Golf International
September 2001
Mike Hosking
Golf International
Kauri Cliffs
Great panoramas and vistas do not a golf course make. But they can be a huge factor, given that everything else is in place, and there is a new course in New Zealand called Kauri Cliffs where the sheer quality of the golf course is matched only by the spectacular scenery in which it lies. This is a golf course that should demand consideration for a place in the top-20 in the world, to be mentioned in the same breath as, say, Muirfield or Pebble Beach or Cypress Point, in terms of quality, in condition and its exceedingly scenic site. There are a couple of things that could do with ironing out, of which more later, but then Dr Alistair MacKenzie didn't get Augusta National exactly right on his first go.

The photographs that accompany this article are stunning, but then many publicity shots of new courses are. Architects are instructed to build at least one extremely photogenic hole and photographers then flock to it. Beautiful pictures appear in beautiful brochures. But to anyone experienced in this black art, there is always the suspicion that just out of shot there is a row of ugly holiday homes, a cement works or a nuclear power plant, and the resultant visit to the course can often be a bitter disappointment.

At Kauri Cliffs, however, all there is just out of shot is yet more stunning scenery. It lies in every direction. Even the most clueless of point-and-press camera operators could not fail to come away with a portfolio of pretty pictures while at the same time even the most gormless of golfers will have had a great golfing experience.

New Zealand is, of course, a long way from Europe, and Kauri Cliffs is a long way from either Auckland or Wellington, but this is a detour, as the Michelin Guide puts it, that is definitely worth making. Anyone sufficiently determined to trek first to the Land of the Long White Cloud, as the Maoris call their home, and the to the north of the North Island, will be rewarded way beyond the effort required.

Perhaps the severest test to which any golf course can be subjected is that if the day after it has been played for the first time the player can remember each and every hole, the direction in which it runs, and then draw a map of the course that fits. Quite a lot of people would back themselves to do that and would then be startled to find that two or three or even more holes have vanished completely from their memory, and their map either puts them back in the clubhouse after 15 holes or they simply cannot get from, say, the 5th green to the 7th tee. It is a measure of how strongly Kauri Cliffs imposes itself that my map, drawn two days after playing, was drawn instantly, without recourse to the card, and it fitted exactly. This is not meant to be a boast about my cartographic expertise: it is simply that the course drills itself into your brain.

It is built on former farmland and has a stream that runs a boulder-strewn path through the property, even producing a waterfall that can be seen from the bridge that carries you over the ravine that separates the 6th tee from its fairway. The land plunges into a couple of gorges but the course is constructed in such a way that the Pacific can be seen from 15 holes and has a dizzying effect on six of them. And when the wind blows, you will remember that this is a cliff-top course, exposed totally, the next stop being South America.

But on a sunny day with a bit of breeze - and it was our good fortune to have two such - this has to be one of the most desirable places on earth. The Pacific crashing against the shore beneath you and around the fantastically-shaped Cavalli Islands in the middle-distance forms every color of blue imaginable, and nowhere in the world will you see more sky.

It is breathtaking: literally so if you are walking the course, for this a long, hilly and serious test. There isn't a single tee, with the possible exception of the 10th, where you stand up, mind in neutral, and whale away. It was the aforementioned Mr MacKenzie who coined the notion of 'heroic carries' and there are plenty of these at Kauri Cliffs. Additionally, there are holes where it is a must to be either on the right or left side of the fairway, and although the landing areas are generous, it is advisable to hit them, for the rough is decidedly penal.

There are some great holes. The 4th, called Cambo after the club's touring pro, Michael Campbell, is a wonderfully testing par-five, and the long/short 7th is the sort of hole you might start to fear long before you get there. The 9th is that necessity on any golf course; a good short par-four; the 11th a lovely risk-and-reward second shot par-four. The run back home, the 14th through to the 17th, with the Pacific raging beneath on your left, is a great example of outstanding land being perfectly used by the designer, David Harman, an American. He says ruefully that although he has been in the business for 30 years as a course architect, the hardest thing he encountered at Kauri Cliffs was to tell the owner how good the land was without it sounding ridiculous; a pure-selling job.

Perfection then? Well no, and by some margin at present. Kauri Cliffs is just too hard. The rough is too punitive, some of the carries are overly heroic, and there is nowhere that does not demand total concentration. In those regards, it is not unlike Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, where the fashion is to joke about how many balls lost in a round. I once played with a man, who eventually became known to our group as "the hopeless joker from Oklahoma", who was positively proud of having fed 27 balls into the wetlands of Kiawah.

An overheard conversation at Kauri Cliffs was reminiscent.

"How many did you lose?"

"Oh, eight or so."

"Yeah, I lost 12."

The principal cause of this mayhem is the scenic 7th, with its almost blinding views across to the Cavallis. It would be tempting to say that the concentration wavers in the face of all this beauty, but it would be a sham. Between the members' tee and the green is 175 yards of ravine plunging down into the Pacific with no hope of ever seeing again a ball that does not make the carry. From the back tees, you'd have to hit it 220 yards to reach the putting surface.

Furthermore, the short holes all offer much the same challenge. The 5th needs a carry over another ravine of 163 yards (200 for the pros), the 12th a carry of 163 yards (210 for the pros), and the 14th needs a tee shot of, respectively, 176 and 230 yards. A bit more variety - courses need good short holes as well - would be welcome.

The rough claims its fair share of balls, too. From the clubhouse veranda, from where every prospect pleases, the golden brown of the long stuff framing the deep green of the cut stuff is aesthetically pleasing. Get in it, though, and it's infuriating. Just as at Carnoustie for the 1999 Open Championship, it is unfair to the point of unplayability - and a course such as this does not need outlandish rough. It will stand or fall on other qualities.

That is the case at Carnoustie and it is the case at Kauri Cliffs, a course that has enough of everything to position itself, in the fullness of time, and after a few modifications, among the world's genuinely great golf courses.

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