Northland’s iconic Bay of Islands is an area known for its spectacular beauty, big game fishing, dolphin watching, undeveloped beaches, native forests, history and Maori cultural artefacts. Relatively remote in the rural ‘winterless north’, an area of many more sheep and cattle than people, this splendour is also home to one of New Zealand’s most sensational golf courses, Kauri Cliffs. (The name ‘Kauri’ is after NZ’s symbolic and largest native tree from the region, and where the Kauri forests are among the most ancient forests in the world.) – Kristine Kerr
Laid out like emerald ribbons amongst farmland and native bush, on cliff tops above the cobalt blue Pacific Ocean at Matauri Bay (270km north of Auckland) the beautifully manicured 18 holes is an exhilarating and fun golfing experience as well as a visual indulgence.
Low-key timber signage and the gravel country road leading you to the course belie the understated elegance and luxury beyond the gates. Kauri Cliffs Golf Course and Lodge is one of New Zealand’s first true golf resort facilities and, from its opening in 2000, has set an enviably high bar that few have come close to emulating. It is the constant recipient of accolades, and is perennially featured in the list of top 5 courses in New Zealand and top 50 courses internationally.
The 6528m course sweeps around dramatic terrain, following the natural contours and blending into the distinctly New Zealand surrounds. Deep and wide natural gullies vegetated with unique native plants cut through the landscape and are integrated into the strategy of golf holes. The site is part of a 2500-hectare farm purchased by visionary owner Julian Robertson, and much of the original farm is still in operation as commercial farmland. Additionally, some 600Ha can still be considered natural land. This sheer size of the site allowed the course architect, David Harman, and client team to work with Mother Nature to select the best land for the routing of the golf holes. The resultant configuration is diversity in hole design, direction of play, elevation changes – both uphill and downhill holes – and cross-slopes. Stunning vistas are a feature of every hole, with the eye-catching ocean factoring in 15 of the 18 holes.
Amplifying the sense of place are landscape and environmental enhancements that the course has undertaken. Kauri Cliffs and its Course Manager, Andy Wood, have been recognised for their longstanding commitment to environmental stewardship and strong turf management practices reducing the environmental footprint, receiving the 2015 NZGCSA Environmental Award and 2016 AGCSA Claude Crockford award. As well as protecting and enhancing the property’s native flora and fauna and environmentally sensitive areas, native re-vegetation of 10 hectares has been undertaken, including the planting of more than 100,000 native trees and regeneration of substantial bush corridors for native birds.
Befitting a resort course, it is American-style ‘target golf’, where all the challenges for each shot are laid out in front of the golfer. There are no blind holes. The striped ryegrass fairways are wide and undulating. Generous greens have character and nuances that allow for 20 pin positions on each, naturally with various pin placements guiding and rewarding appropriate approach shots. Strategically placed bunkers are beautifully maintained, with grass surrounds kept tight for playability. That said, the design provides for plenty of options for challenges and risk-and-reward golf. Undulations tying in to the surroundings, a prevailing south-westerly wind often coming into play and the gullies and carries off the tee mean that it is far from a walk-over and a sense of fulfillment can be gained by daring play.
KC is renowned as one of the best maintained courses in NZ. With playability being all-important, in recent years an extra width of fescue rough has been cut to minimise lost balls, as in winter it can be quite dense and penal. In summer, when the fescues are wispier however, it is kinder and the golden colour blowing in the winds is striking. In season, and when there are lodge guests playing, the course is set up each day to be fair and friendly for the day’s conditions. Tee markers on each tee are moved to cater for winds and carries.
If you may have slept in after the extra, particularly fine pinot noir you enjoyed over dinner at the lodge the night before, or leapt up for your exquisite breakfast, whatever time you arrive your warm-up will be rewarded at one of the world’s most scenic practice areas. As precisely maintained as the course, there are two practice putting greens, a practice chipping green, practice fairway bunker, and two-tier grass teed driving range – 240m to last green and approximately 280m to back. From each of these is a view out to the ocean and to the surrounding farmland.
Ready to start the round, the pro shop will suggest to golfers which of the five tee blocks on each hole they are best to attempt, as weather conditions of the day, seasonal course conditions and the experience they want to have are factors as much as a golfer’s handicap – i.e. play off the ‘Tiger’ tees for the thrill/challenge. For a golfer’s first round at Kauri Cliffs and say during winter, when the ground is softer, recommendations will err on the safer side of going shorter.
The blue ‘Tiger’ tees are best left as an option for low single-figure handicappers and longer hitters familiar with the course, as wind and longer carries are big factors. If the blue is daunting for first timers, golfers can play a shorter tee and jump back onto blue tees for the thrill of a long drive over one of the gullies or the ocean – like the ‘Tiger’ tee at hole 8 set on a small promontory overlooking the ocean.
Course professional Cameron Barnes illustrates another example – the 447m par-4 2nd hole called ‘Cape Brett’. Looking out to the distant Cape, often the drive is into the prevailing wind. From the back tee, aim across the dogleg towards the target bunkers and a drive of 280-300 metres will leave you with a good lie and line in to the length of the green… and a sense of triumph if you achieve it. From other tees the carry on this hole is not so dramatic, yet the same target bunker provides the line and delight in landing in the right place.
A great golf hole featuring a cape-style green and a difficult lay-up decision, hole 4 is the trickiest of the par-5s. It is 510m from the back tee, or 478 from white. Playing between a hillside on the left and a sharp drop off to a deep vegetated gully on the right, the wide fairway provides options for landing. Playing to the right-hand side, from about 140m out, the golfer is presented a big decision… whether to go for the narrow angle of the green jutting into the gully, or not? If going for the green, two bunkers at staggered elevations right and below the green act as safety bunkers to catch balls hit short. Otherwise, golfers need to be precise with their lay-up, as if left a ball can kick off. For those wishing to play it safe, the first landing area is wide, while the second landing area is narrow but receptive and allows a good line into the length of the green.
Hole 7 is the quintessential picturesque par-3. Tees range from 201m to 96m from the forward tee, and the hole is all carry across a deep, vegetated gully with a stunning backdrop of the ocean and the magnificent Cavalli islands. The intimidation factor is exacerbated by bunkers front and right, and the shallow appearance of the green. Deceptively, it is one of the biggest greens on the course with around 25m of leeway between bunkers. Golfers need to trust their club selection so as not to over-hit, while also considering the prevalent tail wind. Aiming for the left edge will give the ball a favourable kick right.
There is a little more variety in the direction of play on the front nine; however, before returning to the cliff tops, the back nine leads you through a charming valley, an enclave if you will, highlighted by bush, streams and native wetland areas – where play may be watched by the inquisitive sheep and cattle in adjacent paddocks. Hole 10 plays from elevated tees set amongst trees, down to the valley, where the hole is flanked by a stream and wetland.
Greens 11 and 12 are both island-like, nestled into wetland areas with precise shots required for the layup on 11 and into the green on both. Jon McCord, Director of Golf for both Kauri Cliffs and sister property Cape Kidnappers, describes the par-3 12th hole as a standout for the creative use of the natural stream, a little nook for the green site and backdrop of hills, sloping surrounds and Totara trees. It has a very distinct two-tiered green and if your shot to the putting surface is executed well, it leaves an opportunity for birdie.
Hole 13 is one of my favourites, unique on the site being aptly named ‘Tablelands’, with farm hills beyond, framed by Totaras and a high slope on the right, and a plateau green guarded by bunkers. Nonetheless, one’s senses cannot help but be enlivened further by reaching the 14th tee, the resumption of a thrilling run cliff top holes. From holes 14-17, the ocean panoramas, Cavalli Islands and beaches below are so spectacular that the golfer is buoyed, no matter how their game is going.
A favourite hole of many is the short par-4, 16th – deserving of its moniker ‘Temptation’! It is a risk-and-reward cape hole, bending around a steep hazardous slope. Big hitters can go straight for the green, though wind is a factor and the safer option may be a hybrid down the fairway for a short wedge in. Deceptively the green appears to be perched on the cliff edge, appearing as though there is no room behind and causing golfers to play conservatively. However, a good drive down the fairway from each tee will leave a wedge shot of about 75m to the green.
Hole 18 ‘Tane Mahuta’ – named after the famed giant kauri tree in the nearby Waipoua Forest – is an intriguing finale. The final drive across a deep ravine, the fairway rises uphill, with a right-to-left cross fall reflecting the natural contours. A par-5, the safest option is to stay right. To the green with its false front, and playing uphill, the most relaxed approach shot is certainly from the right, avoiding the left-hand bunker cut into the slope. Golfers might feel the pressure putting, with the lodge and restaurant balcony overlooking the green…
More than simply meriting its status as a ‘Destination Golf’ course, Kauri Cliffs is the epitome of destination golf. It also has three private swimming beaches – one with famed pink sand (Pink Beach of course!) – tennis courts, a day spa set in native forest, swimming pools, fitness centre, horse-riding, fishing and other outdoor activities. The outstanding golf, elegance and tranquility, and phenomenal beauty of the setting make the pilgrimage an absolute must for any golfing visitor to New Zealand.