The Hills is billed as New Zealand’s most exclusive golf club and it’s located on the South Island, in the former gold mining town of Arrowtown. It therefore seems entirely appropriate and perhaps coincidental that the Hills course is owned and operated by a jeweller.
Michael Hill was judged “New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year, 2008” by Ernst & Young. The former concert violinist has a bow with many strings but one of his most widely acclaimed assets is undoubtedly his golf course, which officially opened to an orchestral fanfare in 2007.
However, it was way back in 2001 when the jewellery magnate first contacted the renowned Kiwi course architect John Darby. Hill’s request was for Darby to build him “something grunty” on land next to the Hill’s family home in Arrowtown. His ambitions went only as far as one hole at that point, simply for his own purposes – staging the New Zealand Open was just a twinkle in the eye.
That first hole was built, and it is indeed “grunty” – it’s the 6th hole on the current layout, a 432-yard (395m) par four, with the approach shot all carry over Dragonfly Lake. A return hole naturally followed (now the 5th). Hill then widened his horizons, first planning a 9-holer, before asking Darby for a full 18, capable of staging a national tournament.
The results of Michael Hill’s vision are breathtaking. Not only is the setting awe-inspiring, located in Wakatipu Basin, surrounded by the Southern Alps on all sides, but also the design is a triumph, particularly the closing stretch. From the switchback 14th, with its sheer rock face backstopping the green, to the vertigo-inducing tee shot of the driveable 15th and that controversial short 16th to a classic concluding two-shotter, with its cavernous greenside bunker. But it is the par five 17th that captures the attention the most. Christened ‘The Canyon’, it’s a 553-yard (506m) dogleg right, arching round a huge beach bunker that borders a lake. The second requires a perfectly struck fairway wood to thread between two imposing and precipitous schist outcrops.
A feature of the Hills course is the distinctive artwork designed by Mark Hill (son of Michael Hill). His innovative work includes The Weta, a five-metre tall sculpture standing on the fairway on the 1st hole. The 6th hole, known as Dragonfly Lake, has dragonfly sculptures nestled in the water hazard approaching the green while Walking Woman, an imposing three-metre tall sculpture of a woman, stands on a bridge at the 4th hole. Additionally, the centrepiece of the club is the award winning, distinctive bunker-styled clubhouse.
The Hills has a reputation of exclusivity, and although it’s very possible to get a game here, the higher tariff for membership and green fees ensures that this reputation is not without basis. But this should not be confused with the sort of stuffiness you might find at certain British clubs. You can tell by the clubhouse exterior that this is an entirely different type of place - a wonderful piece of highly contemporary architecture, blending into the hillside next to the 18th green.
As for the course itself, it’s been designed within a philosophy of building drama, low-key but solid opening holes rising through a slow crescendo into a flurry of spectacular finishing holes. There are several aspects of this track that stand out for me. Firstly, despite the fact that we’d taken an obscene amount of rain over the previous weeks, it was clear that the course was only a couple of dry days away from being in spectacular nick, and the word in New Zealand is that in the summer, this is the best conditioned course in the country.
I think what also struck me was the design cut a superb balance between something that would challenge the top players, but was still totally playable for the mid-handicapper. The hazards are not outrageous, the punishment meted out for waywardness is measured. In and amongst the ‘wow factor’ holes, there are stretches of subtlety and moderation. It’s got the championship feel without being a slog – no feeling of needing a nap afterwards, like some of the other elite tracks. I was not going to be breaking 80, but nor did I lose a ball. I would be hard pushed to think of a course where I walked off feeling that I consistently got what I deserved, good and bad. And as for the finish! One of my favourite closing stretches anywhere.
Coming from someone who prefers more of a rollercoaster ride in his golf courses, like at Kauri Cliffs, I would wonder if the balance between spectacular and toned-down moderation was weighed just slightly too conservative for me to say that this is my absolute favourite course in New Zealand for a one-off visit. However, because of the fairness, the conditioning, and of course the scenery, I think this might be my top choice for where I’d most like to be a member. And that comment has got nothing to do with the matchless hospitality – I’m thinking purely of the course here. Oh well, I can dream …
It was an absolute pleasure to spend the day here with Michael Hill and Craig Palmer (the pro here) – two true gentlemen. I was very interested to hear their ideas and plans for further development – some of it is due to happen later this year. Whilst Michael will again be leaving things up to the architect, they are thinking of some tinkering with the risk/reward decisions presented along the way. Michael also seems influenced by his recent trip to Augusta, as he’s considering further enhancing the conditioning, and shaving some of the run offs around the green complexes. It seems he was describing something pristine without being clinical; retaining the rugged Central Otago flavour. Personally, I think he could be onto something. I also applaud his resolve in wanting to keep the par-3 16th just the way it is, despite some complaints at the recent NZ Open. What’s wrong with a bit of idiosyncrasy, especially when the rest of the course is so honest? Makes the world go round, as far as I’m concerned. The Road Hole’s not exactly fair either. I hope this course continues to go from strength to strength. I’m very curious about not only the forthcoming developments, but how things might evolve over a longer period of time. It’s already one of the top courses in New Zealand, and you get the feeling it’s only going to get better. Matt Richardson