Golf architecture buff Phil Hamilton rates his top-10 New Zealand courses.

New Zealand has among the most golf courses per capita in the world but until recently the quality of those courses, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, was pretty ropey.

However, over the past generation that has changed thanks to the investment of a couple of exceedingly wealthy Americans and the work of some talented architects, including a few home-grown designers.

With summer here and the days getting longer we evaluate the best of the bunch, although our rankings are done with a couple of differences.

Most magazine rankings use resistance to scoring as one of their main criteria but we prefer to concentrate on fun. Any mug can make a hard course (just lengthen and sprinkle liberally with water and sand), the real skill is to make a course that is challenging and enjoyable for both average and good golfers.

Superior conditioning is always nice but tends to be over-emphasised, resulting in rankings being dominated by bland resort courses.

Instead we focus on the quality of the design and the most important factor – how keen are you to get back out there again?

  1. Tara Iti

It is strange that New Zealand, a country with such a large coastline and so many golf clubs, has such a shortage of good links courses. Thankfully, we now have one that ranks with the very best in the world.

High praise indeed but Tara Iti (100 kilometres north of Auckland on the east coast) is already being mentioned in the same breath as Cypress Point by some architecture critics. This is a masterpiece and quite clearly it is New Zealand’s best course by some distance.

There is not a single ordinary hole and the highlights are plentiful. The par threes are fantastic as a set and individually, with the 15th the best of the bunch. It has two superb short par 4s – the devilish seventh and uphill 13th. Both entice golfers to throw caution to the wind by grabbing driver when a more sensible lay-up is the better play.

There are also some burly two-shotters with the sixth a particular standout, with its rumpled fairway that looks like a set of waves marching towards the tee. The eighth is a strategic delight, asking you to hit over a cross bunker to earn a better angle into the sloped green. Anyone who shies away from the bunker is left with a demanding approach into a green that runs away.

The third is another highlight with a unique punchbowl green that means the flag is often out of sight from the fairway, while the 14th offers one of the widest fairways in the country but asks you to drive down the left to hit a speed slot and receive a far superior angle into the green.

The course concludes with a par five across another gloriously rumpled fairway to a green with a treacherous false front.

This is a truly beautiful spot by Mangawhai Heads but the quality of the golf outdoes even the views.

  1. Paraparaumu

Until Tara Iti opened last year, Paraparaumu had been the country’s best course since it was rebuilt by Alex Russell in 1946.

Although crammed into a relatively small piece of land, Paraparaumu is a masterful example of how best to utilise the humps and bumps of the sand dunes.

The collection of par threes is the equal of any course in New Zealand with the most fearsome this country’s answer to the Postage Stamp, No 16. Just 130m it can ruin a score card with a misjudged tee shot into the small green, benched into a dune, leaving a golfer with few recovery options.

But it’s the par fours that are the real strength here. The eighth, 13th, 15th and 17th are all superb holes and the equal of any in New Zealand. The 17th demands a tee shot over bunkers to get the best angle into an angled green with a brutal drop-off on one side while the short eighth tempts the unwary into the direct route.

The 13th is a burly two-shotter with a drive to another rumpled fairway and then a long second uphill to a green benched into another dune.

There are a couple of weak holes early in the back nine but otherwise it’s a top-class course which is enormously fun to play.

  1. Cape Kidnappers

Tom Doak’s first course in New Zealand is a stunner. Built high above the ocean on a Te Awanga sheep farm in the Hawke’s Bay, it’s a subtle masterpiece despite the jaw-dropping views.

While it’s the holes along the cliffs that are most often photographed, the inland holes are easily their equal.

The seventh, 14th, 17th and 18th are all top-class holes with the finisher a fitting climax. The closer you can drive to a gully, the better the angle into a lovely punchbowl green.

The 15th Pirate’ Plank is the most photographed hole but is curiously bland when played. Basically a flat par five that heads out on a finger that narrows towards the green. The terrors of this hole are almost subliminal. While the fairway is plenty wide, as it needs to be with the constant wind, you are always conscious that there is a drop of 100 metres on the left and a gully on the right, so it is played as if walking on eggshells.

The par threes are also good with the long sixth and short 13th the pick of the bunch.

  1. Titirangi

The only course in New Zealand designed by the greatest course architect, Alister MacKenzie, Auckland’s Titirangi has stood the test of time.

Like all his courses, it plays longer than the listed 7200 yards suggests thanks to MacKenzie’s clever mix of short and long par fours. That mix means a lot of birdie looks on holes like the first, second, eighth, 15th and 18th. However, on the third, ninth, 12th and 17th a par can feel like a birdie depending on the wind direction.

While almost all the par fours are good, the third and sixth, with it’s sharply uphill approach to a tiered green, are notable as is the 15th with it’s green that runs away and the 16th that plays across a jumbled fairway and gully to a narrow plateau green. It’s also nice to finish with a birdie chance rather than the formulaic tough closer.

The par threes are superb individually, although one mild criticism is that on some days three out of the four can require the same club.

The 13th, the Wrecker, is one of the best par fives in the country with a semi-blind tee shot across a gully that is used brilliantly through much of the back nine.

Titirangi Golf Club par-3 14th hole
The 14th hole at Titirangi. Photo / Doug White
  1. Kauri Cliffs

Another resort course built on cliff tops above the Pacific Ocean. This one – 115km north of Whangarei – was financier Julian Robertson’s first course in New Zealand (followed shortly afterwards by Kidnappers).

While the views are spectacular, the problem with cliff-top courses is the high winds that can make them tough without the respite provided by dunes. Sensibly the fairways are wide to allow for this and follow the lay of the land nicely. While being wide, the golfer who can hit to right part of the fairway is rewarded with better angles into the greens.

The par threes are spectacular to look at but the fifth, seventh and 12th have too much carry (particularly the seventh on the windier days), although to be fair there is a bailout option on the fifth.

After a solid start, the par-fifth begins the real golf with a risk-reward par-five, where there is the option of reaching the green in two on calmer days.

The highlight of the course, though, is the stretch from 14 to 17 with the last the best of the bunch. Another Cape hole, the golfer needs to know his own game and how far he can drive to a fairway that is angled to the left and falls to a green with a beautiful backdrop.

Impeccably conditioned, this is a fantastic experience although the quality of the holes doesn’t quite measure up to the views.

  1. Arrowtown

Often under-rated because of it’s lack of length, Arrowtown is a unique course and certainly among the most fun in the country. The high-profile neighbouring courses may get all the publicity but they can’t match the charm of this gem.

The front nine is a delight, with one stand-out hole after another through schist-lined fairways, where driver is usually not the best option.

The second presents you with an impossibly narrow path with rocks on both sides though it plays wider thanks to the valley fairway.

The fourth asks you to drive as close to the gully as possible to get a view of the small green, if you shy away from the trouble you are left with a blind shot. The fifth again demands a brave tee shot to get the best angle, as does the ninth which has been greatly improved thanks to the work of local designer Greg Turner. The seventh and eighth are also quality par fours while the sixth is a lovely short hole.

The back nine is not as good as the front, although it does have some highlights, particularly the par-three 14th and 16th holes, and the 18th is a fitting finish.

  1. Jack’s Point

Jack’s Point is something of a flawed masterpiece. The course, near Queenstown, looks fantastic and fits the land beautifully. However, in places aesthetics seem to have been favoured over playability and the finish (long par four alongside a lake) could have been lifted from a modern template of resort courses, which is a pity.

But, make no mistake, there are some holes of rare quality and it is a blast to play as long as you are driving straight.

The designer, John Darby, has said he likes his courses to look hard and play easy. Well, he got that right on the fine opening hole but the second looks hard and is hard. It’s the first of several uphill holes to plateau greens, a feature that is overdone, although given the hilliness of the course it’s understandable. The second is a good hole, if a bit narrow, but the best of these holes is the glorious 15th which is a version of the classic Cape hole but with a rock wall standing in for the usual lake edge.

It’s a toss-up whether this or the par-five fifth are the best holes. The fifth is a fine risk-reward hole that horseshoes around a wetland and gives you the first glimpse of Lake Wakatipu.

From there the highlights come thick and fast. The sixth is a driveable par four and the seventh a lovely drop-shot short hole to an infinity green. The eighth is another quality par five and then there are a couple of shorter par fours where your score can get away from you in the matagouri if you’re not careful.

The 13th is another cracking par three and the 16th is a thrilling driving hole to a split fairway that plunges downwards.

  1. Royal Wellington

Having been forewarned of an opening drive over a river, the first at Heretaunga was something of an anti-climax. But only because the river turned out to be a stream and the hole wasn’t at all intimidating. However, that was to be the last disappointment.

The course was recently redesigned by Greg Turner and Scott Macpherson who have done a wonderful job. It now has some of the most interesting greens in the country and holes to match.

There are a great set of par threes beginning with the third, that has a tremendous green made up of two distinct bowls, with lots of scope for banking shots into difficult pins.

The following hole is the best of the par fives with an undulating fairway and stream running at an angle that forces a decision on how much to bite off, particularly on a windy day.

The par fours are equally good with the 299m 14th a highlight with those braving the right-hand hazard rewarded with a better angle into the green. The punchbowl on the 17th is also good as is the seventh with its dastardly hump in the middle of the green.

But the best of a good bunch is the all-world fifth hole. Once again it rewards those who can play close to the stream by giving them the best angle into a diabolical turtleback green that is tough to hold even from close range.

  1. The Hills (Arrowtown)

This is certainly among the most beautiful courses in the world, with the contrasting colours of the grasses and the astonishing sculptures spread along the way. It is a lovely walk and the quality of the holes is good, even if they don’t quite match the surrounds for interest.

The start is solid but unspectacular with the first real highlight the fifth, a delightful short par four with a wicked push-up green that can give the unwary fits.

Unfortunately it is followed by the sixth, which feels out of kilter with the rest of the course due to its unforgiving all-carry second shot across a lake.

The eighth is a great long par four which seems partly inspired by the neighbouring Arrowtown with the visual deception on the second shot across outcrops of schist, while the 10th is a fantastic par three to a target that looks deceptively small from the tee.

The back nine builds to a tremendous finish with the highlight a par-five 17th through a canyon, although the 14th and 15th are both also good. The par-three 16th is great fun too with it’s punishing false front and much of the green hidden from the tee.

  1. Kinloch

Kinloch, near Taupo, is a fantastic looking course, full of interest with rumpled fairways, crazy greens and in impeccable condition.

Unfortunately it doesn’t live up to the promise of its appearance. While it has some good holes, with the fourth and fifth the pick of them, too many are over-bunkered.

Despite the over-bunkering, there are stretches of holes that aren’t particularly memorable or, in some cases, memorable for the wrong reasons.

There are a number of holes with alternate fairways but they don’t seem to work as there is no difficult decision to make – there is always one clearly superior route to the green.

The 16th epitomises this as the alternate route of the left would only be taken by someone with a death wish (or a lot more talent than most). The hole is made even worse by some totally unnecessary bunkering right where most players are looking to lay up. The steep fall-off to a gully would be more than enough punishment.

There are also too many forced carries off the tee, particularly for a course that gets its fair share of wind.

The greens have a lot of contour and there is plenty of fun to be had playing inventive shots off backboards to get the ball close to the hole.

While fun to play, you are left with the feeling it could have been a lot better.