Tara Iti Golf Club
North Island, NEW ZEALAND

The Pacific Ocean is nice to play beside (!) but the quality of the golf – not the views – is what makes Tara Iti special.

Imagine the thrill that golfers received when Pebble Beach opened in the 1910s, Cypress Point in the 1920s and Kawana in the 1930s. Here was superior architecture laid along and sometimes over the shoreline.
As populations expanded, environmental concerns did too and rules and regulations arose. Decades went by with only a few courses built on scintillating coastal property.

Beginning with Pete Dye in the 1990s at Kiawah and Kohler, golf re-emerged with eighteen core holes alongside a large body of water. More than anyone, Mike Keiser lead the proliferation of this exhilarating brand of golf worldwide. Happily for us golfers, the most talented architects largely enjoyed the privilege to work in such special locations and these magical opportunities have not been squandered. Courses from New Zealand to Tasmania to Scotland to Nova Scotia have muscled their way onto the various world top 100 lists. There were a few misses along the way (South Africa, Ireland) but in general, what’s not to like? Where there’s water, there’s usually wind and sand, the two critical elements of great golf.

And yet … as the drumbeat goes on and on with one spectacular waterside course opening after another, those water views remain enchanting but less unique (admittedly horrible English but the point is made). Indeed, the traveling golfer rarely flies to a different continent or hemisphere without the prospect of playing such golf.

Yes, modern golfers are spoiled but also finicky. Now that we have been deluged with so many wonderful views, we realize that water is water. It is wonderful and it elevates the spirit but it is only a backdrop. At some point, the true golfer – by definition – turns to the golf. And that’s a scary moment for resorts/clubs/owners. Forget the million dollar views – how good is the golf? In the end, that is what matters.

As a member of Stone Eagle and Sebonack, Ric Kayne had long admired Tom Doak’s work. When it came time for the Los Angeles based financier to build his dream course, he knew who to hire. Finding a property that would unequivocally yield a world class course was the challenge. After discarding several sites, his New Zealand partner John Darby (an architect in his own right – Jack’s Point is a noted example) made Kayne aware of a block of coastal property some 80 kilometres north of Auckland.

A Maori tribe was happy to part with the property that was covered with non-indigenous pines that had even been farmed. Armed with a topography map with one metre contours, Doak roamed the land for five days, staying back from the Outstanding Natural Landscape (ONL) designated line that makes its way in a jagged, irregular fashion along the coast. According to Doak, ‘A lot of the routing came together during this initial site visit.  The only thing we could see on our first day was a narrow clearing that John Darby had made from the old logging road, to show the line out to the islands referred to locally as the Hen and Chicks. There was a dune close to the shore sitting up high that looked like the green site for a short hole to me.  Then, my first look at the map revealed a long, low dune ridge that started near to the shore and worked diagonally inland. By the end of day 2, that ridge was the background for the 5th green, the tee for the 6th, the background for the 7th, the tee for the 8th, the green site for the 9th, the clubhouse site, the tee for the 10th, and the green site for the 18th, with John Darby’s dune 500 yards down the beach becoming the par-3 17th.  The loop from 11 through 16, built last, was the only part of the routing that evolved much between our first visit and the final plan.’

Kayne secured the property as it was evident that the site would work. The next task was the removal of the non-indigenous pines and debris. As Brian Slawnik, Tom Doak’s Lead Associate for the project, recalls, ‘The undergrowth was overgrown, especially the thick, low-lying Australian wattle which made parts of the property impenetrable to walk.’ As the property was cleared, the excitement rose because the open sandy landscape juxtaposed against the teeming blue water was exceptional.  Yet, even after controlled burns, stumps, roots, and debris remained on a large scale. Slawnik worked with Phil Vautier from Darby Partners and they did a masterful job of piling the slash to the side and covering it to create some of the bigger dunes on the course. So good was their work that no one knows which dunes were there and which were made. Only by prying it out of Slawnik does one gain an appreciation of how a hole like the eleventh blossomed from the addition of these man-made dunes.

As there was no native vegetation beneath the trees, Tara Iti was built out of sand and then re-vegetated. To oversee grow-in, Doak recommended to Kayne that he hire CJ Kreuscher, a crack golfer to boot. Kreuscher had assisted with Old Macdonald, also 100% fescue.  CJ fell in love with the course – and place – and remained as Green Keeper. After doing due diligence, Slawnik and Kreuscher selected various native plants to stabilize the shifting sands. Slawnik states, ‘The balancing act was crucial. We needed to hold the sand in place while still providing the sense of an open, expansive dunescape.’

The front nine is more mature and the author considers the current mix of vegetation and sand to be nearly perfect.

One native plant, the spinifex, became an exceptional find.  Golfers love its aesthetics and playing qualities while the spread of its runners has been remarkable. Best yet, it doesn’t handle foot traffic well so golfers tramping around help keep it in check (this contrasts to marram grass which proliferates underfoot).

Various folks from Doak’s Renaissance Design Firm came in to help. Eric Iverson and Brian Schneider made guest shaping appearances to help out on greens, Kye Goalby with two long stints of finish work, and the finish crew of Clyde Johnson, Michael Henderson and Pete Zarlengo, who helped restore all of the smaller contours lost to the tree farm.

Note the attractive coloring/texture of the light green spinifex and how quickly its runners expand and provide stabilization. Overstating the job that Kreuscher has done to gain control of the shifting dunes is impossible.

Note the attractive coloring/texture of the light green spinifex and how quickly it runs to provide stabilization. Overstating Kreuscher’s efforts to control the shifting dunes is impossible.

As a point of interest, there is no formal bunkering on the course; everything is treated as ‘through the green.’ By and large, bunker depth doesn’t cause as much misery as the dicey, dodgy lies. Because there is limited play, rakes are not needed, so that the sandy wastes are truly hazardous.

Like Shinnecock Hills, the two nines while cut from the same cloth feel distinctly different. The first nine at each course is – relatively speaking – over the more subdued property and more intimate (holes three and five cross-over at Tara Iti) while the second nines are spread out and occupy more tumbling ground. At both sites the interaction with the clubhouse on their respective high ridges is superb but for opposite reasons. At Shinnecock Hills, the historic Stanford White clubhouse proudly lords over play while at Tara Iti discretion carries the day and the earth-toned clubhouse melds into the surrounds without dominating the scene.

One can only imagine what it would have been like to see this course arise from the sand. What the author marvels at most is just how different each hole is. Sometimes a course with a homogeneous environment ends up with holes that blur together. Not here. Equally impressive are the extraordinarily pure sight lines where the entire landscape is devoted to golf. One wonders how the maintenance crew gets around or where the maintenance facility is even located. As the golfer meanders the property, the picture is one of tight fescue contrasted against sand and ocean. No ball washers, benches, or anything to impede the uncluttered environs, save the low-slung clubhouse.

A southerly view across the front nine is a course at peace with nature.

Holes to Note

First hole, 390 yards; This hole is a curiosity: a dogleg opening hole. Not many opening holes are. Only the first at Merion, Hoylake and Bethpage Black spring to mind among the world elite. This one is in the Merion vein as the hole isn’t overpoweringly long. You can actually try and shape shots, which makes for a tactical, congenial way to start the round.

The view down the first fairway, which elbows left. As an aside,  the practice area and first tee could not be better integrated as you walk off the former onto the latter.

Benched into a dune, the appeal of the day’s first approach shot is evident. Misses slightly left often receive a friendly nudge right, which makes for a cheerful start.

Second hole, 170 yards; Ric Kayne enjoys many luxuries. One was to exclaim ‘My house overlooks that hole at Riviera!’ when Doak decided to build a bunker within the second green. Life in the fast lane!

Similar to the sixth at Riviera, it isn’t the bunker internal to the putting surface that bothers the golfer as much as it is the configuration of the green and its contours. Doak has been occasionally criticized for building overly severe putting surfaces but every great course should have one that gets under the golfer’s skin – if he is weak enough to let it.

Third hole, 445 yards; Most modern two-shotters enable a view of the flag or green or both. This breaks the mold, at least most of the time. The golfer might feel like Christopher Columbus as he sails down a bumpy fairway to where ….the edge of the earth?! There is no flag or green or aiming point for one’s approach. For that unlikely reason, this hole was the unanimous favorite among the cognoscenti that attended the 2016 Renaissance Cup. Even though this is the thirty-fifth course Doak has built, he keeps coming up with original concepts and designs. Experimenting with ways to use the banks to get one’s approach to stop on the different portions of the sunken green is endlessly fascinating. It’s also an example of how well Kayne and Darby partnered with Doak during construction. Additional land was necessary for the creation of the last half  of this one-off hole as well as the fourth tee. According to Doak, ‘When Ric and John Darby asked if more ocean frontage would make the course better, and I volunteered that getting another 250 yards to include the 3rd green site would be ideal, they renegotiated the sale to include that piece.’ It is a prime example of the owners giving the architect the freedom to create while offering crucial support when needed.

 

The view from the third tee is captivating, regardless of the absence of a flag.

More perplexing is this sight from 175 yards out! The golfer has to take it on faith that the green is between the dune in the foreground and the one in the distance.

Only when the golfer gets within fifty yards of the punchbowl green does the flag in this back left hole location reveal itself.

Sixth hole, 460 yards; The most demanding hole on the course is also the closest to the Te Arai beach, so the golfer might not mind the mugging that occurs. The tee shot is striking, played across a valley, but the real issue is finding a level lie on the course’s most relentlessly lumpy fairway. That’s important because most players will be reaching for a utility club to get home and the resulting awkward stance to a green that is slightly above (and often into the wind) is a recipe for further travails. The coup-de-grace is the green, with its uncaring back to front slope and nuanced contours.

Cry, cry, cry – no level lie! A round of applause for the construction technique that preserved/captured so much random movement within the fairway.

Seventh hole, 290 yards; Parallel and opposite the sixth, the two holes could not be more different. Under normal wind conditions, this one plays over two hundred yards shorter. Thoughts of driving the green dance in one’s head but the author is convinced that over an entire playing season, laying up on a Doak short 4 will produce superior results. That sentiment is solidified here once the golfer gains a full appreciation of what confronts him at the green. Ripped right out of one of Doak’s favorite courses (Pinehurst No.2), the banks and green configuration shed anything less than a perfect shot. After getting punched at the sixth, many golfers look at the card – and hole – seeking revenge – and that’s when the trap springs.

The non-water backdrops on the course are excellent too!

A cruel hole location, the tiny seventh green is hard enough to hold with a short iron, much less a driver!

Eighth hole, 430 yards; Several of the holes that play away from the Pacific are particular favorites of the author, including this one, the first and twelfth. A bunker, expertly cut into the ridge line, protrudes into the fairway from the left and dominates play, exacerbated by the wind and the green’s right to left tilt. Downwind, most of us will attempt to carry the bunker because the reward of an easier approach is emphatically worth the risk. Against the wind, some golfers erroneously steer too far right away from the bunker, which leads to a dreadful cross-angle over a bunker to a canted green. Better to play in line but short of the fairway bunker seen below, and thus preserve the angle into the green.

The fairway bunker left and greenside bunker right create the playing dilemmas at the eighth. Note how the fairway beyond the bunker slopes away, helping to propel tee balls all the closer to the green. Photograph courtesy of Joann Dost.

Ninth hole, 470 yards; Even when the trees and dense underbrush hid many of the neat landforms, Doak spotted a V trench just off the main ridge line. Instinctively, he knew that it could be a greensite. Ultimately, the V was softened into more of a U producing a unique green complex wonderfully close to the clubhouse. Indeed, what are some other first rate natural green sites for a returning first nine? The list isn’t long as the act of returning to the clubhouse is often contrived. Not here though. Slawnik has enjoyed witnessing the early play and noting how quickly golfers have taken to using the banks and slopes around the greens (especially those on the front) to improve their scoring.

The scar bunkering on the front right dune at the 9th green resembles Alister Mackenzie handiwork at the stylish Valley Club of Montecito.

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