Touring golfers visiting New Zealand will certainly want to play both Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs, so comparisons will always be drawn. Kauri Cliffs is a little closer to the ocean and has been laid out to make the most of the sea views. The 6th, 7th and then the run from the 14th to the 17th are all as close to the water as the topography allows.
Common to its sister course Cape Kidnappers 500 miles to the south, Kauri Cliffs is a cliff top golf course situated in an enormous tract of land. As course designer David Harman pointed out “at Kauri Cliffs, there are 4,500 acres; I see a couple of hundred golf holes. How do you tie them together? That’s the challenge.” Even though the golf course fills a small part of Julian Robertson’s land, the routing is elongated to make the most of the stunning sea views. The straight-line distance from the two extremities of the course (the 7th tee to the 14th tee) must surely be the longest of all non-links courses anywhere in the world.
Nothing whitens the knuckles quite like the experience of being asked to play across gorges and onto fairways bordered by the healthiest looking long grass in the world. Most balls that find this deepest cut of rough are gone forever. Playing Kauri Cliffs is quite a formidable test from the tees and I’m sure I’m not alone in fearing that a mounting tally of lost balls was beginning to detract from the views. An important decision for the golfer at the outset of his or her day is to select an appropriate set of tees from which to play.
The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs and the golf course are well admired by all who visit this striking part of the North Island. Travelling American golfers, who form an important part of the visitor base, compare Kauri Cliffs favourably with Cypress Point and Pebble Beach.
The above passage is a brief edited extract from The Finest Golf Courses of Asia and Australasia by James Spence. Reproduced with kind permission.
Above the tenth fairway the plush guest/accommodation villas are inconspicuously ensconced in the undulating ground, adjacent to the clubhouse. From there, the outstanding ‘Bay Of Islands’ panorama is rated by golf aficionada as some of the most spectacular in the world. I must concur – “wow” factor here is 10’s.
After a most cordial welcome and comprehensive ‘heads up’ on the course and environs, a quick warm-up on the simply fantastic practice facility, and to the fray. I jumped at the opportunity of an early tee time as the forecast ‘showers’ had not arrived. Yet. From the outset, the wind was howling and becoming progressively stronger. I decided that the back blocks were definitely not an option and went forward to the white tees.
The front nine wends its way, in an anti-clockwise direction to the south of the clubhouse and the back nine, the reverse, clockwise, generally northish. Kauri plays to a par of 72, at just over 6500 metres from the tips.
Notwithstanding having played Royal Troon and St Andrews in a gale, I’ve not played in such testing conditions. Back to the present. We battled through the first few holes and only lost a couple of balls. The 4th, a great par five, [should be a seven] at 510 metres, played straight into the gale. Walked off with a ‘birdie’ six – ecstatic. It was unfortunate that we encountered Kauri at its most testing as the course and accompanying scenic extravaganza would be superb on a more benign day.
Indicative of the conditions; Heading into the wind toward the 9th tee – completed a ‘u’ turn to go down to the white tee and ‘whoosh’, the windshield was blown completely off the cart and landed some 50 odd metres down the cart-path – never known it to happen before.
By the time we had negotiated the front nine, just to add a little spice to our experience, light rain had arrived and the wind’s chill factor doubled. Starting to become a serious factor in the enjoyment of the Kauri experience, but for yours truly, quitting was never an option.
The fairways provide a perfect lie in every instance but the fescue grasses aligning them snavel any wayward shot. Tip – ‘have an adequate supply of pills on hand.’ A practical local rule/innovation I’d not encountered before, their Irish Drop Rule: "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 no less than nine occasions. Yes, nine – expletive – lost pills.
As the round progressed, I noted just how beautifully the holes set up. Fortune favours the brave, the gallant/skilful are rewarded but an errant shot severely punished, nowhere better illustrated than on the doglegs left, 16th and 17th.
From the tips, in the conditions encountered, Kauri is a lengthy proposition, to say the least. Long off the tee and finesse around the greens are essential to score well here. This said, the variety of teeing grounds available ensure that players of all standards are catered to and may complete an enjoyable round at Kauri. Five sets of tees are available ranging in from the Tigers at 6539 metres.
Each hole at Kauri, presents and plays differently. The design variety of this course is just great. Holes differ in length and configuration and are not repetitive in any way. Notwithstanding the recent lengthy period of wet weather the fairways were in impeccable condition and in virtually every instance a good lie was to be had. The general topography of the fairways is undulating and an interesting variety of up-hill, downhill and side hill stances were encountered.
Although generally huge, the greens are an interesting diversity of shape and size, lying variously square on and diagonal to the line of play and with an average area of 576 square metres (6,200 sq. ft.). An interesting variety of contours were to be found on Kauri’s excellent putting surfaces. Most are well guarded with strategically positioned and beautifully presented bunkering.
Kauri is seaside, however, most definitely not links. Sheer cliffs dropping some several hundred feet to the Pacific Ocean – wow! Mission accomplished by designer David Harman in maximising the scenic extravaganza on offer whilst managing to retain an excellent degree of user friendliness.
Surprisingly, there are only 4,000 odd rounds played at Kauri per year, comprising primarily international visitors, predominantly from the USA. Kauri’s strength is its warm hospitality and the scenic extravaganza. Alas, walking is not a practical option for all as the course is quite undulating and there are several considerable distances between greens and tees. The least consequence of which is the ever-present dilemma encountered in our sport – the duration of the round. Nett result – had a million. However, all in all, Kauri is certainly an experience not to be missed. Tip: “ I reiterate; have an adequate supply of pills on hand.’
Obviously it’s a bit remote ( as often the best courses can be) at roughly 3.5 hours from Auckland but the combination of scenery, conditioning, golf holes and service is utterly world class. The price is high of course, but lets face it, this could be once in a lifetime stuff. So the drive down involves stopping at the locked gate, speaking into the intercom before they open it up and let you drive a few kms to the beautiful clubhouse, already makes it feel pretty prestigious and special. We arrived first thing in the morning and had the place almost entirely to ourselves ( told there were only about 10 people out for the whole day). The view from the practice ground makes it difficult to focus on swing thoughts as we hit from the triangular piles of balls lined up, must be the most scenic range on earth.. Anyway, the course..
We played off the tips and it was certainly a challenge with a 2 club wind or so. You can see from the off it’s manicured to perfection and the greens were 12 on the stimp that day. In terms of memorable holes, there are many! The par 5 4th is a sensation risk reward hole with the green emerging from a characteristic gorge and well framed bunkers either side. From there the run of holes 5 to 7 are epic.. 2 par 3s played over 400 foot gorges with the 5th demanding a precise fade and the 7th providing what I thought was the most stupendous view ( until I reached the back nine).
The start to the back 9 offers a different style with holes 10-13 playing without the stupendous sea views but are all excellent holes with very different characteristics. A short beautiful downhill par 4 followed by and excellent flat hole with an island green surrounded by reeds ( possibly the hidden gem on a course that offers many more visually stunning holes). The blind par 4 13th has an excellent approach to a well guarded green and leads on to the final stretch that is without doubt the most visually spectacular collection of any I have played. 400 foot cliffs onto pristine blue water and countless islands off to the distance. 14 to 17 all play in a similar direction along the cliff tops but each has a unique quality and its hard to pick out a favourite. Many seem to rate 17 as the standout though I really enjoyed the almost driveable par 4 prior.
So what are the flaws? I think as Matt Richardson states, the par 3s 5 and 7 are similar(ish) though both may go into my favourite par 3s of all time. The 9th and 18th could also be looked at that way and the opening 3 holes just don’t make your jaw drop as much as the rest. Comparing it to the others on our tour, and as a golf course in its own right we rated Barnbougle and Kinloch as superior and more cerebral layouts. As an overall experience however, taking all aspects into account Kauri maybe just came out on top..
After three gentler openers (though not exactly easy), the course starts to show its full magnificence with the par-5 4th, a dog-leg right with a huge drop off down the right hand side, the final approach played to the backdrop of an amazing coastline to the south. Then the real intimidation begins. Standing on the 5th tee, with a 2-iron in my hand, I looked up to see what seemed like a postage-stamp patch of emerald green nestled on a steep hillside, with a huge chasm catching anything short or right, and tightly bunkered. My swing thought (unusually for me) was “can I manage to swing this club before the paralysis sets in?” Actually the green’s a little bigger than it looks, but still a tough target. Then you’ve got the 7th – 220 yards of almost total carry, with similar contours to the 5th, but this time it’s a steep drop down to the ocean, hundreds of feet below.
After the turn, a bit of variety unfolds with three holes along the base of a valley (a short par 4, a long par 4 and a long par 3), all with encroaching reeds and wetlands on the left, with all three greens being peninsulas jutting out into the oblivion. The next four turn back for the clubhouse, skirting the clifftop, with the views becoming truly awe-inspiring. The stand out of the three is the 472yd 17th, an elevated tee shot needing to find a fairway angled sharply to the left, atop a hogs-back. I suppose it would be possible to pick holes in the design – 10 to 12 feel like different versions on the same theme, as do 15-17, not mention the strong resemblances between 5 and 7, and also 9 and 18. But if they’re all different versions of such jaw-dropping holes, I don’t really see the problem.
I played off the tips, this being my first attempt at playing a course over 7,000 yards, even though I am a reasonably long 8 handicapper. What the experience brought home to me (apart from admiration for the ability of tour pros to get such consistent length and accuracy with the big stick) was that Kauri Cliffs is a course that strongly rewards good driving, and even more harshly punishes waywardness. I found myself 23 over after 13 after having a minor nightmare off the tees, but then nailed every drive on the way home, completing the final stretch in 2 under. For those like myself who think that golf should be mostly about clean, long and straight ball-striking, and less about a putting competition, this design plays right alongside those ideals. It’s there for the taking, but my God you have to play well to take it. I’ve now played 57 of the courses featured on this website, and this course beats the rest hands-down, it’s not even a fair fight. Matt Richardson