Over the years, I have received many requests for advice about golf vacations. One inquiry returns time after time: “If you could go anywhere in the world for a couple of weeks, where would it be?” New Zealand offers some of the most picturesque tees and fairways in the world, and it is a land where pace-of-play issues arise because golfers simply cannot stop gawking at the amazing scenery. It also boasts some of the most deftly designed courses of the modern era, with layouts that force golfers to use every club in their bags. And with so many sites to choose from, golf architects have been able to build courses on the choicest pieces of property. The layouts are never crowded, and the conditioning is first-rate.
Kauri Cliffs is an inspiring place to begin a New Zealand golf trip. Located in the Bay of Islands 170 miles north of Auckland, the par-72 layout was designed by Floridian David Harman. It opened in 2000 as the centerpiece of an elegant yet understated resort created by American hedge-fund pioneer Julian Robertson. Though not a true links, the course at Kauri Cliffs often plays like one as a result of its seaside setting and the way that players can run their approach shots onto most greens. The ever-present cattle and sheep on an adjoining property also remind me of golf in the Old World, as does the blustery wind. The finishing stretch of Nos. 14-17 at Kauri Cliffs is as challenging, visually compelling and enjoyable a sequence of golf holes as I have played. Kauri Cliffs is Pebble Beach without the hustle and the hordes, at a fraction of the cost.
Lake Taupo lies 170 miles southeast of Auckland. The area is world-renowned for its trout fishing, but since December 2007, the region has had another claim to fame. Kinloch Golf Club is the only Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in New Zealand, and many experts consider it to be one of the Golden Bear’s finest works. Kinloch is built on land that appears perfectly suited for golf, with natural bunkers and wicked undulations on fairways and greens. The par-72 course is unusual in that it has five par 5s and five par 3s. And in look and feel, it evokes the inland links-style layouts of the great Sand Hills courses in Nebraska.
It is a picturesque two-hour drive southeast from Taupo to Hawke’s Bay, a region on the east coast of the North Island renowned for its orchards and vineyards. Cape Kidnappers is Julian Robertson’s second venture in New Zealand. The golf course debuted in 2004 and is regularly and deservedly rated among the top 50 in the world. The architect was Tom Doak, and his par-71 course is Cypress Point spectacular. Water is never out of view, and several holes run atop fingers of land that fall off sharply, either to the bay or into gnarly, wooded ravines. The track plays firm and fast, like a traditional links course, and it, too, is receptive to the ground game. The back-to-back par 5s at Nos. 15 and 16 are revelations. Fifteen is built on one of the fingers, and anything pulled left falls 1,200 feet to the sea below.
Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, is located about 175 miles southwest of Hawke’s Bay. Forty minutes’ drive north of the city center, the Paraparaumu Beach links were designed by Alex Russell, who laid out some of Australia’s best courses nearly a century ago. Founded in 1949, Paraparaumu has hosted the New Zealand Open 12 times. Although it seems slightly cramped and even a little scruffy when you arrive from somewhere as spectacular as Cape Kidnappers, Paraparaumu will greatly appeal to the genuine golf aficionado.
It takes just under two hours to fly from Wellington to Queenstown, close to the tip of the South Island. Two superb John Darby tracks are within a half-hour’s drive. (Darby is a Harvard-trained landscape designer and golf course architect, well-known in the Southern Hemisphere.) One is The Hills, owned by New Zealand entrepreneur Michael Hill, which is laid out across 500 acres of an old deer farm in the shadow of the Southern Alps. A millrace winds through the property, feeding 10 lakes and various waterways on the golf course. The wetland areas have been expanded and planted with varieties of flax, toetoe (a kind of pampas grass native to New Zealand) and the endemic and ubiquitous cabbage tree. The Hills is only 9 years old but has already been the site of three New Zealand Opens, and pros rave about the subtle changes in elevation and the downhill tee shots that set up so well.
The other Queenstown track of note is Jack’s Point, which lies beneath the 7,500 vertical feet of The Remarkables, a range of jagged peaks on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. The 6,986-yard course weaves through tussocky grasslands, rocky outcrops, steep bluffs and swathes of native bush. Rough-hewn stone walls evoke its high-country farming heritage, and the wispy blond-brown fescue growing at the edges of the fairways gives the course the appearance of Highlands links. Each hole has been carefully aligned to the glorious backdrop. Standing on the 17th tee, contemplating a monstrous par 5, your gaze is inexorably drawn to the majestic mountains. For me, this sight alone provides sufficient justification for the long flight across the Pacific.