On the eastern coast of the North Island of New Zealand, perched high above the Pacific Ocean sits Cape Kidnappers, a 2004 Tom Doak creation easily among the most dramatic golf courses on earth. I arrived at the gate on a stunning December morning and pressed the button to call the Pro Shop and have them buzz me in.
“Alright, see you soon. Drive safe.”
Drive safe?! Huh? From the gate to the clubhouse?
Soon, I realized. Twisting turns over mountainous terrain and around streams and canyons continued for several miles until green grass mercifully appeared. At multiple points I wondered if there was a turn that I had missed. This video is from within the gates of the property:
The pictures of Cape Kidnappers have been circulating in golf magazines for years. Chances are that you’ve seen the ubiquitous overhead shots of the cliffs at some point and not even realized it. Doak offered up the following summary of his first impression:
“When I arrived in Napier, they picked me up in a helicopter and flew me across to meet Julian, so the first time I saw the site was as you see it pictured in the magazines, from the air rather than on the ground. We spent all day on the ground, and then at the end of the day, we went back to Napier via an old two-track road, for miles and miles with a bunch of stream crossings. All I could think was, this entrance road is going to cost more to build than the golf course!”
Doak was referring to Julian Robertson, the owner and developer of both Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs up the coast. Mr. Robertson was insistent on routing the back nine out onto the narrow fingers along the cape and found an architect in Doak who was up for the challenge. The fingers sit 400 feet above the South Pacific Ocean, which shimmers below with a blue tint reminiscent of the Caribbean.
The cliffside holes are certainly the main attraction and the reason why you come. Heck, for $360 USD (for an international guest in the peak season) you better leave feeling like the views and experience were worth it. And you do.
With that in mind, I was genuinely shocked when I looked back and wondered whether I enjoyed the front nine even more than I did the back! While it doesn’t offer the same dramatic views offered by the back, the front makes up for it with intriguing land movements and shots that I wanted to play over and over again. Perhaps it helped that I knew next to nothing about the front nine before teeing it up, but Doak clearly paid particular care to this part of the property to ensure that the cliffside holes were not the only memory golfers take away from the day.
For example, the blind tee shot on the par-5 4th was a thrilling swing (photo cred: Golf Club Atlas):
A small post serves as the aiming point, and while seemingly narrow from the back tee, the hole surprises as you crest the ridge to a wide fairway. There is also a speed slot on the left side that enables a look at getting home in two.
The front nine is not entirely inland, as you do get a taste of the views to come on several holes. As views go, the par-3 5th was among the highlights. The hole plays over a ravine to a green a protected by a cliff on the left side:
Yet another indelible shot was the approach into the par-4 7th, which trundles down a hill to a perched green guarded by bunkers on the left side:
The Back Nine
Moving from the 9th green to the 10th tee, the ambiance and energy of the course certainly shifted. I knew I was about to play one of the most extreme nine hole stretches in the world. Heck, at that point I wasn’t even sure the land was suitable for a golf course. The wind got much stronger, and was beating dead-in off the ocean on that that particular day, which meant the holes out on the fingers would be even more challenging.
As it played dead into the wind for me, the 10th was beast at 475 yards and totally exposed to the elements. Thankfully the vistas helped distract from the score I carded.
The 11th is a par-3 that comes back inland before the 12th sends you right back out into the breeze. Similar to the 10th, the view from the 12th fairway makes the green look like it sits directly against the ocean horizon on an infinity cliff. This shot was one of the most thrilling of my entire trip to NZ:
Views for days!
The 13th allows groups to catch their breath a bit, however that doesn’t mean it was any less memorable. The tiny par-3 is the only hole on this side that plays along the coast (rather than back and forth from the coast), and typically plays with a cross-breeze.
Doak offered the following regarding the 13th hole:
Moving along the coast, after the short par-4 14th, the next stop is the 650 yard par-5 15th. It comes with a warning:
This is the hole you’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of. Aptly named Pirate’s Plank, the behemoth rides along a cliff to the left of the fairway and stops as far against the coastal wall as possible, with yet another infinity green against the horizon. Any shots left and long may fall for a minute before reaching ocean floor:
Here’s one more look at the 15th (center) from way out over the ocean:
And from above:
Playing into a stiff breeze, it genuinely felt like this hole wouldn’t end. There was nowhere to hide and it demand three solid shots. When I finally got to the green it it offered up the best vista of the entire property. This is the view of that sticks with you, demonstrates how special the property is, and truly illustrates how high above the ocean the course sits.
The tee on the short par-5 16th sits as far onto the cliff as physically possible and is buffeted by the most extreme wind on the property. Players walk 120 yards from the previous green back to this tee box. Doak ensured that players of all skill levels experience the scene by laying out four different sets of tees along the small sliver of land. I loved this stretch, as the back to back par-5’s are routed in opposite directions, ensuring a distinctly different wind on each.
Continuing the theme from the front nine, the two finishing holes that come back inland towards the clubhouse are two of the more interesting and strategic holes on the back side. The approach into the 18th green is nearly blind, and features a punchbowl green. In the context of an exceptionally unconventional course, an off-the-wall finishing hole just works.
I travel to play courses that provide a different experience than what I get at home. Cape Kidnappers achieved that objective better than just about anywhere else I’ve ever played. While the best golf courses in New Zealand are spread out across vast distances, I highly recommend carving out the time to get to Cape Kidnappers, exploring the country’s non-golf offerings along the way, and budgeting plenty of time.