18 Holes, Par 71, 850 Miles: The World’s Longest Golf Course

November 8, 2010

It’s a breathless afternoon in the Australian outback, and you’re standing on a threadbare Astroturf tee box, with the temperature pushing triple digits and the bush flies swarming like paparazzi. The good news is, the flies don’t bite. The bad news is, the death adders do. They’re out there in the scrub brush, coiled, unblinking. A drop of their venom is enough to kill a cow. You select a battered Top-Flite, a ball that carbon-dates to the Jurassic era, and take aim down a fairway that looks more like a Martian landing strip: firm-packed red dirt, warped by heat waves. You waggle, swing, uncork a screamer. The ball hops once, caroms off a rock and bounds into the bush like a frightened kangaroo. “No snake-bite serum ,” Perry Will reminds you, as you set off on your search through the scraggly vegetation. “So if one of those bastards gets you, you’re pretty well buggered.”

You wouldn’t make it to the next hole, he informs you, much less the nearest hospital, both of which lie more than 50 miles away.

Will walks behind you, grinning, as he says this, a leather-skinned outbacker plucked from central casting. Calls women “Sheilas.” Fishes for great whites in his spare time. He’s not much of a golfer, even less a caddie. But he makes a fitting sidekick when you head Down Under to the longest, wildest golf course in the world.

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Stretched across the states of South and Western Australia, the Nullarbor Links is one part golf course, two parts oddball attraction, but the scale of it is too grand to dismiss it as a lark. It measures 850 miles from the tips and takes at least three days to play, unless you’re riding a unicycle, as a golfer from India recently did. In that case, set aside three months. In the two years since the course opened, 2,500 players have finished all 18, and no one has come close to breaking par.

The course is named in honor of the region it inhabits, the Nullarbor Plain, an arid swatch that lives up to its Latin billing: nullus, as in no; arbor, as in tree. It is one of the planet’s most desolate places, its population scattered among tiny settlements where marsupials outnumber human beings. A railway splits the plain, as does a highway, a relentless asphalt ribbon marked by wombat roadkill and signs for camel crossings. In 1979, when the Skylab space station crashed to earth, it landed on the Nullarbor, and it wasn’t any wonder that no one got hurt.

The region’s sheer remoteness was the reason for the course: to transform the Nullarbor into a place you want to linger, not just an earthly purgatory standing in your path toward someplace else. Most Aussies remain skeptical; tell them you’re out for pleasure in the Nullarbor, and they’ll refer you to a shrink.

“Welcome to paradise,” Perry Will declares when he meets you at the airport in Ceduna, the small fishing town in South Australia that doubles as your launching point onto the links. “Got lucky on the weather.”

It’s 9:00 a.m., and the sun is set on broil. With the air conditioning cranking in his Toyota Land Cruiser, Will drives you to a downtown general store, where you pick up a scorecard and shell out $58 for your green fees. Another $115 gets you a rabbitskin akubra, a broad-rimmed hat that’s a wise investment, given that it’s the coolest shade you’ll see for the next few days.

“Took 10 rabbits just to make this one,” the shop clerk tells you.

Will gives you a once-over, the bemused outback expression Paul Hogan perfected in Crocodile Dundee.

“Well, then,” he says, “you better well appreciate the bloody thing.”

Unlike most holes on the links, which consist of little more than synthetic tees and greens, separated by untamed outback, Nos. 1 and 2 draw from a preexisting layout, the Ceduna Golf Club, where grass does about as well as Dracula in daylight. The fairways are the color of five o’clock shadow, and the blackened greens are made of cinder ash that you rake smooth before you putt.

With a warning about snakes, Will sets you loose. Twenty minutes later, you’ve bogeyed a pair of par-4s, and your once-gleaming wedge looks like a primitive gardening tool.

As you slink back to the car, Will asks proudly, “So, what do you think of my home course?”

By noon, the bad swings are behind you and you’ve hit a road so open that you don’t see another car for hours. This is the Eyre Highway, which pays homage to John Eyre, the English explorer who, in 1841, became the first outsider to cross the Nullarbor. “A hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature,” was how Eyre described the area. But he was biased. In the course of his journey, three of his horses died of dehydration, and his companion was murdered by the party’s aboriginal guides.

From the cool of Will’s SUV, the scenery blurs past. It’s an anomaly, all right, but hardly hideous: a stark, arresting setting, with blue haze rising from the low-slung eucalyptus and mallee scrub.

In the pint-sized town of Penong, you card a double-bogey on a miniscule par-4, then ride 50 miles to Nundroo, a speck on the map with two distinctive features: a long, dogleg par-5 and the largest colony of hairy-nosed wombats in the world. Local surveys put their numbers at 2.5 million, but all you see of them are the outsize holes they’ve burrowed in the fairways, cavernous warrens that would send Carl Spackler to the rubber room.


There’s a roadhouse here, too, one of the dusty oases along the links that offer barebones shelter, and sustenance like meat pies and kangaroo-tail stew. Glorified truck stops, most roadhouses are run by cheerful ruffians, refugees from the real world who opted for the outback in the spirit of adventure or simply in the interest of being left alone. In the town of Cocklebiddy (“Population: 8. Kangaroos: 1,234,567” reads the sign outside the roadhouse) you bump into the manager, Tony Goulder, a Sydney native with the facial hair and bearing of a fair-skinned Lou Albano. He and his wife, Shona, fled the city nearly a decade ago to “blow off all that bloody urban stress.”

Goulder is leaning at the check-in desk when you arrive, a hulking figure with tattoo sleeves and a beard that nestles against his beer belly. He stamps your scorecard to prove you’ve played his par-4, then wipes his brow.

“Been busy lately,” he says.

He shows you his ledger. Six golfers have come through in the last 48 hours.

If Goulder’s corner of the Nullarbor is more crowded than it once was, that owes something to a fellow roadhouse operator, Bob Bongiorno, a savvy businessman with a knack for P.T. Barnum-esque promotional stunts. In the late 1990s, nearly 20 years after Skylab crash-landed near the town of Balladonia, Bongiorno took over the Balladonia roadhouse and seized on the region’s greatest claim to fame: he built a Skylab museum with a replica of the space station on the rooftop.

“It’s not everywhere they crash a space ship,” Bongiorno says, shrugging, when you meet him. “Might as well try to draw attention to that fact.”

The lure of Skylab notwithstanding, by the early 2000s visitation to the Nullarbor was down to a trickle, so Bongiorno put his head to a fresh marketing plan. The problem, as he saw it, was that “people saw the Nullarbor as a place to be endured but not enjoyed.” How to change that?

One of his favorite local stories was the outlandish tale of the Nullarbor Nymph, which centered on the exploits of a halfnaked young woman who cavorted on the outback with kangaroos. The yarn was a pure hoax, a sexualized Sasquatch story concocted by a journalist in the early ’70s. But at the time it garnered international headlines, and hordes of would-be gawkers descended on the treeless plain.

That, Bongiorno realized, was what the region needed: another global sensation. All the better if it turned out to be true.

One evening, over dinner with his buddy, Alf Caputo, a marketing man with deep roots in the outback, Bongiorno found his muse in a few bottles of wine, and the idea hit him: the world’s longest golf course!

It took nearly nine years from conception to construction, and $300,000 to complete. A government grant was won, and an architect was hired, a former golf pro from England, who sketched plans remotely by studying the Nullarbor on Google maps. In August, 2008, an Australian pro, Len Thomas, gave the links a test run, firing a 78 that still stands as the course record. Two months later, the course was christened with a three-day opening tournament. Within hours, Caputo’s phone lit up: ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC.

“I turned to Bob,” Caputo says, “and said, ‘My God, what the f–k have we done?'”

A similar thought strikes you out on the links, when, standing in the shadow of the fake rooftop Skylab, you smother-hook a 5-iron on the par-3 12th. The ball dives into a thicket: death-adder habitat, not to mention brown spiders, which, Perry Will points out, are nearly as treacherous as the snakes. You take your time reloading. No one’s stuck behind you. In fact, nearly two days into your round, you’ve yet to come across another golfer. International publicity is all well and good, but when your course is in the outback, it doesn’t always translate into throngs of players.

Not that you’ve been alone. Along the way, you’ve passed convoys of “grey nomads,” the Aussie term for retirees who spend their golden years roaming the countryside in mobile homes. They’re out there in small armies on the Eyre Highway, like geriatric extras in a sequel to Mad Max. You’ve breezed by other nongolfing stragglers: bicyclists, rickshaw riders, wheelbarrow pushers, pedestrians. It’s not unheard of for college-age Australians to hike cross the Nullarbor as a kind of rite of passage.

As your round progresses, the holes blend together. What stands out are the accompanying quirks. The par-5 5th, for instance, is nicknamed “Dingo’s Den,” but its defining creature isn’t a wild dog but a pesky crow that feigns disinterest as you hit your drive, then swoops down and wings off with your ball. You tee up another. And another. Two more Top- Flites vanish as the crow flies.

The Eyre Highway rolls on. At Border Village, the town between South and Western Australia, you play a short par-3, its tee box guarded by a large World’s Longest Course kangaroo statue: a mini-golf touch on a massively long layout. Back on the road, the landscape flat and endless, you pass sheep farms and long wire fences, built to keep the dingos from the livestock. You hurtle down a stretch called the 90 Mile Straight, which is precisely that: the longest road without a curve in the Southern Hemisphere.

Then, nearly three days into your trip, it finally happens, in the town of Sheep’s Back: a sight as unlikely as ladies’ day at Augusta. You run into a backup on the tee. His name is John Crighton, a tall, athletic man who looks to be in his early 60s, carrying just one club, a weathered 6-iron, as he crosses the Nullarbor with his wife, Marian, the two of them crammed into a shiny blue MG. In another life, he was in the foreign service: the former Australian ambassador to Egypt. But now he’s got the time for quixotic adventure.

“It’s like playing golf along the pyramids,” Crighton says.

“Except without the pyramids,” Marian adds.

Beyond Sheep’s Back, the terrain begins to buckle. The flat, barren plain is no longer quite so flat as you draw closer to Kalgoorlie, the western terminus of the links. On the par-4 16th hole, in the town of Kambalda, you drain a 30-footer, albeit for yet another bogey.

The green is soft and true, thanks to the efforts of Eric Donkin, a retired boilermaker and lifelong outbacker who volunteers as the course’s greenskeeper. Every six weeks, he lights out in his truck with a rake, a shovel and a compactor for a six-day excursion across the Nullarbor: cleaning litter off the fairways, replacing stolen flagsticks, fixing sunken portions of the synthetic greens.

“People say, ‘How nice, you get to travel, it’s like a holiday’,” Donkin says. “Believe me, it ain’t no bloody holiday.”

It’s a short drive to Kalgoorlie, a dungaree-clad boomtown, where gold mining has created the most self-made millionaires per capita in the world.

You play the last two holes bogey, double-bogey, for a whopping three-day total of 93. As if you’re counting. When you play the Nullarbor, it’s how, not how many. The sun is hanging low, a red sky bleeding along the horizon. You’ve got a Qantas flight to catch, and your game is in the gutter. But if you had a few more days, you wouldn’t mind squeezing in another nine.