The Cut (NZ)
Field of dreams
Mike Hosking
The Cut (NZ)
Kauri Cliffs
In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner plays a man who loves baseball. Costner's character worships an historic team which was sensationally banned from playing in the league.

Costner's a bit of a dreamer and not much of a farmer. In fact, his farm is in financial trouble. Despite what the banks and his family tell him, he risks all and ploughs up valuable fertile land to build a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere.

He takes this extraordinary step because of his dreaming. Every time he sits alone in his fields of corn he has visions. Members of his favourite team begin emerging from the golden rows and play, just for him. The visions are accompanied by a voice which tells him "if you build it, they will come".

To cut a long story short, he builds his baseball pitch and the movie ends with a shot of thousands of cars streaming through back country roads to come to his ball game in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't help wondering if something similar went through the mind of the American owner of Kauri Cliffs golf course as I headed through back country roads beyond Kerikeri to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, having been promised a golfing experience better than anything else available in this country.

Kauri Cliffs had been open just eight weeks the weekend I fronted up. It seeks to be known not only as New Zealand's finest golf course, but to position itself as one of the major world courses, a "must-play" course.

The developers believe some American golfing fanatics will come here simply to play Kauri Cliffs and will leave again without doing or seeing anything else in New Zealand. There have been rumours that each hole has cost the owner a million bucks in development funds (his spokespeople say the true figure is less than that), This is a place which has a big reputation to live up to.

The location is intriguing. Northland's not one of our big tourist destinations, especially for international travellers who generally land in Auckland and head south in search of mud pools and mountains.

Don't get me wrong, Northland's a beautiful part of the world. It will be interesting,

however, to see whether an international-standard golf course will be able to attract a crowd to a destination in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, Kauri Cliffs is somewhere. Officially it's at Matauri Bay.

My visit began with a flight to Kerikeri on what passes in this country for modern air travel, the trusty Bandeirante.

From Kerikeri airport, it's a 20- to 30-minute drive on pleasant country roads through rolling farmland. In fact, the golf course was a farm, it's still surrounded by farm. It's just that they've replanted it with velvet fairways and greens. My first impressions were a bit of a surprise. You can't actually see any sign of a course, pro shop or a clubhouse. You park beside a big green implement shed, walk inside and marvel at the array of shiny new mowers, tractors, carts and tools, everything required to maintain a top-class playing surface. But that's it.

Right now there's nothing else in the way of support facilities. You change your shoes in the carpark, walk through the shed and pop out the other side with a cart to begin your journey to the first tee.

At this point you will have parted with either $150/$170 or $200/220 to play your round.

The carts are $20 and the two fee structures depend on whether you're a member of an affiliated club. As far as I'm aware, it's this country's most expensive round of golf .

Come December they'll open an accommodation lodge so you'll be able to stay a day or two and play till your heart's content. Naturally this will be a top-class accommodation of the Huka Lodge variety. A maximum of 30 guests with pricing to match the golf fees.

Huka Lodge sets you back around $1600 per couple per night, including breakfast and dinner, and although the final pricing at Kauri Cliffs hasn't been set, expect it to be in that league. You'll have figured out that the sort of people who'll be staying there won't baulk at paying a couple of hundred dollars for a round of golf. Given they're also likely to be American, the value of our dollar means it's practically half price for them anyway.

For the rest of us, we'll end up staying in Kerikeri or Paihia or maybe at Kingfish Lodge at Whangaroa Harbour.

The fees are certainly an eye-opener, but I guess what you really want to know from me is whether it's worth it? Having played there, I can tell you I'll do it again without blinking. The green fee buys five hours (yes, it's a long course) of some of the most stunning scenery you will see anywhere in the world and 18 holes of some of the most memorable golf you will ever play.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon which was calm, with high overcast. There was time for nine holes and the club pro, Dayne Bulloch, suggested the back nine.

First, though, we had to warm up. The driving range is magnificent. Your practice balls await stacked in a pyramid and you hit off from the top of a hill toward three greens at varying distances below. In the distance you look back in the direction of Paihia and the famous Hole In The Rock. Sparkling sea meets sweeping farmland. It's the stuff of inspiration and you haven't even teed off yet.

There are four tee choices. From the blue or Tiger tees, the course length is 6335 metres, through white at 5829 to red at 5320 and yellow at 4520.

We played off the red on Dayne's advice. He reckons they're the best place to view the course from on a first visit.

I soon discovered the course is so cleverly designed that the shape, style, size and challenge of each hole varies greatly depending on tee selection. Unless you play off a five or less, I doubt you'll enjoy going off the Tiger tees.

There are holes, especially the 18th, where you have to be able to carry your drive 200 metres on the fly over a gully just to make the bottom of the uphill fairway. It's the sort of experience that could ruin your day.

Recently I've been hitting a fairly consistent 80 and would have been happy off the whites or reds. If you play off the reds then distance is not really an issue. Par fours are a drive and a wedge to the green, a couple of the par fives for course management reasons are a drive, a short iron and a wedge and none of the par threes is more than a short to middle iron.

The key is accuracy. Some of the fairways are frighteningly narrow with a cliff on one side and rough, bush or farmland on the other. And I should warn you about the rough. Even if it's just off the fairway, it's a killer. It swallows balls. Even when you can play out of it, you'll be lucky to do anything more than hack and hope for the best.

Having played the back nine, we drove around the front nine so I could familiarise myself with the holes we hadn't played. It was enough to build some real anticipation before we headed off to Kingfish Lodge for the night.

The lodge is in the picturesque Whangaroa Harbour and owned by one of this country's great characters, former lawyer Eb Leary. If you're looking for a hideaway spot and want to hear Eb play the banjo after dinner, then you can't go wrong. It's about a half-hour drive from the golf course to Whangaroa Harbour and then a short boat trip.

I should mention that the weekend weather forecast was for steady rain, so I shouldn't have been surprised to see Sunday dawn perfectly clear and sunny. Kauri Cliffs on an average day looks beautiful. On a warm sunny Sunday in April it was breathtaking.

The first hole is a 328-metre downhill par four with the same view as the driving range. I'm not going to bore you rigid with the intimate details of my round, but allow me the indulgence of telling you I opened with a birdie.

Which are the best holes? I like the clifftop holes with sweeping sea views - and there are many. The 16th is a real talking point. It's not long at 282 metres, but the left-hand downhill dog-leg along the cliff edge to a cliff-top green is unnerving. I hit a 4-iron to leave myself 80-90 metres to the pin. Basically, you have to tee off into the blue sky while trying to contain all the trepidation a shot towards a cliff edge and several hundred feet of nothing tends to bring on.

There are two par threes of a similar nature, the 5th and the 7th, at 130 and 135 metres respectively. Just a tee, the abyss and the green. I got bogeys on both, not because I can't hit a 7-iron, but because it's all or nothing ...a birdie putt or a ball in the sea.

Two par fives worth mentioning are the 4th and the 15th. I'm told Michael Campbell thinks the 4th is the best par five he's seen. In fact, they've named it "Cambo's."

I wasn't quite as excited, but it is an excellent example of a "risk and reward" hole. The good golfer can go for the green in two, but you have to be prepared to hit your second at least 200 metres at a green on the edge of yet another cliff, with an out of bounds on the right, nothing behind it, and with a reasonable fade.

Dayne's shot went right and into the rough. He hacked it out and into the bunker, then on to the green and two-putted for six. I mention this to demonstrate just how difficult it is. I hit a 3-wood, followed by a 9-iron for placement and a wedge to the green. I missed a 15-footer for birdie.

The 15th is a favourite. The fairway runs along the cliff edge on the left all of its 446 metres. At its narrowest point, the fairway wouldn't be much wider than 30 metres. Again you'd have to be brilliant to go for the green in two because it dog-legs left and you'd have to carry across a lot of water to do it.

But a drive, a 5-iron for placement and a downhill wedge to a green as spectacular as the 16th is within reach of a regular golfer.

For distance, 17 and 18 stretch you at 371 and 430 metres. Both were into a breeze and the 18th is across a big gully on to an uphill fairway.

Dayne told me that off the Tiger tees, if he can play a driver, a 3-wood and anything under an 8-iron to the green, he's done well. Coming to the end of the round when you're tired, it's a test of mental strength.

Overall, Kauri Cliffs' fairways are the most beautiful I've seen. Lush, emerald green and cut so they stripe. They're a picture.

The greens had been cored two weeks before our round and although they'd come back well, they were still showing the effects. I'd like to go back when they're in top order.

As it turned out, I had the best round of my life. A 76, four over the card. I was one over on the front nine and three over on the back nine.



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