By Evin Priest

ARMED with a private jet, and the proverbial keys to world golf, what international course would you play tomorrow, and why?

Given the land of the long white cloud is home to some of the world’s most stunning layouts, we asked its leader – New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

“Well, I‘ve played Cypress Point – that’s phenomenal. And I love Kauri Cliffs,” Key tells Australian Golf Digest. “But it’s like choosing between beautiful women – there are so many great courses around the world that it’s hard to choose.”

Diplomatic and polite is the head of state. So we quizzed a man who Key – a fanatical golfer – handpicked to be the executive director of Golf Tourism New Zealand, Ryan Brandeburg.

“Tara Iti Golf Club, hands down,” says Brandeburg, previously the director of golf at world No.16 Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs.

“I’ve played Pebble Beach, Augusta, Cypress Point and Pine Valley. But if I had a private jet, I’d head straight up to Mangawhai.”

Indeed, Tom Doak’s latest creation, two hours north of Auckland, has the golf world salivating – a marvellously rugged links layout metres from crashing waves and with unforgettable views of the Hauraki Gulf.

In a past life, the site was a “pine-covered desert by the sea” but after Doak’s contouring of the sandy soil (and clearing of pine forest), Tara Iti is a now a wonderful golf experience playing among hummocks, punchbowls and sand dunes that appear as though they were formed by wind and vegetated by nature.

Australian Golf Digest was given exclusive access in March. The verdict? Tara Iti doesn’t just live up to the hype. It is nothing short of utterly spectacular.

The fairway at the par-4 14th runs down to the ocean, where the putting surface is tucked wonderfully in front of a sand dune, offering views of Hen and Chick Islands in the background.
The fairway at the par-4 14th runs down to the ocean, where the putting surface is tucked wonderfully in front of a sand dune, offering views of Hen and Chick Islands in the background.

From the punchbowl green at the par-4 third, to the views of Hen and Chick Islands behind the dune-tucked green at the 14th [above] , every hole at Tara Iti is world class. But the most impressive feature of a layout many believe to be a shoe-in for the top half of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses ranking is fairness. Finally, a bucket-list golf course that isn’t brutally difficult. One that doesn’t rely on gobsmacking beauty as a distraction from a forgettable score.

Tara Iti is a course full of imagination; encouraging the golfer to pick shots appropriate to the land (mainly the fescue fairways/greens) and elements, rather than personal comfort. Low, high, straight or shaped will depend on the breeze and your angle of attack. This fairness is the product of no hazards, no water, no out-of-bounds and no bunkers. Yes, you read that correctly – you can ground your club anywhere at Tara Iti. The course’s defence leans solely on Mother Nature, but rest assured, if the winds get up to their extreme potential, she can beat up the errant golfer pretty quickly.

As with many of his designs, Doak provides very generous fairways surrounded by punishing sand scrub and vegetation, in addition to several tiny green complexes like the minuscule putting surface at the driveable, par-4 seventh.

When Tara Iti’s founder – American investment strategy billionaire Ric Kayne – conceptualised the club with New Zealand resort specialist John Darby, exclusivity was the first fear of many. And it is exclusive – unconfirmed rumours claim membership to this private golf club come with a $US120,000 joining fee. However, somewhat alleviating such fears, Tara Iti will have a capped amount of tee times set aside for non-members (similar to the Old Course at St Andrews) who have submitted an application to play. These tee times are afforded only to guests staying at Tara Iti’s luxurious accommodation.

But even if Tara Iti was as exclusive as Augusta National, would it matter?

Just because one can’t go on a date with Miss Universe, does that make her any less beautiful?