Exploring Tara Iti, a golf oasis on the other side of the world
To experience Tara Iti Golf Club is to discover golf’s next great oasis. It’s a little-known, mysterious destination, in part because it’s brand new—it opened in 2015—and in part because the club doesn’t spend any money on advertising or marketing. As such, few photos or details about Tara Iti have made it to the masses. That’s all about to change, however—golfers worldwide will soon add Tara Iti to their lust list.
Tara Iti lands at No. 6 on Golf Digest’s ranking of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, making it the highest-ever debut on any of Golf Digest’s various course rankings. It’s New Zealand’s first-ever American-style private golf club, and membership is kept small and hand-picked to ensure the club maintains a laid-back, intimate vibe void of any arrogance.
The club is located on the Te Arai coast, just south of Mangawhai (pronounced Mang-gah-fai) on the North Island of New Zealand. If that sounds far away, that’s because it is. My fiancé, Jeff, and I recently spent nine days in New Zealand, driving from the northern tip of the country’s North Island to the southern region of its South Island. Tara Iti was our first stop, and we got there 46 hours after leaving our apartment in New York City.
Our drive to Tara Iti began in Auckland, which is about 65 miles south. Auckland is the country's largest city, and it looks a lot like other large towns—tall buildings line the busy roads, pedestrians scatter the sidewalks and, as we painfully discovered, rush hour is very much a real thing. But about 45 minutes into our drive, that city backdrop dissipated and the mountains of New Zealand began to appear. For some reason, Google Maps knew Tara Iti's location but it couldn't offer directions. Luckily, Waze knew exactly how to get there, and when the app told us we were just under two miles away, it navigated us to a narrow dirt road.
You’ll probably never find a grand entrance at Tara Iti. The chest-high wooden gate standing there now will likely remain, primarily because most corners of the club offer only modest forms of beauty. As we pulled in, then walked up to and around the clubhouse, we took a moment to pause. Looking out onto the 18th hole from behind its green, and seeing it bend left ahead of an ocean backdrop with rugged mountains in the far distance is the moment we really knew we were somewhere special.
The property is located on Te Arai Beach, one of New Zealand’s prime surfing spots, and as recently as 2011 it had been a commercial pine plantation. The caretakers of this land, a population of indigenous Polynesian people known as the Maoris, sold it in 2012 to Richard Kayne, an American billionaire investor based in Los Angeles. Kayne had fallen in love with New Zealand when he and his wife, Suzanne, visited the country in 1996. Fast forward 14 years, and he became an owner of 570 acres of Kiwi land and commissioned American architect Tom Doak to build the course for him, his wife, their family and their friends. Kayne quickly realized the club was too good to keep to himself.
The Maoris often refer to Te Arai Point as the lifting point between earth and heaven, and when Jeff and I walked out onto the beach and experienced that meeting of land and sea, we quickly understood why. Tara Iti edges the ocean's coast for seven miles, with an expansive beach made of fine sand that never gets narrower than 50 yards. We walked north on the beach for about a mile before reaching a large sand dune on our left. We didn’t climb all the way to the top, but as we walked up the dune it offered an increasingly more impressive view of the entire course. During our three hours on the beach, we never saw another soul. It felt like an untouched corner of the world.
We got to Tara Iti at around noon on a Tuesday, and since our clubs didn’t land in Auckland when we did (they got held up in Los Angeles but were hand-delivered to Tara Iti the night we arrived), we were forced to take in the property that afternoon without clubs, which was an incredible blessing in disguise. Not only had we walked along the beach and climbed the sand dune, but we walked every hole of Tara Iti's back nine and we didn't have any golf shots to distract us from absorbing the scene. When the Maoris sold their land to Kayne, they did so with an understanding that Kayne would respect it, and that has been his priority from the start. The club honors the heritage of the land in a variety of ways, and it goes to great lengths to preserve the native species—the sounds of sheep, birds and other wildlife weave through the entire property. Indeed, Tara Iti is named after the local fairy tern that the Maoris call the Tara Iti Bird.
That evening we stayed in one of the eight member cottages, each of which is named after the different stages of the sun as it moves through the sky. Our room was Atatu which, translated from Te Uri, the language of the Maori people, refers to the moment the sun breaks free from the horizon and begins its slow ascent. It was a gorgeous space complete with a cozy living room area and a large bedroom, both with floor-to-ceiling panes that offered a view of green landscape, a kitchenette, and a well-appointed bathroom.
We were even invited to an intimate farm-to-table dinner at Tara Iti's garden. In fact, everyone at the club was invited because, well, that's the kind of thing that happens at a place like Tara Iti that hand-picks its members and guests. The only thing we knew about each other was that we were golfers, travelers and laid back, and those three qualities led to an evening filled with laughs, compelling conversation and lasting memories. We enjoyed everything from steak and lobster to roasted vegetables and fresh sourdough bread, all resourced from local surroundings and fresh off the grill.
The next morning, it was time to actually play Tara Iti. Every hole offers a view of the water, and the course, which was built on a naturally sandy site, is covered in fescue grass from tee to green. Doak and his design associate, Brian Slawnik, created a wide range of knolls, dunes and punchbowls that tests a golfer's game and engages the mind throughout. Washed-out areas of sand, both large and small, pepper the course but technically there isn't a single bunker out there—they're waste areas and golfers can ground their club anywhere. There’s very little extra stuff on the course—four sets of tee markers on each hole are marked by stones that are from a local quarry, but that’s about it. And the "halfway house" consists of a modest table with a basket of sports bars—the golfers who play at Tara Iti are rarely interested in pausing for food. We were one of just a handful of groups playing that Wednesday, and I was told that represents a typical day.
Tara Iti is inspired by a few clubs Kayne belongs to, most notably The Vintage Club in Indian Wells, Calif., and Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. Both of those clubs offer solid golf courses with excellent service, and they've been strategic in building their memberships. Tara Iti mirrors those three attributes. Unlike several exclusive, private clubs I've visited, the vibe at Tara Iti is decidedly low-key. Not once did I feel like I was breaking a rule—I was able to use my phone at will, which I did to take photos; my skirt was on the shorter side but that was entirely accepted; and I was able to laugh as loudly as possible all over the premise without getting shushed, an occurrence that happens elsewhere far more often than I care to admit.
Tara Iti is a private club, but its doors aren’t necessarily sealed shut. Non-members can inquire about playing, but only with the understanding that they're allowed to visit the club just once (a multi-night stay is encouraged). Tara Iti is able to accommodate more visitors in the off-season months of April thru October than during the peak season months of November thru March, but don't let the phrase “off-season” fool you—the winters in Mangawhai are mild and perfect for links golf (highs hover in the high 50s during the coldest month of July).
The future of Tara Iti is unknown, and it's difficult to predict whether it'll become an even more exclusive or a slightly more public destination as it matures. One thing I know for sure, however, is that Kayne owns a lot more land just south of the golf course right along the beach. Rumors are already swirling about a possible addition of one or even two courses, both of which might be public. In fact, when I played Tara Iti in November I teed it up with architect David McLay Kidd and his wife, Tara. They were enjoying the first day of their honeymoon. So while he wasn't on a scouting trip, David—whom you know from his work at Bandon Dunes, the Castle course at St. Andrews Links and Gamble Sands, in addition to his soon-to-open Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley Resort in Wisconsin, among others—did take a moment to stand up on a bench and observe that vacant land. Only time will tell if that marked the beginning of what might be a second or third course. And if that happens, Tara Iti will transform from being a remote oasis to golf's next great destination.
Keep scrolling for more photos I snapped during my time at Tara Iti.