Round And Round In The Land Of The Small White Ball

19 March 2015
Read Time: 4.1 mins

Thwack! Only a golfer knows the feeling – the sound of your tee shot still ringing in your ears, the drawn-out pose on the follow-through: golf club extended exaggeratedly forwards like you’re the lead performer in some weird kind of golfing ballet, and my ball arcing through the blue sky like it might never, ever land.

Oh yeah, it almost makes the previous 15 tee-offs into water and deep into the New Zealand bush all worth it.

 Kauri Cliffs tucked into one of the prettiest areas of the Bay Of Islands (credit: Kauri Cliffs)

But this is all it takes at Kauri Cliffs’ world-renowned golf course for the round to last with you for life … and who knows with this kind of scenery - maybe beyond.

Here on the 16th tee, I’m hitting across cliffs that drop 200 metres straight down to the baby blue waters of the Bay Of Islands. It’s the most striking golf hole I’ve ever seen. But then, you’ll catch me saying that numerous times across the North Island.

It’s probably only because it wasn’t yet discovered by Europeans that stopped New Zealand being the birthplace of golf.

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No Earthmoving Here

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That honour goes, of course, to Scotland, but with more than 400 courses throughout the country, New Zealand is now second only to Scotland for the number of golf courses per head of population. What’s more, almost 500,000 adults play at least a round of golf every year here, in a population of just four million, making it the highest participation sport in New Zealand (over seven million rounds were played in 2012 alone).

With all that golfing love going round you can be sure Kiwis know how to build themselves a course or two. And with quite possibly the prettiest landscape on this entire planet, it’s easy to see why New Zealand has become a beacon for golfers the world over.

 The 16th at Kauri Cliffs is one of the world's most scenic golf holes (credit: Kauri Cliffs)

While a lot of attention these days is drawn to the Queenstown region with its high profile courses, New Zealand’s North Island is also blessed with some of the best courses on this planet.

The course I’m negotiating now, Kauri Cliffs, has long been regarded as New Zealand’s prettiest – in fact, it’s considered one of the world’s most scenic golf courses. Because here in New Zealand, they don’t shift Earth around to build a course, their best courses are built to fit into the country’s dramatic creases and folds, along gaping cliffs and beside lakes and seas.

Built on a 2500 hectare property overlooking the Bay Of Islands - including private beaches, waterfalls and Kauri forests (some trees here are over a thousand years old) – Kauri Cliffs is a fitting place to begin any North Island golfing odyssey.


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Chasms That Test The Toughest Nerves

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I enter the property on a gravel road amid a landscape of working sheep farms where farmers often hold up traffic moving stock between paddocks.

Many golf shots at Kauri Cliffs require a nerve-testing hit across a gaping chasm, hundreds of metres up from the Pacific Ocean. No course I’ve every played before compares to this; as I nurse my wounds checking my score card at the course’s old plantation-style homestead clubhouse after my 18 holes, harrier hawks and sea eagles stop dead still in the light thermals high above the bay.

 Wairakei Resort's outstanding golf course (credit: Wairakei Golf)

I could stay a week, learning the intricacies of this lay-out, but there’s so much more to see on the North Island.

I bypass Auckland – although the city has one of the finest collections of city courses you’ll find anywhere in the world. I fly south to Lake Taupo, looking down on New Zealand’s largest lake (it’s the same size as Singapore) and across to the snow-capped dormant volcano, Mt Ruapehu.

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With Only Sheep For Company

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I’m aboard a Beechcraft 19-passenger propeller plane where I can see the pilots in their cockpit as we fly. Before boarding I don’t need to go through an x-ray machine with my luggage and when we land my bags are wheeled out on an old wooden trolley beside a small kitchen where old ladies cook scones on a prehistoric-looking stove – flying in regional New Zealand can be its own unique tourist experience.

Taupo is one of NZ’s most popular tourist destinations, but it’s crowning glory can be found half an hour’s drive away. Kinloch Golf Club is built in the middle of nowhere, on the fringes of the enormous lake. When I tee off there’s no other golfers on the course, instead this will be an exclusive experience under rolling hills and across rugged, beautiful pasture land as wild geese stride across the fairways and cows and sheep look on between mouthfuls of grass.

 Kinloch - Sir Bob Charles's favourite (credit: Kinloch Golf Club)

New Zealand’s most accomplished golfer, Sir Bob Charles, calls Kinloch the number one course in NZ, and yet, I have it entirely to myself - something I begin to take for granted across the North Island (for a nation of avid golfers, it’s sure easy to find an uncrowded course).

“For those unable to play the great links courses of Scotland, Kinloch compares with the best of them,” Sir Bob says. Kinloch Golf Club is also the only course designed by the world’s most celebrated golfer, Jack Nicklaus.

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All Blooming Flowers And Dazzling Blue Lakes

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Closer to Taupo, I tee-off at the largest international four-star resort in the North Island, Wairakei Resort, and yet there’s still so few golfers around me.

Despite its proximity to Kinloch, Wairakei is the antithesis to Kinloch’s rugged Scottish links lay-out, this course actually feels almost tropical under another cloudless spring day, all blooming flowers and dazzling blue lakes and streams. It also runs beside a nature sanctuary built by the resort on its 180 hectare property - home to 25 000 native trees.

There’s scores of great regional courses in every direction on the North Island, but I’ll end my trip at one of the world’s top-rated courses.

 You never quite know what to expect at Cape Kidnappers (credit: Cape Kidnappers)

Situated near the wine growing region of Hawkes Bay, when the wind blows Cape Kidnappers is New Zealand’s toughest course by far, built among a series of finger-like ridges that jut out towards cliffs that drop directly to the sea.

On some holes I have to hit from the end of one ridge to the end of the next, and when I miss my target it takes about 10 seconds for my ball to drop into Hawkes Bay below.

Back in 2002, New Zealand was voted ‘Best Undiscovered Golf Destination’ by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators – that potential today sure has been reached.

Golf in 2015 is the second most popular sporting activity behind only snow sports for international travellers. And yet, it’s still possible to play the North Island’s best courses with just a few sheep for company.

Craig Tansley

A Polynesian tragic, Tansley blames his parents for having him in Rarotonga for why he can't stay away from there for more than a few months at a time. Give him a coconut and a lagoon and he'll be happy.