Tara Iti Golf Club
North Island, New Zealand

Eleventh hole, 535 yards; Supremely routed, the tee and fairway take maximum advantage of the property’s broad slope and the tight fescue. The approach on many days is the author’s single favorite shot on the course. After a power fade off the tee, the downhill green is often in reach by a bullet played as far as forty yards left of the edge of the green (and therefore over seventy yards (!) away from certain back hole locations). Aiming away from a flag (the 12th at Augusta, the 17th at TPC, the 17th at St. Andrews) requires a discipline that most players rarely develop. On soft fairways in North American dull point-to-point golf ensues and there’s no need to cultivate an imagination. Here, the ability to visualize a shot played along the firm turf is of paramount importance. To see a well-executed approach unfold – the white ball tumbling along the fescue – then veering right as it loses steam –  trundling  – onto – and then across – the putting surface is a joy to observe. This truly indelible moment seems suspended in slow motion, so prolonged is the ball’s journey.

Slawnik notes with pride how well the eleventh turned out. During construction, the hole initially seemed little more than a connector from the primary dune line out to the bolder features. Photograph courtesy of Joann Dost.

 

As seen from behind, the slopes that conspire to create a shot that takes 20 seconds to play out are evident. On most clay based courses, the hole would be ~ 1/10th as much fun.

Twelfth hole, 480 yards; The author has always admired abruptly uphill tee shots (e.g. the fourth at Pine Valley, the eleventh at Royal County Down, to name but two on world top five courses) as they portend exciting golf from an architect who likes to utilize the land in every manner possible. So it is here but the approach is the real scene-stealer and shares the playing attribute of the all-universe fifth at Merion where the golfer must gauge how far up a slope to sling his approach as the right edge of the green is seven feet (!) higher than the left. Lots of ways to play the broad slopes, which Slawnik says is “…what Mr. Kayne was specifically after. He and his friends like to have fun on the course by experimenting and inventing shots, so we tried our very best to give them as many options as possible.’ That ethos carries over into the life of this nascent club where parties are held at different spots around the property. To assist in that endeavor, the club owns a wood-fire oven on the back of a flat-bed truck and the silver mobile kitchen seen below. Today it was parked behind the twelfth green and tacos were served. Too many new clubs bog down under self-imposed stuffiness; that does not appear to be a worry here.

Even after this massive drive, the golfer might still elect to aim his approach between the tent and movable kitchen, and let the ball drift left down the tilted green to the hole.

 

The bunker lip in the foreground was built up to perfection by Slawnik and creates sixty yards of hidden fairway, which is best appreciated …

 

… in this view from behind the green. All that short grass means that approach options abound.

Thirteenth hole, 315 yards; Tara Iti’s design gleefully alternates between downhill holes that convey much to the golfer and holes with more hidden peril. At first glance, this reachable hole with its wide fairway seems harmless enough but like the seventh, one who strives for extra length off the tee often dooms himself to misery left where a fairway shoulder shunts balls left and down into dune country (hidden from the tee). Familiarity breeds respect and most will opt for a hybrid off the tee, though a lay-up isn’t straightforward. A left central bunker and a clever knob front right on the green work in tandem to keep the golfer on his toes. As he edges away from the bunker, the greenside knob becomes more intrusive for his approach. Many golfers carry the knob only to find that their ball took the soft shoulder of the green (hidden behind the knob) and was whisked right and away.

Sandwiched between two burly two shotters is this little beauty played uphill to a green that occupies the high spot on the course (a tip-off for potential anxiety given the windy environs). Photograph courtesy of Joann Dost.

 

See the ball lower left? It was once within twenty paces of the front edge of the green, for what would have been a potential eagle putt. Now any score is possible on this insidious creation.

Fourteenth hole, 455 yards; Perhaps the widest fairway in New Zealand, the golfer nonetheless dearly loves to find the relatively small plateau that hugs the inside of the fairway as it bends left around a dune. From there, he can see the putting surface and enjoys many more options, especially how he can approach certain right hole locations. Is the fairway super wide? Yes. Can an advantage be gained by driving to a particular portion? Most definitely, and that means players of every level will have fun. Tara Iti’s canvas needed to be massive to allow players room to maneuver around in the wind; that part was a given. What could only come during construction was finding ways to lace the holes with subtlety and variation.

The fairway cants left to right but the hole elbows to the left. A draw that hugs the inside and stays left of …

 

… this mound is optimal and it allows the golfer to feed a running approach onto the open green. Otherwise, as seen above, the golfer right of this mound suffers progressively crummier angles as his tee ball edges right.

 

This front left depression is particularly adept at sucking in balls played from the right half of the fairway.

Fifteenth hole, 180 yards; One of Kayne’s favorite courses around New York City is Baltusrol Lower, where RT Jones silenced his critics by scoring a hole-in-one on its fourth hole. Tom Doak  performed almost as well in the 2016 Renaissance Cup, which he won for the first time. Partnered with CJ and in a tight tussle when the match arrived here, he was greeted by a front right hole location. To the architect’s credit, under intense pressure and broad scrutiny he hit the required high soft fade to twenty feet. The ensuing par turned the match point and victory was secured at the next. Similar to Cypress Point, the last big two shotter at Tara Iti occurs at the fourteenth and two spectacular one shotters make-up half the remaining four holes. According to Doak, ‘The fifteenth was built on top of a small existing dune with the bunker lip front left a natural. There was even more tilt toward the back from there originally, so we had to cut along the right side and build up the back of the green, even though it is still a foot or two lower than the front.’

The magical charms of the North Island are abundant in this northerly view from the new back tee.

 

The mounds front and along the right are key playing elements. They can be used to deaden a fade for front hole locations or help a slight draw find back ones. The mound behind the green is not touched by the club as it is believed to be a sacred Maori site, home to a shell midden where their ancestors gathered to eat.

 

As seen from behind, it is worth noting that both one shotters coming in feature elevated greens. Hitting – and holding – such targets in the wind is always problematic. The fallaway putting surface at 15 is adept at shedding an over-cooked draw.

Seventeenth hole, 160 yards; Doak explained his vision to Kayne as the course unfolded and the two were in lock-step agreement – until here. Originally the hole, while stunningly handsome, featured a more subdued putting surface. Kayne didn’t feel that the penultimate hole –  one of appealingly modest length – was multi-dimensional enough. Doak and crew went back to work and produced a green to better expose frayed nerves.

Doak’s equivalent to the rascally – and much beloved – 17th hole at Sand Hills is found in New Zealand. The impressive bunkers and the ‘Hen and Chicks’ islands in the background frame the hole while the bold green contours exasperate.

 

Ringed by trouble, only a well struck iron suffices. Finding the same part of the green as the hole location rivals the pitch to the seventh as the day’s single most precise shot requirement.

Eighteenth hole, 545 yards; The course and its holes seem particularly well-suited for friendly games in all wind conditions and it is refreshing to find a Home hole that encourages ebb and flow before the final outcome is determined. A player trying to ‘steer’ his way to the clubhouse is likely to flounder. All three shots hold appeal but it is the second that renders the most unintended consequences. Overall, the pacing of the course is quite nice; the round kicks off with the two highest handicap holes on the front and concludes with two holes that place more emphasis on execution and finesse than raw power. The sturdy middle stretch from 6 to 10 is where strokes mount.

The fairway snakes it way through dunes at an oblique angle to the green. Note the top of the red flag peaking over the dune on the right.

 

After a good drive, the flag is straight ahead but the main fairway corridor swings left …

 

… while a high right extension of the fairway can be sought should the golfer wish for a level approach.

 

This view back down the Home hole highlights the free-flowing architecture that renders a multi-route hole. Imagine what a disservice to the landscape a linear fairway would have been!

As an example of how flexible and fun the design is, the author’s favorite moment during the 2016 Renaissance Cup occurred when noted Kiwi golf personae Michael Goldstein played the front nine with only his … blade putter! At the par 5 fifth he reached the green in two playing from the forward tee of 440 yards. Yes, the poor putter appears to have 5 to 6 degrees of loft but the thought of playing 99.99% of the world’s courses with just a putter doesn’t enter the mind. St. Andrews is the exception, a very telling sign!

From a design perspective, building an ultra-private course along a beach sounds like utopia, especially with just one man to whom to answer. Yet, the club’s location demands that most members travel a great distance. After all, popping across the Pacific for just a day or two is unlikely. But, when it is gray and gloomy in February in New York, imagine coming here to enjoy a summer month. Therein lies the rub. Few courses in the world invite play everyday. Some of the world’s best are too difficult, some are on the wrong soil, some lack wind, some enjoy fescue but too much rain. Getting all the components right leading to one fun match after another for a sustained period is the tallest order in golf design.

To everyone’s credit, that’s what was accomplished here with the golf being more than the equal of those darn gorgeous views of the Pacific.

The End