The Ultimate Golf Trip to New Zealand

I leaned my clubs against a rail and entered a modest clubhouse, noticing to my right a selection of golf shirts, shoes and caps randomly arrayed. Because this was a New Zealand golf facility (Kaitaia Golf Club) tucked in an obscure New Zealand town (Ahipara), I wondered if things might be other than as they seem. Sure enough, that wasn’t logoed merchandise displayed for sale, it was several months worth of clothing left behind in the Kaitaia locker room, available at no charge to anyone who spotted an item they thought would look good on them.

And that, in a nutshell, is New Zealand: We’re here. You’re welcome. Come take whatever you need, mate.

A month’s travel in this sublime netherworld continually turned up examples of the Kiwi ethic. On the basis of an email introduction, an officer of the New Zealand PGA invited me to stay with him and his wife for as long as I wished. A gentleman with whom I played one round of golf in the north told a friend in the south to look out for me, which is how I came to play the picturesque Queenstown Golf Club three weeks later with the son of the club’s founder, who had helped his father lay out the course. An American couple I met told me that if you spend any time at all in this land without being invited into someone’s home, there must be something seriously wrong with you.

I’ll tell you all about golf in New Zealand if you promise me one thing: No scouting for property down there until after I’ve bought my house.

The adventure started with an e-mail from my former dentist. I had come to know Joan Blume during one of those extended dental rehabs we checkup-skippers occasionally endure. In 2002 Joan gave up her practice in New York to move with her new husband, Larry, to the distant port of Napier, New Zealand, to operate a bed-and-breakfast. Joan sent me a birthday e-mail the next year, with a link to the B&B website.

The photographs were spectacular. All photographs of New Zealand are spectacular. I was intrigued.

And the timing was propitious. My employer had recently made it possible for me to pursue a freelance career—in much the same way that voters last year made it possible for John Kerry to return to the Senate.

Golf has always been a source of solace and pleasure to me, in addition to the usual measure of pain and frustration. My links lust has grown stronger in recent years, propelled by the approach of middle age and perhaps as a way of escaping life’s unalterable tragedies. I once drove cross-country as a part of a recovery and mourning process, shuttling from friend to friend and golf course to golf course along an erratic line from Charleston to San Francisco.

I began investigating the golf scene in New Zealand and found that fairly little had been written about it—a condition that changed in early 2004 with the opening of the Tom Doak-designed Cape Kidnappers, on one of the most remarkable pieces of land ever to suffer a divot. Cape Kidnappers, it turns out, is a short drive from Napier, where Joan and Larry run their B&B. Clearly, the golf gods were pointing me southward.

I ultimately spent a solid month traveling through New Zealand, playing 26 rounds on 23 courses. Some layouts were ordinary; some were tremendous. Some were resorts, some were town courses—and one was literally a pasture. I racked up several thousand kilometers on two different rental cars, stayed in 10 different cities and towns, and had more random conversations with new acquaintances than you could have in New York City in a decade. I enjoyed every moment of it and was never lonely for a second. Far from feeling homesick, I instead felt my urban American reserve melting away in the warm embrace of these delightful people and their beautiful country.

If you take a flagstick in St. Andrews and shove it all the way through the earth, the nearest habitable land you’ll find on the other end is New Zealand. It is a country with a population of four million, approximately one-third of whom live in and around its largest city, Auckland. It consists primarily of two islands separated by the Cook Strait, and stretches about 850 miles from the tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South.

The natural beauty of the land is its greatest resource. Everywhere you go, you find breathtaking vistas and extraordinary variety: green hills as lovely as Ireland’s; turquoise water like the Caribbean; snow-capped mountains known as the Southern Alps; even a region reminiscent of the Italian lake district, a conjunction of land and lake and light I’d always considered incomparable.

British settlers arrived here in the 19th century. They brought golf with them, forming the first New Zealand golf club in 1871 in Dunedin. Today, there are more than 400 courses in the country, and every town of any appreciable size has one. For anyone seeking a pure experience that brings you back in touch with the values of the game, New Zealand delivers the kind of balm for the soul that so many of us have sought in Scotland, only to find, upon arrival, busloads of people like us instead.

At the Mount Maunganui Golf Club, I joined a full field of 88 golfers for the weekly Wednesday Businessman’s Haggle, a Stableford team competition, best-three-of-four scores at full handicap. There’s a midweek game like it at every club in the country, usually a similar game on Saturday, and another mixed event on Sunday. I played with Dennis Clark, an engagingly bearish man who comes honestly by his nickname, “Yogi.” He’s a member of the club’s golf staff and organizes all its competitions.

Yogi’s most notable moment in golf came when rounds of 72 and 69 pulled him into a tie for fifth at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in the 1979 British Open. Paired in the third round with a more famous bear, he faltered a bit, and we won’t discuss his final round. Yogi won one of the side raffles and brought home the donated prize, a meat pack that included lamb chops, steaks and sausages.

I quickly learned that generous hospitality is as native to the Kiwi soul as the love of rugby and beer. Having grown up in splendid isolation, New Zealanders seem to lack the psychological defenses against strangers that we take for granted. At Auckland’s Titirangi Golf Club, the nation’s only Alister MacKenzie design, I played with club captain Terry Wood.

I played a mixture of rounds alone and with hosts, depending on the day and the place and the nature of the course. I played nearly every day, wondering if I’d grow tired of it and finding I never did. Truly bad shots still brought the blood to my ears, but it’s easier to accept slopping the ball around the course when you know you’ve got another round tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Every place I played offered something memorable, but the travel-guide highlights fall into a few distinct categories.

Five-star Dreams
Julian Robertson, the American hedge-fund legend and founder of Tiger Management, is responsible for two courses that are playing a somewhat different game than those of the rest of New Zealand. Like a restaurant reaching for that extra rating star, his courses are a bit finer in their conditioning, a bit more spectacular in their locations and vastly more significant in their bite on your wallet—400 NZD (about $290) for international visitors. They are great courses, but it’s a different atmosphere than you’ll encounter even at the other resort courses.

Kauri Cliffs offers marvelous views—the sight of the Cavalli Islands and Matauri Bay from the No. 14 tee is unforgettable—and strong yet playable golf holes, along with a unique sense of having the course to yourself.

Robertson’s other venture is the most discussed course in New Zealand, Cape Kidnappers. Tom Doak has built some undeniably epic holes on this incredible clifftop site, but I found it a mixed experience. Because of the course’s location on a horn of high land at the southern point of Hawke’s Bay, it is exposed to winds that don’t merely blow but howl a good percentage of the time. The course is intended to play firm and fast, and errant shots quickly find thick knee-high rough, which makes ball-spotting difficult and recovery nearly impossible.

That said, Cape Kidnappers is a must-stop on any visitor’s itinerary. The scenery is breathtaking, and it is near the unusual and photogenic port town of Napier. Victim of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in 1931, Napier was almost completely leveled, and when the decision was made to rebuild, the town decided to use the most up-to-date techniques and styles available. This is how a city of 55,000 residents on the east coast of New Zealand wound up with one of the greatest concentrations of Art Deco buildings in the world.

Local Heroes
Ask any Kiwi to name his favorite course and it will likely be either Wairakei or Paraparaumu Beach, depending on his preference for parkland or links-style golf. Wairakei is located near Lake Taupo, in one of the North Island’s most trafficked recreational areas, with water sports and the strangely beautiful Huka Falls, and the unearthly thermal steam vents and bubbling mudpools of this volcanic region. Wairakei is a thinking golfer’s course: From the start, a par 5 with strategically placed bunkers affecting both the drive and second shots, you’re on notice that this is not a place where you mindlessly reach for the longest club and bash away.

Paraparaumu (pah-rah-pah-ROO-moo) Beach Golf Club is a wholly different experience. Located 45 minutes north of the national capital of Wellington—“windy Wellington” is its apt nickname—Paraparaumu is a pure links. The course is routed through sizable hillocks and tumbling dunes, open to the winds and intended to be played as much along the ground as through the air. Tiger Woods played here in the 2002 New Zealand Open and received an appearance fee reportedly four times the size of the purse itself.

Hidden Gems
In one sense, all of New Zealand is a hidden gem, but I have two to recommend in that ever-beguiling category. Kaitaia Golf Club in Ahipara, at the foot of the North Island’s Ninety-Mile Beach, is blessed with perhaps the best weather in the country—it’s generally the warmest spot in the winter (highs in the upper 60s) and comfortable in the summer (rarely above the low 80s). The land for this modest but delicious links was cleared by volunteer labor and was so choked with lupin bushes that two tractors collided during the work because they couldn’t see each other. Underneath those bushes was ideal golf turf: sand-based, ever tumbling, easy on the legs but without a flat lie to be found.

Seven hundred miles away, in the mountainous heart of the South Island’s ski country, is Arrowtown Golf Club. This beauty is located less than 10 miles from Queenstown, a stylish resort burg with a hint of Vail to it, and is also near Kawarau Bridge, site of the first commercial bungee-jump site. Arrowtown is outlandish in all the best ways, reminiscent of the devilry to be found at Lahinch on Ireland’s west coast. From the back tees, Arrowtown is the toughest 5,860-yard course you’ll ever play, and more fun than golf should be.

With so much variety in the courses and conditions, you’re bound to encounter something you’ve never seen before. Those are the moments that make a visit to New Zealand such a singular experience. Here are a few of my favorites:

• At Mangawhai Golf Club, I was paired with two gentlemen in their 80s who made their way around the course on Yamaha four-wheel ATVs. Each had a rack in front to accommodate a golf bag, and the constant putt-putt-putt of the engines paced the hurry-up-mate-it’s-only-a-golf-shot rhythm of their swings.

• Terrace Downs, in the high country near Mount Hutt about an hour from Christchurch, places a challenging and varied course amid scenery to match any in the world. On the 16th tee, local tradition calls for a bonus drive away from the line of play, in an effort to clear the chasm carved by the sky-blue Rakaia River. I played half a round with a couple from Boston, learning why Terrace Downs routinely phones up golfers with tee times when a nor’wester is blowing in, telling them not to bother coming. We walked off the last green with the sky half blue and half black; within an hour, there was hail, thunder and lightning, and snow fell overnight in late November, the equivalent of Memorial Day back home.

• On the drive to Christchurch from the Marlborough wine region, I passed a billboard for the Cheviot Golf Club, proclaiming, “Come Play Our Superb 12-Hole Golf Course!” I had no choice but to make the turn and find this rare beast. When I arrived, there wasn’t a soul around; both the clubhouse and pro shop were closed at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon. But there was a slot in the door with the rates listed, so I put my money in the “honesty box” and off I went. I brought half my clubs with me, and the lightened load put an extra spring in my step. So did the view of the Southern Alps in the distance. The sun was slanting in; the grass was green. I swung; I walked. I found my ball and swung again. True bliss was found along those dozen fairways.

• At the Tarras Golf Club, I encountered the game in its even more elemental form. There’s no parking lot, no clubhouse—you simply pull over by the side of the road and away you go. The greens are surrounded by fences, and little black pellets everywhere tell you that the course’s primary concern is grazing, not grooming. I assured myself that the droppings couldn’t be fresh if I couldn’t see the sheep. And then, as I crested a rise on the 4th hole, there they were, several hundred strong. Fortunately, they’re not animals famed for bravery—it’s remarkable to watch so many good-sized ruminants flee at the approach of a single biped golfer.

On the last hole, I faced a tricky uphill pitch over a bunker. I hit it to 10 feet, took my time over the putt, put a good stroke on it and watched as my ball teetered on the lip—then dropped. It was the last stroke of my month in New Zealand, but I know it won’t be the last stroke I ever play there.

Three weeks later, after a side jaunt to Australia, I passed through Auckland on my way back to the States. I felt strangely but distinctly home.

Fun Facts
• There is no tree on Auckland’s One Tree Hill.

• Ninety-Mile Beach is only 65 miles long.

• Distances on the courses are marked in meters; add 10 percent to convert to yards. Where fairways have markers, they are generally at 180, 135 and 90 meters—roughly 200, 150 and 100 yards. However, sometimes these distances are to the middle of the green; sometimes they’re to the front. Always check the card or ask the pro.

• “Kiwi” is used to describe either a native or the national bird. The fuzzy fruit is always called “kiwifruit.”

• The Otaga wineries constitute the southernmost wine-growing area in the world. New Zealand wines are drunk young, with pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs being particularly outstanding. Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough are the two largest wine centers.

• Ostrich steak and black swan carpaccio taste nothing like chicken.

• One ski resort near Queenstown is called The Remarkables. Another mountain near Lake Wanaka is called Mount Aspiring, which must have a ways to go to reach Remarkable status.

• The Maori name for New Zealand is Aoteroa, which means “Land of the Long White Cloud.”

• Despite their linkage in the popular imagination, New Zealand is actually some 1,000 miles from Australia.

Trip-planning Particulars
My odyssey was laid out with the assistance of John Lister and the Australia New Zealand Golf agency. John met me at the airport, got me settled into my hotel and went over the entire trip with me, on AAA-style maps in which he’d highlighted the routes to all my hotels and golf courses, a service he provides for all clients who’ve chosen to travel on their own. Lister is a former PGA Tour player who won the Quad Cities Open in 1976, and at one point uttered a phrase I’ve never heard before: “So, there I was on the 18th tee, 12 under par for the round…”