New Zealand’s golf nirvana

If there’s a golfing nirvana, John Gibb has discovered it in New Zealand, where courses roll over glacial plains, volcanic plateaux and along cliffs with the Pacific pounding below…

The eighth hole at Jack’s Point, Queenstown
The eighth hole at Jack’s Point, Queenstown

I land at Queenstown, at the southern end of South Island, from where Louisa Patterson, known as “Choppy”, will fly me to Jack’s Point in Arrowtown. It is February, midsummer, and a good time to play the legendary golf courses of New Zealand. The best way to travel is in one of Choppy’s helicopters (from her firm Over The Top). She tells me I could get 18 in before dinner and play a second round in the morning. “You’ll want to play Jack’s Point at least twice,” she says. “Everyone does.” She is right.

The golf courses on South Island are laid out on a glacial plain littered with rocks and steep cliffs, and the flight to Arrowtown is over dramatic golfing country. Jack’s Point is a rugged, uncompromising course. The terrain is crisscrossed with dry-stone walls, and stone faces are built into the fronts of the tees. The rough is littered with spiny “wild Irishman” scrub and gnarled trees surrounded by heavy grass. When they laid out the fairways, they went out of their way to use the existing landscape to preserve the natural environment. They left rock outcrops and made sure the high-country, frontier-style geography remained free of the obsessive neatness that infests much of modern golf-course design.

Jack’s Point is a 7,150 yards par 72. It was designed by local man John Darby and is named after Maori Jack Tewa, a local hero who became the first man to discover gold in the Arrow River. When it opened in 2008, Sir Bob Charles called Jack’s Point “a fine course which gives the golfer a fighting chance”. I think it’s better than that. It’s a course where the weather and terrain force you to plan your way round.

Kelp by Mark Hill at the third tee
Kelp by Mark Hill at the third tee

I am given a written brief to explain the lines and club selections. I have to drive over water on the first two holes. The second is stroke two on the card, and your tee shot is over a lake with the line on a rock in the middle of the distant fairway. The plateau green slopes back to front and the entrance is guarded by two hefty bunkers. Both opening holes are long par fours. I like the bendy par-five fifth, a 514-yard right-hand dogleg, and the par-four sixth, with its narrow green encrusted with bunkers and a deep ravine through the back.

I am getting on fine until I reach the seventh. It is sending shivers down my spine. This is a famous hole that I had been told about it at the bar at Troon. It’s only a 140-yard lob down a cliff, but there’s a drop of 29m to the tiny infinity green, which is perched on the edge of the vast Lake Wakatipu. Below, the lake is a vivid blue and the mountains, including the “Remarkables”, a rack of 2,300m-high snow-covered peaks, are behind us. The air is crystal clear so that the colours of the landscape seem sharper than normal. When I’m lucky enough to hit a good shot in this ancient valley, the ball seems to hang in sharp focus as it soars away. Indeed, golf seems an altogether more intense experience at Jack’s Point.

The 18th is a 470-yard par four. I drive over wetland with a lake all the way along the left. The fairway narrows as it reaches the green, which has water on two sides with bunkers and a deep grass crater on the right. The finish is intensified by the sun setting behind the mountains as I walk to the clubhouse bar.

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The New Zealand Open is being played five miles away at The Hills, another course designed by John Darby. I go to watch the great Sir Bob Charles, who, at 78, is still playing marvellous golf. The field of 264 is split equally into amateurs and professionals, which means it is really a pro-am and has little in common with the British Open. It does not affect world rankings and is largely financed by the amateur players who each pay a fee of NZ$10,000 (about £5,080) for the privilege of taking part.

Owned by wealthy philanthropist Sir Michael Hills, The Hills is a 7,213-yard par 72 that opened in 2007 and is laid out in a valley bordered by pine forest. When I arrive, the prime minister, John Key, a member at Royal Auckland with a handy 15 handicap, is going up the 10th in a three ball with Sir Bob and the American Rocco Mediate. The Hills has a Celtic feel and the rough, an impenetrable mixture of browntop and fescue grasses, means that anything marginally wayward is almost certainly a goner. I get to play it after the competition and spectators have gone home and the course is still set up for championship golf. The fairways, planted with Egmont browntop bent grass, are a rich emerald after the heavy rain three days before. The greens are quick, particularly around the cup, and Brendan Allen, director of golf, has set them at 11½ on the stimpmeter. “Twelve would have made it impossible,” he says.

The landscape is lush and rolling, and compared to Jack’s Point there’s less of the “frontier” about it. It reminds me of Portmarnock, with slippery swailes around the greens and deep bunkers to go with them.

The clubhouse at The Hills, Arrowtown, overlooking the 18th green
The clubhouse at The Hills, Arrowtown, overlooking the 18th green

The Hills has been polished, tightened and stretched to provide a real test, with a twisty 475-yard par five first with a small, heavily bunkered green that slopes away from you. The fairways are generous, with sufficient grass to set the ball up, and the bunkers – I counted 89 – are uncompromisingly voracious, with soft, heavy sand. I won’t forget the third in a hurry: a murderous par three with a 200-yard carry over water, two deep sand traps cut into the edge just below the pin, and a two-tier green perched on a plateau. I have the wind at my back and take a five-wood that scuttles round the top edge of the lake to the right and into a bunker cut into the diagonal green. I finally escape after taking four putts.

I enjoy the 17th, a sharp dogleg with a long second shot between the walls of a rocky canyon. The green has a prominent hump in the middle, which I find a bit unfair considering the trouble I’ve taken to get on in five. But this is no time for pommie wingeing; this is a classic golf course with all the idiosyncratic hallmarks of 18 privately owned holes. There are sculptures by the English sculptor Max Patté installed on the landscape, as well as several works by other artists (Kelp by Mark Hill), including five horses cast in iron, set on the right of the seventh hole – to remind us of the Clydesdales used in the gold mining. And there is a classy clubhouse, sunk into the landscape and made from local stone. It’s a golfing nirvana.

In the morning, Choppy flies me to Kinloch, designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened in 2008. The course is on the northerly end of Lake Taupo on the North Island volcanic plateau. It’s a long slog at 7,363 yards from the back tees. There is a links feel to it that’s to do with the geography and prevailing wind from the southwest. This is not an “off-the-shelf” design; it’s a one-off masterpiece that caters for less accomplished players and gives five progressively shorter alternatives on each hole. Sir Bob believes it to be the best course in New Zealand.

The 16th hole at the Kinloch Club, Taupo
The 16th hole at the Kinloch Club, Taupo

There are a number of spine-stiffening par fours on Kinloch. The fourth, for instance: 454 yards and bending round to the left. For peace of mind, you should also keep on the left all the way to the hole. I treat it as a par five, hoping to get on in three and get away with two putts. Mr Sensible. The ninth is a stinker, but I love it: another long four at 416 yards with a cluster of fairway bunkers around 230 yards from the tee. I have to hit a big second, down the narrow fairway, onto a short, kidney-shaped green that slopes sharply to starboard. There’s a tight little bunker cut into the front edge of the green. I do my best to avoid this at all costs.

The 16th at Kinloch is described simply as a 521 par five. I need to smack a good drive, but it’s the green that makes the hole. It’s raised on a plateau with a magazine of four pot bunkers at the back on the left and a nasty big sandpit just short. There are rocks on the fairways and the traps have a ragged look, but it’s a beautiful hole on a smart course that is a joy to play.

Choppy takes me up to Kauri Cliffs the following morning. The club is on North Island at Matauri Bay, close to the Bay of Islands. This is one of those places that will stick in my mind forever. It’s elegant, relaxed and, above all, laid out on an ethereal landscape, much of which runs along high cliffs above the sea.

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It was designed by Dave Harman who spent two years laying it out and considered it to be his masterpiece. Fifteen of the holes have panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Cape Brett and the Cavalli Islands, and the final six holes give the course one of the trickiest and most spectacular finishes in golf. From the back tees Kauri Cliffs is a par 72 and 7,151 yards long. The first nine started by giving me a fairly easy time of it, until the fifth, a 558-yard par five dogleg right, with punitive rough around the green, which also slopes to the right and is guarded with two long bunkers waiting for you to slice your shot to the pin. The seventh, a long par three with a 220-yard carry and a view down to a pink coral beach, is a tester in the wind. But the most demanding drive at Kauri Cliffs is to be found at the long 15th along the cliffs and curving right to left. I keep as close to the left edge as I dare. The second, to a long, well-protected green on a promontory above the sea, is pure risk and reward. A stunning hole.

I feel I have been waiting for the 17th at Kauri Cliffs for most of my life. There’s a high tee with the fairway a long way below. I hit my best drive down as far left as I dare. It’s a 470-yard par four with a lone pine behind the green to mark my line and the roar of the Pacific Ocean pounding the cliffs below. This is my last round in New Zealand and as I finish the 18th and walk forlornly to the pro’s shop, one of the assistants comes out and gives me a glass of wine. She says she had seen me and thought: “He looks as if he needs a drink.” She’s right.

I’d give anything to go back and play it again.

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