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 90th New Zealand Open Championship moved from Gulf Harbour to The Hills Golf Club in 2007, the same year the Hills opened its tees for play. Understanding the evolution (or should we say intelligent design?) of this club, from a single hole to hosting the New Zealand Open in six short years, begs the question: How far can The Hills go?
The Farm, a 9-hole par three course designed by writer and golf consultant Darius Oliver, opened for play in 2019 and it’s been described by its creator as “an elastic, ‘choose your own adventure’ style layout, with a flexible design that allows golfers to choose from multiple tee locations, distances and angles of approach”.
Oliver continued: “I didn’t think a par three course would add much to the appeal of the club for the serious golfer… then I walked the site and immediately changed my mind. What I didn’t expect to see were nine ready-made and incredible par threes sitting there already on the ground – but that was the case.
The routing really only took a couple of hours to figure out… the site is really the star attraction – and in particular the views and the Arrow Irrigation water race which runs through the property and is used numerous times in the design.”
I played here in February, 2019. The fee is all-inclusive for as much golf as you want including food and beverages (including mixed drinks and wine). It is a very special place to play. To follow is a write-up of what I sent to a few of my golf friends upon my return to the USA:
"The Hills has the finest artwork I have ever seen on a golf course beginning with a large statue of a man sitting on a chair off the right side of the first hole. He seems to be watching you and it isn't not until you get close that you appreciate the scale of this statue. The artwork is scattered about the golf course, and there were at least five others that made your jaw drop and often make you think - the dragonflies on the water in front of a difficult par 4 green, a naked man doing something (showing off?) on a bridge, a girl passing into womanhood, horses running in a field, and over 80 wolves attacking a man on top of a stone attempting to ward them off with an axe.
The scenery is nearly as good as at Jack's Point but other than two holes, you really do not see the nearby lake. Still, it is stunning, particularly when you add the statues and artwork.
The golf course is very strong and I thought it to be more of a challenge than Jack's Point but I would not argue it too hard. I liked a lot of holes here, particularly 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 18. Like most of the better golf courses, this course has a fine mixture of short and long holes, whether they are par 3, 4 or 5. The course routing forces you to play into the wind, against a side wind, or a helping wind. It asks you to play downhill and uphill and has a couple blind tee shots. The green complexes are good as is the fairway bunkering. It is a very solid golf course.
My understanding is that a day spent here is $1000. You get all of the golf for a day including a cart if you desire and all food and beverage is included. I did not know that or I would have grabbed a drink or two. Is is worth it? Certainly it is worth playing it once as the artwork is very good. This course is the primary host of the 100th New Zealand Open so it does have its challenges. We played it at 6300 yards and it can go to about 6750 yards.
The Hills is a better golf course than Jack's Point in terms of challenge and difficulty. But if you are pressed for time and can only play one, I think Jack's Point gets the nod because of the views but if you like art made by man, then The Hills is a much better choice. Jack's Point is less expensive as well."
And this is the summary I put in my personal ranking spreadsheet:
"I liked this course a lot because of the way it utilizes the terrain. The par 3's are perhaps the weakest on this course but they are still pretty good. There is a good mixture of short and long holes as well as good use of bunkers, trees, and grasses. The greens vary in size and shaping. The statues on the course are amazing. It is fun to play while being challenging. Best holes are 4, 5, 8-10 and 18."
It does not have the views of Jack's Point but the views are even better than those on offer at Arrowtown. If Jack's Point wasn't nearby, people would rave about the views from the course as you make your way around it.
The course itself is very good, a bit more challenging than Jack's Point due to the hillier terrain and the routing which takes more advantage of the naturalness of the golf course. The greens also vary a bit more than at Jack's Point in terms of uphill and downhill approach shots. They look different to the eye, not as inviting/accessible as one might find on a parkland golf course.
Although I noted the holes that I liked the most, there were not any holes that I did not like or thought were poorly designed. The course loses a little of its luster for the two holes that are more "out in the field" as they lack the drama of the other holes. The overview write-up from this website mentions the par five seventeenth hole, but while it was one of the more interesting holes, I did not find it to be one of the more challenging golf holes.
It is a very good routing that takes full advantage of the land whether it is asking you to hit through narrow openings that are completely natural or take a line that can shorten the tee shot a fair amount.
The greens are very smooth and are well protected, either by ponds fronting them or by good placement of bunkers. About half of them had tricky putts due to multiple slopes on the greens. The other half usually had either less tilt or only one slope to consider.
On the par 4's and 5's there is good usage of false fronts or forced carries on with large, deep bunkers. The eighteenth is perhaps the best example as you hit a long second shot into this par four but the green sits on a shelf that if you come up short you will be either nestled in to heavy grass in front of the green or the ball will tumble down15 feet below the green into a large bunker.
For me it's pretty simple, if you have the money to get to New Zealand and you go to Queenstown you should definitely play The Hills and Jack's Point. I did not play Millbrook as I opted for Arrowtown which was less than $100, so The Hills and Arrowtown combined somewhat balance out since at The Hills you are also paying for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as much golf as you can fit in.
Green fees at The Hills are now $1000 per round, so not everybody will want to play here. By charging very high green fees, and correspondingly high annual memberships Hill has created a real feel of exclusivity to The Hills.
So is it worth it?
I had followed my son Tim around The Hills a number of times when he was playing events, and was somewhat familiar with the layout. But playing oneself is a different thing, and I had the pleasure of teeing off at the Hills with local tour operator Stephen Jensen (playing off 1), and Jack's Point general Manager John Griffin. John is also a teaching professional and a bit of a legend in New Zealand having coached a number of successful professionals (including Phil Tatuarangi). He was also previously the manager at The Hills. John was our host for the day.
The general terrain is quite undulating, with significant elevation change throughout the round.
As you would expect the course was in very good condition, although the greens were a tad slower than I expected. This is probably because of preparations for The Open.
Each hole demands a decent tee shot to keep you in the hole. With plenty of strategic bunkering, the tee shot nearly always has to negotiate a cluster of bunkers, a sea of browntop (long rough), or water, rocks, or all of the above. It is one thing to hit the fairway, and quite another to position oneself for the approach shot. A good number of the green sites were elevated, well protected by bunkers, and generally required a well struck approach to stay on the dance floor.
The contouring of the greens, as well as the bunkering and other protection ensured that an approach shot from the non preferred areas of the fairway required a significantly more skillful shot to hit and hold the green.
I could appreciate that in tournament conditions - a bit firmer and faster- these greens could be devilishly tricky. Hard to hit and hold, and hard to read! They have movement but with mountains all around sometimes which way the green slopes ran and thus turned was hard to pick.
We played in sunny conditions, with a light breeze making it the most pleasant of days to play. It is a gorgeous setting for golf, and never lacking for interest.
Apart from the golf, Michael Hill has introduced a number of sculptures/ statues around the course.
Bizarre was my initial impression!!
But I must admit I did warm to these artistic additions. I particularly liked the horses and concluded that all of these artefacts added a level of interest to an already interesting journey around the links.
It is a wonderful golfing experience, and if you can afford the green fee you will enjoy your day.
So how good is it?
Very good, but definitely a course for the better player.
You need length, flight and accuracy!
John Darby (& Brett Thomson) also designed nearby Jack's Point. Jack's Point is even more visually spectacular, with views of the lake, and The Remarkables as a backdrop. And it is less than half the price!
Which is better?
After only one game at The Hills I would say they are both very good, and I am sitting firmly on the fence!
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Winding our way gingerly through the curves of the snow-covered Crown Range road, it was hard to see how we were going to be playing golf that day – looking down to the valley floor, nowhere seemed free of a light dusting of powder. Then a final crest was reached, and the lush green floor of the Wakatipu Basin loomed into view, glinting in the early winter sun. To play golf in Arrowtown when the snowline is so low, but the turf still perfectly playable, is a beautiful thing. And if you’re going to be playing in Arrowtown, there’s no better place to be than The Hills.
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