After a week spent between the Melbourne Sandbelt and the coast of Tasmania, I had 11 days to spare before my family arrived for our scheduled Christmas vacation. This was my first ever time down under, and with that much free time on hand, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend it.
Even as a kid, I remember seeing pictures in magazines of Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers in the far off land of New Zealand. To a teenager that had never been outside the U.S., these courses might as well have been another planet. The concept of seeing them in person and playing them had never been on the forefront of my mind until I started traveling the world, and started realizing just how feasible it is to see places that you want to see.
American billionaire Julian Robertson is the man responsible for the development of both Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers on the North Island of New Zealand, which are consistently ranked in the top 50 courses in the world. Kauri Cliffs was designed by American David Harman, and the actual golf course itself is just a fraction of what the resort offers – helicopter tours, quad biking, farm tours, barbecues, and a spa. The peak season rate for an Owner’s Cottage (accommodating four adults) is equivalent to about $7,500 USD (!). It’s the epitome of a luxury resort.
But I’m here for the golf and the golf only, so I’m staying at a $40 Airbnb tonight. International Greens Fees run about $360 USD during the peak season. Is it worth the price of admission? Let’s see…
(You’ll notice significant differences in the lighting in some of these pictures. I arrived the night before and spent a pristine evening on the course photographing the course in the best possible light. Our morning tee time greeted us with a bit of a drizzle before fortunately clearing up for the all-world closing stretch.)
The setting of this golf course is one of the most magnificent pieces of property I’ve ever seen a golf course built on. The course was seemingly built with the intention that you should never lose sight of the ocean, which is nearly true with views on 15 of the 18 holes. The scene photographs incredibly well, surpassed maybe only by some of the other courses I would later play along this same eastern coast of New Zealand. The cliffs are perched high enough to provide a dramatic view all the way down the coastline to the south. Even if there wasn’t a golf course here, the destination would still be worth visiting and soaking up.
The land movement throughout the entire property is extreme. While I’ve never been to the Plantation Course at Kapalua, this is almost exactly how I would picture it. Jurassic Park + Pirates of the Caribbean, and golf carts are a necessity for all but the bravest souls (though I managed to link up with the only two gentlemen that dared to walk the layout on this December day). Despite the drastic elevation changes, the actual holes themselves don’t play too severely uphill or downhill, as many of the tough traverses are between holes. Harman did an excellent job of using the slopes to the benefit of his resort guests, with many downhill tee shots. It’s mountain golf without the annoying extremes and gimmicks. The fairways are wide and undulating, often inviting players to swing away without fear off the tee, and to use the contours to position their ball on the proper side of the fairway.
A look at the 6th, one of the few uphill holes (and one of the many forced carries):
The par-3 7th was easily the most memorable hole on the front side. The tee shot is one of the more thrilling shots on the course. From this tee it was 165 yards to the front hole location. This hole is the first time you encounter the coast and the carry definitely gets the heart rate up quickly.
For us, the pin was front right. But you can see in the flyover below that the player has options on what lines to take off the tee. The green is actually carved out of a hill, and you can use this bumper just left of the green to nudge your ball onto the green when the hole location requires it. A right miss here is completely dead so providing the left bumper as an option is crucial.
The par-5 8th, playing downwind on this day, could be reached with a solid drive and a mid-iron. The slope to the right of the green serves as a kicker for approaches played up the right side, and is one of the more fun shots you’ll play on the front side. Here’s a view of the 8th hole from behind:
A highly elevated tee box greets you after making the turn to the drivable 10th. From there, you descend to the only part of the property from which you cannot see the ocean. The 11th requires a challenging forced carry to reach the putting surface, and the 13th is easily the most intriguing hole of the non-view bunch. You’ll want to consult your yardage book before this tee shot, as you’re encouraged to take your drive up the right side to provide a better angle from the green. But from the tee box, you see nothing ahead that would discourage taking a direct line at the hole (see the far right of the photo below):
The par-3 14th kicks off the rollercoaster finish. The tee ball is played directly out towards the crystal blue ocean, and on the most exposed part of the course the wind is almost always an issue. On this day, it’s coming off the left. With the pin placement on the left half, and certain death to anything that misses left, it’s one of the most challenging shots of the day with a mid to long iron.
The 15th is a friendly par-5 that reminds me of an inverted version of the 5th at the aforementioned Kapalua Plantation Course. This is the start of three cliffside holes that bend from right to left to make the best use of the playable land. Anything left of the fairway is unplayable, and there’s not much room to bail out to the right either. It’s one of the most demanding drives at Kauri Cliffs, but you’re more likely to remember the view than where your ball actually ended up.
Here’s a quick video that gives perspective on the setting:
On a stretch of golf that’s full of them, I suspect many would call the 16th the signature hole on the course. From the back tees it plays 350 yards, but as the crow flies, it’s a much shorter carry to the green. With a breeze slightly behind and just 300 yards to reach the front it’s very tempting to give it a go, especially knowing you have all of the room in the world to bail right. For those less enthralled by the prospect of carrying the native vegetation on the left, alternative options abound: anything from a mid-iron to a fairway wood are viable choices. The further you play back from the tee, the less of a risk you run of hitting it into one of the many bunkers. However, the further you lay back the worse the angle gets and the longer the approach. Definitely a good risk reward hole.
Like the end of a tube of toothpaste, Harman squeezed every last bit of the cliffside real estate into the routing, culminating with the stretch from 14-17 during which it feels like you’re dangling off the side of a cliff. Look closer, however and there’s actually a decent amount of (unusable) land that runs off steeply to the actual cliff edge. The place is a case study in infinity greens. The 16th green serves as a good example:
After two half par holes on the easy side, the 17th is a beast. Similar to the two previous holes, both play downhill to a fairway bending to the left and nowhere to miss. Looking back at the pictures now, the fairway looks way wider from the air than it does from the tee. Here it is:
An aerial view of the 17th:
The 18th is an uphill par-5 that puts your back to the ocean, and brings your memorable day to a close. I was lucky enough to spend the day with two Kiwis whose candor and humor greatly added to the experience, and made me feel less like a tourist. I’m grateful to have enjoyed their company.
As much as I enjoyed the layout and the views, the number of forced carries on what is a resort course was a bit troubling. Almost all of these carries are of no worry to a low handicap player but are a huge detriment to a high handicapper. While there are myriad teeing options, ranging from 5,500 to 7,100 yards, I did play with an older gentleman who simply did not hit the ball very far. These carries (particularly the large hazard in front of the 11th green, and the canyon on 18) caused him great difficulty and hindered his enjoyment of the course as there was no option to play around them. There were obviously limitations on what could be done to mitigate these elements (native areas, extreme slopes, soil composition, etc.), but it is worth noting if you are planning a trip and thinking of playing this course.
Circling back on the question on whether or not I felt like Kauri Cliffs was worth the price of admission, I can confirm that it was. If you can afford to travel to New Zealand for a vacation then it’s worthwhile to spend your money on a golf course like this. The setting is glorious, the views are among the best in the world, the conditioning is superb, and the layout is fun and coaxes you into heroic shots. The inland holes are full of intrigue, and the cliffside holes will stick with you for a lifetime.