I’m getting the feeling I’m being watched even though there’s not a soul around.
I’m mid-fairway on The Kinloch Club, New Zealand’s most challenging golf course. Beside me Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake, stretches on for miles. I can see Mt Ruapehu volcano on the horizon, while to my right, gentle sloping hills rise and fall beyond fields of famously green fields of pasture.
Sheep and cows stare as they chew grass, while wild geese cross the fairway. But with so many great courses off the beaten track in New Zealand’s North Island, theirs will be the only eyes on me as I golf my way across the entire island.
Though the Queenstown area attracts much of the golf world’s attention, there are courses across the North Island that rank in the top 100 courses in the world. I’m on one right now and yet there’s no one else on the course (bar the wild fauna).
The Kinloch Club is New Zealand’s best links-style course – the only course in New Zealand designed by golf superstar Jack Nicklaus and yet, despite my lifelong affiliation with the game, I’ve never heard of it before. It’s not for the faint of heart – tee-offs require heart-in-mouth strokes across thick heath and schist rock outcrops.
With more than 400 courses throughout the country, New Zealand is now second only to Scotland for the number of golf courses per capita. That’s a lot of golf courses for only a tiny patch of terra firma, and with quite possibly the prettiest landscape on earth, it’s easy to see why New Zealand has become a beacon for golfers the world over.
After finishing my game at The Kinloch Club I drive 15 minutes and play the largest international four-star resort in the North Island, Wairakei Resort. I love the diversity of the New Zealand golfing experience: at Kinloch it felt like I was playing the most rugged of Scottish links layouts, but just a few kilometres east I’m playing a course that feels tropical with navy blue lakes that run beside a nature sanctuary.
This trend continues throughout the North Island as I fast come to realise that no two courses are the same. I leave the Taupo region and make my way east towards the coast at Hawke’s Bay, a three-hour drive away.
It’s here I find myself on one of the world’s top-rated courses, Cape Kidnappers. Built among a series of finger-like ridges that jut out towards cliffs that drop directly into the sea, Cape Kidnappers is an incredibly scenic course. You’ll have to steel yourself to hit tee shots from the end of one ridge to the start of the next.
I finish my North Island golf odyssey at the striking ocean-side golf course Kauri Cliffs in Northland, above Auckland. Built on a 2500ha property overlooking the Bay of Islands, including private beaches, waterfalls and kauri forests (some trees here are over 1000 years old), many tee shots require a hit across a gaping chasm, hundreds of metres above the Pacific Ocean.
But there are many more courses in between these gems; layouts that stretch on through varied coastal and mountainous terrain, empty too except for eavesdropping livestock.
Words by Craig Tansley.