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In the Land of the Kiwis

Two golf courses in New Zealand join the ranks of the world's greatest layouts
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

As you stand on the 16th tee of the Kauri Cliffs Golf Club in New Zealand, you know in your bones this is why you came. This is why you planned so precisely, packed so excitedly and traveled so determinedly. You are suspended above the Pacific like a loge box at La Scala, the dramatic seascape of New Zealand filling the eye with grandeur and the mind with wonder. No matter that it took 24 hours, two planes and a helicopter to get here. It was worth every mile and every hour. There's something about hitting a golf shot framed by a rainbow that does amazing things for the psyche.

If you want your golf to be more than a stroll through a meadow, a walk through a forest or a meander along a beach, then you seek out its grand stages. For decades the Pebble Beach Golf Links defined golf as a dramatic adventure, a melding of sport and spirit. More recently the Old Head Golf Links in Ireland, thrust into the Atlantic Ocean on a giant rock table, stirred the wanderlust of golfers. There is Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Turnberry in Scotland. Now there is New Zealand.

New Zealand is the land of a furry fruit, a flightless bird and a formidable population all known as kiwi. It is a country of fiercely proud Maori natives and dauntless settlers from the Old World. It's got sheep, millions of them. It's got grapes, tons of them. It's got sailboats, thousands of them.

And now New Zealand has two of the world's most dramatic golf courses, two of its sensational grand stages: Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers. "This has got to be one of the great golf destinations in the world," says Jimmy Dunne, the managing partner of a New York investment company and a dedicated worldwide player. "These are wonderful places to play. You have great holes, great views and a really great country. I don't think it gets any better than this."

Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers are on the North Island of New Zealand, a few hours drive from Auckland, the country's largest city and port of entry for nearly everyone coming from around the globe. Kauri Cliffs is to the north, in an area known as the Bay of Islands. Cape Kidnappers is to the south in the Hawke's Bay wine region. These two great stages of the game have been created by two Americans, Julian Robertson, and his wife, Josie. The courses grew out of the couple's wellspring of love for the country that they first visited in 1978.

"We have a great affection for the people and the land," says Julian Robertson. "It was a very special time in our life, that first trip. And it's a big part of our life now."

Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers are magnificent courses and monumental achievements, built with the resources of a man with a huge portfolio of achievement. Robertson is a pioneer of the world hedge fund market. After he returned from his first trip to New Zealand, he established the Tiger Fund. Now closed, the fund once had $22 billion under management.

Robertson has been called a visionary and dubbed an egomaniac, a man who cut a giant swath through the financial markets for more than a decade. Along the way he acquired the means to fulfill passions for music, art and golf.

"In 1995, a friend called, a very didactic guy," says Robertson, with an undiminished North Carolina drawl. "He said 'Julian, I think the world is coming to an end. I've got a guy looking for property for me in New Zealand.' I said I didn't think the world was coming to an end, but I'm a big fan of New Zealand. I said if this guy finds something that you don't want, I'd love to know about it. So this guy finds him a place, then he calls me with this place, Kauri Cliffs, which was just a sheep farm."

Kauri Cliffs was just a sheep farm in the way that the Grand Canyon was just a river gorge. The property was 4,000 acres on cliffs above the Pacific with its own beaches and one of the few remaining ancient Kauri trees in the country. So in 1995, Robertson returned to New Zealand to look at a sheep farm, and the moment he saw it he knew he had to buy it. Later he would purchase an additional 2,500 acres. "It was overwhelmingly beautiful and I felt I had to do something with it," says Robertson. "We decided to build a golf course. My wife was overcome with it and said we had to build a lodge. We keep finding wonderful things about the property as we go along. It has been a great family undertaking."

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