New Zealand’s North Island is one of the most scenic destinations on the planet. And its rolling hills and clifftops have become home to some world-class golf courses.
New Zealand’s North Island is one of the most scenic destinations on the planet. And its rolling hills and clifftops have become home to some world-class golf courses, writes Michael Jones.
The night is only a pup, and the twinkling lights dance and frame the harbour as a crisp sea breeze fills my lungs with salty air. I am sitting outside a lively bar in Auckland – and I can’t wipe the smile o my face.
Perhaps it’s because the beer has started to work its magic, or because of the waitress who just poured me another … But I get the feeling it has something to do with the quality of golf that’s on o er in this glorious part of the world. We are blessed with some truly great golf courses in Australia – but our neighbours across the Tasman have plenty to brag about, too.
Despite its proximity to home, as well as its prominence on my ‘to-do’ list, I had never before paid a visit to New Zealand. Happily, however, any of the preconceived notions I once held about the beauty and mystique of the North Island had either been realised or enhanced throughout my journey. The vast, unspoiled landscapes beggar belief. And the charismatic cities and towns are oozing with culture, diversity, and all sorts of entertainment.
As for the golf, well, Kiwis are certainly spoiled for choice. In fact, outside of Scotland, New Zealand boasts more golf courses per capita than any other country in the world. The North Island itself lays claim to three of the world’s top-100 courses, including Cape Kidnappers and the uber-exclusive Tara Iti – both designed by renowned architect Tom Doak, who has somewhat of an anity for the island nation.
“No country has seen its golf courses improve more over the past 20 years than New Zealand,” he stated.
Cape Kidnappers is one of Doak’s most splendiferous creations and lies atop the jagged cli tops in Te Awanga at Hawke’s Bay. Owned by American hedge fund manager, philanthropist and billionaire, Julian Robertson, the property is truly remarkable, both geographically and architecturally.
There is no question that Doak was handed one of the best canvases a designer could possibly hope for – and it is easy to suggest that anyone could have created a great track from the land available. But his routing and minimalist approach has produced a layout that blends seamlessly with the natural environment and provides the golfer with a scenic and immersive test.
The playing surfaces are immaculately maintained – and there is a pleasing lack of di erentiation between the fescue fairways and greens, which upholds the spirit of links golf and allows for playability. The bunkering is well-thought-out but it is not overdone, while the green complexes are exciting, diverse and challenging.
It is a fair course that embraces the elements, places a premium on positioning, rewards good play and punishes bad shots. Its magic, like a lot of great places, is that it appears dicult, but it very rarely beats you up.
Dissecting and selecting a signature stretch of
WE ARE BLESSED WITH SOME TRULY GREAT GOLF COURSES IN AUSTRALIA – BUT OUR NEIGHBOURS ACROSS THE TASMAN HAVE PLENTY TO BRAG ABOUT, TOO.
holes is not an easy task – purely because of the memorable nature of each and every hole – but, like a lot of people before me, I found myself smitten between 12 and 16.
The 12th is a lengthy par-4 and is aptly-named ‘Infinity’ because the sky so often blends with the ocean, which can make the horizon rather difficult to spot. This visual illusion usually means first-time visitors (myself included) will become tentative and leave their approach shots short, because it appears as though anything too long will fall o the face of the earth.
The stunning par-3 13th speaks for itself, playing along the edge of the headland, but the following two-shotter really captured my attention. Short par-4s are supposed to produce a range of different scores. They should entice players o the tee; provide both safe and dangerous playing lines; and encourage and allow for various clubs to be selected. Each of those principles has been incorporated within ‘Pimple’, which draws its name from the prominent bump located on the left portion of the drivable green.
The course is complimented by an understated yet charming clubhouse – where no detail has been ignored, and every guest is made to feel welcome by the attentive and friendly sta. While The Farm at Cape Kidnappers sits on pasture land and offers luxury lodges that are truly spectacular. Yes, they come with quite the price tag, but it is something you are likely to treasure for the rest of your life.
Speaking of memorable experiences … Taking a tour through Napier in a vintage Packard is a fantastic way to see some of the town’s worldclass Art Deco architecture. These buildings were constructed in response to the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake – the nation’s deadliest natural disaster. The Art Deco Trust delivers informative and enjoyable classic car tours, and can pick you up from any of the region’s award-winning vineyards (Craggy Range is exceptional).
New Zealand is, of course, one of the world’s leading wine producers. So, if you like your crushed grapes as much as I do, paying a visit to Waiheke Island will be right up your alley. The island, which is home to over 30 vineyards and wineries, can be reached in under 45 minutes on board one of Auckland’s ferries and makes for a terrific day trip.
The country’s largest city is also home to the newly-opened Windross Farm, which hosted the 2017 New Zealand Women’s Open. Designed by Brett Thomson and New Zealand touring pro, Phil Tataurangi, the former potato, corn and dairy farm was unveiled to the public in September, 2016.
Its history as farmland – and as a flat landscape – meant more than 350,000 cubic metres of soil was needed to be brought in to create the layout. Meanwhile, more than $1.3 million was spent on drainage to ensure the course remained playable year-round. It worked. Despite receiving hundreds of millimetres of rain last year, the inland, links-style course stayed open; its wide fescue fairways and colonial bentgrass greens
NO COUNTRY HAS SEEN ITS GOLF COURSES IMPROVE MORE OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS THAN NEW ZEALAND. – TOM DOAK
kept perfectly healthy.
The pick of the holes, for mine, comes during the captivating closing quartet – where, at the 17th tee, the adjacent strawberry farm tempts players to jump the fence for some freshly-made ice-cream. Tackling this tricky tee-shot, which demands a precise approach to a semi-island green, is therefore (usually) made much more enjoyable.
To have successfully welcomed the LPGA Tour in just its first year of existence says as much about Windross Farm as anything else ever could. And although the tournament faced problematic weather conditions – which put event organisers under pressure and caused controversy – the venue held its own to eventually produce what was an exciting result.
So, too, did Royal Wellington Golf Club when it threw open its gates to welcome the 2017 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. The Heretaunga course was extensively redesigned by Greg Turner and Scott MacPherson in 2013, and lies adjacent to the Hutt River at the base of the mountains in Upper Hutt.
It is one of those places that just feels special. Its presentation is flawless – and the flowing streams, birdlife, gardens and physical location each combine to create the sensation you’ve stepped into a national park. The undulated fairways are well-maintained, lush and tree lined. While the large, sloped greens are guarded by elegant bunker schemes to allow for multiple pin positions.
To be aorded the opportunity to watch the region’s best amateurs plot their way around the parkland layout was an insightful process. But it didn’t help as much as I might have hoped when I attempted to emulate their great play.
Accuracy is paramount here. Players who have a deep understanding of their game and can control their ball flight will generally find success. It is a tactical challenge that cannot be overcome by raw power alone – which is why it has become such an appropriate venue for tournament golf.
For most, holes 3, 4 and 5 will be identified and
highlighted as the standout sequence on o er. And I can certainly understand why. The par-5 4th, in particular, is one of Royal Wellington’s most scenic and exciting holes to play or observe. But I concluded that a short par-4 on the back nine was the pick of the bunch.
The 14th hole may not sound drivable at 300 metres, but taking a direct route to the green will shorten it considerably. However, that attacking option is fraught with danger and will bring dense grass and water into play.
The hole shapes from left to right, and the green is protected from bombs o the tee by cavernous bunkers. But what makes it such a good hole, to me at least, is that none of my playing partners recorded the same number of strokes as one another.
Royal Wellington Golf Club is less than a 30-minute drive from the CBD – where restaurants, cafés and the Wellington Cable Car await. The Rydges Hotel is close to it all, and provides comfortable and a ordable rooms.
Another fascinating place to visit on the North Island is Lake Taupo. This freshwater lake has a surface area of more than 600 square kilometres, making it approximately the same size as Singapore. From observing the geothermal activity at the ‘Craters of the Moon’ to a jet-boat ride at the base of the Huka Falls, there is plenty to keep you occupied. Oh, and there are a number of good golf courses, too.
Two of the very best are Wairakei Golf & Sanctuary and The Kinloch Golf Club. Kinloch
TO HAVE SUCCESSFULLY WELCOMED THE LPGA TOUR IN JUST ITS FIRST YEAR OF EXISTENCE SAYS AS MUCH ABOUT WINDROSS FARM AS ANYTHING ELSE EVER COULD.
is the only Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course in New Zealand – and is often mentioned in the same breath as Kauri Cli s, Cape Kidnappers and Tara Iti as one of the North Island’s premier courses.
The Lodge at Kinloch opened in 2016 – nine years after the completion of the course – to allow visitors the option of staying in luxury on-course accommodation. The reception area and restaurant is perched atop a hill, and boasts 180-degree views of the property and lake.
Many observers tend to agree that Nicklausdesigned tracks are too dicult for the average punter. But Kinloch bucks that trend, for the most part, with its fair and occasionally ‘gettable’ layout. The exception to that rule, however, is the number of blind tee shots which, for the traveling golfer, will most probably result in some unnecessary punishment.
My playing group unanimously agreed that the closing trio of holes was the highlight of the day. But the par-4 6th is what generated the most conversation.
The tee points directly towards the green – but the playing surface lies 45 degrees to the right. It is simple to see the correct playing line. Club selection, however, becomes a huge challenge. And anyone game enough to attack the green with their drive will need to clear the better part of 300 metres to avoid the unforgiving wasteland.
Thankfully, the drive to our next destination was much less daunting. I’m not sure I’ve ever set foot on a golf course as enchanting as Wairakei. From the Ponga-fern bunker faces to the Tui-bird tee markers, the Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge-designed layout is completely charming.
The native flora and fauna abound and – like a lot of properties in the area – features a working predator fence. There is also an on-site biologist to watch over the Takahe birds, which were once thought to be extinct and are rarer than the Kiwi bird.
Wairakei’s bentgrass greens may not be as exciting or as dramatic as others, but they are absolutely immaculate and a joy to putt on. The routing of the course is also superb, as it sends you in all directions of the compass.
Wairakei was built in the early 1970s by the government – and in many ways it represents the start of the movement to bring golf tourism to the country. Fast-forward nearly 50 years, and the North Island of New Zealand has become one of the finest destinations for golf in the world. It is also less than a three-hour flight from the east coast of Australia ... So yeah, I guess that’s why I’m still smiling.
craggy range estate
the farm at CAPE KIDNAPPERS