Discovering understated charm on New Zealand’s North Island.
New Zealand has more golf courses per capita than any country, with the exception of golf-mad Scotland. Whilst many newer developments, usually accompanied with full 5-star accommodation and services, tend to dominate discussion and rankings of the best New Zealand golf courses; it should come as no surprise that there exist many less heralded gems that are worthy of highlight and discussion. – Michael Henderson
The North Island has its fair share of good quality, high-ranking golf courses. Paraparaumu Beach has long been regarded as one of the finest links courses in the Southern Hemisphere, a reputation it deserves and continues to live up to. The Alister MacKenzie-designed Titirangi in Auckland is also a celebrated course. Modernday additions to the North Island mix include: Cape Kidnappers, Kauri Cliffs (both regularly featured in world top 100lists), The Carrington, Kinloch, and less recently, Gulf Harbour and Wairakei. Deservedly or not, these courses are most highly sought-after by golf enthusiasts.
However, to only seek out these popular golfing destinations would be to ignore the understated charm and enjoyment of everyday golf in New Zealand. Most towns on the North Island of New Zealand lay claim to a golf course, whether it be a renowned provincial course, one maintained by volunteers, or in a lot of cases one maintained by sheep! Among these many courses are some, which despite their operational limitation, provide a golf experience that is more fun and enjoyable than that offered by some of the more credentialed destinations. In particular, Waverley, Waitara, Kaitaia, Ohope, Waipu, Tapora, Fitzroy and Mahia all enjoy beautiful settings in a low-key environment, and most combine these elements with a sense of architecture.
Waipu Golf Club
The town of Waipu is located on the east coast of Northland roughly a 1.5hours’ drive north of Auckland. The golf course is more established than others mentioned in this article. It occupies beautiful sandy land that overlooks Bream Bay and out to Whangarei Heads and the offshore islands. The setting alone is enough reason to visit and the golf is not at all bad either. The routing takes the golfer down from the clubhouse to the beach and back on both nines with good variety and change in direction.
Holes to note
The sense of playing downhill to the beach with the Heads and island backdrop makes any of these holes appealing. The par-5 5th enjoys this characteristic but is also a good hole architecturally, as is the short par-4 6th with its green axis tilted to favour shots played from closer to the dunes on the outside of the dogleg.
Waverley Golf Club
Around 40 minutes’ drive west of Wanganui, lies a tiny town called Waverley. Just south of town and only a few kilo metres inland from the Tasman Sea is the Waverley golf course. The course sits on prime, elevated, sandy links-type ground and is maintained for the most part by sheep. This should not deter visitors as the course, with its beautiful land, genius routing and cleverly designed golf holes offers one of the best and most enjoyable golfing experiences on the North Island.
It’s not only the exceptional ground that the course enjoys that will generate excitement – the holes are very, very good and it has in spades what many New Zealand courses lack: Good architecture.
There really isn’t a bad hole on the course, but the round arguably peaks with the back-to-back par-5s at 14 and 15 followed by the par-3 16th. The 14th plays along a ridge and sits high on the inland side of the property and combines out of bounds with a split-level fairway to bring strategy to the hole. After a strong downhill tee shot, the 15th hole swings to the right. From the basin below, the golfer has the option to play to the right to the top of the ridge or safely down the left side of the fairway. The approach to the green from the lower left side is blind whilst play from the high, but hard to hold, right side is relatively simple. The 16th is a mid-length par-3 that plays over a gully to a green nestled into surrounding dunes. The front, left and right sides to the green are all slightly obscured from view adding to the charm of the hole from the tee, and for any subsequent approach shots.
Only tree removal and the phasing out of the kikuyu grass in favour of a fine leafed variety to allow for a greater variety of ground shots would improve the experience at Waverley, but when you’re dropping a $10 note into a wooden box for the privilege to play you shouldn’t and won’t be complaining!
Waitara Golf Club (The Airedale Links)
On the breezy Taranaki coast, just 15 kilo metres north of New Plymouth, lies the Waitara Golf Course. The front nine meanders back and forth along the inland part of the property and only the par-3 2nd and 8th holes provide a hint of what is to come in a pleasant but otherwise forgettable nine-hole experience. With the Tasman Sea bordering the west of property, the change in the course on the back nine is remarkable. The land opens up into fine undulating links ground, only slightly elevated from the water. However, it is not just the land that makes the back nine so appealing. The use of the land in routing holes and some of the incredible greens make this a must-see for the golfer with any sort of architectural bone. Highlights include the par-3 12th to a punchbowl green; the 13th green; and the 15th and 16th holes.
Undoubtedly it’s the highlight of the round. Playing alongside the Tasman Sea, a narrow humpback ridge splits the fairway, the semi-blind tee shot calls for an accurate drive down the left of the fairway. The bunkerless green sits into a ridge extending from the right, making play from the ocean-side left of the fairway an absolute must. In order to play in from the left, the tee shot must flirt with the ocean and catch the ridge precisely so as to propel the ball to the left and not the right. If the green itself is not enough to deter play from the right, then the ridge that renders most approach shots blind is. Incredibly, the hole could be further improved by removing the trees and vegetation down the left side of the fairway.
Kaitaia Golf Club
Situated at the base of the 90 Mile Beach near the very tip of the North Island exists a small town called Ahipara, home to the Kaitaia Golf Course. The picturesque surrounds of Shipwreck Bay and the nearby ranges, combined with the links ground at Kaitaia, make it one of the North Island’s best golf experiences. The opening holes meander out through the inland, yet still beautifully contoured part of the property, before meeting the beach at the spectacular par-5 5th hole. The hole runs along the beach its full length and is the beginning of a great run of holes, with the downhill par 3 6th and the dune-hugging 7th to follow. In actual fact, there aren’t too many weak holes at Kaitaia. The back nine, whilst not as beautiful as the front, still enjoys its highlights, especially with the very cleverly designed 15th and 17th holes.
Tapora Golf Club
The Tapora Golf Course sits some40 kilo metres west of Wellsford on the east shore of the Kaipara Harbour north of Auckland. The course occupies undulating sandy land set back from the harbour. Only nine holes, the surrounding land is good enough and appears large enough to accommodate 27more should the interest or desire ever arise. Despite its modest conditioning, the course is thoughtfully laid out and has some very clever holes, but the real highlight from an architectural perspective is the set of greens. Many nestle into their surrounds so that shots feed in to the green from various angles. Similar to the greens at Waverley, many of the edges to the greens are hidden from view.
The 4th incorporates a diagonal ridge into the strategy of the hole. The 6th is a wild uphill par-4 punctuated by an even wilder green. The par-5 9th is a classic out of bounds hole where the bold play is to bite off as much as you dare over the OOB hazard.
Mahia Golf Club
The nine-hole Mahia Golf Club is located in dunes land out on the remote Mahia Peninsula at the very tip of Hawkes Bay. Set just back from the beach with the white sandstone cliffs of the peninsula forming an impressive backdrop, there are few better settings for golf on the North Island. The opening three holes generate a stir as they traverse prime links land. The 4thmakes good use of a natural wet land area but after that the golf never quite lives up to its promise, nor that of its setting. It does nonetheless provide fora memorable experience.
Fitzroy Golf Club
Fitzroy, a suburb within New Plymouth, is home to one of the world’s best inner-city surf breaks. It is also home to one of the more enjoyable links-type golf courses on the North Island. Whilst Nga Moto (New Plymouth Golf Club) attracts most of the attention when it comes to golf in the Taranaki region, the blind opening tee shot past the clubhouse is enough to enliven anyone with a golfing pulse; and the links-type conditions and small but at times wild greens are more enjoyable than that of its more accredited neighbour. There are some really fun holes and greens here; with the Tasman Sea to the east and Mt Taranaki to the south-west, it is a beautiful and charming spot to play golf.
Holes to note
Whilst the course only measures just under 5000m, there is something to like about nearly all of the holes. Highlights include the 8th, the short par-4 11th and the downhill par-3 15th.
Ohope Golf Club
The Ohope Golf Club is located on the Bay of Plenty just east of Whakatane. The golf course occupies a narrow spit of sandy dunes land and is bordered on three sides by water; itis definitely one of the best sites for golf on the North Island. The predominately east-west routing takes the golfer on a journey through the beautiful links land. Ohope is the best conditioned of the courses mentioned in this article.
The 3rd is a classic, bunkerless links hole; the tee shot plays through a valley with the green perched on top of the ridge. The tee ball that hugs the higher left side of the valley is rewarded with a much better angle to the green. It is followed by a very good long downhillpar-3. Other holes worthy of mention include the 10th, 12th, 14th whilst the 16th is potentially a great hole.
There are definitely consistent frustrations with golf on the North Island; kikuyu grass dominates, beautification committees exert undue influence and there are far too many trees… often planted in linear fashion –and bizarrely, most courses are planting even more! For all this though, when it comes to planning a trip accompanied with golf clubs to New Zealand, consider adding some of these less-hyped courses to your itinerary. The unmistakable charm of golf on theses lightly quirky but fun layouts that operate in low-key environment is the soul of New Zealand golf.