THE excitement builds on approach to the ranch-style timber fence that surrounds the boundary of The Hills Golf Club in Arrowtown. There’s a real sense of occasion that what lies beyond the wooden perimeter fencing is truly something special.
After announcing ourselves on the intercom at the entry gate, we proceed up a winding road towards the clubhouse. Off to the right is a manicured practice range with new balls intermittently spaced along the hitting area in pyramid formation.
Upon entering the carpark, The Hills’ director of golf, Craig Palmer, has made his way out to greet us with a cheery: “Welcome to The Hills.”
Indeed, it’s a sight to behold. The juxtaposition of celadon-shaded fairways and snow-capped mountains serve as a pertinent reminder that the greater Queenstown region may be the picture-postcard capital of the world. Sir Michael Hill – jeweller, entrepreneur and philanthropist – has transformed a run-down farm into a golf oasis.
The Hills Golf Club is a relaxed and casual modern private club. No dress code exists and there seems to be genuine warmth between the members and service staff. Membership is capped at 200 families for a primary member, their partner and any children under the age of 25.
The clubhouse is an understated one-storey ‘bunker’ with less than a quarter of its total bulk lying above the ground. The rooftop is topped with native tussocks to blend in with the landscape as part of the minimalist design.
The sophisticated interior features a large fireplace and glass-walled windows overlooking the 18th green. In keeping with more of a country club atmosphere, the menu goes beyond staple fare with an emphasis on fresh produce: Eggs Benedict with ham carved off the bone; zucchini fritters. An extensive cellar carries the
best cool-climate wines from the Central Otago region.
The Hills golf course designed by Harvard-educated entrepreneur John Darby is vast on a grand scale. Spread over 250 acres on a former deer farm, it plays out around 10 lakes, ponds and waterways with 86 strategically placed pot-style bunkers.
Darby has taken advantage of the undulating topography to elevate the majority of tees well above fairways and green complexes. Hence, the thrill of watching a tee shot soar through the air like an eagle against the backdrop of snow-capped mountain ranges.
Measuring 6,661 metres (7,285 yards), Darby has done a superb job of building a championship venue to test the pros at the New Zealand Open for one week in March while making it playable for less-accomplished amateurs the remaining 51 weeks of the year. The Hills doesn’t have many forced carries, while the perched green complexes allow for the ball to be played along the ground.
The par-4 fifth is a delightful short hole of less than 300 metres that tempts the foolhardy. Beyond the green lies a palatial lodge where celebrities, including Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, have escaped to enjoy the sanctuary of The Hills.
Incidentally, The Hills isn’t Sir Michael’s first golf course. He created his own course around his parents’ house in Whangarei when he was 11, mowing little circles for greens and using old baked bean tins as holes. He later drew inspiration from Sanctuary Cove on Queensland’s Gold Coast when he lived in Australia’s preeminent residential golf community.
What sets The Hills apart from other courses is the glorious artwork. Sir Michael has literally created a contemporary sculpture park featuring a diverse range of metal artefacts. The treeline beside the first fairway features a ‘Weta’ sculpture of the iconic New Zealand insect that looks like a long-horned grasshopper. Michael’s son, Mark Hill, created the five-metre artwork along with several other pieces around the course.
The seventh tee showcases a herd of wild horses, ‘The Frolic and the Fancy’, each made of cast iron and weighing 1.5 tonnes. To the right side of the 18th fairway, ‘The Wolves Are Coming’ [inset] would be most people’s favourite interpretation. It depicts a sword-wielding warrior fending off a pack of wolves. Sir Michael first saw the work at an outdoor exhibition in Beijing and eventually purchased the complete set of 111 pieces.
As a keen sponsor of the arts, Sir Michael believes art serves to titillate the imagination: “If people are aware of art by physically seeing and touching it, it tweaks the senses and creates out-of-the-box solutions to all sorts of things. Love it or hate it, art stimulates thought and creativity.”
“If people are aware of art by physically seeing and touching it, it tweaks
the senses and creates out-of-the-box solutions to all sorts of things.
Love it or hate it, art stimulates thought and creativity“
– Sir Michael Hill
For instance, in the men’s locker room hangs a delightful black-and-white photograph of a naked nubile woman confronted by a policeman on horseback. The homage to the legend of Lady Godiva is unmistakable. Rather risqué and not what you would find in a thousand change rooms. But the image seems perfectly in harmony with the artwork that adorns The Hills.
Palmer sums up Sir Michael’s attitude: “He’s not the keenest of golfers and rarely plays 18 holes. He just likes creating things.”
In that regard, The Hills appears to be a work in progress judging by the nine-hole par 3 course currently under construction. Sir Michael commissioned architecture buff Darius Oliver to design a short course that appeals to golfers of all abilities, including those very new to the game.
Summer is definitely the most popular time to play the Hills. However, Palmer personally prefers autumn because the weather is generally very settled, the course is in amazing condition and the scenery offers a rich, beautiful palette.
Despite the challenging climate, The Hills is open 12 months of the year. The course remains playable throughout winter when the frozen ground creates conditions that resemble “extreme links golf”. It’s certainly a challenge to try to avoid the hazards and hold greens on approach shots.
The club recently launched a golf/hospitality package for visitors and tourists to enjoy The Hills Experience. Priced at $NZ1,000 per person in peak season (November to April), the package treats guests to 18 holes of golf (with equipment hire), inclusive of all food and beverages.
The ‘Experience’ isn’t just about a round of golf at an outstanding golf course. Having sampled the hospitality, the fine dining and world-class wine list, this is about as good as it gets when it comes to luxurious entertainment.
For those searching for that unique sense of occasion, The Hills Experience certainly leaves an indelible impression.
The Hills Golf Club
164 McDonnell Rd, Arrowtown 9351, South Island, New Zealand
+64 3 409 8290