Te Awanga, New Zealand
Golf Course Manager: Steve Marsden
Julian Robertson’s day did not start well on June 4th, 2001. Having flown across country to Bandon, Oregon with his son Alex, he had just been informed that their scheduled second round at Bandon Dunes had been changed. They were now slated to play a golf course that had been open for only two days named Pacific Dunes. Not in the least happy, Mr. Robertson was finally convinced to give the new course a chance. Much to their surprise, both Mr. Robertson and Alex preferred Pacific Dunes over Bandon Dunes and indeed, to this day, Mr. Robertson describes Pacific Dunes as the most fun course he had played to that point. As a direct result of the impression that Tom Doak‘s work at Pacific Dunes made on him, Mr. Robertson invited Tom Doak to come see 5,000 acres that he had initially acquired on the southeast coast of the North Island of New Zealand, just south of the art deco town of Napier in the wine region of New Zealand. Despite the inauspicious start that day at Bandon, a new golf course by Tom Doak would open in New Zealand within three years that equaled the magnitude of the country’s charm and allure.
Tom Doak‘s initial visit was scheduled for November, 2001, two months after an event of monumental sadness in New York City and Washington D.C. In fact, Tom Doak missed his connection from Mexico through to Auckland as all the Styrofoam boxes with fish had to opened and inspected for bombs. Eventually, Tom Doak made it and his first introduction to the property was via helicopter from the Napier airport (funnily enough, when he left the property that evening via a single lane dirt road that wound around for five miles(!), he had reservations as to how they could even get construction equipment up to the site).
Despite the massive amount of land acquired by Mr. Robertson, there were essentially two parcels that best lent themselves to golf. One was down in a valley and the other was on higher ground with strips of land separated by deep valleys with a cliff line that soared 550 feet up from the crashing Pacific Ocean below. Clearly, the second site was the more dramatic but of course, dramatic and good golf don’t necessarily go together, as golf in Hawaii has proved for years. Tom Doak was to have everything at his disposal to build a true world class course and so the question became: could Tom Doak create eighteen consecutive holes of a caliber that would compel golfers to travel 6,000 plus miles to play them?
By his fourth visit in July, 2002, Tom Doak had two primary routings. One had several holes that headed off on a perpendicular angle after todayâ€™s third hole but Mr. Robertson was more captivated by the routing that went out on the finger of land where today’s fifteenth hole now occupies. Mr. Robertson urged for the cliff line to be incorporated whenever possible and that led to two of the game’s great locations, namely the green of the fifteenth pushed up the very edge and the creation of the sixteenth tee. In addition, this routing met a key mandate from Mr. Robertson and that was that the course be walkable. As Mr. Robertson appreciates, there is no such thing as a great golf course that isn’t walkable and one of Tom Doak‘s proudest accomplishments with the overall design is just how well they delivered on this point.
With the routing agreed upon, work commenced in September, 2002 with Bruce Hepner, the lead associate, moving to New Zealand for nine months. According to Hepner, one important aspect of the project was that ‘we tried to integrate the golf in with the sheep station. We wanted to respect what the property was really used for. I spent a lot of time with the station shepherd making sure we disturbed the operation as little as possible. One of our favorite times to play golf was when the lambs were out in the paddocks. Hearing the random lamb cry in the middle of a back swing usually cracked up the group.’
Tom Doak‘s lay of the land approach has helped see golf course architecture enter into a second Golden Age of golf design. However, as owner, Mr. Robertson appreciates Tom Doak‘s approach for another reason. As compared to his other course at Kauri Cliffs, Cape Kidnappers was less expensive to build and it costs approximately half as much to maintain on an annual basis, despite the fact that Cape Kidnappers features some of the widest playing areas in the game.
Of course, given that the scenery steals the show at Cape Kidnappers, many people never focus on the architecture itself. In particular, the greens taken as a set are as good as any that Tom Doak has built. Ironically, the greens that influenced him the most here are the ones found at Garden City Golf Club. Set across the Hempstead Plain on Long Island, the properties of Garden City and Cape Kidnappers could not possibly be more diverse but Garden City’s greens are famous for following the natural tilt of the ground upon which they rest. Tom Doak is intimately familiar with them having consulted at Garden City for over fifteen years, so it is no surprise that some of their best playing features are found within some of the finest greens at Cape Kidnappers. Better still, the greens slope in every manner possible at Cape Kidnappers. or example, the left to right cant of the second green is followed by the right to left tilt at the third. The front to back slope at the twelfth and fifteenth provides fabulous diversity to the ones that slope in a traditional back to front manner. As highlighted at the ninth and eighteenth, the golfer is sometimes best served to use the high ground above the putting surfaces for working his approach shot in close. All told, the range of questions posed by the green complexes is second to none.
The cliffside holes were always going to take care of themselves but the nearly unmatched top to bottom strength of the holes at Cape Kidnappers is based on how well the inland holes turned out as we see below, starting right with a superlative first hole.
Holes to Note
First hole, 440 yards, First; The golfer has likely come a great distance to play Cape Kidnappers and when he stands on the first tee and looks down the fairway, the ocean is to his back! How can this be? How can he possibly be happy to head inland? Tom Doak realized this and always felt the keenest pressure to come through with great design features at the first through third holes. After that, the routing and holes get into the landscape that makes Cape Kidnappers unique. As for the first, Tom Doak employed to great effect a favorite design feature from his mentor Pete Dye: a hole with switchback shot requirements.
Second hole, 545 yards, Sheds; The potential of Tom Doak‘s minimalist architecture is only fully realized when his designs are presented in a fast and firm manner. Unfortunately, how his courses are ultimately presented has been an issue since going out on his own in 1988. The quality of his design work at High Pointe has been undermined, Apache Stronghold has been ruined, and Lost Dunes plays too soft. Mercifully, the opposite is true here: Cape Kidnappers is one of the top dozen or so maintained/presented golf courses in world golf, thus making it a model for the brand of fun golf that Tom Doak espouses. Since coming on board in 2008, Green Keeper Steve Marsden has the colonial bent fescue fairways playing at pitch perfect pace and the creeping bentgrass greens are firm without playing too fast for the windy conditions. Marsden sees and appreciates what Tom Doak was doing design wise and notes,‘ Tom Doak‘s design possesses neat features through the fairways and green surrounds that we feel best come into play if they repel or deflect the golf ball away from any shot that isn’t precise.’ The overall excellence of the playing surfaces manifests itself on a hole like this one where the bunkering scheme compliments the natural tilt of the land.
Third hole, 215 yards, We Three; Generally speaking, the golfer always has plenty of room to work at Cape Kidnappers though that fact may not be obvious at first glance. Take the third hole for instance. A sharp drop off left of the green is evident from the tee but three fronting bunkers forty yards short of the green conceal short grass and a kicker slope that feed balls well onto the putting surface.
Fourth hole, 585 yards, The Rise; A new tee just off the back left of the third green was added by Alex Robertson in 2008 and helps ensure that the hole plays as Tom Doak originally envisaged. With the addition of forty-five yards in length, the player now needs to find the power slot down the left of the sixty yard wide fairway as tee balls hit there enjoy up to fifty yards (!) more of roll as opposed to ones that hit into a hump that dominates the fairway’s right portion. Before the new tee was added, technology had advanced to the point where big hitters were indiscriminately getting their tee ball to tumble to the bottom of the fairway and were left with but a mid-iron into the green. Now, tee balls hit right hang back on the hill and golfers face a conundrum on what to do on their second shots. This is the height of great architecture off the tee: give all players a generous target but let the better player seek an advantage by properly shaping and placing his tee ball. Only by providing width can all levels of golfers enjoy a course, which is a lesson long taught by the Old Course at St. Andrews. Indeed, Alister MacKenzie (who is Tom Doak‘s favorite architect) incorporated this strategic design principle into his famous work at Augusta National and Royal Melbourne. Sadly, few architects did the same from 1948 through to 1988, so it is with relief and gratitude that architects like Tom Doak are once again embracing this design tenet. After all, golf in the great outdoors is meant to be fun and engaging, not grueling and discouraging.
Fifth hole, 420 yards, Split; In general, the heaving ground contours combined with the fingers of land meant there wasn’t the need nor the opportunity for many central hazards. This hole is an exception and features a pair of bunkers in the middle of the fairway 150 yards from the green. Decisions abound. Go left to the widest part of the fairway or squeeze a tee shot into the narrower right portion of the fairway and enjoy the best angle into the green. As seen below, the flag flapping against the blue water in the distance is full of appeal but it took lowering the landform upon which the green is on by ten feet to create this visual. The fact that there is not one iota of evidence that any earthwork took place is credit to Tom Doak‘s talented team.
Sixth hole, 225 yards, Gulley; When routing a course over severe land, Tom Doak worries first about finding two and three shot holes as these holes require more land. He starts with an ideal green site and then works his way back: Is there a natural landing area from which to play one’s approach? If so, perhaps the hole will be a two shotter. If there is another landing area behind this one, then the hole may become a three shotter. Here at the sixth, there was a thrilling green site over a canyon but no logical place to put a fairway that wouldn’t require too much earth moving. Hence, it became a one shot hole and the only thing that keeps it from being better known in world golf is that comparably few golfers see it relative to Pebble Beach or Turnberry. According to Hepner, ‘the most impressive feature about Cape Kidnappers overall is how elegant the playing surface is compared to the surrounding ravines and cliffs. The scale of the property is so overstated, but the actual golfing ground is quite understated. The design is also very walkable with the only climbs being down to the bridge crossings. We intentionally kept the bridges low in the ravines so that they would not interfere with any long views of the property.’
Seventh hole, 455 yards, 14 Flags; Some people confuse minimalism for not moving dirt and that is inaccurate. Take this hole for instance whereby in its initial state, the last 100 yards of what became fairway was more of a canyon and the landform that became the green was more of a mountain. Dirt was pulled off the ‘mountain’ and into the canyon, making it less deep/steep. As seen by the first photograph in this course profile, standing at the crest of the fairway and looking down on the green complex is one of the most handsome views on the course, a tribute to the construction skill and talent that was brought to bear by Tom Doak‘s group. In a show of how diverse the holes can play depending on the wind, Camilo Villegas hit a drive 380 yards (!) on the first day of the 2009 Kiwi Challenge with his tee ball bounding down the hill and nearly finishing in the bottom of the gully just seventy-five yards from the back right hole location. His pitch was perfectly judged to five feet and the putt dropped for a well earned birdie. The following day, played into the wind, he guided a four iron through the wind from nearly two hundred yards away. In the span of twenty-four hours, his two well hit drives left him with two approach shots that were ~120 yards (!) different in length. When asked about it, he thought the hole played equally well both ways, a great compliment to the architect, and this kind of diversity leaves inland golf for dead relative to seaside golf.