For a weary world traveler, an unexpected adventure on King Island was a life-altering revelation
Words by Christopher ReimerPhotos by Stephen Denton
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The ticket was nothing but a laminated piece of paper with some clip art and my seat number. The plane was far from a standard commercial model; it looked more like a metal suppository with wings. I’m 5-foot-11, and another inch would have made life fairly awful in 7C. I looked out the window and questioned everything: Royal Melbourne, Victoria GC, Kingston Heath, Yarra Yarra, Commonwealth and Metropolitan were all here in Melbourne, and I was leaving?
Then King Island revealed herself through the clouds: rolling hills of grasslands surrounded by rocky beaches with few roads and even fewer signs of civilization. I immediately felt vindicated.
This trip was a lark, a lucky accident of scheduling. I was in Australia to oversee two promotional events in Melbourne in advance of the 2019 Presidents Cup: one with International Team captain Ernie Els, and the next with U.S. Team captain Tiger Woods. (My humblebrag game? Strong.)
I’ll be the first to say that working in the communications department at the PGA Tour is ridiculously cool. In my nearly two decades there, I’ve had the chance to explore golf courses from Mexico to Jeju Island to Kuala Lumpur and walk the major cathedrals from Pebble Beach to Augusta. I’m one of those people on the green when the final putt drops at the Players Championship. I’ve been on site for a lot of Tiger victories.
But as great as the job is, it’s still work. And it’s no fun sitting through a flight delay while missing yet another one of my kids’ birthdays. On this particular trip to Australia, my flight home was scheduled to depart Melbourne the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and land in Jacksonville, Florida, the Friday after. Yup, due to flying over the International Date Line, Thanksgiving would not exist for me.
So I wasn’t in a humble-bragging mood when I looked up from the whirlwind of the Els event and realized that I had a few days to myself before the Tiger tornado began. My first thought: I’m going to New Zealand! After a quick search, I realized that I knew nothing about geography, and that New Zealand was nowhere near Melbourne. I audibled to Tasmania, pulled up a map and saw the spec of King Island. I’d never heard of it, but it was off the beaten path and quiet. Perfect. Within a few clicks I learned that King Island was home to three golf courses, all with stunning views of the Pacific. A few minutes later I had a flight, an Airbnb in a quaint mobile home, a rental car and a tee time at Cape Wickham.
Runways are more suggestion than reality on King Island. After 45 surprisingly smooth minutes in the air, our pilot casually rolled right off of ours and came to a halt on the grass. The King Island Airport is easy to get through: It has one gate and one coffee shop. Behind a small podium that served as the rental-car checkout counter, I met Adam Hely, a local around my age whose energetic smile I would soon find could be matched only by his pride in the island. Hely, who owns the only rental-car company on the island, also serves as the head of tourism.
After about five minutes of happy chatting, I had the keys to my SUV, a tee time and a playing partner at Ocean Dunes for the next day, a reservation for a tour of the island’s art gallery, a date at a restaurant that didn’t serve food (“Wait, what?” I thought, but he was rolling, so I let it go), a VIP tour of the island’s famous cheese shop, detailed tips on where to get groceries and, I would later realize, a true friendship with a guy who lives on the other side of the world.
With a wave from Hely, I was on the road—the wrong side of it. Despite numerous warnings, I found myself playing chicken with a pickup truck before I took my first turn.
“What the hell is wrong with this assbag?” I muttered to myself, only to swerve into the correct lane once I realized that I was, indeed, the bag of ass.
The 20-minute trip from the airport to Cape Wickham took me through waves of pastures and gave me a glimpse of the serenity and escape that awaited me for the next two days. The only buildings I saw were the occasional ranch or farmhouse. Before gaining its reputation as a golf hot spot, King Island was mostly known in Australia for its cattle. Tattered fencing alongside the road framed grassy hills as far as I could see.
I was surprised and felt like Steve Irwin when I discovered what I believed to be a true rarity: a kangaroo carcass on the side of the road. I stopped to take a picture for the kids back home. By the end of the day I would learn that it was a wallaby, not a kangaroo; that wallabies outnumber humans at least 15-1 on the island; and that I was not, in fact, Steve Irwin.
Drivers of the few vehicles that passed each gave me a casual wave: two fingers on their right hand raised just off the steering wheel. At first I thought they had confused me for someone else. The folks at Cape Wickham informed me that this was the King Island wave. I went all in and had it mastered before I left the island. Clearly, between that and the wallaby knowledge, I was already a local.
As I came across the final hill toward the entrance to Cape Wickham, I found a new kind of roadblock: an 8-foot tiger snake getting some sun. I drove around him and made a mental note about the importance of staying in the fairway.
The arrival to Cape Wickham is as humble as the island itself. A few hills on a crusty road that alternates between asphalt and gravel, a final ascent like easing up to the top of a roller coaster, then, all of a sudden, there it is: a golf paradise on the sea. I couldn’t get my phone out of my pocket fast enough. From my parking spot behind the 18th green, goosebumps charged up my arms when I saw the hole open up from green to tee, with the signature lighthouse overlooking waves crashing on the rocks below.
I turned and was taken aback by the humble clubhouse. At Cape Wickham and Ocean Dunes, the clubhouses are nothing more than 500-square-foot trailers, built to be functional for tee times, grabbing some F&B and picking up the quintessential merch. The small seating areas had huge windows overlooking the coastline. When I was in the military, a member of the Special Forces once asked me, “Do you know why the smallest dogs bark all the time? Because they have to.” These clubhouses didn’t bark.
When I entered, word had gotten out that the “PGA Tour” was on the island. John Geary, general manager and head agronomist, and Ricky Dean Munday, golf operations manager, greeted me and asked about my travel, how I had heard about the island, what I knew about the golf course and if there was a way I could get Tiger Woods to visit. They were nice enough to let me keep my tee time even after I described exactly how low I was on the Tour totem pole. In fact, before getting to the putting green, I had a dinner date with them for some King Island steaks.
I struggled with the decision to walk or take a golf cart. I am not someone who plays golf alone. With three teenage kids, I’ve averaged about one round of golf per month, if that, for the last 10 years of my life. Golf to me is more about socialization than my score. It’s a reason to catch up with friends, crank up a new playlist and make some goofy bets that often result in me hitting shots barefoot while singing an ’80s power ballad. Grabbing a cart made me feel like a giant wuss, but turned out to be a great decision. The course has myriad blind tee shots, and the cart allowed me to quickly pull some recon on those holes and head back with at least half a clue of where to hit.
The first hole is almost as spectacular as the last. Standing less than 100 yards from the clubhouse, the fairway bends left to right, with cliffs and ocean to the right and what looks like the end of the Earth after the green. I hit my typical left-to-right bender, grinned when I found the short grass, and off I went. No idea if it was because I was alone and not trying to impress anyone or keep up with my playing partners, but I enjoyed one of those rare, special rounds where every time I put a tee in the ground I felt like I could have laid a Pringles can out in the fairway and hit driver into it.
Munday came mid-round and joined me for a few holes. The contrasts in our approaches to the game were stark. As a typical American, I shot the distance to the pin, tried to figure out where the ball needed to land, picked the corresponding club and fired away. He looked at me like I had two heads. On one approach, he and I were each around 170 yards away. I pulled my 6-iron. He suggested I hit pitching wedge. I was flattered that Munday thought I was so long. I stayed with the 6 and hit a high cut that landed well short and right of the green. He took his wedge, hit what I thought was a cold top/skull that never got more than 30 feet off the ground, landed between a fairway bunker and the rough about 70 yards from the green and proceeded to banana around the outside of it before entering, cozying forward and giving himself about 10 feet for birdie. Conversely, when I hit a fairly routine 60-degree flop shot over a greenside bunker, he acted as if he had just seen Bobby Jones come back to life in front of his eyes.
Ultimately, we both found success. Cape Wickham provides so many different options for shot types and flights. It’s one of those places where as soon as you are done playing a hole, you want to race back to the tee and try it again. Despite playing some of the best golf of my life, Munday beat me 1-up in our four-hole match.
Cape Wickham mixes par 3s over the ocean with blind tee shots, downhill reachable par 4s, challenging uphill par 5s, winding putts and golf-ball-eating fescue all while making you feel as though you discovered the bizarro Pebble Beach. Each oceanside hole would be the postcard hole of any other course. The inland holes stand tall and pound their chests with their own subtleties and idiosyncrasies.
I arrived on the 18th needing a birdie to break 80 for the first time in my life. From the tee, the hole dares you to figure out how much of the beach and ocean you want to carry to hit the left-to-right fairway. I played conservatively and, of course, hit it too good. My tee shot went through the fairway and into the bush on the other side. I dropped, hit the green and made the putt for an 80. My best score on what will likely be the best course I’ll play in my life. I stood on the green, taking it all in, wondering if I could talk them into letting me play until the sun went down.
I went to the clubhouse and had a beer with Geary and Munday, who reminded me of the world-class steak coming my way for dinner at the local bar in Currie, the main strip on King Island. Currie is the largest town, with a population just under 800; Grassy and Naracoopa combine for less than 250 residents.
At the restaurant in Currie, I ate way too much steak and cheese and thoroughly enjoyed the local hospitality. I began calling them the And People: Everyone I met had at least two job titles, sometimes many more. King Island is not some gilded kingdom; ranching, farming and fishing take real work and the right attitude to make all of that happen while trying to manage a burgeoning tourism industry. I met Munday’s brother, who used to be the mayor and is in charge of all the lettuce distribution on the island. Duncan “Tas” Loane is a cattle rancher and a kelp farmer and a bus driver. John “Johno” Mauric is a fisherman and furniture builder. Richard “Squirrel” Collins works on the wharf and is a bricklayer and owns a landscaping business. Anna Hely is Adam’s wife and the person who holds everything together.
Geary and Munday also demanded that I play “the Local.” I had just played Cape Wickham, and I had a 10:30 a.m. tee time with Hely at the Ocean Dunes course, which by all accounts was equally stunning. I didn’t have much time and I was trying to relax a bit; why rush to squeeze in what appeared to be the distant-third-best course on the island? But the more everyone talked, I knew I had to play it. Geary and Munday gave me Ben Morley’s phone number, said to give him a call early and he’d get me on with plenty of time to make Ocean Dunes.
Despite a meat, cheese and Carlton Draught–induced haze, I forced myself up early enough to hit the King Island Bakehouse. Whatever you think you know about coffee, I promise Australia knows more. The only problem is that they haven’t come around to American-size portions yet, so it’s best to order two. I drank nearly both of my flat whites while waiting on a crayfish pie. What the islanders call crayfish, we in America would describe as William “Refrigerator” Perry lobsters. These things looked like a human costume for a SpongeBob Square-Pants party. The breakfast pie was the most expensive thing on the menu, and it was worth it.
I called Morley to let him know I was on the way. To my surprise, he wasn’t at the course yet. We both arrived at the same time, and it finally dawned on me: The course wasn’t open. It’s closed on Sunday mornings, and he made the drive from his home just to open up the doors.
Officially named King Island Golf and Bowling Club, the Local is two right turns and then a left from where I ate breakfast. There isn’t a famous architect’s name attached; it was designed by the locals in the 1930s. There are 18 holes, comprising 12 greens, 17 tee boxes and 10 shared fairways. If the very best features of your local muni had a drunken one-night ménage à trois with Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes, you would get King Island Golf and Bowling Club. The plot of land is expertly funneled into a creative flow of holes with blind tee shots and approaches over dunes, through rocky beaches and over crashing waves, with uphill greens and towering tee boxes.
The course plays a little more than 6,000 yards and, depending on the wind, shouldn’t be a yard longer. The conditions aren’t Augusta National, nor should they be. The occasional clovers and tattered turf in the fairway are part of the charm.
This is the people’s course. While islanders are happy to have more variety—and tourism dollars—with the recent additions of Ocean Dunes and Cape Wickham, this is the course they grew up playing, the one their parents and grandparents tell stories about. This is the course where locals get together every Saturday morning to play their weekend competition. Most of the members arrive early and stay late to tidy up, mow the fairways, tend to the bunkers and handle tasks that at other golf facilities it would take entire agronomy departments to maintain. Morley is the general manager, bartender, clubhouse operator and greenskeeper. He’s the only person on the payroll. But he estimates about 15 to 20 regular volunteers happily keep the Local alive and thriving. They recently mowed and created a special fairway for one member who, due to his age, was having trouble clearing the water on one of the doglegs from the forward tees.
John Cross is one of those volunteers. He’s been on the island for 67 of his 71 years. He volunteers at the Local twice a week.
“We do it because we need a course,” he says. “Every year, it’s getting better. If you’re interested in golf, it’s magic. It really is. It’s an absolute pleasure. I’ve played local courses all over the place and this has the ocean, the variety, the fun. It’s such a great place.”
I fell hopelessly in love when I saw the honesty box with a sign asking people to please pay their green fees and take a pail of dirt to fill their divots. The clubhouse featured a bar that would immediately be your home watering hole. I wanted to pack it up and take it back with me.
It wasn’t yet 8 a.m. when Morley offered me a beer, and who was I to refuse tradition at the Local? From there I took my clubs and pull cart to the first tee, perched three steps from the front door of the clubhouse with views of Bass Strait positioned high above a blind shot to a dogleg-right par 4. The punchbowl green helped fix my massive slice off the tee. But even favorable slopes weren’t enough to help knock off the cobwebs of a few too many Carltons from my night with Geary, Munday and the crew.
For the remainder of the round, I was the only human on the golf course, which, again, was something I couldn’t fathom at home. On the second fairway, I spotted a wallaby. He was the only witness to me chipping in for birdie from just off the green. The island then gave me a taste of her main defense as light rain and heavy winds swept in without warning from the sea. The third hole is a downhill 98-yard par 3 with the ocean as a stunning backdrop. I hit a small bucket rotating between knock-down irons and lofted wedges and found the green with a grand total of one out of 15 swings. The final hole is a dramatic uphill par 3 that is less than 150 yards, and even with three swings of three different clubs, I still couldn’t reach it.
The Local is a representation of the island and its people: rugged, rough around the edges, judgement free and one hell of a good time.
Those times kept rolling at Ocean Dunes. I sprinted over to meet Hely and take in yet another track full of breathtaking coastline. It’s every bit as visually stunning as Cape Wickham; both are situated on pieces of land that make it a tight race between the number of times you use your camera compared to your putter. Ocean Dunes felt more difficult, as a majority of its long tee shots play into the prevailing wind. (It’s possible that is not true—again, not a geography major—but that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) The 140-yard fourth is the shorter of the two waterfront par 3s and requires a carry directly over water, with rocks and ocean to the short, right and long. I bet this is the hole that has seen both the most Instagram time and the most “Yeah, I’ll just drop and hit another” moments.
After 18 fantastic holes, Hely showed me around the island. We drove to the King Island Cheese Shop, where I was given a tasting that included everything from a basic but delicious and creamy brie all the way up to the most pungent and wonderful blue. From there we took a tour of the outskirts of the island, where kelp is harvested along the coast.
On the way inland, he stopped the car at a yellow shack. I would have been floored by the artwork inside were I not held upright by the massive hug I got from Caroline Kininmonth. A local legend, Kininmonth showed up on the island about 15 years ago, lived in a wheelhouse of a wrecked trawler, then began brightening the place up by painting public toilets and planting various gardens. Among her artistic pursuits was saving the Boathouse restaurant from demolition. It is now a shrine to her love of the island, and every day she sets tables that overlook the bay for people to come cook their own meals. So there it was: a restaurant with no food.
A year later, back aboard the metal suppository, my stomach was again churning. At the conclusion of the 2019 Presidents Cup, I convinced eight coworkers and friends to take a few extra days away from their families and join me in my version of paradise. I didn’t shut up about it for months. Suddenly I was terrified the trip wouldn’t live up to my hype. Maybe my last visit was some kind of fever dream?
I felt better as soon as I saw the island. I greeted Hely with a massive hug at the airport and knew that this merry band of islanders would take care of everyone. We shared a similar itinerary as my initial visit, with golf at all three courses and enough oysters, crayfish, beer, coffee, cheese and steak to feed a group 10 times our size. They threw a huge party at the Boathouse and we feasted on local beef and crayfish that Johno dove more than 70 feet to pluck from the bottom of the sea.
When we rolled into King Island Golf and Bowling Club, I saw a frame inside the clubhouse with a quote from an article written by Bill Shulz on golfclubatlas.com that read, “I used to think my final round of golf in my life someday should be played at my favorite golf course, the National Golf Links of America. Honestly, I’m not so sure about that anymore. I could truly celebrate the game of golf at King Island Golf and Bowling Club, then leave my golf bag/clubs and shoes by the honor box for hopefully some junior to start their magical foray.”
That’s a bit dramatic for me. But I do know that when I begin collecting retirement and playing the last rounds of my life, I plan on settling down close to people like Adam, John, Ricky, Taz, Caroline and Anna. We’ll tell the same 12 stories over and over again as we sit in a clubhouse that doesn’t have to bark, watching over a course that looks a lot like the Local.