The entry drive at Cape Kidnappers is dramatic, right up there with Sand Hills, Morfontaine, Yeamans Hall and Kauri Cliffs. Cape Kidnappers has been one of the most hyped courses built in the last twenty years. It begins with a good first hole, but overall I found the 2nd through 6th, 10th, 11th and 17th a bit underwhelming relative to expectations.
The course has very wide fairways, and Tom Doak, the course designer, always leaves a bailout area and a more forgiving route to the green for less skilled players. This less skilled player, for one, appreciates this design philosophy. The other side of this design philosophy is that if you play aggressively and make a mistake, there is a big penalty. The big penalty at Cape Kidnappers is being in the high rough, which is almost certainly a lost ball.
Despite the initial letdown of the front, I did like the variety of hole types. The course has some short par threes and some short par fours, which are nice because they take away the tedium of hitting hybrid clubs off the fairway all day long.
Cape Kidnappers also puts a premium on putting, 'cause there ain't a flat green out there. I enjoyed the par three sixth hole, which reminded me a bit of the "Calamity" par three at Royal Portrush, but with the big drop-off on the left side of the hole instead of on the right. The hole plays over 200 yards and is a tester. It offers a preview of the immensity of the rocky gorges to come. The drop from the green to the water below is over 500 feet.
Like Cypress Point, Kidnappers features back-to-back par fives. The sixteenth is a par five in the opposite direction from the fifteenth, this time playing downwind. The hole is only 500 yards from the tips. The fairway heaves quite a bit in different directions, and the green is elevated and funky. It is a very different hole than the fifteenth and has a wide fairway.
Cape Kidnappers is in many respects ultimately like Pebble Beach. What makes Pebble Beach so great is a half dozen spectacular holes, which compensate for many holes that are good, but not great. Cape Kidnappers also has a collection of holes that are so superior in their own right that they make up for some average holes and make it a worthy course to be included among the best in the world.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Cape Kidnappers – can only be described as a Tom Doak masterpiece, and the day I chose to play CK, could only be described as almost Melbournian. I left Napier in drizzly rain, 20 k’s up the road, brilliant sunshine. It was nearly an hour’s drive and on arrival – back to bleak and daunting.
There are only about 5000 rounds played here per year, but they really do it right at CK. On arrival, valet equivalent enquires if gear is in the boot, rounds the lot up, sets it on a cart and readies it for play. My car then whisked away and parked, ‘somewhere’, and I was shown to the office of head pro, Jon McCord. Jon, a most genial ‘giant’ (about 6’ 15”) American who provided a warm welcome and gave me a ‘heads-up’ on the course, facilities and everything else a visitor might need to know. Then directed to the practice facility (world class everything) and advised I would be called to the tee shortly.
Rated by Top 100 Golf Courses of the World at a creditable, 40th, worldwide. I was subsequently slotted into a convivial group of punters of similar vintage to myself and hit off on a blustery, almost sunny, opening hole. This course plays to a par of 71, stretching to just over 6,500 metres from the tips. There are five sets of tees available and in our case the decision to go forward to the white blocks was unanimous.
Light rain and more wind by the end of three, fleeting sunshine again by five and piddling down again by mid seven – complete with chunks of ice (sleet) in the gale force wind. As cold as I have ever been on a golf course.
The par 4, 5th sports two fairway bunkers and offers an interesting ‘high or low road’ option from the tee. The left or ‘low’ being the preferred option for we mere mortals. Six is an outstanding par 3, of 190 odd metres. Across a huge gulley, to an elevated green and just making the short stuff may be the least of your concerns as the contours on this green will test the best.
Seven, at index two on the card is a corker. A pushed drive left me with little option than to pop a wedge over the crest on the fairway, leaving me a most exhilarating downhill approach to a long, narrow, devilishly tricky green. A great hole.
After putting out on eight, the wind and sleet really turned it on. I drove into the maelstrom to the 9th tee, turned the cart downwind, toward the green and a sudden gust plucked the windscreen from its mounting and deposited via an aerial route, some fifty odd metres downwind, towards the ladies’ tee.
My two sparing partners were part of a group of 14 and not overly concerned at dropping half of their ‘quite significant’ green fees and adjourned to be ‘backside up’ to a massive log fire at the bar, with a very ‘loaded’ hot toddy. Well, “Old Ma Croker never bred a squib” and after a liberal dose of Dr. Walker’s Scottish hypothermia preventative medicine and several minutes of dangling my hands under the hot tap in the toot, my replacement cart was readied for me and on the blocks for the back nine. Managed 15 stab. points on the front which seemed to be playing predominantly with the prevailing wind (gale) and into the back nine, which wasn’t.
The 11th is yet another formidable par 3 which plays considerably longer than the yardage indicated. The aptly named 12th, ‘Infinity’ requires a deft second as it culminates on a narrow green, seemingly, on the edge of the earth. 13 is the shortest hole on the course is to my mind, one of the best on the CK layout. Measuring just 120 odd metres, and can play anything from a lob wedge to a flat out mid iron depending on the conditions.
The 16th tee provides a scenic extravaganza prior to the run home. The quirky punchbowl green on eighteen a treat and a grand conclusion to the round. To my mind, the inward nine is probably a more stringent test of golf than the front, and certainly the more scenic. I completed the back nine in 16 stab points, 31 for the round. From the white blocks, on this course, under these conditions – stupendous.
An interesting aspect of this great Doak design is the contouring both on and around the greens. He calls for thought provoking and accurate play both to and on the greens, well prior to selecting the ‘flat stick’. I found the putting surfaces to be true, fast and consistent. The design, variety and contouring, first class, offering all manner of undulation, break and borrow. Pin placement options are unlimited as greens are of massive proportions. On average, they cover an area of 6,200 square feet or 576 square metres. Doak at his best.
My preconceived expectations based on the aerial photography were in reality not quite so significant on the ground. On playing the course, I must conclude that I found the fairways quite generous, the playing surface excellent and lies/contouring not overly severe. “Extreme golfing terrain” has been used by some reviewers (they may not have played Kinloch).
Here again, the infamous fescue grasses align the fairways, ready and willing to pilfer any errant pill. Like KC, the Irish Drop Rule is in existence at CK. "Any ball lost in the long rough may be treated as lost in a water hazard. One shot penalty at point of entry.” Practical, as it obviated my going back to replay a shot on several occasions. Only five – expletive – lost balls here.
Cape Kidnappers, a simply great golfing experience. Oh how I would like a return bout in a little less trying conditions. Golfing options abound in the Hawkes Bay area and for accommodation; I recommend visitors need look no further than the Best Western Ballina Motel in Napier. This clean, comfortable, self catering facility is centrally located and walking distance to great restaurants, clubs and bars. Mine host, the convivial Tim Stephens is ready and able to answer any golf related queries. Contact: [email protected]
We splashed out on some caddies for this round, a couple of Americans continuing their golf course management education who were nice guys ( albeit mine had only been around for a week and wasn’t the most experienced around the course). It was a great experience having the freedom to stroll down the fairways free of the sticks none the less and I would highly recommend it even if only as a one off.
So the course overall is excellent but as previous reviews have stated, the sensational views are there but slightly more fleeting than up at Kauri Cliffs. Highlights on the front 9 that plays a fair degree inland for most for me would be 1, 5, 6 and 7. The 6th is monster 230 yarder over a gorge that is certainly a bit reminiscent of kauri cliffs. You soon see the very different design that Doak has employed here compared to its sister course up north. Less manicured, slightly more intimidating and natural looking, almost more old fashioned I suppose.
His minimalist design is certainly encapsulated on a few holes in the back 9, notably the aptly named ‘infinity’ 12th and ‘pirates plank’ 15th. The 12th on that day was almost dream like, walking along the grass towards this green that just seemed to be floating on the edge of a ridiculous turquoise watery backdrop, a moment never to be forgotten.. The 15th is a bit controversial, bunkerless, dead straight par 5 though it just messed with my head with 500 feet to the left and maybe 200 feet past the bushes to the right, I was just intimidated on the tee and promptly hit an abysmal tee shot before actually rescuing a bogey at the end. Whether its just a link hole to the famous 16th tee or is it a masterstroke in golf psychology I’m not quite sure. Other memorable ones on the back 9, I would rate the 13th and 14th as excellent with the ‘road hole’ imitation green on the latter bringing a smile to the face.. The bucket green on 18th is also a quirky feature that I liked.
So overall it’s not quite what you expect from the pictures, and a very different experience to both Kauri and Kinloch. It’s often voted as no 1 in NZ though I’m not sure I would rate it as that myself. Perhaps It needs a couple of rounds to more fully appreciate the subtlety that I may have missed. I d be more than happy to return and learn some more.
If, however, you come to realise that this course is actually rather a juxtaposition – a sublime portrait of subtlety and strategy painted onto a vertiginous and rather bonkers backdrop – you will undoubtedly leave with a smile on your face. It’s all about decisions, decisions, decisions, and the features forcing those choices are so understated, not immediately apparent to the eye, yet very real and very smart.
Take for example the par-4 7th. Not the most photographed or celebrated, semi-blind from the tee, so that the right side of the generous fairway is unsighted. But you if you find that hidden flank, you have the much easier shot to the green predominantly because of the tilt of the green directly towards you. Strike it clean, and you can get it to stop where you want it to. If you come in from the safer left side, the ball will be striking a side camber, and potentially even slide off the green altogether. The hole’s strategy is simply based on green tilt, and only works because the greens play firm and fast (which they did, even after the wettest summer in years). If you’re not paying attention, not thinking your way round - if you get mentally lazy - you will not see what you need to see in order to play the hole, and you will struggle all day long.
The entire front nine is like this. Only the short 8th has only one route to the green, everything else asks you questions. The run of holes from 4 to 7 are so intelligent, particular the par-5 4th, whose gargantuan fairway and huge bail-out area will leave you itching to attack the green in two, but any slight miscue and you’ll be gobbled whole by the cavernous greenside bunkers, with a extra green tier to climb if you can escape.
But it’s the 14th that takes the cake. Clearly based on the Road Hole (but much shorter), the target, wrapped around a carbon copy of the Road bunker, is so dicey that you either need to drive it incredibly close (and hug the dangerous right edge), or hold right back so that you have a full wedge in – you’ll need all the spin you can get. Again, lackadaisical course management (i.e. blindly pulling the big stick out and aiming for the fat of the fairway) will leave you with a pitch shot with such a high tariff that you’ll wish you’d left your machismo at home.
The other reason that you may need to protect yourself from high expectation about the showy cliffside holes is because some of them may be the weakest of this great collection, none more so than the famed ‘Pirate’s Plank’ at 15. I’ve heard that Tom Doak was not originally going to make this hole, but that Julian Robertson persuaded him otherwise. Even if that’s just idle gossip, I could see some reasons why both points of view hold water. Any walk around this property would feel rather incomplete if you did not stand on the 16th tee and soak up the scenery, but to get there, you need to build the 15th. Just an arrow-straight, bunkerless march down a finger of land, it would be the same hole if it was a strip of land between two lakes. All Doak appears to have done is mow it, which for me takes minimalism too far, and made me wonder where he was coming from.
Just a quick comment about the controversial punchbowl green at the finishing hole. I find myself giving it a guarded thumbs up, mainly because there is a slight surplus of holes at Kidnappers with a perched green site that falls off to one side (3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14 and to a lesser extent, 16 and 17). To finish with yet another one may have felt too formulaic – certainly, the fact that it bucked the trend made me appreciate the quirk. I’d found the favoured right hand edge of the fairway with my tee shot. A decision to take dead aim was obvious, but I pull-hooked my 6-iron 20m left, only to see the ball trickle down the slope and end up 6ft away. Now I’m not complaining, but it wasn’t satisfying. However, the alternative is uniformity and too much rationality, so I’ll take it.
I should also add that I don’t think you have to be a scratch player to knock it round here in a decent score. Surely there’s enough room here for any 18-handicapper to knock it round in level bogeys if they are using their brain, and putting well. In that sense, Doak has well and truly ticked the box that says that golf courses should be able to accommodate a range of abilities.
My subjective take is that this is probably the best course in New Zealand, although I find it hard to compare the cerebral minimalism on show here with the wild ride on offer at Kinloch. Dammit, I’ll just have to play them both again some day. Matt Richardson