Fergal visits New Zealand
Fergal closes in on completing the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World – his latest stop was New Zealand
As I came within arm’s reach of completing the Top 100 Golf Courses in the World, my travels took me to New Zealand where I experienced the most down to earth hospitality and one of the friendliest nations on earth. With images of Lord of the Rings all around me, I was keen to become Lord of the Greens and not get fooled by too many hobbits…
My first ever game in New Zealand was a significantly American experience. The red, white and blue flag proudly blows in the wind outside the clubhouse, and the very polite professional staff working in the pro-shop all herald from the United States. Given that the club’s founder and owner is originally from North Carolina, it all seems to make sense, yet the feeling of being in New Zealand is somewhat lost while listening to somebody with a thick Mid-West accent giving you directions to the practice ground. With an average of just 4,300 rounds per year, this golf club in Kerikeri is among the most isolated of any Top 100 course in the world. The club’s main purpose is not to make money, but to offer a spectacular sanctuary for “the other half”. It was Christmas Day and my gift to myself was 36 holes at Kauri Cliffs. The course is set up perfectly for resort guests who treat golf as a simple pastime rather than a competitive challenge. I witnessed huge wide fairways, no rough, tame greens with little movement and no real requirement to make strategic decisions from the tee. I considered the bunkers to be very ordinary and not adding to the challenge or aesthetic appeal. Walking this course is not really an option given the distances between certain greens and tees. The club’s strengths are the views, the warm hospitality and the guarantee of a memorable round along the coastline.
The first tee shot which asks you to think twice doesn’t come until the 15th (Hooks Cook) and just a handful of holes create interesting angles from the tee (holes 2, 15 & 17). Given the dramatic ocean setting, the first three holes are pretty pedestrian and don’t get the juices flowing – which is a symptom of huge open areas and targets that don’t generate excitement. With only the 4th and 12th greens having any notable amount of contours, the greens are kind to all that play. I did approve of the change that was made a couple of years ago to the position of the tee box on the par three 5th hole. Previously, the par three 5th and 7th holes looked the same and were of similar distance, thankfully now the 5th hole plays into a narrow lengthy green and feels totally unique. The back nine takes you away from the water with the 10th through 13th holes located down in the valley all playing in the same direction away from the clubhouse. The anticipation to see the water again is handsomely rewarded when you climb up onto the par three 14th tee box which is the start of a very strong finishing stretch. The 16th hole is a very exciting cape style hole called ‘Temptation’ whereby you can bite off as much as your ego thinks you can chew. The remarkable green-site is on the ocean edge and requires a very precise approach shot. The 17th is the best hole on the property by far and plays as the index 1. The narrow fairway is at a diagonal angle to the tee box and is an impressive sight from the back tee. The hole runs along the ocean and will challenge the best players in the world to hit the green in regulation. The scenery of the Bay of Islands is unquestionably spectacular and will take your breath away at an astounding rate, but the golf architecture is somewhat anticlimactic and will leave you wondering.
The only Jack Nicklaus signature course in New Zealand, and possibly the most severe golf course you’ll find in the Southern hemisphere. Right from the first hole, the course beats you up and offers challenges that average golfers will struggle with. Hundreds of bunkers populate this rippling topology and certain greens are contoured beyond any enjoyable level. It’s tremendously difficult to get it close due to penal mounding/shaping of the greens and surrounding aprons. There are seemingly no flat lies on the fairways which is upsetting – especially as the course demands that you constantly hit heroic drives to tight landing areas, only to be faced with a side-hill downhill lie into an extremely shaped putting surface. I certainly admire the topology and scenery of the course and the challenge that it presents, but can’t help but think about certain elements that could make the course fairer and more walkable. Having discussed the front nine with a number of local experts (note: the club has no members), there was common agreement that the course needs to be softened. There are also a few confusing and strange visuals you’ll have from the tee boxes, for example the drive on the 6th hole. Things improve on the back nine, but the course is just too extreme and not at all conducive to enjoying the game. International green fees are $350 and domestic green fees are $250 which I felt was unrealistic.
At this stage on my Kiwi golf tour, I felt like the enormous journey was beginning to come into question. However, just like the mighty All Blacks, success is never too far away. This golf course is as exciting as the name suggests. You’re quickly made aware that the Farm at Cape Kidnappers is fully functional and of utmost importance to the wonderful people who farm the expansive land. Given that the same gentleman with very deep pockets from North Carolina owns Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, once you step inside the clubhouse, you immediately feel like you’re in America and surrounded by limitless luxury. All of the golf staff are American and close to 80% of the 5,100 average annual rounds are played by American tourists. I stood on the first tee and realised that, despite years of reading golf books, I had little to no knowledge of what this course actually looked like – especially from the ground. In almost every golf book and website that previews this course, they all use the same aerial photograph of holes 13-16 which have the dramatic ‘finger fairways’ out on the cape. This aerial photo is all that Cape Kidnappers is to 99% of the golfing world, which is a great shame. I told the head professional, “the world doesn’t know what your golf course looks like” and he knew what I meant by that. My mission was to experience and capture the course from the player’s perspective on the ground and really examine what the course had to offer. After all, it is on the shortlist of Doak’s best courses in an already impressive portfolio.
After having the fortune of playing the course a few times, I concluded that the inland holes are significantly more impressive than those finger fairways that grab all the spotlights. In fact, when you play 13-16, you’re probably feeling a bit let down because the holes don’t look like anything you expected them to look like. The 15th hole (called Pirates Plank) is a 600 yard dead-straight flat par five that just happens to have 800-foot deadly cliffs surrounding it which you don’t really see from the fairway, but otherwise, is actually pretty boring to play. I do recommend allowing plenty of time for photographs on the back nine, especially from the 15th green and 16th tee box.
Upon reflection, the large number of positives absolutely outweighs the few negatives at this spectacular golf course. Doak’s routing across the farm is glorious whereby he created dramatic par threes over deep ravines, stunning par fours with spines running through fairways and blind drives to get your heart racing. The 7th hole was by far my favourite hole, as it presents a plateau fairway followed by a huge dip before swooping back up to the protected raised green. You really don’t want to hit your drive over the plateau, as it will leave you with a tough approach shot up to an unforgiving putting surface. Hitting this green in regulation is a wonderful achievement and the topology will have you taking photographs from almost every angle. Further highlights include the infinity green on number 12 where you naturally feel like you’re hitting into the end of the earth, which further echoes the sentiment of the excellent routing. Doak offers plenty of width throughout the fairways which is very fair given the demands of the approach shots. An exciting element to this course is the shaping around the greens. I encourage visitors to take note of the humps and bumps around the greens which kick the ball mostly in your favour (par three 6th hole is a great example of this as well as the punchbowl 18th green). I was really impressed by the constant change in elevation through many of the holes where you can’t see the green from the tee boxes. Some architects and golf analysts condemn this feature, whereas I celebrate and promote its genius. This course really has the wow factor and I only wish that more people would come to play it as it’s sincerely memorable and appealing to golfers of all levels. If you only had one course to play in New Zealand, it would be Cape Kidnappers.
A true links course created in the Golden Age of golf architecture by the legendary Alex Russell (who also designed Royal Melbourne (East), Lake Karrinyup and Yarra Yarra). It’s located about 40 minutes north of the windy city of Wellington. This golf club is a world-renowned layout on the undulating dune land of the Kapiti Coast. Affectionately known as ‘Param’ by the locals (or maybe by the too many visitors that can’t pronounce the name without really concentrating), this golf course will bring you back to reality with a bang. Everything about the club is humble and unpretentious and fits every element of a golfing gem. If you’re looking for a course which will examine how accurate you are from the tee, then you’ve met your match. With just 34 carefully crafted bunkers on the entire course, the challenge from this raw looking links property is magnified by tight tee shots, brutally wiry rough, rock hard bouncy fairways and spectacular mounding around the greens. The gentle undulations around the aprons are second to none. One of Russell’s trademark features is raised putting surfaces which further emphasizes the need for accuracy or fall off the green and be faced with a daunting up and down. This club is welcoming of all players of every demographic, has hosted the New Zealand Open no less than 12 times and has a completely different look and feel to the other courses on my tour to date. At Param, you’ll encounter the highest levels of hospitality from genuinely lovely personnel, down to earth golfers from all walks of life, affordable green fees and even a local punter selling you sausages next to the 10th tee (I suggest you buy one from him). With an annual budget of just $300k for golf course maintenance and four very hard working green-keepers, this experience is as close to Ireland or Scotland that your heart desires. If Cruden Bay had a Kiwi cousin, then this is it.
The course is not tremendously long, but it will ask a lot from you, and is golf at its purest. “How did I bogey that hole!?” is a frequently asked question at Param. I enjoyed hitting irons off the tee for strategic placement; I enjoyed the challenge of the design variety in the green complexes and the absolute thrill of playing the legendary 13th hole which ripples its way up to the jaw-dropping raised green. A testament to the design variety is that everybody I chatted with had a different favourite hole. The club has recently co-developed ‘The Russell Society’ made up of representatives from the four Russell courses in the Oceania region, which is a superb way to continue the traditions and share the knowledge of his particular style of architecture. I can honestly say that an afternoon at Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club will be a highlight of your trip. The highest compliment to any golf course is that you’ll walk off the 18th green wanting to go straight back to the 1st tee. Article and photos (except one image, courtesy of Larry Lambrecht) by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World.