A New Zealand Golf Itinerary

The country has put itself on the map as having some of the planet’s top courses—and, as a recent trip proves, the destination is becoming only more desirable.

First things first: It’s time to stop thinking of New Zealand as a bucket-list location, the kind of place where one goes to make a single grand tour to mark retirement or a milestone wedding anniversary. In just the past 15 years, the country has placed itself squarely into any conversation regarding the world’s greatest golf destinations.

Most golf travelers quickly discover that New Zealand’s courses are simply too good to play just once and immediately begin plotting a return. If it is a trip of a lifetime, though, the good news is that a golfer should come away feeling that the game allowed him or her to fully experience the country’s natural beauty, from the verdant, subtropical Northland to the jagged peaks, alpine lakes, and misty meadows of Otago. Only the United States and Australia also boast such a diverse array of environments in which to enjoy chasing a little white ball.

The only thing New Zealand lacks when compared with giants like Scotland and Ireland is dense clusters of great courses—a golf tour requires some hopping around. Fortunately, domestic air travel is actually a pleasure—the country dispenses with the security checks to which Americans have grown accustomed—and flights are usually short.

Any first golf itinerary to New Zealand must be built around New York hedge funder Julian Robertson’s twin properties, Kauri Cliffs (139 Tepene Tablelands Rd., Matauri Bay; 64/9407-0060; kauricliffs.com) and Cape Kidnappers (446 Clifton Rd., Te Awanga; 64/6873-1018; capekidnappers.com). These courses, which opened in 2000 and 2004, respectively, kicked off the modern Kiwi golf boom, and they are justifiably world famous. Both are attached to resorts of perfectly stated luxury, yet they offer quite different experiences. Kauri possesses a soft, paradisal beauty—dreamy forests, waterfalls, pink shell beaches, and a lush David Harman golf course overlooking the Cavalli Islands. Kidnappers, in contrast, is a vast, working sheep station with brooding, Brontë-esque qualities. The highlight holes of this epic Tom Doak design track out onto fingers of land precariously perched atop 450-foot sandstone cliffs.

The latest major news from the Kiwi golf scene is the arrival of Tara Iti Golf Club (71 Tara Iti Dr., Mangawhai; taraiti.com), on the North Island about an hour and a half from Auckland. Tara Iti is another Doak design, a true links—all sand and fescue and native plant material—that rests on gently sloping ground adjacent to the tranquil Te Arai Beach.

With long ocean and island back-drops reaching north to the Mangawhai Heads and, closer in, a shimmering sand dune of science fiction proportions, the course is swimming in visual splendor. It also happens to be an unbridled joy to play. The emphasis is on fun—given the width of the hole corridors, one has to really misbehave to lose a ball—but in typical Doak fashion, imaginative shotmaking around the greens is required in order to score well. Nowhere is this more evident than at the seventh, a drivable par-4 playing to a tabletop green that’s the smallest Doak has ever built. Getting up and down from its deep Valley of Sin requires considerable nerve.

Developed by Los Angeles financier Ric Kayne, Tara Iti is an exclusive private club, though with some effort it’s not impossible to access. And as good as the club is right now, it could get even better—rumor has it that the developers have opened a dialogue with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw about building a public-access course on land adjacent to the private one.

Another development that occurred without much fanfare but is worth noting is the renovation, unveiled in 2014, of the Royal Wellington Golf Club (28 Golf Rd., Heretaunga; 64/4528-4590; rwgc.co.nz) by the Kiwi design team of Greg Turner and Scott Macpherson, who have since gone their separate ways. Dating to 1895 and established at its current property in 1908, Royal Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island, is a private club that allows a bit of visitor play.

The course, known as Heretaunga, had been well regarded before the renovation, but as a club history put it, there was “a feeling that it lacked strategic interest, that piecemeal changes had robbed it of consistent quality...and, not the least, that the greens were in a poor state and had never matched the club’s expectations.”

Turner and Macpherson put an end to those criticisms. The rejuvenated Heretaunga takes advantage of its lush parkland setting by also including several new holes along the Hutt River in what had previously been pine forest. Our favorite is the strategic par-5 fourth, where a stream cuts diagonally across the fairway in a vexing fashion, creating two distinct avenues of play, while the green is guarded by its source, a wetland pond. The artistry of the architects’ bunker and green shaping is first-rate. Indeed, coming up the final fairway toward a rolling green backdropped by hills and an elegant clubhouse, one is reminded of an iconic American design—the Valley Club of Montecito, near Santa Barbara, California.

It takes more than one good course to make a destination, though. A side benefit of Heretaunga’s renewal could be that it creates a compelling exacta for traveling golfers when paired with nearby Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club (376 Kapiti Rd., Paraparaumu Beach; 64/4902-8200; paraparaumubeachgolfclub.co.nz). The name of this classic 1949 links is often shortened to “Pram.” Designed by Alex Russell, a champion amateur from Australia who learned the craft at the side of Dr. Alister MacKenzie at Royal Melbourne, it could be called the nation’s home of golf, having hosted the New Zealand Open a record 12 times.

Pram is an unusual links. It’s not quite on the ocean—a couple of blocks of a suburban neighborhood stand between it and the beach, so there are no big views—but the golfer will see and feel the coastal influence, to put it mildly. The site is compact—a mere 125 acres—but it’s replete with dramatic, heaving landforms that evoke waves on the open sea. Wellington, about 30 miles away, is often considered the windiest city in the world, so trajectory control matters a great deal, especially when trying to coax one’s ball onto one of Russell’s pedestal or ridgeline greens. Pram almost feels as if someone tried to fold up a grand-scale links and pack it into a too-small suitcase, with all kinds of fascinating shots spilling over the sides. It’s not a place for those who expect to see immaculate, wall-to-wall green grass, but its mottled turf runs blazing fast—making for an exciting game.

On the South Island, Queenstown, nestled against the shores of Lake Wakatipu and ringed by peaks, is an adventure-sports boomtown and New Zealand’s leading travel destination. That distinction also applies to its golf sector, which features an interesting matrix of courses from which to choose.

John Darby, one of Tara Iti’s minority partners, is something of a Kiwi renaissance man. The property developer has made a mark on the Queenstown region, both through his ownership of Amisfield, a local winery, and through his golf course architecture. Two of Queenstown’s most sought-after venues, The Hills (164 McDonnell Rd., Arrowtown; 64/3409-8290; thehills.co.nz) and Jack’s Point (McAdam Dr., Jack’s Point; 64/3450-2050; jackspoint.com), bear his signature.

The Hills, which draws its name not only from its setting but from its owner, jewelry magnate Michael Hill, is the current cohost of the New Zealand Open. (Nearby Millbrook Resort is the other venue.) At first glance, it bears a resemblance to any number of courses purpose-built to hold 21st-century pro events—the shaping looks artificial in places, while the greens feature broad, flat tiers intended to provide a sufficient variety of hole locations at tournament-green speeds. This type of design often goes terribly wrong for the average golfer, but The Hills plays well. Darby constantly shuffles the rhythm of the routing, with good scoring opportunities intermingling with the bruisers. The closing stretch, for example, showcases the 15th, a par-4 that’s nearly drivable from its pinnacle tee, followed by a polarizing long par-3 defended by a forbidding creek.

The course also serves as the home of Hill’s sculpture collection. It’s worth it to grab a glass of Pinot and wander around after playing. Perhaps the most diverting piece is Liu Ruowang’s The Wolves Are Coming, positioned near the clubhouse and above the 18th fairway.

As for Jack’s Point, which was purchased by Tara Iti’s Ric Kayne in 2015, golf is the centerpiece of a master-planned real estate community 20 minutes outside of Queenstown. At the moment, there’s no on-site accommodation, but the Four Seasons owns land adjacent to the property. In terms of both real estate and hotel inventory, Queenstown’s supply isn’t coming even close to meeting demand, so it’s likely only a matter of time before Jack’s takes off.

Jack’s Point is as rugged as The Hills is smooth, playing across wild, open country and boasting spectacular vistas of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range. Audacious holes abound, as broad, sloping fairways, pitched greens, and often punishing bunkering conspire to shred scorecards. In other words, the golf is technical, more in line with a private club than a resort, but it’s the kind of place that’s a ton of fun once one learns where not to miss.

Finally, it’s well known that one of the best ways to see New Zealand is from the air, whether it be in a seaplane from Auckland to Waiheke Island or a helicopter ’round Milford Sound. Queenstown-based Over the Top Golf (64/3442-3299; overthetopgolf.co.nz) puts a golfy spin on this popular activity, choppering guests from one of three area courses up to the 4,500-foot slopes of Walter Peak. Golfers bash eco-balls toward a target green from four sets of tees. This is mostly just a pretext for taking an exciting flight, but there’s a fine memory to be had in making a pure strike and watching the ball sail against the mountain backdrop for what seems like forever.

How To Play Tara Iti

As Tara Iti builds its membership, the club allows select travelers to make a onetime visit by board approval. “We’ve got a great place and want even better people,” says Jim Rohrstaff, a club spokesman. “This creates goodwill and word of mouth, so we encourage people to reach out.” Sending an e-mail to info@legacypartners.co.nz connects potential visitors to Rohrstaff, who will then schedule a phone call to learn about your travel plans and club affiliations, as well as check availability at Tara Iti. Visitors must stay on the property in one of the club’s cottages. You’ll want to do this anyway, whether it’s to take advantage of the club’s “toy garage” (a panoply of vehicles ranging from surfboards to BMW motorcycles) or simply to kick back and enjoy an alfresco wood-fired pizza from the club’s oven, which is bolted to the bed of a 1937 pickup truck. Nightly rates at Tara Iti are confidential, but the accommodations are comparable, in both price and quality, to Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers.

Photos Courtesy Cape Kidnappers, Kauri Cliffs, Joann Dost