As if there weren’t enough golf-related reasons to visit New Zealand, some recent course additions on spectacular land are leading to an increase in airline excess baggage costs. The development of new courses in recent years including Cape Kidnappers, Kinloch, Jacks Point and Kauri Cliffs, along with the older courses in the Queenstown region, have increased NZ’s golf appeal. Now there’s another reason to get excited: Tara Iti. – Michael Henderson
Located 90 minutes’ drive north of Auckland on the east coast of the North Island and just south of the small coastal town of Mangawhai, lies the site for the Tara Iti Golf Course. The course, designed by American Tom Doak, occupies sandy land overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with views out to offshore islands and nearby Whangarei Heads. The mix of exposed sand, wall-to-wall fescue grasses, a colourful palette of local dunes grasses and stunning views all serve to provide a beautiful setting for play.
‘Tara Iti’ is Maori for ‘fairy tern’ – a small shorebird. Their representation is significant, not only because the land was once owned by the local iwi (tribe), but due to the fact that before the project started there existed only 35 of this endangered New Zealand species; all of which were living a short walk from the site. (The Maori iwi handed over control of the forested land to New Zealand developer John Darby and the Los Angeles financier and owner of Tara Iti, Ric Kayne, but remain fully supportive of the project.)
Doak and lead design associate Brian Slawnik were happy to provide their insight into how a dense, non-native pine forest evolved to become a world-class golf course.
As a result of years of commercial forestry activities, the Tara Iti site was heavily vegetated when Doak and Slawnik first visited. Doak says he had earlier identified areas of interest before on a topographic map that would shape the routing of the course. OPPOSITE: The original property boundary cut through the middle of the 3rd fairway but a late change enabled the team to site a wonderful green that sits in the land. THIS PAGE: The site of the 6th green during construction and the finished product.
“We assembled the routing by identifying features on the topographic map that looked good for golf – for example, the ridge the clubhouse now sits on, which comes into play on several holes – and then going out to the site to check them out in person,” Doak says. “We couldn’t see much more than 50-100 yards through the trees, so we had to look at the feature, then go back to the map to scale out how we might make it come into play. I’ve built a handful of courses that we had to do the same.”
Slawnik added the pair knew the views were there… they just didn’t know exactly where. “The densest invasive understorey kept mostly to the lows, so the most dramatic and choppy features stuck out but only at short range,” he explained. “The central dunes system which anchors the routing was clearly special and everyone was excited about that from Day One.”
Despite poor visibility, and an at times impenetrable understorey, it was during this first visit that large pieces of the routing fell into place. “I’d drawn some golf holes on paper, but almost nothing of that wound up making the cut for the finished routing,” Doak recalls. “I’d thought we might build three or four holes down the hill west of #13, but one look at the site made me try to find a routing where all 18 holes were in view of the ocean.
“The first thing we saw was a narrow clearing John Darby had cut from the access road out to the beach, in order to show the line of sight to the Hen and Chicks islands, which he’d identified as a feature of the property,” he continued. “The line from a corner in the road went straight toward a little dune near the shore, and it just looked like a great place to put a par-3. So that hole was the first one we routed, and it was more John’s than mine.
“We identified the clubhouse site pretty quickly, and the 18th green site which sort of showed up on the map. It was a bit over 500 yards from the par-3 green mentioned above, so these were quickly the 17th and 18th holes. On the other side, what’s now the 9th green site is in a narrow bowl which wasn’t so obvious on paper, but looked very cool when we stumbled upon it.”
Doak said at first it didn’t look like the design would wind up with two loops of nine holes, as the clubhouse site was toward the south end of what they were working with – although he added their client didn’t particularly care about. “The 8th tee site was probably the next key – it gave us the 8th going out and the 9th coming right back, and there was room between there and the 18th fairway in order to get from #5 green site, out along the coast for #6, and then back below the clubhouse with a par-3 for #7,” he said.
“For the north end, I liked the look of a potential par-3 from dune ridge to dune ridge, which became #10. After the next hole, it was clear we would have to work up the hill to the west for a few holes, but with #17 tee in place, it was clear that we could get #15 and #16 playing parallel to the coast.”
He said after they had most of this in place, with one more day still to go on site, John Darby suggested that they might be able to convince the landowner to shift the property lines of what Mr Kayne was buying by a bit here or there, if owning a bit more coastline would be of benefit to the course.
“Until then, the southern end of the property was in the middle of #3 fairway … but when we went back out and walked the ground just to the south, it was clear that the site of #3 green and #4 tee would make a great spot for the southern end of the course,” Doak explained. “The only problem then was getting back into the flow of what we’d already laid out – #5 green site was a given, but we knew we wouldn’t be allowed to go right down the coast that way from #3 green, and if we went into the dunes with #4, which looked great, there would have to be a crossover to get back to the beachfront on #5. Luckily, Mr Kayne did not anticipate a busy golf course, so a crossover in the routing was deemed okay.”
Doak put that on paper as soon as he got back to the US, and sent the client an 18-hole routing very similar to the final version. “The stretch from #11 to #14 tee was a little bit sketchy, because we weren’t sure what that big area of dunes would look like when cleared, and we needed to hedge our bets a little on how many holes might have to be up there. But everything else was pretty much locked in,” he said.
Whilst most of the routing had been figured out on this first visit, the very final piece of the puzzle, the 13th hole, wasn’t finalised until the very end of the project, as Doak explains: “We didn’t clear the back nine until we had started to stabilise the front nine – and we kept walking #13 as we built the rest of the holes, trying to decide on the best position for the green. We didn’t decide on the final green position until my last visit to the site, five or six days before that hole was shaped and approved for irrigation. And that was the last hole finished! But, that’s kind of the way I work – we shape the holes when I feel like I’m comfortable with them, so if I’m still wrestling with them they often get saved for last.”
The course has several noteworthy features: a bunker in the middle of the 2nd green, the aforementioned crossover for holes 3 and 5, a great variety of greens, a blind tee shot, some stunning views and three short par-4s at holes 4, 7 and 13. The 7th coming in at just 280 yards, is reachable to those that dare, as Doak explained: “I was keenly aware that we had chosen to build a VERY short par-4 – 270 or 280 yards, and often downwind – and that it was going to take a special green to justify that choice. Other designers might build a big green for a drivable par-4, but I wanted to make it very difficult to actually stay on the green with a tee shot, and tricky to get up and down if you hadn’t. So, there is a sharp swale just short of the green, and then just a bit of a ridge at the front, so you have to putt up and over it with everything going away from you, unless you’ve put the ball over to the right front corner to get an easier shot.”
Once the routing was loosely locked in and work about to get underway, associate Slawnik made the move to Mangawhai with his family. However, the process of removing the forest and obtaining necessary permits was an arduous one. After Slawnik broke ground on the 2nd green site during May 2012, the course would take 30 more months to complete. As Slawnik explains: “I first visited to start clearing in November of 2011, I moved over in April of 2012, finished the project in October of 2014, so [it was] three years, start to finish. Stephanie (his wife) and the kids made two significant trips home over two Northern Hemisphere summers while the project was stalled, so I commuted during those times.”
Clearing the majority of the forest where golf was planned left a canvas consisting of vast areas of exposed sand and provided the design team with an opportunity to revegetate and incorporate these into the course palette. Doak says they cleared nearly 175 acres in building the golf course, because the row plantings of the commercial pine forest didn’t have a good look to them; and even though the fairways were quite generous, there was always going to be more area of native revegetation than of turf in what they planted back. “I leaned on Brian and CJ (CJ Kreuscher, Course Superintendent) and a local consultant to identify a palette of native plants that would hold down the dunes while looking like they’d always been there,” he said.
Slawnik adds: “When we first walked the site, the primary and secondary dunes gave us an indication of what the landscape surrounding the golf course could look like. Internally there were several areas which had either been cleared or maybe had never been planted over in pines. These were studied and protected, so we could use them as templates. I took some photos of a few beachside, sandy landforms held together only by (at the time to me) unknown native plants and sent them to Tom saying, ‘how about this for hazards?’ His reply was something like, ‘If you can figure out how to make it look like that, go for it.’ The ‘Art Department’ and CJ’s crew took it from there.”
Of the process of restoring the contouring and vegetation of the site to its pre-forest days, Slawnik said: “We were fortunate to have skilled and thoughtful partners in harvesting and hand-felling the site, so that any and all natural features containing native grasses and ground covers were preserved… so we had some templates to work from in restoring the rest of the site. By maintaining these anchor landforms and plant populations we were able to leave ourselves a sort of manual for how to rebuild lost landforms and plant them so they would, hopefully, look as though they have been there for generations.”
Shaping and constructing golf holes on vast exposed areas of sand brought with it challenges from the elements. The 2nd green was constructed three times before finally being seeded. “It kind of set the tone for how things were going to go,” said Slawnik, adding the shifting sands would ultimately impact positively on the project “Early on we decided we had better look at the wind as an occasional ‘guest shaper’ with some different ideas. We all agreed in the end that on balance the winds gave us more than they took away. That didn’t always numb the pain of losing several days’ work, but we just had to remember how fun it was to build in the first place and go out and try to do it again, always taking a cue from what the winds left us.”
Entrusted with maintaining exposed sandy expanses, newly planted dunes grasses, course seeding, managing shifting sands, not to mention the tightly mown fescue, the selection of Superintendent was always going to be an important one. Doak had a hand in selecting CJ Kreuscher, who had previously worked on the maintenance and construction of the Old Macdonald course in Bandon. “I recommended CJ to be the superintendent because we’d worked with him at Old Macdonald and I was confident in him knowing how to grow fescue, but also because I knew he was a fine player and he would look at everything on the course with an eye for whether it played the way we intended,” said Doak.
Kreuscher, along with assistant George Helly, led a team of local grounds staff – the majority of whom had barely set foot on a golf course, let alone gone about maintaining one. However, the crew quickly adapted to the task at hand; and in some respects, the course may have benefitted from the majority of them having no preconceived ideas on course upkeep.
The success of the project owes a lot to the shared vision of owner Ric Kayne, Doak, Slawnik and Kreuscher, who were all on the same page when it came to the look, maintenance and playability of the course.
“Once we’ve finished building a course, we no longer have any control of it – it’s up to the owner and the superintendent to maintain it as they see fit,” said Doak. “So, it’s critical to get everyone on the same page at the beginning of the project, if our ideas are going to last. I’d known Mr Kayne for a few years – he is a member of Sebonack and Stone Eagle, and has played a lot of my other courses, so he clearly wasn’t afraid of something rugged and naturalistic. Even with the deck stacked in my favor, though, we spent a lot of time on the first few holes we built, developing the look of the course and making sure both Ric and CJ were comfortable with it – they both had input on the details, instead of just leaving it all to us. So they have truly bought in.”
The construction team also played their part in the finished product. Joining Slawnik for the major construction phases was experienced shaper and architect in his own right, Kye Goalby. Renaissance associates Eric Iverson and Brian Schneider also made regular trips to assist with shaping and decisions in the field. The finish and shaping crew – or as Slawnik coined them ‘The Art Department’ comprised the somewhat unlikely international combination of Pete Zarlengo, Clyde Johnson and Michael Henderson.
Although an exclusive private Club, potential visitors are able to write and express their interest in playing the course. Once there, golfers can expect links golf on firm, tight fescue grasses surrounded by large expanses of exposed sand in a stunning coastal setting – with the prospect of seeing a rare fairy tern, whose numbers, at last report, had increased to 40.
* Michael Henderson was part of the Tara Iti golf course design and construction team, which included Tom Doak, Brian Slawnik, Eric Iverson, Brian Schneider, Kye Goalby, Pete Zarlengo and Clyde Johnson. A big thanks to Tom and Brian for contributing to this article and providing a detailed account of the evolution of the Tara Iti course.