Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary is set in 450 acres of rolling terrain, bubbling with geothermal activity, near Lake Taupo on New Zealand’s beautiful North Island, midway between Auckland and Wellington. The course was built with government money as an additional tourist attraction for the holidaymakers who visit the neighbourhood of Lake Taupo and Rotorua.
Civil engineer, Commander John Harris, who was England’s leading and most travelled golf course architect of the time, laid out Wairakei International and it opened for play in 1970. “The construction was supervised by Michael Wolveridge, an Englishman whose keen appreciation of the subtleties of golf architecture had been enriched by a spell on the US professional tour,” wrote Peter Thomson in the New World Atlas of Golf.
The sole objective was to design New Zealand’s best course, which was capable of hosting national events. Despite his engineering background, Harris resisted the temptation to move too much earth at Wairakei and he made stunning use of the natural features of the land, some of which are quite unique.
The 14th is called “The Rogue”. It’s a marathon 608-yard par five and a potential card wrecker. The fairway is routed up a narrow well-bunkered valley towards a natural rogue borehole that spurts forth jets of sulphurous steam. The challenge and interest comes with the approach shot to the banana-shaped green with numerous bunkers and hollows to the left side. When the pin is to the left of centre, this is one of the trickiest approach shots on the Wairakei course.
Walking is relatively easy at Wairakei where the steepest climb is to the occasional elevated tee. Avoid the natural hazards in the shape of creeks, gullies and the odd rogue borehole and you may card a decent score at Wairakei, which is unforgettable and exciting golf among the geysers.
I played this course in 2003 and was impressed enough to come back as thought it was magnificent back then . Fast forward to 2018, it's now not just a golf course but a beautiful animal sanctuary too. The front nine has streams and lakes a plenty whilst the back nine then adds stunning raised views aswell. Have not played all the courses ranked above Wairaeki in NZ but if they are any better than this place I'd be stunned. The greens were so fast and yet receptive also and the fairways were truly better than lots of clubs greens. Unlike other courses this is playable if you are not familiar with it. Having played quite a few courses on my visits to NZ I would still put this at the top of my NZ list when I come back
I take note of the fact that there are no reviews of this course filed after 2011. I believe a lot has happened to this property since then, not least the developments that have led the property to now include Sanctuary in its name. This has resulted in Warakei Golf and Sanctuary being so much more than a golf course, though the course itself stands well on its own.
Nowhere have I played golf in natural surroundings like these, and this includes (naturally) all the 25,000 native trees and 5,000 exotic ones planted way back when, but now fully matured and in majestic splendour.
Add to this the wild life consisting of deer and a myriad of birds of all sorts, shapes and colours (pheasants, guinea fowls, pekin ducks and naturally the nation's icon; the Kiwi bird) that are all over the place making this a totally unique combination of manmade wonder (the course ) and the like of nature itself.
The course hails from 1970 and is nicely routed in the natural habitat. Photos show there were hardly any trees on the property back then, which is hard to believe as it now stands. As late as 2010/2011 the course was voted NZ's best by a local publication, which was before the Sanctuary elements were taking hold.
The course itself is of Championship standard measuring 6450 metres from the tips and littered with 108 bunkers. The course is not overly difficult though providing for any standard of player with 4 different tees to choose from.
Rather than going into details about the various holes, though quite a few are worth praise, I will conclude by saying that if you do not include a visit hereto when visiting New Zealand to play golf you will be missing out on an absolutely unique golfing experience.
I think this is a review where I will have to separate myself from my own subjective viewpoint, otherwise I will not do the course justice. I cannot get away from the fact that, whilst I know intellectually that this is a refined and classic design, and a great test of golf, I just didn’t get the feeling in my bones that I was experiencing any sort of greatness. I was trying to work out why as I was making my way round. It wasn’t that I was playing bad – I played great until the 15th, but the tumbleweeds were already blowing through my golfing soul by then. It had nothing to do with the weather, which was perfectly acceptable for the time of year. And it certainly wasn’t to do with the conditioning – I have rarely played somewhere so pristine in the middle of winter, and the greens were lightning. I think it was partially to do with the fact that, as the previous reviewer suggested, there’s not much to remember on the front nine, although I think he / she forgot the wonderful elevated 6th tee shot. From 11 onwards, the quality picks up and stays up.
In the end, I found a word to describe it, and it all became clear. That word is ‘conventional’. Of all the great courses I have played round the world (and this is a great course), this feels like the most standard and archetypal of them all. It keeps a slight undertone of a great pre-1970’s Kiwi club course, but essentially follows a classic American parkland template. Mature trees bordering most holes, but not too suffocating? Check. Water hazards at 5 out of 18 holes, some lakes, some brooks? Check. Great conditioning? Check. Gentle sweeping undulations? Check. I could go on…
Having said that, you trundle along for 13 holes, having a perfectly nice time, and then you hit this monstrous par-5 14th. The tee shot has nothing notable about it, but then you’ve got this huge lone pine staring at you from the fairway’s central reservation. Get round that, and sitting on a shelf ahead of you is this absolutely outrageous green. A banana, a fat boomerang, half a doughnut … you get the idea. But so wickedly sloped (towards the front) … the cup was on such an incline that it was almost impossible to stop it close. It was past bordering on the ridiculous, there was no bordering about it. I looked around for a more forgiving hole placement, but there weren’t many. A shame … I loved the hole, but the green was silly.
All in all, a nice time was had by all. If I was in the area again, I wouldn’t leave without playing it, and I’d enjoy it. Wairakei is a strong reason why Taupo has become one of New Zealand’s best golfing destinations. But it ultimately, it would be the supporting act, the warm-up bout – Kinloch would be what had drawn me back. Matt Richardson
Perceptions are curious - while I find myself in general agreement we appear to diverge on what appeals. I am not a fan of hugely elevated tees and Wairakei has too many for my liking. I find 17th (and to a lesser degree the4th) the best/most interesting holes design wise. I would not rate it as "great" but would always take the opportunity to play there.