It is invite only, has a six-figure membership fee and a strict ‘no assholes’ policy. Michael Donaldson takes a look around Tara Iti, which is destined to become New Zealand’s premiere golfing paradise.

Forget about how the other half live, this is how the “one per cent” do it. Tara Iti, on the coast near Mangawhai, about 90 minutes north of Auckland, is New Zealand’s first American-style private golf club. With the emphasis on private.

Getting information about the members or what they pay to join this elite club is almost impossible.

And most of the information that has filtered into the public domain is dismissed as incorrect by Jim Rohrstaff, who manages real estate sales and memberships for the club.

No, he says, memberships do not cost $175,000. No, the annual fee is not $10,000-$15,000. No, there is no compulsory bar tab of $1000.

One piece of information that did slip through the net was the fact New Zealand’s world No 1 golfer Lydia Ko played a round at Tara Iti with Prime Minister John Key after her victory at the New Zealand Open earlier this year – and the fact that has made its way into the public domain annoys Rohrstaff.

“I was not overly thrilled to see that slip-up. We take the privacy of those that are here very seriously.

“It’s the way we try to do things – people appreciate that they come here without everyone knowing about it whether you’re Joe Smith or the Prime Minister.”

The club will never reveal the names of its members, although former touring professional Greg Turner has been “outed” as a member by course designer Tom Doak, who was rapt to learn Turner thought the course so good he was prepared to pay for a membership out of his own pocket – something he has never done in his adult life.

The membership will be capped at about 250. There is a joining fee (confidential). There is an annual fee (confidential). There is no compulsory bar tab.

If a member wants to play, they also have to stay the night on the property – which they pay for – and they must take a caddy, again paid for as an extra.

It’s part of the club’s philosophy of taking golf back to a simple, natural experience.

There are no golf carts allowed on the course and all players walk.

Whatever the cost to members – you can rest assured we are talking well into six figures – it’s an incredibly expensive way to play the game but that’s because Kiwis don’t understand the American model of private clubs, which are as much about socialising as recreation.

The swamp kauri fire pit at Tara Iti
The swamp kauri fire pit at Tara Iti. Photo / Michael Donaldson

Nor do they fully appreciate the value of high-end golf, Rohrstaff says.

As an American who has lived in New Zealand for the past two years, Rohrstaff has discovered not many things here are “undervalued” relative to the United States – but healthcare and golf are two.

“From a US perspective, the healthcare system here is inexpensive. The fact the Government provides healthcare for its citizens is phenomenal.

“A lot of things here are expensive but golf and healthcare are definitely undervalued.”

Golf, perhaps because we have more golf clubs per capita than any country bar Scotland, is accessible and cheap.

It’s a message Ko has preached on the world stage. Whenever she has been asked about the advantages of learning the game here, she always refers to how cheap it is compared with her birth country of Korea. Her first membership cost just $100 at Pupuke.

Tara Iti is not open to just the people with the fattest wallets, however.

No dicks allowed

The philosophy of the club is summed up in a “no assholes” policy depicted on the wall of the locker room – in an excerpt from Oliver Horovitz’s An American Caddie in St Andrews, where he laments the rude Americans who swear, throw clubs, blame others for their bad play and generally make life intolerable for those around them.

Instead, to gain entry to Tara Iti, members have to pass the equivalent of a personality test, with extensive background checks and interviews before they are welcomed in.

And yes, Rohrstaff has turned away people despite the fact they were more than capable of paying their dues.

The flipside is that although it’s incredibly private, it’s not impossible for Joe Hacker to be invited for a round.

“We require a letter of introduction from your club and then we ask that you stay on site in the member cottages,” Rohrstaff says.

The letter of introduction is because “we want to know who is coming – we look at the club as an extension of our home and you’re not typically going to have strangers come and stay in your home”, he said. Any visit, however, is strictly a one-off deal.

If you’re not a member you get just one chance to play.

“It’s a one-time visit, but that’s not defined by one round and one night. If you wanted to come up and stay for a week and play 36 holes a day that’s fantastic – but as a non-member-sponsored guest, it’s a one-time shot.”

The one-time access for members of the public was a philosophy the team at Tara Iti borrowed from the exclusive Sand Hills club in Nebraska – the private nature of the club is highly valued but they have no wish to deny others the experience.

“We know a lot of people come down to New Zealand just once in their life and they are playing Cape Kidnappers, Jacks Points, The Hills, Kauri Cliffs.

“And we thought, ‘What a shame if they make it down once in their life and don’t get to have the best golf experience in New Zealand, in fact one of the best golf experiences anywhere in the world’.

“We are here for our members first and foremost but if we have availability and people go through the right process we would love to have them – and we will roll out the red carpet and treat them no differently to our members.

“We are very welcoming – but in a specific and limited manner.”

Rohrstaff won’t quote prices to stay – you get that when you go through the process – but says they are comparable to Cape Kidnappers or Kauri Cliffs, which charge anywhere between $2500-$4000 a night depending on the season and the type of accommodation.

The set-up at Tara Iti, while simple, is as good as you’ll find at Huka Lodge or any other high-end New Zealand lodge and the golf experience is quite simply other-worldly.

Open barely a year, the course has already been named New Zealand’s best by Australian Golf Digest – and is expected to vault into the influential top-100 lists created annually by various golf magazines in the United States.

Owned by American Ric Kayne – regarded as an alternative investment strategist – and New Zealand developer John Darby, Tara Iti was designed by renowned American architect Tom Doak, who somehow visualised the course while it was still covered in pine trees, using nothing more than topographical maps and a torch to illuminate the dark forest.

He has created a sense of romance and a simple connection to nature.

The unadorned course gives you constant views of the coastline and offshore islands – Little Barrier, Great Barrier, Tauranga, the Coromandel Peninsula in the distance, Mangawhai Heads – you are never hidden from the views or the crashing waves on the white sand beach.

The perfectly formed layout is pure in the sense it’s created to reflect the way golf would have been played in Scotland over a century ago.

One of the charms is the lack of differentiation between the fairways and greens, apart from the length of the grass and the fact the greens are rolled to a more compact state. The fairways are mowed to 10mm and the greens to 5mm.

For golf nerds, the course is true links, with fescue grass covering both fairways and greens. There are no traditional tee boxes – rather, rambling areas contain any number of possible starting positions for each hole. The course has no rough, no bunkers, no trees – well, there’s one tree but it’s not in anyone’s way.

We are very welcoming – but in a specific and limited manner.
Instead of traditional hazards waste areas are formed by sand dunes and maritime grasses. The facilities are elegantly understated. The club house has a minimalist design but everything is done to the highest standard.

Near the 18th green, just in front of the clubhouse, is a collection of swamp kauri logs placed around a firepit where members can sit and enjoy the setting sun with a local beer in hand.

A set of eight cabins, each with two rooms (king beds, ensuite) either side of a central lounge-kitchen are set in a secluded part of the property.

Nothing is spared in the luxury stakes in terms of wine (free-flowing from Amisfield), food (gourmet), comfort and linen.

There’s also the option of “glamping” on site. Tented accommodation is judiciously set up among the sandhills, the tents spray-coated in sand to blend in with the surroundings.

Whatever your bank balance, a stay at Tara Iti – if you can get in – will make you feel like a millionaire.