So it was testament to Tom and the quality of the routing that everything’s in the right place.

It will be true at 7 Mile Beach as well. Everything’s in the right place. Everything’s in the right proportion. You nail the best green sites and you build good greens. As Mackenzie said —you finish up with finality, which is important because it just costs money in the end to change bad decisions. But it’s amazing how many times you see it happen.

Is there a whole or section of the course that you particularly enjoy going back to?

MC: Not really. I think it’s all good. The 4th is obviously a great short par-4 to play. I like the 6th, and it’s a really cool shot into 7. The 15th is good. If you are going to mark them from 1 to 18, maybe 16 would be the last one. Most people would probably pick the 2nd after that, but I think the 2nd is a really good hole. It’s a great green, it’s an interesting hole. It just happens to be on flat ground.
It’s like most people would pick the 17th at Port Fairy as being the worst hole. But if you put the ocean on the right-hand side of it, they’d pick the same hole as being the best hole. Because they’re not actually judging the hole, they’re judging the ambience of the hole, and the holes that come before it. Because they’re all in the ocean, they get to 17 and think, “Well, this hole isn’t very good.” So I think the 2nd gets criticised by some people because it’s the only hole on the flat ground. But aside from that, I think people would have a wildly different perception of what the next least good hole was.

Some might pick the 8th because they can’t get up the cliff. So they’ve got to lay it up and then face a blind pitch up the hill. But for a long hitter it’s just a really good, strong hole downwind. For some people that’s a controversial hole, but people need to face a proper challenge when they get out there – that is ultimately why people keep going back there to play.

The most important thing was to build something that would be a viable business that wasn’t going to send Richard broke. It was important to build holes that people enjoyed playing, and build a sequence of holes that meant people were going to come back and play it. There are projects that get screwed up because they don’t get to their potential. It would’ve been no good going down there building a 7 out of 10 – that would’ve gone broke. It had to be a 9 out of 10 for it to work. It was the same with Lost Farm and it’s the same with 7 Mile Beach. To make these things work, they’ve got to be fantastic, to have people get on a plane and go to Hobart or go to Launceston just to go and play golf. The promise has got to be that the golf at the other end will be great. It has to be in the Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath class, otherwise it’s just not going to work.

What do you think the impact of Barnbougle has been on Australian golf and future projects such as 7 Mile?

MC: 7 Mile Beach wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Barnbougle. And Barnbougle wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Bandon. And Bandon probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Sand Hills. So there’s a direct line between all those. Sand Hills showed that remote golf could work. Bandon showed that remote public golf would work.

But why it’s important and why I think Richard is in the top five most important people in Australian golf ever: because for the first time in Australia someone built a top-100 course in the world that everyone could play. Sure, if you know someone you can get on at Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Royal Adelaide or New South Wales. They’re certainly more accessible than the equivalent clubs in the USA. But for the first time, every and any Australian could play a top-100 course. That’s why it was so important.

The irony is that Richard didn’t play golf. Didn’t play golf, didn’t know anything about it really. There have been a lot of people who could have afforded to do what he did, who played golf, but didn’t do it for whatever reason. But it took a non-golfer to do something as important as Barnbougle — you wouldn’t want to put a bet on that ever happening.

Barnbougle has led to Lost Farm, which is another top-100 course, Cape Wickham, and now 7 Mile Beach, which is likely to be. So it’s possibly spawned four top-100 courses in the world, all in Tasmania. It’s great for tourism, it’s great for Tasmania. Tasmania’s got a phenomenal climate for golf. I think you could make the argument that it’s got the best climate in the world for golf, because you can play all year and because you can grow fescue. And fescue’s the ultimate grass to play golf on. It’s just the perfect surface to play off. Fescue is cashmere and couch is lambswool.

Post Script


It’s day four at Barnbougle, and with all our coverage for Seed Golf wrapped up, we’re able to treat ourselves to a camera-free round, playing from the tips on The Dunes course in perfectly still conditions. I’m acutely aware of how days like this must be savoured, having just listened to a stream of fatherhood podcasts. One of the episodes that stuck in my mind was a Dad talking about a moment where he was sleepily eating cereal with one hand whilst cradling his baby in the other — a fairly typical juggling act of a new parent. He had wondered how many times he might experience this type of moment. Even if it happened a few times a week, his conclusion was it would be maybe 20 or 30 times before his child was too big to be held in such a way. Then that was it. Forever. Suddenly, a routine moment of eating breakfast, with the added challenge of cradling a child, became something so precious that he welled up just talking about it.

I had applied it to the very early days of fatherhood as well, realising that the seemingly interminable 3am wakeups would one day be just a blip in my life. That the tickles, the giggles, the pram naps, the feeds, and yes, even the spit ups — all of it was so fleeting. Before long, I realised more than ever that everything in life is just as fleeting. It all happens only once. Golf, as always, is a great metaphor for life. We never hit the same golf shot twice. We’ll probably never play in this exact foursome again, especially as the first tee time on a still day at Barnbougle. And even if we do, this will be one of only a handful of times in our entire life. It’s a little daunting to think about it that way – what if I top it off the first tee? But it is also a beautiful mindset to be in. It makes you want to breathe it all in as deeply as possible.

As we emerge from the shady teeing grounds into the warming sun of the 1st fairway, with a solid drive in play, I glance back at our accommodation, bunkered into the dunes above. Rosie is waving down at us smiling, with Winston cradled in her other arm. Wow. I guess that’ll only happen once. I struggle to hit my second shot, peering through the tears in my eyes, and top it into the fairway bunker. I’m not bothered though — it has never been more obvious to me that the score is irrelevant. Being here is all that matters. ‘Lucky’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Thank you to Seed Golf  for sponsoring this story, to Barnbougle for being fantastic hosts as always, and to the talented Nick, Lillie, Sam, Chris, Anthony, Rosie, Dave and Winston.

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