It’s easy to leave the real world behind when you visit one of New Zealand’s most iconic golf courses
It is 246 years since Cape Kidnappers earned its name, which came about when local Maori kidnapped Captain Cook’s Tahitian cabin boy thinking, mistakenly as it turned out, he was being held aboard the explorer’s ship against his will.
The cabin boy duly escaped his supposed rescuers and swam back to the Endeavour but the kidnap attempt is forever etched in New Zealand history thanks to the cape’s name.
The towering cliffs for which Cape Kidnappers is renowned form the southern-most point of the Hawke’s Bay. The landscape is dramatic, the sheer cliff faces against which the Pacific Ocean batters ceaselessly are the exclamation point at the end of a peninsula along which runs a dizzying multifarious countryside: razor-back hills, rolling pasture, bush-clad ravines and forest.
Hugging the cliff tops is the largest and most accessible gannet colony in the world. When the big birds are in residence (September to early May) it’s a noisy, smelly, rather shambolic place.
But birds and farm animals no longer have this historic part of New Zealand to themselves. In 2001 American billionaire Julian Robertson bought the 6400-acre property and set about expanding its uses.
Fourteen years on, The Farm, as it is named, is all of the following: a luxury lodge and spa, a rural playground — with native bush walks, cliff hikes, horse treks, clay bird shooting and mountain biking — a kiwi and native bird sanctuary, a forest. And a golf course.
It’s an unlikely setting for a golf course, 250 acres on the seaward side of the property, including narrow fingers of land that jut out into the ocean. Designed by American golf course architect Tom Doak, Cape Kidnappers, which opened for play in 2004, regularly appears on the list of world best golf courses.
Of Cape Kidnappers, Doak said: “Our goal in designing golf courses is to create interesting holes you wouldn’t find anywhere else. That wasn’t hard to do at Cape Kidnappers, because the site is not like anywhere else in golf.”
The landscape in which the par-71, 6533m course is sited provided Doak with all the inspiration he could have wished for. The natural scenic splendour provides the wow factor in what is a cleverly designed course.
Doak is renowned as an architect who prefers not to tamper overly with the land on which his courses sit and Cape Kidnappers is a good example of his organic approach.
There’s a commendable restraint about the course and as Cape Kidnappers’ head golf professional Jon McCord says, nothing is overwhelming in its sense of scale.
And his comment refers not just to the course, as the buildings, including the clubhouse that resembles from the outside a time-weathered woolshed, sit quietly on the land. There are no discordant notes, nothing to offend. It’s as if the golf course has always been there, contentedly rubbing shoulders with the farmland, in harmony with Mother Nature.
But that’s not to say the course is benign. It is anything but. In fact it’s known to be something of a brute, particularly when the sou’wester blows.
Anyone planning a round at Cape Kidnappers is well advised to leave their ego at the front gate. Take McCord’s advice: “To get the best out of your Cape Kidnappers experience, don’t focus on how you play. Think about coming here to enjoy the day and the scenery and let golf take a back seat. If you worry too much about how you’re scoring, you risk ruining your day.”
Holes one and two play away from the coast, giving players views of the nearby red-painted farm sheds and the more distant lodge and separate accommodation buildings which have commanding views over the course and countryside and out to sea.
That Doak is a fan of elevated greens becomes quickly apparent. The first hole, a par-4 and 402m from the blue tees, has a green sited above a gully that runs across the fairway. Sand traps guard the left-hand side of the green and in fact danger lurks in almost every direction if your approach shot is not spot on.
Precision is equally important on the second hole, a par-5, as two sets of fairway bunkers lie in wait to gobble up any offline shots. The third hole, aptly named Wee Three, is one of few holes that sees players looking down at the green from the tee. It’s a formidable sight, bunkers in front of and behind the green.
The fourth is an intriguing hole, particularly if you haven’t played the course before. A marker on top of The Rise, which is also the name of the hole, indicates the correct line. Another par 5, it plays just under 500m from the blue tees, 468 from the whites.
The hole tracks back along one of Cape Kidnappers’ famous ridges, with the ocean visible beyond.
It soon becomes apparent there are no so-called ‘easy’ holes on the course. The par 3s might be shorter distance but steep bush-clad gullies make having a solid aerial game imperative.
McCord has done the maths. Cape Kidnappers hosts 5000 rounds annually. So if the average player donates, say, seven balls to the course, that makes for a total of 35,000 balls disappearing without trace each year.
The course has been opened for just over 10 years. Ten times 35,000 equals 350,000, increasing every day. Yup, there’s a lot of golf balls out there somewhere!
Somewhat fortuitously, I donated only four balls to the course, my better half three. (I take the blame for his losses, which didn’t start until the 13th
after I remarked at the 12th green that he was doing well still playing with his first golf ball.)
Holes 12 to 16 are Kidnappers’ ‘signature dish’. Who hasn’t seen the aerial photographs of the holes that run the length of the narrow promontories that stretch towards the ocean?
From on high the fairways seem impossibly narrow, greens apparently teetering on the edge of a precipice. The par-4 12th, 393m from the whites, is named Infinity for good reason. Standing behind the ball as you prepare to take your second shot, you’re lucky if you can see the tip of the flag. More likely you see only sea.
Getting your distance correct is imperative. If you come up short of the green, where the fairway narrows significantly, you run the risk of your ball being swallowed up by a big swale and heading left into the rough, where trouble awaits. Go long and none of the options is palatable. Left and your ball is gone for good, right and more bad luck lurks.
No 13 plays along the cliff edge. Once again there is a gully to negotiate between tee and green and a cluster of bunkers right and left can make good scoring difficult.
The par-4 14th is McCord’s favourite hole. “It’s the shortest par four on the course and it is drivable in the right wind. The green reminds me of the seventeenth at St Andrews, the infamous Road Hole. If you don’t hit your second shot well and leave yourself a good angle into the green, you risk turning a possible birdie opportunity into a bogey.”
If you survive the Pimple, next on the list is Pirate’s Plank, a long par 5 that is definitely one of the most testing holes on the course. The 15th measures 594m from the blues, 549m from the whites, and although it’s pretty much a straight line from tee to green, it’s difficult. An ability to hit it straight is imperative. Anything that drifts left or right spells trouble… big trouble!
The final three holes see players turn their back on the Pacific Ocean and track their way back across a ridge towards the clubhouse. But before you bid farewell to the sea, enjoy the grandstand views available from the 16th tee box which is reached via a steep set of steps. On a clear day you definitely feel as though you can see forever.
The word ‘forever’ is sure
to be one used by many who play the par-5 16th, intriguingly named Widow’s Walk, but the conversation is likely to be about balls lost forever in the bush that hugs the right-hand side of the hole.
Longer hitters can reach the green in two but the majority of players will be hoping to land their first shot where the fairway is generously wide. There are no guarantees a well-directed shot will result in a good lie as the undulating fairway, particularly combined with any wind that is blowing, has the capacity to push a ball right. It’s not where you want to see your ball headed.
However, should the course and the conditions play fair you should, from the right-hand side of the fairway, have a good approach into the elevated green. Bunkers left and right guard its front so accurate play is essential if you are to make par.
The 17th and 18th holes are both par 4s. Like the previous hole, players head towards an elevated green, although this time the route is slightly serpentine and an intimidating cluster of bunkers on the approach to, and to the left of, the green demand correct club selection.
According to McCord, the 18th causes mixed reactions. As a finishing hole it might lack for drama due to the punchbowl, but, personally, I liked it. The fairway slopes left to right and the topography is reminiscent of a rumpled quilt but if you get a lucky bounce (which I did), and reach the green to find your ball on the dance floor and offering you a makeable putt (which I did) it’s a hole that can allow you to finish your round with a smile on your face (which I did).
In my opinion, McCord’s advice is spot on. To play Cape Kidnappers is much more than just a round of golf. It is an experience, a very New Zealand experience at that. It’s not a walk in the park, it’s a walk (or a cart ride) around a rather lovely, meticulously maintained ‘paddock’. It was as exhilarating as it was frustrating. But, ultimately, it was utterly compelling.
TO PLAY CAPE KIDNAPPERS IS MUCH MORE THAN JUST A ROUND OF GOLF. IT IS AN EXPERIENCE, A
VERY NEW ZEALAND EXPERIENCE AT THAT