My Usual GameFebruary 18, 2016

Golf in New Zealand: Cape Kidnappers

I visited New Zealand on a reporting assignment in 2007. I was the guest of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, who has since died. We spent most of our time at Kauri Cliffs, a huge property Robertson owns at the northern end of the North Island. (You can read about that part of my trip here and here.) On Sunday, the Robertsons attended the early service at the tiny Anglican church in Kerikeri. "If you believe in a deity, you owe that deity an hour a week," Robertson told me.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

Then we headed south, to Cape Kidnappers, Robertson's other big real-estate holding on the North Island. (He also owns 11,000 acres on the South Island.) The trip takes about ten hours if you go by car, but it’s quicker if you travel as we did: by helicopter to Auckland and then by Gulfstream to Hawkes Bay. The Gulfstream part of our journey was so short that the plane never really flew level: we went up, then we went down. In fact, the most grueling leg was probably the final one, the drive from the front gate at Cape Kidnappers to the clubhouse, a five-mile trip that, if you observe the posted speed limit and brake for wandering cattle, can take a half an hour.

We made that drive in a rental car, which we had picked up at the little airport in Hawkes Bay. I went into the terminal with Diana McCarty, Robertson's director of New Zealand operations, to make the arrangements. As we crossed the tarmac, she commented that people inside the terminal would probably be wondering who I was, since I had just emerged from a $40-million aircraft accompanied by a blond who was young enough to be my third wife. A useful rule of thumb, when evaluating any remark made to you by an attractive woman much younger than yourself, is that if you aren’t sure whether the remark was an insult, it was an insult. Nevertheless, I sucked in my gut and walked a little taller.

That little building up there is the clubhouse.

The golf course at Cape Kidnappers was designed by Tom Doak, but it wouldn’t have been if Robertson, back in 2001, hadn’t received what he initially believed to be shabby treatment at Bandon Dunes, which had opened two years before. He was visiting with his sons and had expected to play the already legendary Bandon Dunes course twice. Sorry, he was told; you’ll have to play our new course, Pacific Dunes, first. Robertson was furious -- he has a temper, which he has worked for years to control -- but his anger vanished after a few holes, and he hired Doak to design a course for him, too.

Doak creates magical golf holes by seemingly doing little more than identifying them in the existing terrain, rather than by dynamiting them out of bedrock. He views a bulldozer as a construction tool of last resort, and he likes brown grass and doesn’t like chemicals. “Cape Kidnappers cost half as much to build as Kauri Cliffs,” Robertson told me, “and it costs half as much to maintain.”

Both courses are laid out on sheep-and-cattle farms on high cliffs above the Pacific, but the climate, topography, and general feel are very different. The most visually impressive holes at Kidnappers, if you view the course from the air, are the ones that run out and back over several finger-like promontories, which reach out toward the water, high above the waves -- although the best holes, I think, are inland. (From the ground, the promontory holes don't really feel as though they're perched on promontories. You need a helicopter to get the full effect.)

The lodge at Cape Kidnappers is called the Farm, and it's just as nice as the one at Kauri Cliffs. If you're pretty rich, you should spend a couple of weeks there with your wife:

It was still under construction, so we stayed in Te Awanga, at a bed-and-breakfast place called Merriwee, which Doak discovered. The Robertsons had stayed there often, and had become good friends with the owner, a divorced woman with grown children who filled in occasionally as a substitute kindergarten teacher, and several of her neighbors. Her house is more than a century old.

Here's Robertson, sneaking something from the breakfast table:

The Robertsons left the next day, because they had business elsewhere. I rented a car of my own and drove back to Kidnappers for a final round. A huge rainstorm had been predicted for the afternoon, but it disappeared somewhere over the Pacific, leaving only tremendous banks of fast-moving clouds, which the setting sun lit up. I had the course virtually to myself, and got around on foot in just a couple of hours. I had a new driver -- one of those big square ones that sounded like fungo bats -- and it echoed all over the course. I tried to swing it quietly so that the pro wouldn't know how many balls I was playing. The only tiny seed of disappointment, lurking in the back of my mind, was my knowledge that, the following evening, I would be on my way home.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007

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