Two golf courses in New Zealand join the ranks of the world's greatest layouts
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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."
Robertson describes the amount he paid for the Kauri Cliffs property as "the price of a modest New York apartment," a description he also attaches to the 6,000-acre Cape Kidnappers property he acquired in 2001. "Golf seemed the logical step," says Robertson. "The land is just so good, so dramatic, that you pretty much are guaranteed a special place if you don't screw it up. What we've been able to do, if I can modestly say, is something that is really great."
Instead of going after a big-name architect, a Jack Nicklaus or a Tom Fazio or a Pete Dye, Robertson gave the job of designing Kauri Cliffs to the late Dave Harman, a Floridian with a long line of experience in building golf courses and shaping them. With land so bold, with the sea so inviting, Harman routed a course that takes advantage of its extraordinary natural setting. There are 15 holes that have a view of the ocean and six that play along the cliff lines. The first three holes overlook the vast grazing grounds for sheep. Holes 10 through 12 play along a marshy glen out of view of the sea, creating a certain sense of anticipation that you will return to the water's edge, which is fulfilled upon arrival at the 14th tee. The 14th through 17th holes pitch and yaw along the cliff lines and the 18th climbs precipitously back to the clubhouse. "This is such a huge property, and Dave's first design for it would require you a 747 to play, it was so spread out," says Robertson. "To his credit, he turned it into a golf course that you can walk if you choose to do so."
The clubhouse at Kauri Cliffs is an approximation of a Bahamian colonial plantation house that Robertson saw in a magazine, given an appropriate makeover into the New Zealand vernacular with local crafts and materials. The clubhouse and the cottage-style rooms at Kauri Cliffs came under Josie Robertson's tasteful eye. The clubhouse has a hominess to it, with comfortable furniture, abundant fireplaces and view upon view of the course and the sea. The large and extremely comfy rooms are set in buildings that appear to be bungalows. There are fireplaces, an enormous bathroom done in a quite contemporary style, and a huge walk-in closet. Flip on the switch for the fireplace, wrap yourself in a robe and listen to nothing but the birds and the wind. Kauri Cliffs is nothing if not splendid isolation, with room service.
"My wife worked with interior designer Virginia Fisher," says Robertson. "Josie would rather give Virginia all the credit. But in the real world she had tremendous input."
In January 2004, Champions Tour player Dave Stockton visited Kauri Cliffs along with former British Open winner and New Zealander Bob Charles. Stockton, twice the winner of the PGA Championship, is a dedicated outdoorsman, a fisherman and a hunter. "It's a really remarkable place," says Stockton. "You have golf, fishing and hunting in one spectacular place. It's a long way to go to do it, but I would say it's definitely worth it."
That the Robertsons would have even one such beckoning property in New Zealand is an achievement. But with Cape Kidnappers opening last year, they have doubled the dramatic quotient for golf in a country that, surprisingly, has more golf courses per capita—about one for every 9,330 golfers—than any other place in the world.
The Cape Kidnappers property, another working farm with sheep and cattle, is also of great historic importance to New Zealand and its native Maori population. A seamount that sits just offshore appears as a giant tooth. In Maori legend, it is known as the Tooth of Maui. Maui, son of Rangi, the sky father, and Papa, the earth mother, used the tooth to catch a giant fish that, when it reached the surface, became the North Island of New Zealand. On a beach, a ledge and the cliff top nearest the Tooth of Maui are the world's most accessible gannet colonies.
For the Cape Kidnappers property, Robertson brought in the twenty-first century's hottest and often most controversial architect, Tom Doak. Robertson hired Doak after visiting the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in coastal Oregon. "On our first trip there with my sons and friends, we wanted to play 36 holes one day at the Bandon Dunes course and they told us we couldn't," says Robertson. "They said we had to play this second 18 at Pacific Dunes [designed by Doak]. We were furious that we had to play it. When we finished, we thought it was the best course we had ever played. That's why we got Tom Doak."
Doak found himself overwhelmed by the property with its cliffs 500 feet above the grand sweep of Hawke's Bay, named by the intrepid English explorer Captain James Cook. It was Cook who named the land Cape Kidnappers after Maori natives attempted to kidnap a servant. Cook's journeys throughout the Pacific were extraordinary and Doak sees the creation of the Cape Kidnappers Golf Club as no less so. "If Cape Kidnappers were a book, it would be an epic," he says.
The golf course is approached by a 15-minute drive through the property along a trout stream, through an alpine area and atop a ridge with mountain views. The clubhouse doesn't appear to be one at all, and could be mistaken for the maintenance building. It's done in a wool shed style with dark gray corrugated metal siding. Inside there are small locker rooms, a pro shop and a great room. It's both comfortable and appropriate. The bar stools are made to suggest old farm tractor seats. The clubhouse is part of the Robertsons' commitment not to do anything that would taint the land or fly in the face of the culture. "This is such a magnificent country that if we were going to do something here, we wanted to do the very best we could," says Robertson.
Doak designed a golf course that comes in two parts. The first is the farmland nine, playing mostly away from the sea and into a working area of the farm. Behind the second green sits a complex of red farm buildings. It's not until the 10th hole that Doak takes a player to the end of the earth, almost literally. The 10th, 12th, 13th and 15th holes have greens suspended above the bay, atop those 500-foot cliffs. Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser, who played both Robertson courses last December, calls Cape Kidnappers "an aerie for golfers."
The 15th hole is a straightaway par 5 that runs out to the edge of a cliff, the fairway seemingly no wider than an aircraft carrier. The 16th hole is a short par 5 in the opposite direction; it's a par 5 because Josie Robertson wanted all players to experience the view from what was the back tee of the par 4 that Doak designed originally. "My wife thought it was a shame that only good players got back to that tee to see that view," says Robertson. "By making it a short par 5, it meant that all players could go back there and be right out there on the cliff. That was a wonderful thing to do."
A lodge for on-site accommodations is in the works for Cape Kidnappers, but there are several lovely B & B properties in the Hawke's Bay area. There are spots in Hawke's Bay, with its many vineyards and orchards, where visions of Sonoma County, California, come to mind. The Robertsons have an interest in the Te Awa Winery, which produces a wide range of wines, including a Chardonnay, and a lovely Merlot. The city of Napier, where the airport is located, is a small Art Deco—style town. The city and the surrounding wineries have an abundance of good restaurants, and after a morning round of golf at Cape Kidnappers, lunch at Te Awa and dinner at the Craggy Range Winery would complete a fulfilling day.
The Robertsons have worked diligently to respect the native culture and conscience of New Zealand. "We don't want to impose ourselves," says Robertson. "We are caretakers here and we know how fortunate we are to have it."
New Zealander Michael Campbell (see sidebar, page 106), the surprise winner of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst last June, represents Kauri Cliffs for the Robertsons. "I think what [Julian Robertson's] done for New Zealand golf has been phenomenal," says Campbell. "When I heard about this Kauri Cliffs, somebody told me I had to go see it. I was totally in awe. I didn't meet Julian that first time. I went back two months later and that's when I met him and we got a relationship done. What he's done is to really expose the world to New Zealand golf with these two fantastic golf courses. It takes money and financing; he's been able to do that. It's been great that he's been able to do that in my country."
New Zealand is almost 9,000 miles from the East Coast of the United States. It take 20 hours in the air, and a full 24 hours door-to-door to get there. But if you are in search of the game's highest drama, then Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs give Oscar-winning performances. Get your ticket.
Jeff Williams is the golf columnist for Cigar Aficionado.
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