Cape Kidnappers, those famous aerial pictures had me desperate to play this course one day, and that day came last month. It was a flat calm and beautiful sunny afternoon and I have to say the drive from taupo wasn’t half bad in itself! Like Kauri Cliffs you come across another locked gate that opens this time to an interesting 10 minute drive over sheep laden hills that really gets you thinking ‘when are we ever going to get there?! Not much glimpse of the views on route and even when you arrive at the cattle ranch style clubhouse you are not greeted by the views that Kauri Cliffs offers though the overall quality of the place is obvious.
We splashed out on some caddies for this round, a couple of Americans continuing their golf course management education who were nice guys ( albeit mine had only been around for a week and wasn’t the most experienced around the course). It was a great experience having the freedom to stroll down the fairways free of the sticks none the less and I would highly recommend it even if only as a one off.
So the course overall is excellent but as previous reviews have stated, the sensational views are there but slightly more fleeting than up at Kauri Cliffs. Highlights on the front 9 that plays a fair degree inland for most for me would be 1, 5, 6 and 7. The 6th is monster 230 yarder over a gorge that is certainly a bit reminiscent of kauri cliffs. You soon see the very different design that Doak has employed here compared to its sister course up north. Less manicured, slightly more intimidating and natural looking, almost more old fashioned I suppose.
His minimalist design is certainly encapsulated on a few holes in the back 9, notably the aptly named ‘infinity’ 12th and ‘pirates plank’ 15th. The 12th on that day was almost dream like, walking along the grass towards this green that just seemed to be floating on the edge of a ridiculous turquoise watery backdrop, a moment never to be forgotten.. The 15th is a bit controversial, bunkerless, dead straight par 5 though it just messed with my head with 500 feet to the left and maybe 200 feet past the bushes to the right, I was just intimidated on the tee and promptly hit an abysmal tee shot before actually rescuing a bogey at the end. Whether its just a link hole to the famous 16th tee or is it a masterstroke in golf psychology I’m not quite sure. Other memorable ones on the back 9, I would rate the 13th and 14th as excellent with the ‘road hole’ imitation green on the latter bringing a smile to the face.. The bucket green on 18th is also a quirky feature that I liked.
So overall it’s not quite what you expect from the pictures, and a very different experience to both Kauri and Kinloch. It’s often voted as no 1 in NZ though I’m not sure I would rate it as that myself. Perhaps It needs a couple of rounds to more fully appreciate the subtlety that I may have missed. I d be more than happy to return and learn some more.
If, however, you come to realise that this course is actually rather a juxtaposition – a sublime portrait of subtlety and strategy painted onto a vertiginous and rather bonkers backdrop – you will undoubtedly leave with a smile on your face. It’s all about decisions, decisions, decisions, and the features forcing those choices are so understated, not immediately apparent to the eye, yet very real and very smart.
Take for example the par-4 7th. Not the most photographed or celebrated, semi-blind from the tee, so that the right side of the generous fairway is unsighted. But you if you find that hidden flank, you have the much easier shot to the green predominantly because of the tilt of the green directly towards you. Strike it clean, and you can get it to stop where you want it to. If you come in from the safer left side, the ball will be striking a side camber, and potentially even slide off the green altogether. The hole’s strategy is simply based on green tilt, and only works because the greens play firm and fast (which they did, even after the wettest summer in years). If you’re not paying attention, not thinking your way round - if you get mentally lazy - you will not see what you need to see in order to play the hole, and you will struggle all day long.
The entire front nine is like this. Only the short 8th has only one route to the green, everything else asks you questions. The run of holes from 4 to 7 are so intelligent, particular the par-5 4th, whose gargantuan fairway and huge bail-out area will leave you itching to attack the green in two, but any slight miscue and you’ll be gobbled whole by the cavernous greenside bunkers, with a extra green tier to climb if you can escape.
But it’s the 14th that takes the cake. Clearly based on the Road Hole (but much shorter), the target, wrapped around a carbon copy of the Road bunker, is so dicey that you either need to drive it incredibly close (and hug the dangerous right edge), or hold right back so that you have a full wedge in – you’ll need all the spin you can get. Again, lackadaisical course management (i.e. blindly pulling the big stick out and aiming for the fat of the fairway) will leave you with a pitch shot with such a high tariff that you’ll wish you’d left your machismo at home.
The other reason that you may need to protect yourself from high expectation about the showy cliffside holes is because some of them may be the weakest of this great collection, none more so than the famed ‘Pirate’s Plank’ at 15. I’ve heard that Tom Doak was not originally going to make this hole, but that Julian Robertson persuaded him otherwise. Even if that’s just idle gossip, I could see some reasons why both points of view hold water. Any walk around this property would feel rather incomplete if you did not stand on the 16th tee and soak up the scenery, but to get there, you need to build the 15th. Just an arrow-straight, bunkerless march down a finger of land, it would be the same hole if it was a strip of land between two lakes. All Doak appears to have done is mow it, which for me takes minimalism too far, and made me wonder where he was coming from.
Just a quick comment about the controversial punchbowl green at the finishing hole. I find myself giving it a guarded thumbs up, mainly because there is a slight surplus of holes at Kidnappers with a perched green site that falls off to one side (3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14 and to a lesser extent, 16 and 17). To finish with yet another one may have felt too formulaic – certainly, the fact that it bucked the trend made me appreciate the quirk. I’d found the favoured right hand edge of the fairway with my tee shot. A decision to take dead aim was obvious, but I pull-hooked my 6-iron 20m left, only to see the ball trickle down the slope and end up 6ft away. Now I’m not complaining, but it wasn’t satisfying. However, the alternative is uniformity and too much rationality, so I’ll take it.
I should also add that I don’t think you have to be a scratch player to knock it round here in a decent score. Surely there’s enough room here for any 18-handicapper to knock it round in level bogeys if they are using their brain, and putting well. In that sense, Doak has well and truly ticked the box that says that golf courses should be able to accommodate a range of abilities.
My subjective take is that this is probably the best course in New Zealand, although I find it hard to compare the cerebral minimalism on show here with the wild ride on offer at Kinloch. Dammit, I’ll just have to play them both again some day. Matt Richardson