Over the top down under: New Zealand takes golf to new heights

By Jason DeeganApril 3, 2013, 10:20 pm

NORTHLAND, New Zealand -- Julian Robertson points toward the 14th green at Kauri Cliffs, set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Islands.

'These are the best holes in golf,' he said, his voice filled with passion and excitement.

Hyperbole? Yes, but not by much.

Robertson loves to have golf guests close their eyes during the cart ride up the hill before reaching this point, so he can surprise them with the incredible views. The next four holes hug the rugged northern coast of the North Island.

Kauri Cliffs, both the David Harman course and its luxury lodge, personifies a golf trip to New Zealand: Exclusive, exotic, extraordinary.

Robertson, a former hedge fund giant who splits his time between New York and New Zealand, almost single-handedly made New Zealand a must-play destination by opening Kauri Cliffs in 2000 and Tom Doak’s Cape Kidnappers in 2004, the two headliners of the more than 400 courses in the country. Even for purists, the game takes a backseat to such magical surroundings.

'It’s the different landscapes that draw people to New Zealand,” said Samuel St. George, a director with Eighth Wonder, a luxury golf tour operator based in New Zealand. “There are mountains down south. Up north, there are beautiful lakes and beaches. It has diverse microclimates...You’ve got to explore the whole country if you come.'

The length and cost of the 13-hour Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles across the international dateline deters so many players from attempting the journey. Adventurous spirits who venture halfway around the world are rewarded with a combination of golf, food and wine like no other.

Bob Wolfe, of Little Rock, Ark., has seen the golf scene change dramatically since first visiting 20 years ago.

'What distinguishes New Zealand golf from the U.S. is the courses are not part of the housing,” he said. “You can see the hills, the water, the mountains. The physical beauty of the courses is amplified by the surroundings. It’s a unique experience.'

New Zealand’s North Island

Kauri Cliffs

Kauri Cliffs

Bucket-list chasers must work overtime and plan carefully to find the best golf on New Zealand’s North Island. Golf Digest has ranked six different North Island courses among the top 100 international courses outside of the United States since 2005. I spent 10 days hopscotching across both islands and still missed out on the Gulf Harbour Country Club near Auckland and the Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club near Wellington. Also of note, Doak is currently designing Tara-iti Golf Club in Mangawhai, a project 100 kilometers north of Auckland that will create more buzz should it open in 2014 as planned.

Few tourists would dare drive the 440 miles of winding roads between Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, located in Hawke’s Bay on the eastern shore. (Google maps calls it an 8 ½-hour trek). It’s best to utilize Air New Zealand’s network of small regional airports, where there is no security and passengers can show up 10 minutes before their flights. It’s a two-flight hop – through Auckland – from the Bay of Islands Airport in Kerikeri, 35 minutes from Kauri Cliffs, to Hawke’s Bay Airport in Napier, 35 minutes from the Farm at Cape Kidnappers.

Both of Robertson’s golf lodges ooze luxury in great locales. Kauri Cliffs offers great fishing, boating and beaches. Cape Kidnappers counters with wineries, gannet colony tours (a seafaring bird) and Napier, a beach town rebuilt in the 1930s after an earthquake and touted as the Art Deco capital of the world. It makes for a great debate over dinner and drinks which golf course is better. Kauri Cliffs serves up more scenery, but the epic fingers of land and cliffs at Cape Kidnappers tend to generate higher world rankings.

Ikuo Morimoto regularly makes the journey from Scottsdale, Ariz., to play Cape Kidnappers, named by the explorer Captain James Cook in 1769. 'It’s a warmer version of Ireland,' he said. 'It’s like Ireland in the southern hemisphere.'

It’s a scenic drive of less than three hours from Cape Kidnappers to Lake Taupo and the magnificent Huka Lodge, a great home base to play the nearby Wairakei International Golf Course and The Kinloch Club 20 minutes away. Nicklaus, who has stayed at the Huka Lodge for fly-fishing expeditions, cut a demanding inland links from the wild hills of Kinloch. Wairakei International became a protected pest-free wildlife sanctuary in 2011 when the owner fenced in the 6,444-meter course (roughly 7,047 yards) and planted more than 25,000 native trees and 5,000 exotic species, both for beautification and as a food source to attract native birds. It’s a peaceful place, brimming with possibility. The Wairakei Golf Resort, just up the street, caters to more budget-conscious travelers.

The Remarkable South Island


Jack's Point

True to form, Queenstown, regarded as the adventure capital of the world, doesn’t introduce herself with a subtle handshake. It’s more like a visual slap to the face. Planes flying into the tiny airport kiss the spellbinding Remarkables Mountains. The Remarkables have been filmed in countless movies, most famously in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Bungy jumping, invented from the Kawarau River Bridge in 1988, spawned a wealth of adrenalized tourism, such as jet-boating with KJet, skydiving with NZONE, off-road jeeps tours with Nomad Safaris and helicopter rides with Over The Top. All are worthy pursuits, although I wasn’t willing to confront the fear-factor of tandem skydiving. Golfers will especially appreciate Over The Top for the chance to hit a few tee shots from a mountaintop cliff. The eco-friendly balls, made with a dog-biscuit-like inner core, decompose within weeks, leaving the environment undisturbed.

It’s only within the past five years that Queenstown has matured into a world-class golf destination, thanks to the additions of The Hills Golf Club in 2007 and Jack’s Point in 2008.

'This city (Queenstown) is the best locale for golf in New Zealand,' Wolfe said. 'The courses are so different.'

The lovely Queenstown Golf Club, dating to the 1970s, shares Lake Wakatipu’s shores with Jack’s Point, although its conditioning isn’t quite up to par. It’s still worth playing the cool holes along the water. Locals call Arrowtown Golf Club “narrow town” for its slim fairways.

Jack’s Point should be christened a “World Top 100” candidate. The routing by local real estate developer John Darby skirts the lake on holes 5-8. The par-4 at no. 15 invokes a Scottish or Irish links, playing over a sheep paddock and a stone wall before the fairway. The colorful parachutes of NZONE skydivers add even more distractions to this surreal setting.

'I’ve been on 19 of the top 25 golf courses in the world,' said Jack’s Point Superintendent Simon Forshaw. “I like to compare a little bit. We are as good as them. The views and turf conditions, we’ve got what it takes.'

In Photos: The golf courses and scenery of New Zealand

The Hills, an exclusive private club that offers some public play, started as a backyard par-3 playground for Sir Michael Hill until the famed jeweler went all in, hiring Darby to create a strong, thoughtful tournament venue that has hosted three New Zealand Opens and two New Zealand PGA Championships. Hills’ personal collection of sculpture art spread on the grounds culminates along the 18th fairway, where a pack of 110 cast-iron wolves surround a swordsman. Just don’t hit a tee shot into the fray.

Sir Bob Charles, the only Kiwi in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and Darby, who studied course architecture at Harvard University, collaborated on two solid resort courses on the island -- Millbrook near Queenstown and the Clearwater Golf Club near Christchurch. Millbrook’s original routing from 1993 improved when Greg Turner added a third nine, the Coronet, and redirected four holes in 2010. Now all three nines finish back at the resort center, where villas, fine dining at the Millhouse and a spa, pool and fitness complex entertain guests.

The 2011 opening of the Hilton Queenstown along the lake added another great hangout for golfers. The excellent eforea:Spa and Wakatipu Grill will tempt people to stay put, although it’s worth the short water taxi ride into Queenstown.

More than 150 restaurants and tons of trendy bars serve Queenstown and historic Arrowtown. Saffron’s ever-changing menu highlights Arrowtown, a tiny town founded by a gold rush of the adjacent Arrow River in the 1860s. More than 177 wineries dot the valleys and hillsides of the surrounding Central Otago region. The Gibbston Valley Winery takes wine-tasting to a new level inside a manmade “winecave.” The Amisfield Winery Bistro serves a fantastic “Trust The Chef Menu,” paired with plenty of pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, two New Zealand specialties.

It doesn’t take alcohol, though, to find Queenstown entirely intoxicating.

More travel information can be found at NewZealand.com. For flights, visit AirNewZealand.com.

Luke List, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and Tiger Woods at the 2018 Honda Classic Getty Images

Honda leaders face daunting final day

By Randall MellFebruary 25, 2018, 12:46 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The winner may need a cut man in his corner more than he needs a caddie on his bag in Sunday’s finish to the Honda Classic.

Smelling salts might come in handy, too.

“It just feels like you are getting punched in the face every single hole here,” Daniel Berger said of the test PGA National’s Champion Course offers. “Every single shot is so hard.”

Final rounds have been especially rough and tumble since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007.

That usually makes Sundays here as much about who can figuratively take a punch as who can throw one.

Luke List will have his jaw tested after taking sole possession of the lead Saturday with a second consecutive round of 4-under-par 66, but he can take comfort in the fact that punishment is doled plentifully around here.

“Just realizing that everyone is facing the same obstacles out there is huge,” List said. “You're not alone out there, if you make a bogey or a bad swing here or there.”

At 7-under 203, List is one shot ahead of a pair of major championship winners, Justin Thomas (65) and Webb Simpson (66). He is two ahead of Tommy Fleetwood (67), the reigning European Tour Player of the Year, and Jamie Lovemark (68).

List, 33, is seeking his first PGA Tour title in his 104th start. He will have to hold off some heavyweights, including Tiger Woods (69), who is seven shots back but feeling like he has a chance again. Woods closed with a 62 here six years ago when he finished second to Rory McIlroy.

“You never know what can happen the last few holes here,” Woods said. “A lot of things can happen and have happened in the past.”


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Crazy things have happened here.

Three years ago, Padraig Harrington was five shots down with eight holes to play and won. He made two double bogeys in the final round but ended up beating Berger in a playoff.

Berger, by the way, was nine shots back entering the final round.

That was the year Ian Poulter took a share of lead into Sunday, hit five balls in the water and still finished just a shot out of the playoff.

Last year, Rickie Fowler made four bogeys and a double bogey in the final round and still won by four shots.

List will have a heavyweight playing alongside him in the final pairing, with 24-year-old Justin Thomas looking to claim his eighth PGA Tour title. Thomas was last season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year.

List has never held a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event.

“You guys build up certain players,” List said. “I know I'll be an underdog going against Justin Thomas and guys like that, which is fine.”

There is some inspiration for List in what Ted Potter Jr. did two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Potter, largely unknown even though he already had a PGA Tour title to his credit, held off stars Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day in the final round to win. 

Thomas earned the right to play alongside List in the final pairing Sunday with his 65, which equaled the low round of the tournament.

Thomas makes his home in nearby Jupiter and knows the punishment the Champion Course can dish out.

“It's a difficult course,” Thomas said. “If you let it get to you, it can be frustrating, but if you go into it understanding and realizing it's difficult, you just kind of embrace it and deal with it.”

Thomas played the Bear Trap’s trio of daunting holes (Nos. 15-17) in 2 under on Saturday. He birdied the 15th and 17th holes.

Fleetwood got in contention Saturday with a pair of eagles. He’s a four-time European Tour winner.

“I would love to get my first win on the PGA Tour this week,” he said. “It’s just great to be out here. It's great to be playing on courses like this that are such a test of every part of your game.”

Alex Noren, a nine-time European Tour winner, is also seeking his first PGA Tour title. He is three shots back. He lost in a playoff to Day at the Farmers Insurance Open last month.

Though this is just Noren’s second start at the Honda Classic, he knows how wildly momentum can swing on the Champion Course. He shot 65 Saturday after shooting 75 on Friday.

“I’m a few back, but anything can happen,” Noren said.

That’s the theme around here.

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Thomas: Winning hometown Honda would 'mean a lot'

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:53 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas is trying to join Rickie Fowler as a winner of his hometown event.

Thomas will play in the final group alongside Luke List on Sunday at the Honda Classic after matching the low round of the week with a 5-under 65. He is at 6-under 204, one shot back of List.

The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year is one of several residents of nearby Jupiter. After Fowler won last year, Thomas (who missed the cut) returned to the course to congratulate his neighbor on his fourth Tour title.

“I hope I give him the opportunity or the choice to come back,” Thomas said. “But I’ve got a lot of golf in front of me before I worry about him coming here.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

More important to Thomas, however, is winning this event, which is played at PGA National, one of the most difficult non-major courses on Tour.

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It means a lot to win any golf tournament, but it would mean more because of how prestigious this golf tournament is and the list of winners that have won this event, how strong of a field it is, how difficult of a golf course.

“A decent number of my wins have been on easier golf courses, so it would be cool to get it done at a place like this.”

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Woods paired with hotshot rookie Burns at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:38 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rookie Sam Burns will be in the biggest spot of his career Sunday – playing alongside Tiger Woods.

Burns, the reigning Nicklaus Award winner who turned pro after two standout years at LSU, will go off with Woods at 12:45 p.m. at the Honda Classic.

Burns, 20, who earned his Web.com Tour card via Q-School, is playing this week on a sponsor exemption, his fourth of the season. He is 13th on the Web.com money list this year, after a tie for second two weeks ago in Colombia.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

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Burns and Woods are tied for 11th, at even-par 210.

Sunday is an important round for Burns, who can earn a spot into the Valspar Championship with a top-10 finish here.

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List leads Honda; Thomas one back

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 24, 2018, 11:25 pm

Luke List, one of a legion of PGA Tour players who live in Jupiter, just two exits up I-95 from PGA National, shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead after three rounds of the Honda Classic. Here's how things stand going into the final round at PGA National:

Leaderboard: Luke List (-7), Justin Thomas (-6), Webb Simpson (-6), Tommy Fleetwood (-5), Jamie Lovemark (-5), Alex Noren (-4) 

What it means: Leader List has played well this season, with no finish lower than T-26 in six starts. Thomas, of course, is the reigning Player of the Year. The next best pedigree among the leaders belongs to Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open and three other PGA Tour titles.

Round of the day: Thomas and Noren both shot 5-under 65s. Thomas made two of his six birdies in the Bear Trap (at the par 3s, Nos. holes 15 and17), while Noren played that stretch (15-17) in 1 over. Noren made his hay elsewhere, including an eagle at the last that canceled out his two bogeys.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Best of the rest: List, Simpson and Kelly Kraft all shot 66.

Biggest disappointment: After an opening 76, Jimmy Walker probably thought he was back on track with a 68 that allowed him to make the cut. Alas, the improvement was temporary, as he ballooned back to a 74 on Saturday.

Shot of the day: Tommy Fleetwood hit a fairway wood from 282 yards to within 8 feet of the cup on the 18th hole. He then made the putt for his second eagle of the day.

Quote of the day: "The course played a fair bit easier with not as much wind." - Thomas

Biggest storyline going into Sunday: List may be in the lead, but most eyes will be on Thomas, a five-time winner last year who has yet to lift a trophy in 2018. And of course, more than a few people will be keeping tabs on Tiger Woods. He'll begin the day seven shots back, trying to channel Tiger of 2012 - when he posted a 62 on Sunday at PGA National (which was good only for a runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy).