Barnbougle Golf:
Successfully breaking the rules

The best golfers are happy to develop their own style – and the same can be said of superintendents. John Power talks to Superintendent Phil Hill from Barnbougle Golf Links, Tasmania, about the benefits of course-specific management practices.

OPERATOR: Barnbougle Golf Links (comprising two golf courses: The Dunes, and Lost Farm)
REPRESENTATIVE: Phil Hill, Superintendent
LOCATION: Bridport, Tasmania
WEBSITE: barnbougle.com.au

Barnbougle Golf Links, located in the quiet coastal Tasmanian township of Bridport, about an hour’s drive north of Launceston, revels in its ability to break the mould.

When the facility opened in 2004, it featured a single 18-hole public course (The Dunes), mystifying doomsayers who thought the relative isolation of the property would condemn it to an early, costly demise.

However, not only did The Dunes survive, it actually thrived! So much so that in 2010 a second public course (Lost Farm) opened for business alongside the original course, proving that isolation is no obstacle to golfing success.

Today, both courses feature regularly in Top 10 lists of Australia’s best public courses, delivering premium links playing formats – and outstanding ocean views – to players from Australasia and overseas.

Superintendent Phil Hill oversees the grounds management of both courses. The 40-year veteran, who started at The Dunes in 2006 after a lengthy tenure at Launceston Golf Club, admits that he took some convincing to move to Barnbougle.

“Actually, when Barnbougle was in its early planning stages in 2002, owner Richard Sattler approached me to see if I’d become superintendent, but I declined,” Mr Hill recalled. “I don’t think anyone in Australia thought it would work because of the location and how far it was from a main city and domestic airport. Then I declined again in 2004, but eventually I said yes in 2006 and I’ve been here ever since.”

In an era of declining golf participation worldwide, Barnbougle has bucked trends to retain a stable customer base of 45,000 rounds per year over both courses, supported by high-quality clubhouse facilities and comfortable on-site guest cottages. 

MINIMALISTIC – STRIPPED BACK

Management practices, Mr Hill admits, have evolved to suit the specific requirements of the local terrain and climate, frequently in opposition to conventional wisdom.

“It’s really a unique place to have a golf course,” Mr Hill said. “Quite often I say to the team: ‘When you work at Barnbougle, the basic turf management philosophies are almost thrown out the window.’ It’s just completely different to managing a mainland golf course.”

Mr Hill says the most noticable difference between Barnbougle and other courses is the turf; fescues are used on all Barnbougle surfaces from tee to green, whereas typical Australian courses feature combinations of varieties like rye and bent.

“The problem with bent greens and rye or bent fairways is that they have high Nitrogen fertiliser requirements, as well as associated heavy management practices. But here our management is minimalistic – stripped back.”

A low-impact land management policy is evident in all maintenance routines: Mr Hill and his 14 staff spray infrequently, and only give greens a light dusting fortnightly over growing seasons. Irrigation is also used sparingly, and not at all over winter, and no edgers are used to manicure bunker lips.

One of the obvious benefits of leaving the courses in their natural state, largely free from foreign amendments and additives, is that there is virtually no disease on either course (though the team still has to be vigilant about the prevention of Fusarium patch in winter and Dollar Spot in summer). 

“And even though The Dunes is almost 15 years old, the greens have never been cored! They are still firm, with a very small amount of thatch in them,” Mr Hill said.

Overall mowing schedules are conservative. All greens are mown daily, excepting Sundays in winter, to a height of 4.5mm. Fairways are mown twice weekly in spring and summer and weekly or fortnightly in winter depending on conditions. Sticking to tight mowing schedules not only keeps the courses presentable and in good nick for play, Mr Hill explains, but it also helps to break up dew and frost and dry out surfaces. “Yes, we actually get frost down here – another way that we differ from most coastal courses.”

KEEN TO EXPERIMENT

Both courses have a high degree of autonomy as far as day-to-day management is concerned, due mainly to a river that separates the two layouts. This means each course tends to have its own fleet of primary outdoor power equipment (OPE), though some units like sprayers, materials handlers and top dressers are commonly shared.

The main brands in evidence at Barnbougle are Toro and STIHL, Mr Hill said. See the table right for a complete list of gear.

“We ‘run red’ with most of our machinery,” Mr Hill said. “Toro controls the market down here and they are very popular – it all comes down to aftersales service at the end of the day.”

All equipment is fully owned, and acquisitions take place as required, generally when machinery reaches the end of its life after approximately 3,000–3,500 hours.

According to Mr Hill, the current fleet of equipment perfectly matches the local terrains and user preferences of staff. Refinements have occurred slowly in response to prevailing conditions; for example, given the steepness of slopes, particularly at Lost Farm, 2WD mowers have been replaced with 3WD traction units over the years.

Despite the stability and fitness-for-purpose of the fleet, Mr Hill said he is always keen to experiment with new technologies to maximize efficiency. Does this experimentation extend to battery-powered equipment? Yes, Mr Hill declared… so long as performance criteria are satisfied. For instance, he says the 5010-H fairway mowers, which have hybrid diesel/battery power, have proven to be strong performers while delivering significant running cost savings. “We did the trials and the maths when we bought the 5010-H model, and it offered a substantial saving on diesel compared to a similar upgrade to a straight diesel. It gave us about 9L or 10L per mow per day in savings.”

DO NOT COMPROMISE

Notwithstanding its position in northeastern Tasmania, Barnbougle has managed to attract a loyal following of golfers by sticking to high standards and not compromising on the fundamentals of course presentation and playability. 

Arguably, the isolation of the course has motivated a spirit of excellence and self-sufficiency, as typified by the well equipped in-house maintenance facility and its two full-time mechanics. But the independent nature of the facility runs deeper than that: Mr Hill’s willingness to customise unique maintenance regimes and practices, even in defiance of mainland wisdom, has allowed Barnbougle to retain the essence of its raw and healthy landscape, i.e. its greatest feature. No wonder guests come from far afield to enjoy the grandeur of the place.

The Dunes’ 11th hole showcases the true links format of the course.