By Jeff Thoreson
If you’ve spent this “pause” contemplating the next bucket-list golf trip you need to check off, put New Zealand near the top. It’s handling of the pandemic was an exemplary model for the world; it’s early lockdown notable for both its stringency and brevity.
While the rest of the world still struggles to get COVID-19 under control, New Zealand has essentially rid itself of the virus, and nowhere in the world is life more normal than in New Zealand.
As many as four million travelers used to visit New Zealand annually, but how quickly the country will be willing to accommodate that many international visitors again remain unclear. New Zealand is safe for its citizens and the government plans to keep it that way, keeping its borders closed to most travelers.
But the travel industry accounted for $16.2 billion New Zealand ($1.18 billion U.S.) so certainly the country will open up again. Be ready. Put Cape Kidnappers at the top of your itinerary then work around the country.
In Part One of The Traveling Golfer’s look at the two-island nation down-under, we focus specifically on CK. In next month’s part we’ll take a look at the rest of the country and why the greatness of its golf almost demands you spend a couple of weeks there once in your life.
I have been to the end of the Earth and damn if there isn’t a golf course there. When you arrive at the 15th green at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, you’ve reached the edge. You can go no farther. At the back of the green, the Earth drops straight down hundreds of feet to the Pacific Ocean and there is nothing else to see.
Until the moment I arrived at this spot, I had acknowledged the seaside holes at Pebble Beach to be the pinnacle of ocean-side golf. But now, standing on this here staring out over the vastness of the ocean, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to rethink my understanding of the golf world; perhaps the entire world.
This spot at Cape Kidnappers, where land, sea and golf meet in such impossible perfection, you take in the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see view and contemplate the enormity of the world and golf’s small place in it. Here, on this spot, you just have to wonder how it all got this way.
But then there’s the closing stretch at Cape Kidnappers to deal with. The drama of the course, for the most part, is behind you, burned permanently into the part of your brain that holds your greatest golfing experiences. The closing holes are good ones, to be sure, but the whole course can’t play at the edge of the world, so, luckily, the 16th hole turns back toward safer ground.
If you’ve spent this “pause” contemplating your next bucket-list golf trip, put New Zealand near the top and make Cape Kidnappers your No. 1 selection of the more than 400 courses New Zealand offers. The golf is spectacular, the views – first coming at the par-3 sixth – even more so.
Miss the par-3 sixth at Cape Kidnappers slightly left and you’ll be wishing golf hadn’t been so hasty in moving away from metal spikes. My ball has come to rest a few feet to the left of the green, which in this instance means it’s just a few feet to the right of a cliff that plummets down to the Pacific. A little more traction would be a good thing.
The wind is blowing so hard out to the ocean that I’m actually considering taking an unplayable lie, even though the ball is sitting perfectly fine just a few feet off the fringe. But the angle of the terrain and the unencumbered wind don’t look like a good combination. I creep to the edge and see a large grassy ledge 10 feet down; sort of a buffer between golf and death. Relieved that even if I slip, I’ll survive, I play the shot and actually save par. This is just the first encounter with cliff side golf at Cape Kidnappers where you might think of the game in Barnum and Bailey terms: death defying.
Fairways nudge to the edge of crevasses so steep that if you survived the fall, which you wouldn’t, you couldn’t possibly climb back up. Greens are pushed to the very edge of available real estate, and the whole setting is so far from any mainstream golf setting that it has to be – almost by definition – one of the world’s great courses.
And it is so considered. Golf Digest ranks it No. 22 in the world, although on that list it has been surpassed by No. 2 Tari Iti, which opened in 2015. GOLF has Tari Iti at No. 27 and Cape Kidnappers at No. 44.
But who cares about the opinions of others who may or may not be able to judge golf courses any better than you? Cape Kidnappers may be the only course in the world where you can lose a ball in a cow pie on an adjacent farm and the Pacific Ocean.
Keep from doing either of those things and you’ll enjoy both the course and the resort immensely.
The layout dodges out to the ocean several times and when you’re not playing near it (actually above it since the bluffs the course sits on are hundreds of feet above sea level), you often have a panoramic view of it.
Playing corridors are generally wide, but architect Tom Doak brought back the penalty factor for his bunkers, making advancing the ball to the green from fairway bunkers difficult and saving par from greenside bunkers challenging.
Kidnappers, unlike other courses of its era, was not an ego course for the designer. It plays along the lay of the land, as if this seaside property had been waiting millions of years for someone to build a golf course on it.
The resort is understated luxury. It takes 20 minutes from the front gate to get to the complex, which is nothing opulent. If the inside of the building weren’t as elegant as they are, one might mistake them for farm buildings no different than those that dot the surrounding area.
But, of course, the golf course stands out, not just as different from anything in the local area but from anything in the world.
If you are looking for an inbound golf tour operator that would be able to assist with any packaging requirements here are a couple for your consideration. Both based in New Zealand and both members of IAGTO (International Association of Golf Tour Operators).
Both Tour Operator Profiles can be found in or new Tour Operator Profile Section as you scroll down the Traveling Golfer Home Page.
For more information on golf in New Zealand visit: www.newzealand.com/int/golf