New Zealand Prime Minister JOHN KEY is not your average world leader. When he’s not addressing the most powerful men on the planet at a UN Security Council meeting, he’s addressing a golf ball at Golf Warehouse, where he’s determined to shave more strokes off his impressive 10-handicap. In an EXCLUSIVE sit-down interview with Australian Golf Digest editor-in-chief BRAD CLIFTON, Key unlocks the secrets to the rapid rise of New Zealand golf, why Lydia Ko could be his country’s greatest ever player, and how he used the fairways to forge a life-long friendship with President Obama.

AUSTRALIAN GOLF DIGEST: OK, here’s your chance to rub it in early – what makes golf in New Zealand so special?

JOHN KEY: Well, firstly New Zealand has beautiful landscapes and pristine, clean fresh air. When people come to New Zealand they want to experience our spectacular landscapes and what better way to do that than on a golf course? Secondly, we have just been amazingly lucky to have some good people invest a lot of money in golf courses in New Zealand. As a result we’ve got some of the world’s best courses all in the one place. And thirdly, from our point of view, our strategy with tourism has always been what value we get, not just the volume of visitors. The middle-to-higher income bracket is the perfect profile we want to attract and that’s exactly what we find with golfers – they’re exactly who we are trying to attract to our beautiful country.

John Key
Key has become a popular figure with New Zealand golfers, due largely to his own passion for the game.

AGD: Are you surprised at just how powerful golf is as a tool for driving tourism, particularly in a country like New Zealand that offers so many other outdoor recreation activities?

JK: I’m not surprised at golf’s power to attract tourists given the quality of offerings here in New Zealand. It would be easy to underestimate how good the golf courses are here so I’m glad the world is really starting to understand just how good golf is in New Zealand. It is highly unlikely golfers will leave our shores disappointed with what they have experienced

John Key
Key enjoys a moment with Aussie cricket legend Ricky Ponting at the New Zealand Open

AGD: How and when did you catch the golf bug?

JK: I started playing when I was a kid. One of my teachers was what I would call a garden hacker at golf and invited us to come down to his club to hit a few balls. I had reasonable hand-eye co-ordination having also played squash and rugby in my junior days. But my real love for golf came later in life through my son, whose best friend was the pro at Royal Auckland. His father taught my son and when I became Prime Minister I thought it would be a cool father-and-son activity to do together. So we started going to the range at night and on weekends and the course for nine holes when I could get the time. I developed a real passion for the sport and as time has gone on, the guys at The Golf Warehouse have taken me on as a bit of a national project. So far they’ve got me down to a 10-handicap and if I can just get a bit more time off work I’m sure I can continue to improve. But finding that time isn’t easy in my line of work.

AGD: What is it about the sport that appeals to you so much?

JK: I love the serenity of golf. I’m prone to going down to the range at 6pm at night and hitting a few balls. I think everyone in their life, no matter what their job is, needs a little bit of “me time”. Golf is my me-time. The thing with golf courses is they are generally built on beautiful stretches of land with great scenery. I find the golf course is a very peaceful place and if I don’t play at my best it doesn’t really matter. I’m relaxed and taking everything in around me.

John Key

AGD: How would you describe yourself as a golfer?

JK: Technically, reasonably solid [laughs]. My golf is definitely improving. I’m fairly consistent. I went to Wairakei recently for four days of golf and shot three 81s and an 80. Realistically, to play to single figures, it’s all in the short game for me so that’s what I need to continue to work on when time permits.

AGD: Do you get hassled a lot when you’re out and about playing different courses?

JK: My local club all know me and leave me to do my thing. It depends where I go but there can be a bit of an army following me around. But the clubs are all fantastic and look after me when I have time to get around. I love getting out and experiencing New Zealand’s courses first-hand. I still have so many to see but I’ll get there. I find the hospitality in Australia is equally as nice. I’ve been lucky enough to play New South Wales, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath. It’s great to be able to fit experiences like that around my overseas schedule.

AGD: Politics and golf – you seem to be living proof the two can co-exist?

JK: [laughs] Politics in a golf club is far more brutal than what we have to put up with in parliament – not for the faint-hearted. I’m loving my time in parliament but I don’t have any great ambitions to be a president of a golf club. When my time is up as Prime Minister I just want to get out and play golf.

John Key
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and US President Barack Obama enjoy regular rounds together.

AGD: It’s no secret in golf circles you and President Obama have forged a special friendship through golf. Tell us about that.

JK: Well, they actually worked out that when I first played golf with Obama I had spent more time with the US President than all the previous New Zealand Prime Ministers combined. And that’s the thing with golf – it’s an amazing way to get to know people and build relationships. President Obama loves golf, I love golf, so we got together one day and just did it. I think when he’s no longer President we will play a lot more together. We both own places in Hawaii and he is keen to come to New Zealand as soon as he can. One of the reasons he hasn’t already is he could only come for 24 hours and he wants to enjoy a long golf holiday. But don’t worry, I’ve given him books on Kauri Cliffs and The Hills so I’ve teased him enough.

AGD: Who’s the most talented golfer among the world leaders?

JK: Obama actually thought I may have the best handicap out of all the world leaders but I think Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is off a low number. And then of course there’s Kim Jong-un who claims to hit holes-in-one and be pretty handy every time he tees it up [laughs].

AGD: If current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull played golf, do you think he would hit it left or right?

JK: [laughs] He’d have to hit it right, wouldn’t he?

AGD: Who else have you met through golf?

JK: I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of great players. I played with Rocco Mediate in the New Zealand Open and he’s a great guy. Can you believe he’s had 57 holes-in-one? Unbelievable. I played with Lydia Ko recently and, without telling me, she got her iPhone out and filmed my swing and secretly sent it off to (her coach) David Leadbetter, who fired back some swing tips. Lydia is a great ambassador for New Zealand. Not only is she a phenomenal athlete, she’s a great role model for New Zealanders with a terrific attitude towards golf and life. I played with former Australian Test cricket captain Ricky Ponting in the New Zealand Open. He’s got a phenomenal swing – a seriously talented athlete who still has that winning mentality.

John Key

AGD: Super-caddie Steve Williams – still New Zealand’s richest sportsman from carrying a golf bag. How do you sum up his illustrious career?

JK: Steve Williams is my constituent – I represent him in parliament –  so I better look after him [laughs]. It’s easy to dwell on the break-up with Tiger Woods but it was a great partnership for a long time. I think one day they will sit back and reflect more on what they achieved together. I was cheering for Adam Scott when he won the 2013 Masters. It was great to see that ANZAC partnership combine for golf’s greatest prize. Steve’s a passionate Kiwi who clearly still loves what he does for a living and I think there’s more success to come.

AGD: If you could pick one moment that stands out in the history of New Zealand golf, what would it be?

JK: It’s probably the great Sir Bob Charles winning the 1963 British Open as a left-hander. That stands out for me but Michael Campbell’s US Open triumph in 2005 was significant, too. But history will probably tell us Lydia Ko will go on to become our greatest ever golfer. She’s still so young, has a lot left in the tank and can be amazingly dominant. If she goes on to win more Majors she will most certainly deserve it as she’s in the thick of the most competitive era ever for women’s golf, led by the rise of Korean female players. New Zealand is very multicultural and has a lot of young Asian players coming up through the junior ranks. So Lydia might not be the last Korean superstar to come out of New Zealand.

AGD: What’s next for golf in New Zealand? What are the keys to continuing the momentum?

JK: We need to continue to reach out to Asia – that’s the obvious market. It’s the engine room for growth in golf. I think it’s important we encourage golfers across Asia to come down here and play. We’ve got a huge number of fantastic courses, not just the half-dozen marquee courses you see in all the magazines. Now it’s about tying them with people who want to come to our country and play them.

We’ve got a few events coming up which should help with that – the World Masters Games are coming to Auckland in 2017 which should see a lot of golfers arriving in our country. While the (British and Irish) Lions Rugby Tour will also arrive next year and there’s nothing better than hitting the fairways in between watching games of rugby. So we expect that to generate a bit of action.

AGD: Cycling, wine and adrenalin sports are major players for New Zealand tourism. Where does golf sit in that list?

JK: When it comes to New Zealand tourism, golf is right up there. We are focussing on four pillars of growth to tourism. The first is the business-side of things – we are building convention centres and facilities to cater for this. The second is golf – and using the sport to promote New Zealand. The third focus for us is new markets, given all the different carriers that fly into our country now, and the fourth is the honeymooner market.

Golf just fits in where we want to go. Last year we welcomed 3.3 million tourists to our country. In four years that number will reach 4 million. By next year 1.5 million Aussies will come over here and do a range of activities, golf being one of them.

AGD: During your travels as Prime Minister, have you seen a country that does golf better than New Zealand?

JK: There are some magnificent countries with truly great courses, but we’re right up there in affordability and accessibility. For the combination of value for money, accessibility and a temperate climate, New Zealand is a great option … not to mention you can have a fantastic pinot noir or sauvignon blanc after your round. And if you’re really lucky you can watch the All Blacks beat Australia in the Bledisloe Cup. You can never get tired of that.