GOLF AND NEW ZEALAND
THE OTHER LAND DOWN UNDER
New Zealand, the other land down under, has yet to attain the notoriety of its western neighbor, Australia. But like Australia, golf is a passion. And while the Aussies take great pride in the success of Greg Norman, the Kiwis exhibit similar fondness for Bob Charles and Frank Nobilo. It is truly a sporting country. While the U.S. has baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, Kiwis revel at the opportunity to watch cricket, rugby, and netball. Then there is golf. The 1998 World Cup of Golf will be played at Gulf Harbour Country Club some 30 miles north of Auckland from the 19th through the 22nd of November.
Michiganders should feel a bond of sorts with the New Zealanders. Michigan consists of two peninsulas; New Zealand is two major islands. Michigan uses a simple designation - upper and lower peninsulas; New Zealand's islands are officially known as north and south. Then there is golf. Michigan lays claim to some 800 golf courses. New Zealand's number is 400 for a population roughly half that of Michigan's. And both numbers continue to grow.
But beyond the similarities, there are some differences which make New Zealand an attractive destination. Their currency is the dollar, but the exchange rate is about .50. So, a $50 (NZ) round of golf translates into about $25 (U.S.). And there are bargains beyond golf. Everywhere you look, you see sheep. This translates into wool. If you don't return with additions to your sweater collection, you missed a great opportunity.
Golf is a relative bargain in New Zealand. And if you are going to be there for an extended period, club membership offers several benefits. A typical round of golf will cost between $6 and $35 U.S. A recent round at Gulf Harbour, one of the country's premier courses and site of the upcoming World Cup of golf cost $35 including the cart. During my six month stay in New Zealand, I became a member of Locheil Country Club in Hamilton on the North Island. For a total of $120, I had unlimited golf for six months. No other fees were charged. It included green fees, a clubhouse, restaurant, handicapping service, pro shop, and a variety of club events. Also, it is noteworthy that many public courses have a multi-tiered fee structure. Non residents pay the highest rates. New Zealand residents who don't belong to a club pay lower rates. But, members of country clubs pay even less. As an affiliated member, fees paid at most semi-private clubs would run about $6.
So much for such details. Let's look at some courses. Gulf Harbour, Home of the '98 World Cup of Golf
Though the course is brand new, it is one of the most talked about tracks in the country. It was designed by Robert Trent Jones, II. Gulf Harbour is often mentioned in the same breath with Pebble Beach, and viewers of the World Cup of Golf will see some striking similarities. For visitors of New Zealand, it should be high on the list of "must play" courses.
In June, it was still undergoing its transformation. The landscape is still dotted with an occasional bulldozer or endloader. Turf is being moved and efforts are being made to put the best face on the course for the upcoming tournament. Compounding the problem are the severe economic conditions faced by the country. The Asian crisis has had a devastating impact on exports. The corresponding reduction in the value of their currency has made their imports more expensive. Recent changes in their tariff structures have resulted in significant job loss. More specific to Gulf Harbour, investment money originating in Hong Kong and Japan has diminished. The result is that a number of residential units sit abandoned as partially completed testimony of the recession. But these are not the images to be broadcast across the globe; what viewer will see is a magnificent setting for a major golf event. And you can take pleasure in knowing that you too can play the course for less then $35. Still it is a bit more "up-market" requiring higher standard of dress (no blue jeans) and soft spikes.
It is an interesting venue for a major international tournament. From the very tips, it measures a comparatively modest 7089 yards. Besides the bent grass greens, three features distinguish it from the typical Kiwi course. First, due to its desire to be recognized as a preeminent destination course, it has a watering system. Even through one of the hottest summers in the country's history, the course is lush, plush, and green. And, from personal experience I can tell you the rough is high. Accuracy is a key to scoring well. Balls hit three yards from the edge of the fairway may never be seen again, and word is that the rough will be higher come November. A second feature is tied to the sprinkler system. They are marked with distances to the center of the green. And even though the measures are in meters, the additional information is welcomed. It is also very rare in New Zealand. Third is the location. The course is located on Hauraki Bay, the same bay which will host the upcoming America's Cup qualifying races. Precepitors drops and blue water create a stunning backdrop for a game of golf. Indeed, on the signature hole, you may be tempted to cut the corner. And while that prospect may appeal to the long, straight hitting professionals, it brings to mind "Tin Cup." Give me another ball!!
In the absence of wind, which can be reminiscent of that of the Old Course of St. Andrews, the course is comparatively tame. It has five sets of tees ranging from 5153 yards to 7089. If your habit is to play from the white tees, you will find it to be a friendly 6022 yards with a course rating of 68. As there is not a premium of length, the wind is a key variable. Even from the back tees, watch the professionals post lots of red numbers if the wind isn't howling despite its New Zealand Golf Association rating course of 75. But watch the scores on the par 3's. They are 185, 177, 253, and 185 yards if played from the back tees. Yes, you read correctly, the thirteenth hole is 253 yards long. Not a lot of red numbers to be earned on those four holes. From the white tees, the holes are considerably shorter measuring 140, 128, 140, and 144 yards.
The course starts with an easy, straight par 4 measuring 400 yards from the back tees. It gets no tougher with an open 523 yard par 5 followed by the 185 yard par 3. It plays much like many other resort courses for 11 holes - short, straight and fairly open. No trees, but considerable sand come into play. Water enters the challenge on the seventh hole but is the ninth hole when it enters the golfer's psyche for the first time. Water is on the right, dogleg right; how much of the corner can you cut off? But this hole is just a hint of what you will soon encounter.
In my mind, the course starts in earnest with the short par 4, twelfth hole. Measuring only 285 from the whites and 340 from the blacks, your tee shot will likely find the valley between tee and green. The second shot is to an elevated, steeply sloped green. Watch for bogeys when the players' approach shots fail to stay below the hole. Pitching and putting will be an adventure, especially if the greens are fast. But take time to admire the view and heed the ground rule which states that "under no circumstances shall any person approach within 10 meters of an unfenced cliff edge." After enjoying the short par 4, your next challenge is the 253 yard par 3. Look for the pros to play it shorter; the blue tees measure some 184 yards with sand in play on the left side of the green. Fourteen is a long (458 yards) but unspectacular par 4. Fifteen is a par 3 which has the gulf as a hitting backdrop. Despite its length (186 yards) and sand, it is officially designated as the easiest hole on the back. Sixteen is the signature hole, and the views that you will be shown on TV will make you want to pack you bags and book your 20+ hour flight to Auckland. Your tee shot is over the cliff and over the water. And at 466 yards, it is deserving of its number one handicap hole designation. Tough but beautiful; - high risk, moderate reward; you can bet the pros will enjoy the view and be quite content with a par on their scorecards. Then comes the long (651 yard) par 5, again with a decision as to how much of the corner to cut. A miscalculation or a miss hit make double bogey a realistic possibility. Look for safe play as getting home in two is not likely to enter most players' minds. Finally, the course ends much as it began with a friendly par 4.
A nice clubhouse, snack bar, and merchandising area add to the overall experience. And it is a nice place to kill time while waiting for Auckland rush hour traffic to clear. Gulf Harbour can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 649 424-4739. Other Top Courses - Wairakei International Golf Course While I enjoyed my round at Gulf Harbour and heartily recommend including it on your NZ itinerary, my personal favorite was Wairakei International Golf Course near the resort town of Taupo. It is also only an hour's drive from Rotorua, one of New Zealand's most popular tourist destinations. It is in the heart of the North Island's geothermal area, so you are not far from geysers, boiling mud, and steam rising from fissures in the ground. The course is included in some lists (such as the 3rd edition of the World Atlas of Golf) of the premiere golf courses in the world. My foursome consisted of a Brit (Roger Brooksbank), an Irishman (David Taylor) and a Kiwi (Ses McQueen); we had four scores in the 80's and our $1 Nassau finished square, square, square (thanks to my partner's (Roger) stellar play on number 18). So perhaps all of these factors added to the enjoyment, but the course was definitely the key factor. And as always, it was a bargain by U.S. standards; greens fees and cart totaled about $36. If you like to walk, carts are not mandatory.
Wairaki is a comparatively mature course - a bit of water, but well bunkered. And while walking is allowed, the hills and elevations changes make it a bit difficult. Americans will recognize the traditional three sets of tees - blue, white, and red measuring 7051, 6244, and 5392 yard's respectively. The 800 yard difference between the blues and the whites should cause one to consider which set to use upon reaching the first tee. The key consideration is the par 3's. From the blue tees, they average 206 yards with 3 of the 4 exceeding 200 yards. By contrast, the longest from the whites measures but 168 yards with the average par 3 stretching only 148 yards.
While the course is nice throughout, there are a few holes which are noteworthy. The three starting holes are two par 5's with a par 3 sandwiched in between; they measure 525, 238, and 557 yards. More intriguing is the 490 yard, par 4, sixth hole - long and well bunkered. The back nine features a bit of water, some huge sloping greens, and the signature hole known as the Rogue.
The Rogue is a 608 yard par 5; its name is derived from the one tall tree which is almost certain to be a factor on your second shot - assuming you avoid the sizable fairway bunkers on your tee shot. And while getting to the green is an accomplishment, it is just part of the Rogue's appeal. The green is huge and has significant undulation. A putt of prodigious length is a distinct possibility - somewhat reminiscent of the double greens at the old course at St. Andrews. The par 4 sixteenth may also present you with a challenge. It takes only a minute amount of force to putt the ball from the back edge of the green to the fringe on the front edge. So stay below the hole. The finishing hole is a solid par 5 though it is rated as the easiest hole on the back. A few trees, a fairway bunker, two greenside bunkers, and water on the right compensate for its comparative lack of length.
Amenities include a nice driving range and putting greens. A well stocked pro shop offers more brands that you will expect to see plus some you may not be familiar with. The restaurant in the club- house is nice - good menu, fair prices, nice presentation and friendly waitstaff. Wairakei bills itself as "the Ultimate Challenge." It will test your competitive mettle and is definitely a course that you should try to fit into your itinerary. They may be reached by phone at 647 374-8152 or by fax at 647 374-8289. Formosa
Formosa is one of the newest courses on the North Island, and they are attempting to achieve a measure of prestige in the early going. In fact, it was just selected as the site for the 1999 New Zealand open. The course is located in Auckland, though it is across an open expanse of water thus requiring more than a cross town commute to get there. It is a Bob Charles signature course, an attractive layout-well kept with good fairways, moderate rough, (some substantial rough), some nice views, and excellent clubhouse facilities. In fact, it has a conference center which would be capable of handling a medium sized business conference. The round was about $32 including the mandatory cart which had to stay on the cart path. Our round was completed in 3 hours and 40 minutes. In general, the course is reminiscent of the resort courses in South Carolina.
The choice of four sets of tees provides some diversity, and the card states distance in both yards and meters. From the back tees, the course plays a healthy 7257 yards; the other tees provide options of 6709, 6240, and 5631 yards. The course ratings for men are 76, 73, 70 and 68. For women, the two forward sets are rated at 77 and 72. Before starting, consider purchasing the "strokesaver" book. The nominal investment provides insight on distances and shotmaking which will help you win your side bets. Once on the course, there are some key considerations. There is a lot of sand, but most of it does not come into play, especially from the "regular" and "forward" tees. The sand is course and you may find that the bounce on your sand wedge may induce you to forego that club in favor of your pitching wedge. There is enough water to get your attention, but other than on the ninth hole, it is not an imposing hazard. The course is open with a few palm trees scattered throughout. Finally, there are some greens which get your attention. Some are huge; others have significant undulation. Two putts on some is an accomplishment for which congratulations are in order.
Course rules mandate a handicap of 10 or less as a condition for playing either the championship (blue) or pro (black) tees; however, the reality is that this rule is not vigorously enforced. Diversity is in evidence on the par 3's as well as the par 5's. The four par 3's measure 218, 193, 226, and 179 yards from the tips. More to the white tees, and they measure 181, 162, 165, and 140 yards. The par 5's vary between 536 and 620 yards from the blacks; 478 and 561 from the regular (white) tees. Perhaps the most interesting hole is the number 1 handicap sixth hole - a 466 yard par 4. Water on the left, sand on the right and a well bunkered green make it worthy of its designation as the most difficult hole. Judging from the card, the relatively easy ninth hole is the easiest on the front. The 549 yard par 5 incorporates water, sand, and an occasional palm tree. Elevation changes, blue water as a backdrop, and well maintained greens make this a course which should be on your list of playing options. Millbrook
You owe it to yourself to visit the South Island; it is beautiful. And of the South Island destinations, perhaps the best is Queenstown. Your flight approach is between the mountains. The area's trademark is its deep, cold, glacier-fed lakes. Day cruises, jetboating and bungy jumping provide interesting diversions. Millbrook Resort is an exclusive, full service resort located about 30 minutes from Queenstwon. And while it has excellent lodging options, my recommendation would be to stay in Queenstown and rent a car. Like most resort towns throughout the world, prices there are a bit higher, but still a bargain by contemporary standards. My accommodations at the Waterfront Luxury Apartments included a large hot tub on my balcony under the stars and overlooking the lake, the HMS Britannia is a great restaurant and Doug, the personable owner, will make you feel welcome. (If you get there, try the sailboat dessert and tell Doug I said hi). Now, back to golf.
Millbrook is another Bob Charles signature course. The par 72 course (with a NZGA rating of 74) measures 7013 yards. From the regular tees it is much shorter (6255 yards) with a NZ Golf Association rating of 69 for men and 75 for women. It is a true resort course with amenities such as mountain bikes, spa pool, tennis courts, and children's golf programs. Peak season runs from October 1 through May 30 with prices about 30 percent higher than the off season. During peak season, 18 holes with a cart will cost about $65 for casual visitors, $52 for in-house guests, and $45 for players who are affiliated with a New Zealand club. The course is fairly open, yet it sports a good bit of water and sand. But the setting is excellent with mountains in the not too distant background. The par threes average 196 yards from the black tees, but a comfortable 154 yards for the whites. Similarly the par fives are a testing 543 yards on average from the blacks and 505 from the whites. The par fours offer some diversity ranging from 337 to 458 yards. It is the last four holes that really get your attention with water and sand in play. The long par 5 eighteenth gives you a change to hit your last full shot of the day over a small water hazard immediately adjacent to the green. The nice pro shop and a choice of restaurants are a good finish to the day. Or if you are a guest at Millbrook, the spa is a good option. In general, it is a nice experience but considerably more expensive than the nice courses of the North Island. But if you are planning a visit to Queenstown, it should be on your list. The Grand Chateau
Located in Whakapappa Village in Tongariro National Park is the venerable old Chateau Tongariro, built in 1929. It is a 10 minute drive up a winding road that demands slow speeds and rapt attention to get to one of the two ski fields at Mt. Ruapehu. The Chateau is set between an active volcano and a nine-hole course. Mt. Ruapehu's fame is based upon its eruptions in 1995 and 1996. In fact, the hotel lobby has posted emergency evacuation procedures in the "unlikely" event of another eruption. The golf course at an elevation of 9450 feet, is touted as the highest in the country and that is its primary appeal. The setting is beautiful; playing golf with a rugged snow-capped volcano in the background is aesthetically appealing. And at $4, for 9 holes it is certainly affordable. At 3160 yards with two par threes and two par fives, it has some diversity. But as I stood on the first tee, I couldn't determine where the green was - so take your scorecard and pay attention to the printed course layout. And be prepared for conditions which you are unlikely to face elsewhere; the greens are an adventure. My suggestion is to declare two putts upon reaching the green, pick up your ball, and head to the next tee. The final hole, a reachable par 5 at 444 yards, finds you headed straight for the mountain. It is your birdie opportunity and a magnificent view of the Chateau and the volcano. Enjoy it. Then enjoy the lounge and exceptional restaurant at the Chateau, where you can revel in the excitement of hitting the ball further in the rarefied air of New Zealand's highest golf course and knowing you're your photographs will evoke feelings of envy from your friends at home. The Hamilton Area
Hamilton is the fifth largest city in New Zealand; with a population of 106,000, it is the largest non-coastal city in the country. It is the heart of the agricultural industry and the home of the University of Waikato. Located about 75 miles south of Auckland, it is an easy drive from the city or from the airport.
Hamilton is not the home of any significant destination or resort courses, yet it offers an abundance of golf opportunities. With a few mile radius, several clubs are easily accessible. Greens fees typically run about $10 for non-affiliated players and $5 for those who belong to other clubs. And there are additional benefits if you belong to one of the clubs. In addition to the reduced fees, you can play your home club for no charge (your membership fee covers unlimited golf). There are also days when your home club has an event which closes the course to members. On those days, members typically have "reciprocal" rights to play other courses in the area with greens fees waived.
Lochiel Golf Club, my home course, was an interesting layout. Running along the Waikato River, many of the fairways and undulations are the remnants of ancient river beds. The course is reminiscent of a Scottish links course though it is missing the trademark heather and gorse. The 6600 yard, par 72 course opens and closes with par fives. The greens are fairly level, but equally hard. You may find the Scottish pitch-and-run approach is extremely useful. And you will need to work on swings which recognizes the fact that there are few flat lies to be found. There is good variety on the par threes; from the men's tees, they measure 170, 140, 185, and 207 yards. There has been some discussion regarding a future watering system, but for now, the course condition is a function of the weather. Clubhouse, practice and pro shop facilities are fairly basic, but the course is worth playing. Staff and members are friendly and all encourage a sub-four hour round on course which will present significant challenge to players of all ability.
Another local course is Hamilton Country Club - or St. Andrews as it is often referred to. Opened in 1903, the course is one of few which has a comprehensive watering system. It is a relatively flat course measuring 6710 yards for men, 6375 for women, and it has a nice stretch of holes along the Waikato River. The par 72 track includes three par fives (472, 530, and 482 yards) as well as three par threes (181, 180, and 135 yards). There is a variety of housing around the course which is located in a residential area. Still, at a cost of $16, it is a bargain. Greens are in good shape as are most of the fairways. There are a number of bunkers; however, many are in need of work or replenishing. The course ends with a short par three for which the green is currently being rebuilt. Our round was completed in a quick three hours and 35 minutes - without carts as they are not available. I would argue that the course is worth playing if you are in the area. perhaps only because my round of 79 included a memorable three birdies on the back nine. My one major complaint would be the lack of length or the par fours. Only one exceeds 400 yards while three or less than 340 yards. So if your short game is in order, you can score quite well at Hamilton Golf Club.
Twenty-five minutes north of Hamilton is Ngaruawahia Golf Club. The short par 72 course (6540/6200 yards) offers perhaps the finest and fastest greens in the area. Fees of $5 for NZ affiliated and $11 for non-affiliated golfers are typically reasonable. In addition to the excellent greens, the course is nicely conditioned with numerous fairway bunkers and greenside collection areas. Again, a stretch of the course runs along the Waikato River and many of the fairways are lined with narrow swaths of trees. The diversity of the par threes is good with holes measuring 150, 190, 166, and 182 yards. Conversely, the par fives are short at 510, 462, 494, and 514 yards. It is a quality course which represents a great value.
Finally, there is Cambridge Golf Club which is about twenty minutes east of Hamilton. And, of course, it includes a stretch of holes along the river. The course currently plays at about 6200 yards with par of 71. There are some changes underway as four holes are being changed. It includes a 99 yard par 3. The three par fives measure a meager 476, 499, and 472 yards. The par fours are short, averaging a mere 366 yards . The course fits tightly into its confines and has a few spots where the danger of being hit by a wayward shot is higher than anyone would like. Despite these shortcomings, the course provides a good venue for an enjoyable round. For non-residents, the cost is about $16; for NZ affiliates, the round will cost only about $8. Enjoy the par 3 sixth hole; it is a 153 yard par three which features a change in elevation to a green probably 75 feet below the tee. And with the hills and the river in the background, it is a very scenic hole. Then prepare to walk back up to the seventh tee keeping in mind the elevation change. The best scenario is to hit the sixth green, walk to the seventh tee, grab your putter and walk down. It makes the return trip a bit easier. The back nine is being given a significant face-lift which should ultimately result in a longer, more challenging course. It will continue to be a pretty venue which will offer opportunities to post a good score. Things To Know Before You Go
NZ is a bargain because their dollar is currently weak. Much of this weakness can be attributed to their reliance on Asia as a export market. The current "Asian Crisis" has dramatically impacted the Kiwi economy. And there is speculation that the exchange rate with the U.S. dollar may drop as low as .45 in the near future. However, the NZ dollar is closely tied to the Australian dollar. It is anticipated that the Sydney Olympic games in the year 2000 will boost the Aussie economy and dollar thereby dragging the value of the Kiwi dollar up. So there may never be a better time to visit. And if the prospect of some 22 hours on a plane doesn't appeal to you, there are some great stopovers in route. And Hawaii, Tahiti, and Fiji have some interesting golf courses awaiting your arrival.
Before departing for Auckland, you might opt to utilize one of the booking services to pre-arrange your tee times. "Golf Down Under" is one organization which will make your reservation. They also provide escorted service to a number of private golf clubs and resorts, sell apparel, and rent top-line golf equipment. The central booking agency may provide peace of mind and reduce your burden in contacting several courses. "Golf Down Under" is located at 17 Albert Street in downtown Auckland. Alternatively, they may be contacted by phone at 649 307-7081 or via the Internet at http://www.golfdownunder.co.nz. If you decide to call, remember that they are 16-18 hours ahead of Michigan (depending on daylight savings time). New Zealand also has a "visitor information" page on the Internet. Found at http://www/nztb.gout.nz/visitor/golf.shtm. The site provides some basic information and links. There is also an agency in the U.S. which can help plan excursions. New Zealand Golf Excursions may be reached toll free in the USA at 800-622-6606 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Getting there is easy, even if it is long. A number of airlines provide service from Los Angeles to Auckland. United, Air New Zealand, and Qantas provide convenient schedules. But remember, on your return trip you may want to consider an intermediate stop. There are many Pacific Islands which provide a last opportunity to rest, work on your tan, and hone your short game. But be forewarned, when you leave Auckland, you leave the bargains behind. One last word of wisdom. Auckland International Airport has great duty free shopping. Numerous shops sell the obligatory items, but there are stores that sell artwork, quality wood products, and a variety of other nice products. There is even a small Harrods's located there. And unlike other airports, you may shop duty free upon your arrival - not just your departure - in Auckland.
There are a multitude of reasons to head down under. Golf is one. It is a beautiful country inhabited by friendly people. If you're not a golfer, you might opt for water sports, skiing, bungy jumping, hiking (tramping), or just sight-seeing. No matter what you do, it will be a memorable trip. So book your return air, hire a car, put your clubs in the boot, and head down the motorway. And most of all, have a "g'day, mate."
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