How many “true” links courses do we have in New Zealand? Michael Donaldson investigates.

We’ve all heard it – someone talking about “hitting the links” when they simply mean they’re going out to play golf.

The term “links” is one of the most misunderstood terms in golf – right up there with double eagle – and the fact is, if you want to hit the links in New Zealand you have very few true options – 10 in fact (although one of them is not playable at the moment).

That’s how many “true links” courses there are in New Zealand by a definition that’s not exactly etched in stone but one that’s evolved through history and tradition; a definition best captured in the marvellous book True Links by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell.

In short, a links has these characteristics:

  • Located by the sea, and therefore often exposed to wind
  • Built on coastal sand dunes and sometimes meandering into to open parkland.
  • Cool climate fine-bladed grasses such as bent and fescue
  • Undulating, fast-running fairways in natural channels between dunes
  • Steep-side, often revetted, bunkers
  • Mostly treeless

All of these features come together to create a style of golf where it’s best to keep the ball on – or close to – the ground in order to utilise the rolling landscape and dodge the wind.

There are plenty of courses by the sea in New Zealand but many don’t qualify as “true links” – mainly because of the grasses. In the North Island especially, it’s just too warm for bent and fescue to thrive. But you can still get a genuine links experience on these courses. Conversely, there are inland courses that exhibit qualities of links golf – they are open and undulating, with fast-running sand-based or sand-capped fairways, with fine grasses.

Edinburgh-based New Zealand architect Scott Macpherson contributed to Peper and Campbell’s book and he’s a firm believer in keeping the links definition as tight as grass on the famed St Andrews’ fairways.

“We’re right to be steadfast on the definition,” Macpherson tells Golf Digest. He’s worried the definition is becoming blurred because course owners and PR companies will claim their course is a links when it’s not.

 “We need that historical context. Links land was unstable land made up of sand dunes and not considered somewhere you’d build your house on. The land was usually infertile – the grasses weren’t grazable for large numbers of cattle or sheep – so the Scots found a way to turn that land into a playing field. And in those days golf was a cross-country game – a hole could have been 100 yards or a mile. There was no standardisation on the length of holes or the length of the round – it could have been seven holes or 21.”

He says the common perception is that any barren, treeless, windblown place with undulating fairways, marram grass or fescue roughs and within sight of the sea can called itself a links. Heck, it’s not uncommon for parkland courses to be described as links by the uninitiated. Macpherson is particular about grasses, saying they are critical to the running-style game you want at a links. “Agricultural grasses slow a ball down; getting that bent-fescue mix is critical if you’re a purist and you’re trying to define links.”

So, what are the courses that make the cut in New Zealand – that are in the right place with the right characteristics?

In geographical order the 10 true links courses are Tara Iti (north of Auckland), Paraparaumu Beach (and they are the only North Island courses), Nelson, Takaka, Karamea, Westport, Hokitika, Otakou (Otago Peninsula), Chisholm Park (Dunedin) and Oreti Sands (Invercargill), which  is still on the list even though you can’t play there after the local council shut it down.

Paraparaumu Beach is considered the premier example of our best links course though it is now rivalled by Tara Iti.

Paraparaumu Beach is a classic links course
Paraparaumu Beach Golf Course is a true links course. Photo / Airswing Media

Paraparaumu Beach has one idiosyncrasy – there are houses between the course and sea – but that doesn’t faze Macpheron. “Links land is a description of a piece of land. Paraparaumu is on links land – the fact there are houses between the golf course and the sea doesn’t change the fact that it’s built on links land.”

The late Australian five-times British Open champion Peter Thomson, along with Tom Watson the best links player in the latter half of the 20th century, described Paraparaumu Beach as “a gem of enjoyment, a monument to the game and a gift to the future … Paraparaumu will be famed for a century yet.”

American designer Tom Doak is also a huge fan: “For many years, this compact links in a beach-town suburb of Wellington had the reputation of being the best links in the Southern Hemisphere — and deservedly so. Modern development came to this part of the world before golf did, so the dunes along the shoreline are covered with beach homes and the golf course is behind them. Architect Alex Russell, who worked with Dr Alister MacKenzie at Royal Melbourne, made the very most out of a tight rectangular property with small dunes and small trees throughout. The best holes are the par threes, where missing the green always leaves a difficult recovery, but most memorable is the long par-four thirteenth, its green set high in dunes framed against the rugged coastal mountains.”

New Zealand professional turned designer, Greg Turner, thinks Chisholm Park is up there with Paraparaumu Beach. “It has good turf and it’s on good golfing land. It offers classic links golf. I think, that after Paraparaumu Beach, it’s the second best links course in New Zealand”.

Both now have been surpassed by the Doak-designed Tara Iti north of Auckland.

Even leading caddie Steve Williams, who learned his golf at Paraparaumu Beach and is a great ambassador for his home track, acknowledges Tara Iti is special.

“Tara Iti is unbelievable, it’s a magical place,” Williams said.

A lot of time and money has been required to maintain the fescue fairways and greens at Tara Iti and one of the tricks of the place is that the same grass is used everywhere – it’s just that the greens are cut tighter than the fairways which often makes it hard to judge just where one ends and the other begins. And there are no tee boxes as such, which Williams lauds. “I think it’s great there’s no purposely-built tee boxes – they just put the tee markers down where they want them – it’s very effective.”

Casting and eye down the list of the 10 “true links” course many golf fans might be inclined to say: “Hang on, what about (insert name of favourite seaside course) …?”

The most obvious example is Muriwai on Auckland’s rugged west coast.

Macpherson says the well-loved course ticks nearly every box – it just falls short of because the fairways are kikuyu rather than fescue.  It does have sand dunes, crumpled fairways, tricky bunkers, an almost constant breeze and an impeccable sand base that makes Muriwai and all-year course.

Michael Goldstein, the director of the New Zealand Women’s Open and self-confessed golf junkie who is currently trying to play all of New Zealand’s courses, is more yes than no about Muriwai. “Fundamentally it’s a links course, it’s about as close it gets but it doesn’t play like a links – the grass is a bit too sticky so you don’t get the run, but you don’t want to get too technical on these things.”

Muriwai general manager Andrew Jackson agrees the course is 90 per cent of the way to being a true links course but says kikuyu is almost impossible to eradicate and fescue would struggle to thrive in Auckland’s temperate climate. He says the course also has a few too many pine trees but says they will disappear over time as they age and die.

Jackson said a recent review by Ian Johnston – a panellist for Golf World magazine in the UK – sums up the situation at Muriwai.

“It  is a top 100 UK quality course … it’s that good,” Johnston wrote. “An undulating piece of property on which a links-type round can be enjoyed. A mix of dunes and woods come into play, and all with the sound of the sea rumbling in the background. While not true links turf the course plays as a true links with firm fast fairways and quick greens.”

There are other courses that approximate a links experience in New Zealand and Goldstein’s favourite is Ahipara in the Far North. “That is definitely a links golf course but they can’t maintain, or afford, the right running turf – but not many would die in the ditch arguing over that – there are not many examples like Ahipara around the world.”

Other courses that deliver the links experience include Waipu, north of Auckland, Mahia (Hawkes Bay), Waverley, Waitara (both Taranaki), Ohope (Bay of Plenty), and Otaki, just north of Paraparaumu – “if there was plenty of money Otaki could be like Paraparaumu because it’s got the shapes and the ball rolls,”  Goldstein said.

Ohope Golf Course
Ohope offers a links-like experience. Photo / Michael Donaldson

Macpherson has a list of courses that he tags Y (as in YES definitely a links course), Y-n (Muriwai is YES-no), y-N (some links characteristics but mostly not) and N (parkland courses).

Besides Muriwai others that he has in the strong Y-n category include Ahipara, Clarks Beach (south Auckland), Ohope, Poverty Bay, Fitzroy (Taranaki), Castlecliff (Whanganui), Greenacres (Nelson), Rarangi (Blenheim), Waimarie Beach and Rawhiti (Christchurch), and Riverton.

That’s a petty fine collection of seaside courses – many of which won’t cost you a bomb to play and will give you a great links experience.

But what about tracks away from the ocean that architects have constructed to resemble links – using a combination of sand-based (or sand-capped) rolling fairways, fescue grasses and with that raw and real feel.

Goldstein says one the best examples is Kinloch on the shores of Lake Taupo.

“The link-style courses like Kinloch or maybe Windross Farm take attributes of links courses – a lack of trees, shapes that imitate dunes, three-dimensional golf, and turf that plays like Scotland – and Kinloch is the best example of that,” Goldstein says.

Kinloch director of golf Tom Long describes himself a “purist” when it comes to links golf but for him it’s as much about the experience as the technicalities.

“Being an Englishman I grew up on true links courses in the UK so I’m more of a purist when it comes to links course.

“My view of a links is that you play that running game and can chase a ball through a natural channel to the green – so for me Ohope, for instance, is a true links course. I’m not fussed about the grasses – it’s the approach to the hole, the rolling fairways, the bunkering.

“Kinloch is sometimes referred to as a links course, but in my view it’s more of a hybrid – a cross between links and parkland.” 

The course features fescue in the fairways and rough, and creeping bentgrass greens. The club puts a lot of time and money into keeping out intrusive grasses. The fairways are sand-capped on a pumice base and it drains immaculately, giving that links feel and 365-day playability.

“The fairways are certainly rolling, undulating – the only flat lie you get is on the tee box – if you hit it down the middle of the fairway you’ll either have an uphill lie, downhill lie or a sloping, hanging lie one way or the other – so it has that links feel. But one of the areas it’s not linksy is that you can’t run it up on to the greens because [designer] Jack Nicklaus has guarded them heavily in front.  

 “It’s linksy enough even though it’s not by the sea – people do get a feel of a links when they are here but it’s not a true links. It’s a unique golf course that’s got bits of everything and I haven’t played anything like it around the world.”

While many links courses are often nine holes out and nine holes back – in New Zealand one of the classics for that is Omaha, north of Auckland – Kinloch has very few holes that run parallel to each other. “It’s a journey,” Long says. “The course is designed in such a way that only two holes run parallel to each other – the 10th and 18th – and when you’re out there you feel like you’re the only person on the course – you’re not aware of anyone else. Because of that – if you do get a bit of wind – you get it from different directions on different holes.”

Long says the secret to playing Kinloch is to think strategically. “It’s about placement off the green – you have to be able to shape a ball and have a range of shots. You can’t have a one-dimensional short game – you have to have real imagination. If I had to play one golf course for the rest of my life it would be Kinloch because you’re constantly learning each time you play it.”

In the South Island the best links-style course is probably Cromwell in Central Otago – it has the requisite sand-based fairways with some quirky undulations, and plenty of marram grass away from cut surface.

So, you’re ready to hit the links – what do you need to know?

According to Williams, who knows more than most about links courses, having been on Tiger Woods’ bag for three Open Championship wins, says the secret to links golf is being able to play the ball on the ground where possible.

“When you play the best links courses what makes them hard is the wind. If you play them on a benign day they are relatively easy, ahe defence is the wind – so you have to be able to hit the ball along the ground. You need great feel and you need all the ground shots as the ball gets affected too much if you hit it up in the air. Lots of good players haven’t fared well in Open Championships because they can’t hit the ball low – if you can’t control your ball when the wind gets up you’ve got no chance.

“Around the greens you can’t play flop shots because ground is too tight and it’s hard to get spin, so you need to be able to pitch and run, or putt the ball from off the green. You’ve got to have a good imagination.”