By Evin Priest
PATIENCE, they say, is a virtue.
Yet I can recall just one instance when I’ve been happy to wait on a tee box as an impatient golfer plays through.
It was on the seventh tee at Jack’s Point, near Queenstown when a rare moment of clarity presented itself. Admittedly, it seems to come more easily on New Zealand’s South Island. The visual shock one receives upon rounding the cart path and stepping onto this otherworldly par 3 [below] is how I imagine it would feel to be tackled by All Blacks legend Richie McCaw.
I was stunned – transfixed by the gorgeous Lake Wakatipu, its peaceful current massaging the green complex 90 feet below the tee. In the distance, Cecil and Bayonet Peaks towering over the putting surface.
“Excuse me,” an American accent interrupts the silence. “Do you mind if I play through you?”
“Yeah … sure,” I reply, startled.
“Thanks, buddy. I’m just trying to play real fast,” he says. Making awkward small talk as he tees up a ball, the American asks where I’m from.
“Sydney, Australia,” I reply, before reciprocating.
“Atlanta, Georgia,” he responds. The time-poor Georgian then hits his tee shot left of the green, but doesn’t look for it. Instead, he drops a ball greenside, chips on, two-putts and races his cart off to the next hole.
Why would anyone rush this view? I wondered, sitting down on the tee.
Perhaps it’s because views this jaw- dropping are plentiful in New Zealand – 268,021 square kilometres of land littered with mind-boggling glaciers, spectacular lakes, breathtaking fiords, rugged mountains, rolling farmland, subtropical forest, volcanic plateau and pristine coastlines.
Maybe the Georgian was attempting to play each of New Zealand’s 400 courses – the majority of which offer views so pure, so unbelievably stunning, golfers are torn between playing golf and taking photos.
It’s also likely he was desperate to sample the vineyards of New Zealand’s 10 world-class wine regions – Central Otago’s pinot noir and Marlborough’s sauvignon blanc can have that affect, as can the seafood, cheeses and famous lamb of Pacific Rim fine dining.
I wanted to get to the bottom of this issue, so I spoke to several Kiwi celebrities and golf industry heavyweights on my journey.
Each celebrity and expert was quizzed on what made New Zealand golf so special. During an interview with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, he said he couldn’t have the Georgian arrested or deported, given rushing on a golf course isn’t actually illegal. Regardless, I detailed their reasons for playing Kiwi golf courses in the following pages.
Warning: get your passport and clubs ready.
No place like home
Steve Williams has walked the world’s most stunning golf courses more times than he can remember. It’s a job requirement when you caddie for Greg Norman, Tiger Woods or current employer, Adam Scott.
Yet the Queenstown lakeside masterpiece that is Jack’s Point continues to amaze a Kiwi caddie who’s been on the bag of 14 Major championship victories.
“If you play in Queenstown at Jack’s Point in May, June [or] July, when there’s snow on the mountains and look at those Remarkables, it’s pretty daunting scenery.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Williams. Though he’s accustomed to travelling on
private planes with world No.1 golfers, don’t expect Williams to charter a luxury flight for a New Zealand golf trip any time soon. This 52-year-old Super Saloon car racer would rather hit the open road – albeit in a more roadtrip-worthy vehicle.
“Every town’s got a golf course and a pub in New Zealand,” laughs Williams. “If you wanted to take a campervan and do a driving golf holiday, you’re certainly not going to spend much time in your vehicle between courses.”
Like Williams, retired All Blacks rugby union legend Justin Marshall has scaled the globe as a professional athlete. Marshall often took his golf clubs on rugby trips to Europe, the UK, South Africa and Argentina. But he’d still prefer to hit the fairways of his homeland.
“There is nothing in the world quite like New Zealand golf,” Marshall tells Australian Golf Digest at The Hills Golf Club in Queenstown during the New Zealand Open. “One thing I have noticed when people come to New Zealand from Australia or Europe to play golf is, while they’re impressed by the quality of the courses, they’re absolutely blown away by the scenery.
“I guess what strikes me is the phenomenal aesthetics around the golf courses you just don’t get anywhere else.”
Now a Sky Sports rugby commentator, Marshall [top right] had a running battle with rival scrumhalf George Gregan during his playing days. But foe became friend and the 42-year-old now enjoys inviting his former Wallabies counterpart across the ditch to show off New Zealand’s world-class layouts.
“We’re good mates off the field and we always manage to get a game of golf in,” says Marshall. “George comes here quite a bit, so it’s been great to keep the rivalry going – in a different arena.”
A formidable lineup New Zealand golf has inimitable quantity, boasting the highest number of golf courses per capita in the world. But to ascertain Aotearoa’s golfing quality, one only needs to look at its top 10 layouts – a lineup any nation would be proud of. In fact, Williams reveals how New Zealand trumps the US (pun intended) and UK as golf destinations.
“As far as a destination to go and play golf … if you wanted to go and play the top 10 courses in New Zealand, you can,” says Williams. “You can’t come to America and play the top 10 courses and you can’t go to Britain and play the top 10 courses, because they’re all very private facilities.
“In New Zealand, you can go and play every course – there’s no such thing as an exclusive club or a club you can’t play, so that’s quite unique.”
The North Island dominates the top 10, with Tara Iti, Kinloch, Cape Kidnappers, Kauri Cliffs, Wairakei, Royal Wellington, and Paraparaumu.
Home to the men’s and women’s New Zealand Open, the South Island also boasts serious firepower with The Hills, Jack’s Point, and Millbrook. Aside from the marquee courses, nearby Arrowtown Golf Club is believed to be course architect Tom Doak’s favourite course anywhere in the world, while Queenstown Golf Club has all the mountain vistas of its higher profile golfing neighbours.
There isn’t a golf destination anywhere in the world quite like Queenstown. While this gorgeous alpine setting is renowned for snow, it has everything a golfer could ask for: six golf courses within 25 minutes, hotels offering the stunning Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu as backdrops,
150 cafés and restaurants (try Rata and Botswana Butchery), as well as the iconic Gibbston Valley wine region 20 minutes away.
“I’m very lucky I’ve had the opportunity to play a fair few courses in New Zealand,” says Marshall. “Being a South Island local, I might be biased here, but The Hills and Jack’s Point are my favourites.”
However, the South Island isn’t all about Queenstown. Farther north at Christchurch, where Marshall spent the majority of his rugby career playing for the Crusaders, the Peter Thomson-redesigned Christchurch Golf Club is an outstanding test. Its shared green at the first/17th (modelled off the same feature at St Andrews), as well as outstanding turf conditioning and friendly members, are worth the trip alone.
This wonderfully resilient city is working tirelessly to rebuild five years on from the 2011 earthquake. Across the city, many moving memorials pay tribute to the victims of the magnitude 6.3 disaster. One of those is a touching plaque at Terrace Downs Resorts’ par-3 16th. Here, the gorgeous 130-metre hole has been named
‘Yuki’ in memory of a Japanese student studying in Christchurch who was one of 185 killed in the earthquake.
The majestic views of the lake meandering through the mountains hundreds of metres below the tee is just one of the many alpine features guests enjoy while staying at this delightful resort at the foot of the Southern Alps.
Head of state
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, a fanatical golfer, is thrilled with the embarrassment of riches his country offers golfers – particularly as the nation’s Minister for Tourism.
“Golf tourism in New Zealand is growing dramatically, partly because we’ve got sensational courses,” Key tells Australian Golf Digest.
“Our aim is to continue to bring more people here. Golf appeals to the middle or higher income demographic, which is great for New Zealand’s economy because golfers come and spend money here.
“Of course they play golf, but they can drink amazing wine and eat at great restaurants. Golf tourism is a very important part of our economy now.”
Although Key is a regular guest at Northland’s stunning Kauri Cliffs, he still has trouble choosing his favourite Kiwi layout. “It’s like choosing between beautiful women; there are so many great courses … it’s hard to choose one,” Key laughs.
“I love Kauri Cliffs and I love Wairekei … I always play well there.”
One thing the 54-year-old has no trouble deciding is his favourite memory on a golf course. Unfortunately for Kiwis, it wasn’t playing in New Zealand.
“Playing a round with Barack Obama (in Hawaii in 2014) is probably my greatest memory playing golf,” recalls Key.
“He’s the President of the United States and the leader of the free world. He’s quite a good golfer and we had a lot of fun. He was off 18 then, but he’s probably off about 14 now as he’s been getting lessons from Butch Harmon, he tells me.”
Putting NZ on the map
World-renowned course designer Tom Doak offers fascinating insight into New Zealand’s North Island. Doak’s design firm announced the country to the golf world with his Cape Kidnappers masterpiece in the acclaimed wine region of Hawkes Bay. Last year, Doak added to his Kiwi portfolio with the opening of Tara Iti – a stunning and natural links layout at the coastal town of Te Arai, 100km north of Auckland [see page 68].
Cape Kidnappers was Doak’s first Kiwi design and gathered substantial notoriety immediately after opening in 2004. Its stratospheric Pacific Ocean views are enjoyed from holes the American routed along a series of cliff fingers. Set on a 6,000-acre working sheep station 140 metres above the ocean, Cape Kidnappers rose to No.16 on this year’s World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses ranking by Golf Digest.
With Tara Iti coming it at No.1, Doak has a simple explanation for what makes New Zealand unrivalled for golf travel.
“New Zealand’s combination of stunning scenery and a relatively small population means that there are plenty of beautiful sites available for golf development,” says Doak.
“We’ve also found that it’s possible to get planning permission along the coastline that would not be available in some other places.”
Garth Solly – the group general manager of Kauri Cliffs, Cape Kidnappers and Queenstown’s Matakauri Lodge – is aware his stable occupies a large share of New Zealand golf’s top tier.
But having grown up playing the country courses of Golden Bay – at the northern tip of the South Island – Solly believes accessibility is the secret to New Zealand’s golf success.
“Yes, we’ve got the beautiful tier 1 courses like Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, and they’ve got excellent hospitality to match,” says Solly. “But you can’t go through even the smallest town without finding a picturesque course, many of which don’t have green fees but instead ask golfers to put $10 in an honesty box.
“Where I grew up in Golden Bay, some of the country courses near Takaka are as beautiful as anywhere in New Zealand, yet you can play them for $20.”
Solly has been exposed to some of the golf world’s most unique tourism destinations as a former general manager of InterContinental Hotels Group. He was involved in the establishment of the InterContinental’s Natadola Bay site in Fiji, which offers guests a Vijay Singh-designed golf course in between mountains and the ocean. Yet the career hotelier believes New Zealand is peerless as a tourism destination. Why?
“Because this country is untouched; it’s unspoiled and that resonates in a sport that relies so heavily on the environment, tradition, and history,” says Solly. “The courses here look as though they haven’t been altered for 100 years. They’re stunning, but they’re not overly manicured like some other countries. They stay true to their natural environments and golfers appreciate that.”
Where to next?
There’s only one direction New Zealand golf wants to head – upwards. Tasked with achieving this goal is Ryan Brandeburg, the executive director of Golf Tourism New Zealand. Since leaving his director of golf post at Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, the American has noticed a particular tourism trend. “Golfers aren’t afraid to travel far and wide for golf, and typically that is to regional New Zealand, says Brandeburg.
“That’s where the great courses are. Just like Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, golf tourism keeps regional economies healthy and flourishing in New Zealand.”
If you’re wondering how this will affect future inbound golf tourism, Brandeburg believes it will only increase the geographical distribution of golf – meaning Kiwi courses are unlikely to ever face the overcrowding of more established destinations. “It’s beautiful here, but never too crowded. When I was at Cape Kidnappers, we’d put through an average of 30 rounds a day. Pebble Beach (in California) would do 300 rounds a day – almost like a machine.”
Brandeburg believes there are several emerging hotspots to look out for. “New Zealand is blessed to have fantastic land for golf, but also plenty of domestic and foreign investors,” says Brandeburg.
“There is amazing real estate just waiting to be uncovered on the west coast of North Island – fantastic coastal dune land perfect for a golf course. I think we’ll see good things at Ohope in the Bay of Plenty. I also expect golfers to work their way south of Queenstown, where great courses will start to pop up at places like Dunedin and Invercargill. There’s a lot of golf in New Zealand just waiting to be discovered.”