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.

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Stricker leads in hometown event; Daly three back

By Associated PressJune 22, 2018, 10:11 pm

MADISON, Wis. – Steve Stricker made himself at home at the top of the leaderboard on a rainy and breezy Friday at the American Family Insurance Championship.

The hometown star and tournament host shot an 8-under 64 at University Ridge to take a one-stroke lead over Brad Bryant in the PGA Tour Champions event. Because of the wet conditions, the players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairways.

John Daly, Colin Montgomerie and Steve Flesch shot 67. Daly returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for three events.

Splitting time between the PGA Tour and the 50-and-over circuit, the 51-year-old Stricker had his 30th consecutive Champions round under par, the fourth-longest streak in tour history.

Stricker won in Arizona and Mississippi in consecutive starts in May for his first senior victories. The 12-time PGA Tour winner played the big tour the last two weeks, tying for 18th in Memphis and tying for 20th in the U.S. Open.

Fellow Madison player Jerry Kelly and Illinois coach Mike Small, Stricker's teammate with the Illini, were at 68 with Bernhard Langer, Scott Verplank, Jeff Sluman, Glen Day, Billy Mayfair, Doug Garwood, Jerry Smith and Rocco Mediate. Defending champion Fred Couples had a 69.

Stricker played alongside Vijay Singh and Davis Love III. Singh shot 81, and Love 72.

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Aphibarnrat keeps promise to M. Jutanugarn

By Randall MellJune 22, 2018, 9:25 pm

Moriya Jutanugarn was inspired by a special fan Friday who kept a promise to her.

She will be looking to use that boost to make this a memorable new chapter in the Jutanugarn “Sisters Act” story.

Three weeks after Ariya won the U.S. Women’s Open for her second victory in 2018, Mo is in early position in Rogers, Ark., to join her sister as the tour’s only two-time winners this year.

Mo put up a 7-under-par 64 to get into early contention at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. She was tied for the lead among the morning wave with Aditi Ashok, who is looking to inspire the entire nation of India by winning a first LPGA title for her homeland. Lizette Salas and Mirim Lee also shot 64s in the early wave.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Moriya got in contention with PGA Tour pro Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the gallery following her. A fellow Thai, Aphibarnrat promised Mo he would come watch her if she won an LPGA title. She broke through for her first victory in April at the Hugel-JTBC LA Open, and Aphribarnrat lived up to his promise showing up this week.

“He's like my brother, and it’s very nice to see him,” Moriya said. “Really happy for him, as well, because he is having a very good year this year.”

At the Masters, Ariya caddied for Aphibarnrat during the Par 3 Contest.

Aphibarnrat said he is a big fan of the Thai sisters and also planned to watch Ariya in the afternoon.

“They inspire me,” Aphibarnrat told LPGA media official Christina Lance after the round.

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Two-time champ Bubba fires 63 at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 7:20 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Amid a resurgent season that has already included a pair of wins, it only makes sense that Bubba Watson is back in contention at the Travelers Championship.

TPC River Highlands has been one of Watson’s favorite haunts over the years; it’s a layout where the southpaw’s creative approach is often rewarded. This is where he burst into tears after earning his first PGA Tour victory in 2010, and this is where he beat Paul Casey in a playoff to again lift the trophy in 2015.

He’ll once again have a late weekend tee time after firing a 7-under 63 during the second round, tying the low score of the week and moving to within three shots of Brian Harman’s 10-under total.

“Little bit less wind, little more confidence on the ball-striking, and I made putts,” Watson said. “The key is making putts. When you start making putts, that’s where you’re going to score a decent number.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson was well down the standings after opening with an even-par 70, a round that included three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the back nine to negate progress he had made earlier in the day. But he ran into no such struggles the second time around, adding six birdies to an eagle on the par-5 13th hole when he hit his approach shot from 229 yards to within 18 inches of the hole.

The difference, according to Watson, was between the ears.

“Yesterday I was just thinking about some negative stuff instead of focusing on my target and focusing on the shot at hand,” Watson said. “I was focusing on hitting to the bunker, or focusing on, ‘Water is over here, so hit it over here.’ Just things like that, just things that you can’t do around the golf course.”

Watson was also a runner-up in 2012 here in addition to his two wins, and he has racked up nearly $3.5 million in earnings in 11 prior appearances. Once again thinking the right thoughts on one of his favorite tracks, he’s potentially 36 holes away from his third win since February.

“Obviously around here I feel pretty comfortable,” Watson said. “I can hit some shots around here, and I’ve made it work throughout some of the years.”

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Only putting is holding McIlroy back

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 6:48 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Through two rounds of the Travelers Championship, the tee shots are towering and the approaches are accurate for Rory McIlroy. Now he just needs the putter to heat up.

McIlroy started to show signs of life during the second round last week at Shinnecock Hills before missing the cut, and after putting in some extra work honing his swing over the weekend, his tee-to-green game is worth boasting about at the halfway point at TPC River Highlands.

McIlroy has missed only five greens in regulation through two rounds, barely breaking a sweat en route to rounds of 64 and 69 that left him at 7 under. He’s within striking distance heading into the weekend, three shots behind Brian Harman, but might be topping the standings with a more cooperative putter.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I felt like I left a few out there,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I had a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. I started them on line, did everything I needed to do, and it’s just one of those days where they were sliding by the edges.”

McIlroy took 32 putts to complete his second round, including a three-putt on No. 7 for his only bogey of the day and another three-putt on No. 13 that turned an eagle opportunity into a par. Already with a win under his belt this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he knocked in putts from all directions during a final-round 64, McIlroy feels confident that he might be only a few rolls away from having another shot to contend in his second career trip to the Hartford-area stop.

“I think if I can put the ball in the fairway and hit my irons as good as I have been over the first couple of days, I’ll give myself a lot of chances for birdies,” McIlroy said. “It’s just about converting them and taking the opportunities when they present themselves.”