Set on a ridge above the lake, Wanaka Golf Club is a cut above the usual small-town course.

The front nine, unquestionably the better half, is fittingly hilly for a course set in the mountains.

Steady tree-clearing over the past 20 years has opened up the lake views and, on a good day, there are few nicer places in the world to play golf.

Good opening holes are few and far between in New Zealand but Wanaka is one of the lucky few to get off to a memorable start. No gentle handshake, it’s a sturdy 381m par 4 that sweeps down left to right from the tee, with a second shot across a gully to a green that is tough to hold.

The par-3 second is a brute from the back tee at 200m across the gully, which is again in play off the tee from the third, a good drive and pitch hole.

The fourth, a driveable par 4, is much improved after some tweaking from Greg Turner with a green, set almost at a right angle to the line of play, that is hard to hold even with a wedge. It’s a terrific green, although it doesn’t really fit in with the other more rudimentary greens.

Five is another quality par 4 that dog-legs to the left but the highlight of the front nine is the classy 376m seventh.

The elevated tee shot is to a wonderfully rolling fairway and then back up to a plateau green. While it’s possible to reach the valley below the green with a big drive, the better play is shorter out to the right where the lie is level and the green opens up. Named for Mt Iron, which it plays toward, it’s a quality hole that holds its own with the best in the country.

The ninth is another good short dog-leg par 4 to a tricky green that has out of bounds behind and to the right making for another nervy wedge shot.

The back nine, known locally as “the desert”, is not over nearly as interesting ground and also lacks the lake views but there are a couple of note-worthy holes.

The 11th is a 300m short par 4 to an elevated green benched into the side of a hill. Like the best short 4s it’s a hole that has you in two minds as to the best approach – to the base of the hill for a testing chip or a lay-up off the tee so that you can come in with a full iron shot and some spin.

Wanaka finishes as it starts, with a testing dogleg right par 4 that calls for a faded tee shot and long approach into a semi-punchbowl green.

For a relatively short course, about 5700m from the tips, Wanaka offers a surprisingly stiff challenge thanks to the smallish dirt-based greens that can resemble concrete in summer along with a regrettable tendency to over-water the fairways.