The Kinloch Club is the first – and so far only – Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course to be built in New Zealand. Jack himself opened the first nine in March 2007 and the second nine opened for play in December of that year.
This is not your typical Jack Nicklaus course – you can put thoughts of Muirfield Village right out of your mind. Kinloch pays homage to the great British and Irish links courses, although it is about as far from the ocean as you can get in New Zealand. The property is a piece of farmland on volcanic terrain, flanked by craggy hills and panoramic views over majestic Lake Taupo. Nicklaus has crafted a rugged, ramshackle masterpiece into this landscape, but it will surprise some visitors to learn that most of Kinloch’s features are entirely man-made. The Kinloch aura is of a raw links, somehow blended seamlessly into age-old Kiwi sheep-farming territory (shaper Jason Garten was employed to work on the finer details).
However, some Nicklaus trademarks remain – greens are heavily guarded, with the premium on an incisive approach shot. And, like many others from his portfolio, it is demanding, measuring 7,363 yards (6,734m) from the tips and it has already built a reputation for being the country’s toughest track. The nation’s leading golf publication, The Cut, recently rated it that way, after surveying many pre-eminent Kiwi golfers. So far, it is alleged that nobody has yet broken 70 off the back tees and rising star Danny Lee is reputed to have not even come close to par on his inaugural three visits to Kinloch. The forward tees make life considerably easier at 6,519 yards (5,961m), but this is still no walk in the park.
As for the Golden Bear himself, on playing the full 18 holes for the first time, he is reported to have quietly turned to the Kinloch Head Pro and commented that this is one of his favourite Nicklaus designs.
Jack Nicklaus is often criticized for his golf course designs. Some of it is fair and some of it is not. I have had the privilege of playing several of his better designs: Muirfield Village, Mayacama, Pronghorn, Castle Pines, and some of his co-designs such as Sebonack and Harbour Town. Kinloch Club is one of the better designs by Jack Nicklaus. It is not in character with a typical Nicklaus design and unlike his course at Dismal River White, he did not build a course that is silly at time in his attempt to compete with minimalists. It is likely the hardest golf course in New Zealand unless the wind is blowing hard at one of the oceanside courses as Kinloch is more inland. The wind was up a bit when we played it, but not so much that you really had to consider it in your shot.
I had the opportunity one time to ask Jack Nicklaus over dinner as to what he liked most about golf course design. His response was to say "figuring out the routing." Well, at Kinloch Club he got the routing right to take advantage of the natural site against the hills and the lake in the distance.
It sits at the bottom of hills but is definitely a rolling, hilly course itself with one hole, the ninth a short par 4, requiring a difficult uphill walk. This is one of those courses that it is better to carry your bag than to take a trolley due to a few steep hills.
Others did not care for Kinloch as much as I did. I never rate courses based on how I play, but most found it too difficult. I found it a course where you did have to hit fairways, which I generally do.
I really enjoyed the course. One nine is on one side of the ridge with the second nine beginning from a very elevated tee with a great view of a lake in the distance, or maybe that was the sea? The lake is enormous much like Lake Tahoe. The holes I liked the most were 1-5, 8, 10, 11, 14 and 16. Yes, I liked more holes here than I do on most of the other golf courses we played and more than on most golf courses I play. I think Kinloch is that good. There are hills here to contend with and strategy on many holes to consider, particularly the par 5's. I like that in a golf course that you have to consider the proper line into a green, even some of the par 3's.
My suspicion is that other people did not like it because they also walked the course pulling a trolley. It can be a tough walk, that is for sure. It also does not help that the 18th green is the equivalent of two practice ranges back to the clubhouse. The hills on the front side, particularly 9 and a few shorter hills on the back nine do make you work a bit. So a riding cart is a good choice here.
The greens are pure. What you see is what you get. Bunkers are everywhere and can come into play a little quicker than you might think. We played it at nearly 6500 yards which was certainly my limit.
Regarding the holes, there are doglegs aplenty and uphill and downhill shots. On some fairways it feels as though you are looking at ribbons of a fairway due to the forced carry.
The first hole begins with a mid-length par 4 that offers a green hinting at what it to come - undulating and well defended.
The second is a marvelous par five slightly uphill where the correct line must be chosen into the green which is slightly raised.
The third is a mid length par 3 over the water. It is lovely to look at due to the bunkering behind the green. The safe play is to the left depending if the pin position is at the front of the green. I played it too safe into the left rough and took a double on this green with a ridge line on the left side. The fourth hole, ending a very good opening stretch of holes, is a downhill par four that you simply cannot miss the green short and right where the bunkers and falloff to rougher land awaits you.
The fifth is a substantial dogleg left with a forced carry to the fairways and bunkers all down the left side for those trying to drive it close on this 340 yard par four slightly downhill. The pin can be tucked behind a mound on the left side of the green.
Our group debated whether we liked or disliked the sixth hole which plays downhill against the side of the hill rising to the right. You want to hit a shorter tee shot to a sunken green that sits in a bowl like effect. There is a tree to the left that comes into play if you go too far left off the tee. I thought it was a good hole, others did not like it due to the lay-up aspect off the tee. Perhaps the green is a bit too undulating with three ripples in it but once again it is a shorter par 4.
The seventh was a lovely medium length par 3 that is well bunkered.
The eight is a longer par five that once again requires a well struck tee shot or you are seemingly forced to play a heroic recovery shot. I loved this par five even after my double.
The ninth was the previously mentioned very short straight up the hill par four. This is a grueling golf hole due to the walk and the weakest hole on the golf course. The only saving grace of the hole is that it transitions you to the tenth hole, a longer par 4 where you are hitting high up on the tee after taking in the marvelous view. There are fairway bunkers to catch your ball if you do not hit online. It has a raised green at the end. It is a very good golf hole. But equally good is the long par 3 that follows which plays as the six index such is the quality of it. There are bunkers all around this hole and they are large and irregular. There is also a substantial false front at the beginning of the green that will send a ball not hit well very far from the green.
The fourteenth was another standout hole for me, a short par 4 requiring all sorts of strategy to figure out the line from the tee and ending with an undulating very well defended green.
The fifteenth could be the hardest par 3 on the golf course where you are required to hit over wasteland to what seems to be a narrow green that sits on a plateau and has a slant. If you miss the green short, particularly to the left you will be on a hill and have a nasty lie and an almost impossible recovery shot other than to find the green somewhere. I made a 40 feet putt for birdie here as this was one of the few greens that did not have multiple ridges and slants in it; it was basically sloped back to front.
The finish ends on two par fives and a par 3. The par fives are on the same length but are very different golf holes with the first one requiring a bit more accuracy on the tee shot while the second one has a pond to consider for your second and third shot. The first one has a split fairway to consider for the second and the green sits raised above you and appears narrow. The safe play, although requiring a longer third shot, is to play to the right. The green on eighteen has false fronts either side of the bunker placed in the middle front of the green. The par 3 in between these par fives is a nice 175 yard par 3, but not as strong as the others on the golf course.
I do think this belongs with Nicklaus's best work. I would definitely play it if in New Zealand, at least until these two new public courses arrive at Tara Iti. Yes it is probably the most difficult golf course in New Zealand on an everyday basis, and it is known as a strategic decision-making course but I found the lines and the shots required to be pretty obvious. The greens are very rolling and requires taking the time to determine the line and pace, but I don't think they are overly done.
I am a little conflicted on my rating. I have it as 124 on my list of top golf courses. I wish there was a 5 1/4 (haha) as 5 feels too low but I don't think it warrants a 5 1/2.
In the 22nd year of our annual event - the Pullis McNutly Golf Tour - we ventured to the north island in New Zealand to play Cape Kidnappers, Kinloch, and Wairakei International.
Cape Kidnappers has a reputation world wide for its spectacular setting and wonderful Tom Doak designed golf course. It ranks as high as 27 in world rankings - indeed a lofty position given the competition around the globe. And Wairakei International at Taupo (as part of their marketing) says that their course is rated in the top 20 courses in the world outside the USA. But of the 3 wonderful courses we played it was Kinloch that really grabbed my interest this time around. Our group of 23 playing Kinloch consisted of lads and ladies with handicaps ranging from 6 to 40. I thought it was a very testing layout but the consensus of the group was that Kinloch was the favourite of the 3.
I don't think I have ever played a course where I have been asked the question on virtually every shot - there were always options and challenges to your vision, ball striking and clear thinking. It was probably the hardest course I have played, yet one of the most enjoyable. And it is not just our little group who thought it good - Bob Charles is the doyen of golf in NZ and has designed a number of the better courses. He played Kinloch recently and stated publicly that Kinloch is undeniably the best golf course in New Zealand. Not a bad rap!
Now I want to go back again....
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
It was a sunny, cloudy, windy day, the type you want for any time you step on the tee of a links course - and though Kinloch may not be beside the sea, it is one of the most amazing stretches of land on which you cannot help but be transported to golfing heaven. I cannot remember a time when I enjoyed every single hole so much of a new course. It wasn't overly tricked up, the rough was fair enough to find your ball, but a challenge to control from. The bunkering amongst the most artful I have ever seen and the routing of the holes clearly crafted by a golfing genius, oh yes, the one and only Jack Nicklaus! My only regret was that we didt'nt have more time as the manager offered for us to carry on for more once we had completed our round and hit the practice ground, well you just had too, that turf was such a pleasure to play off. Jack mentioned it may just be one of his favourite designs. If you don't agree, tie yourself to a giant boulder and jump into the middle of Lake Taupo for there is no pleasing you. The best course I have played in New Zealand, and that's now all except for Tara Iti!!
What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours (miles…..) I allow myself to borrow a (slightly rewritten) line from Dinah Washington’s immortal classic to illustrate that yesterday I played the lovely parkland layout of Wairakei, and the day after the neighbouring moon landscaped Kinloch Golf Club. Both courses are situated less than halfanhour outside of the town of Taupo and equidistant from one another. Surrounding areas being fairly similar, the most striking difference really is the layout of the courses. And what a difference it is. Having played some 750 different courses around the world I have been searching my mind to find two neighbouring courses that present themselves as different as these two. I am talking differences in layout/design, playability and total experience . Whilst Wairakei is a natures delight that goes beyond the golf experience itself, Kinloch is pure and raw golf at its best (or worst, some would probably say). I for one was on a high for most of the round as I love links golf and also unconventional designs . To be precise; Kinloch is linksy in that it is an inland course where shapes are totally manmade, but very well so in my book. All along I had flashbacks to the Castle Course in St Andrews and to some degree to the Links Course at Fancourt, South Africa, both severely punitive courses. And this is a serious golf course. Unique, challenging, tricky, well bunkered, undulating fairways and greens, runoff areas, you name it and you will likely be spot on. Being a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course I can almost believe that Master Jack on one of his many(?) visits shall have uttered that ”this is one of my absolutely best designs anywhere”. It certainly is totally different from any of his courses that this writer has ever played.
Adding to the design is the vista that greets as you arrive on the 10th tee, the highest point of the course. That is when you realize the extensiveness of Lake Taupo. It is like the world is opening up to you and the high that you are already on takes you even higher. Whilst I certainly enjoyed the neighbouring Wairakei course, I enjoyed Kinloch equally, though for different reasons as indicated above.
The day I visited Kinloch (super summer day in February 2018), with my travelling partner from Australia, we were two of very few visitors that day. If that is representative for this course I donot know, but if it is I find it hard to believe that it can be a viable commercial proposition. This makes me marvel at the thought of there still being individuals out there willing to put some of their fortunes into building golf courses for the enjoyment of the likes of me. I guess they derive some pleasures out having created a monument for themselves (the driving motivation?). But I have no objections or misgivings as all the courses that I have played having been constructed on this basis have indeed been impressive and highly enjoyable, inclusive of for instance Cape Kidnappers which I got to play a few days later.
The next stop on our whirlwind tour of New Zealand was a short and pleasant 3-hour drive from Cape Kidnappers. Talk about a beautiful area, bordering on the huge lake Taupo is quite the tourist destination in the middle of the country.
The Kinloch Club may actually be one of Jack Nicklaus’ best efforts but it will almost certainly not be what you would expect from Nicklaus even though his work varies depending on the team he uses at the time for his design work.
Kinloch is like nothing else, you first have to wonder what planet you have landed on and once you come to that conclusion here is the real kicker. The entire course is 100% man-made, every mound every bump and ripple was done by their shaper. I still struggle to accept this fact. The design and the course have the wildest fairways you will ever experience and I’m talking about comparing with courses like Prestwick and Machrihanish Dunes. If you’ve been there you would hardly believe that statement. Yet it’s true, it’s so incredibly overdone, over shaped and dramatic that I think everyone should see it.
I’d heard many stories about how it’s the toughest course in NZ and many people saying it’s by far the best. Sure it’s tough but it’s playing very firm and fast and needs to be played like a links course where you carefully plot your way around and make sure to allow for ample rollout on approach shots. Be warned about firing at sucker pin placements as there are plenty of them at Kinloch. This is not a review where I would choose to go into any specific holes, the experience in itself is extremely unique and that alone warrants a visit.
I can imagine reactions will hugely vary about the course and some will dismiss it as being way over the top. Make no mistake in understanding me, it’s certainly way over the top, more so than any course I can think of. Imagine the Castle Course in St. Andrews, if you have played it and think it’s on the extreme side then Kinloch will offer you a truly wild ride. I’d say it’s a must see, but I also think you should take more time than I had and play it a couple times and spend a few days in Taupo. It’s such a beautiful and quiet town in a wonderful setting, a get away from it all and truly relaxing kind of place. In terms of the course, fasten your seat belt and hang on for dear life.
Kinloch is reliably considered the most demanding course in NZ, playing 6,800 odd metres from the tips. Gratefully, there are three sets of tees and we mere mortals have the opportunity to scarper forward to white blocks, measuring a mere 5,900 metres.
The task of carving the course from this gnarled stretch of farmland is primarily the deft handiwork of shaper, Jason Garten. Virtually every design feature of the course is completely man-made and the objective of creating a links like characteristic is beautifully achieved at Kinloch. The routing meanders through a rambling, undulating valley graphically illustrated below in the par 4, 5th and akin to many of the grand British links courses, the sole flat lies you may expect are on the tees.
Like the prevailing conditions at Kauri Cliffs, the weather gods failed to shine on me once more. On arrival there was a break in the drizzly rain but the wind continued to howl off the expanse of Lake Taupo offering a nippy 8 odd degrees.
We were made most welcome by Tom Long, Director of Golf and Head Professional, and provided with a comprehensive resume of Kinloch and its antecedents.
We residents of tropical Queensland needed a toe [ as removed from a tow ] to get started and I availed myself of the superb practice facilities as ‘warming up’ was not restricted to solely to getting a swing going.
The front nine forms an interesting double loop furthest from Lake Taupo and the run home is sited on more undulating terrain to the south of the clubhouse. Full resort facilities are available at the newly opened lodge and villas from which spectacular panoramic views are to be had overlooking the course and Lake Taupo.
On playability, particularly in the conditions encountered, this course is the consummate challenge to the low marker and even from the forward tees, an extremely difficult proposition for the high or middle handicap player. A personal observation only, but I consider it bordering on ‘too hard’ for the average middle or high handicap duffer. Indicative of such is the fact that the course plays very long from the tee and I lost count at around 50, the number of bunkers in just the first five holes. And, just to compound the ‘difficulty’, many of the vast green complexes comprised literally ‘roller coaster’ undulations. I have little hesitation in saying that this is possibly the toughest course I have yet encountered.
Most holes offer a variety of options from the tee. The risk and reward factor, ever present and tempting. But beware; in the majority of cases, an errant shot is most severely punished. It is a ‘thinking’ player’s course and never a bad fairway lie encountered, if usually requiring play from an uneven stance.
The Kinloch design/routing, appears to have an in-built resistance to scoring, more so than most. Opting for the right line from the tee is an absolute priority as is negotiating the consistently uneven lies and fairway bunkering. When you get ‘the flat bat’ in your hand, you will find the green complexes generally huge and offering a frightening variety of undulations. To my dismay, I found that in two instances, a missed, relatively short putt from above the hole, finished up twenty metres past the cup, and, twenty plus metres off the green. But, reading the breaks and borrows on these outstanding green complexes provides a degree of fun.
Take your ‘A’ game with you as this is one beaut, testing track. Notwithstanding being the consummate test of all aspects of your game, a round at Kinloch is a most memorable experience. This is a course well deserved of its prominent position in the upper echelon of New Zealand courses. Now that I have played it at possibly its toughest, Kinloch is a track I would relish revisiting in more benign conditions.
Tip – to ensure a pleasurable round, don’t ‘beat yourself up’ and seriously consider the forward tees. The following is an interesting quote from an astute reviewer; “Even for ‘A’ graders, there can be cases of people’s egos writing cheques their bodies can’t cash” I suggest that this fellow is right on the money.
PS – Again, take an adequate supply of ‘ammo’ as here, the fescue grasses bordering the fairways are well nourished with errant pills.