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Golf on Lord Howe Island, Australia

The truth is, nobody's really sure how long the nine-holer (most golfers play it twice for a par-sixty-two total) on Lord Howe has been around. One tale has it that the course began as a patch of green in a cow paddock where a woman named Lea slapped battered golf balls around. What's certain is that fourteen years ago Geoff Hatton, a Sydney-based golf architect, revamped a scrappy old local links as part of a barter agreement. "Geoff said, 'You give my family and me a week's holiday on the island and I'll design you a course," says Island Golf Club president Tony Cameron. Using equipment borrowed from the Lord Howe Island Board, Hatton did the heavy work of shaping nine holes. Then Cameron and his golf buddies did the rest. The result was a tight 2,073-yard course that stretches along a swath of rugged South Pacific coastline rivaling anything you'll see at Big Sur. There's plenty of island charm, too. On the fourth and fifth holes, I found myself hitting over a dam that cut straight across the fairways to mounded greens that curved like upturned saucers. Number nine, the only par five, features dams, dips and distance. More baffling hazards abound as well. "If you hit a bad slice," says naturalist Ian Hutton, who leads bird walks through the course, "you might end up hitting a shorebird that's just flown in from Siberia."

I should be so lucky. The only sign of life I've seen all day is a half-dozen hand-size spiders--golden orb weavers, to be precise, one of 103 arachnid species on Lord Howe--swinging in their hammock-size webs on the deck of the locked one-room clubhouse. (The course operates on the honor system. Twenty Australian dollars--roughly U.S.$10--gets you eighteen holes, clubs and a pullcart.) As for other golfers, there generally aren't any. That's the island way. "We never have to wait for a tee time," says Neil Turk, an islander who's been playing the course for two years. "And we never have to deal with yabbos asking to play through."

Before you pack your clubs, though, note that paradise isn't open to everyone, at least not all at once. The World Heritage-protected island, only seven miles long and less than two miles across at its widest point, allows just 400 visitors at any given time. The 380 or so full-timers can't sell property without first offering it to other islanders and can't buy a car without approval from the Island Board. There are only five rental cars on the island, leaving most of the locals to walk or ride bicycles. The old-fashioned accommodations (think Australian summer camp) have not changed much since the first island tourists--passengers on cargo ships seeking relief from seasickness--got here about ninety years ago. But that's just as well: These fuss-free surroundings delivered the most untainted golf experience I have ever had. No clubhouse crowds to impress, no caddies to tip, no cart gridlock; no yabbos.

Just one thing, though. If you're lucky enough to play the course and your ball bounds over the grassy bluff on the spectacular eighth hole, toward the ocean, let it go. Just recently, a tourist went missing on an island beach. A couple days later, fishermen pulled in a shark with a man's leg in its belly. As for the occasional tsunami, Cameron says: "Aw, you'll be right, mate. Just run for the hills."

Imagine the peace and quiet up there.

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