Golf in New Zealand: Cape Kidnappers

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I visited New Zealand on a reporting assignment in 2007. I was the guest of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, who has since died. We spent most of our time at Kauri Cliffs, a huge property Robertson owns at the northern end of the North Island. (You can read about that part of my trip here and here.) On Sunday, the Robertsons attended the early service at the tiny Anglican church in Kerikeri. “If you believe in a deity, you owe that deity an hour a week,” Robertson told me.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

Then we headed south, to Cape Kidnappers, Robertson’s other big real-estate holding on the North Island. (He also owns 11,000 acres on the South Island.) The trip takes about ten hours if you go by car, but it’s quicker if you travel as we did: by helicopter to Auckland and then by Gulfstream to Hawkes Bay.

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The Gulfstream part of our journey was so short that the plane never really flew level: we went up, then we went down. In fact, the most grueling leg was probably the final one, the drive from the front gate at Cape Kidnappers to the clubhouse, a five-mile trip that, if you observe the posted speed limit and brake for wandering cattle, can take a half an hour.

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We made that drive in a rental car, which we had picked up at the little airport in Hawkes Bay. I went into the terminal with Diana McCarty, Robertson’s director of New Zealand operations, to make the arrangements. As we crossed the tarmac, she commented that people inside the terminal would probably be wondering who I was, since I had just emerged from a $40-million aircraft accompanied by a blond who was young enough to be my third wife. A useful rule of thumb, when evaluating any remark made to you by an attractive woman much younger than yourself, is that if you aren’t sure whether the remark was an insult, it was an insult. Nevertheless, I sucked in my gut and walked a little taller.

That little building in the distance is the clubhouse.

That little building in the distance is the Cape Kidnappers clubhouse.

The golf course at Cape Kidnappers was designed by Tom Doak, but it wouldn’t have been if Robertson, back in 2001, hadn’t received what he initially believed to be shabby treatment at Bandon Dunes, which had opened two years before. He was visiting with his sons and had expected to play the already legendary Bandon Dunes course twice. Sorry, he was told; you’ll have to play our new course, Pacific Dunes, first. Robertson was furious—he has a temper, which he has worked for years to control—but his anger vanished after a few holes, and he hired Doak to design a course for him, too.

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Doak creates magical golf holes by seemingly doing little more than identifying them in the existing terrain, rather than by dynamiting them out of bedrock. He views a bulldozer as a construction tool of last resort, and he likes brown grass and doesn’t like chemicals. “Cape Kidnappers cost half as much to build as Kauri Cliffs,” Robertson told me, “and it costs half as much to maintain.”

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Both courses are laid out on sheep-and-cattle farms on high cliffs above the Pacific, but the climate, topography, and general feel are very different. The most visually impressive holes at Kidnappers, if you view the course from the air, are the ones that run out and back over several finger-like promontories, which reach out toward the water, high above the waves — although the best holes, I think, are inland. (From the ground, the promontory holes don’t really feel as though they’re perched on promontories. You need a helicopter to get the full effect.)

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The lodge at Cape Kidnappers is called the Farm, and it’s just as nice as the one at Kauri Cliffs. If you’re pretty rich, you should spend a couple of weeks there with your wife:

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It was still under construction, so we stayed in Te Awanga, at a bed-and-breakfast place called Merriwee, which Doak discovered. The Robertsons had stayed there often, and had become good friends with the owner, a divorced woman with grown children who filled in occasionally as a substitute kindergarten teacher, and several of her neighbors. Her house is more than a century old.

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Here’s Robertson, sneaking something from the breakfast table:

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The Robertsons left the next day, because they had business elsewhere. I rented a car of my own and drove back to Kidnappers for a final round. A huge rainstorm had been predicted for the afternoon, but it disappeared somewhere over the Pacific, leaving only tremendous banks of fast-moving clouds, which the setting sun lit up. I had the course virtually to myself, and got around on foot in just a couple of hours. I had a new driver—one of those big square ones that sounded like fungo bats—and it echoed all over the course. I tried to swing it quietly so that the pro wouldn’t know how many balls I was playing. The only tiny seed of disappointment, lurking in the back of my mind, was my knowledge that, the following evening, I would be on my way home.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007.

Golf in New Zealand: Post-golf Activities

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me of my happiest memories of New Zealand involve activities that weren’t golf—a first for me on any trip for which my luggage includes my clubs. I ate great food and met nice people, and I saw basking seals, a twenty-one-hundred-year-old tree, and stingrays nearly the size of Stingrays. I also saw sharks, from a helicopter. They were feeding near the breakers a hundred feet off Ninety Mile Beach, a strip of sand that runs up the northwestern edge of the North Island. As the pilot took us down for a closer look, I asked whether the presence of large marine carnivores so close to the water’s edge didn’t deter swimmers. “Oh, no,” he said. “Most of the swimmers don’t know they’re there.”

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Shark-spotting was just one small part of day-long menu of activities known locally as the Full Julian, after Julian Robertson, the creator and owner of Kauri Cliffs, the resort where I was staying. Four other guests and I traveled by helicopter to the Waipoua Forest, where our Maori guide sang a song of tribute to Tane Mahuta, an enormous kauri tree that predates Christianity:

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Then we flew to the northern tip of the island and hovered above a turbulent spot, just off the coast, where Pacific Ocean currents collide with those of the Tasman Sea:

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Then we set down for a beach picnic:

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And then we raced down dunes on rented ATVs. Here’s our adult supervision, standing at the top of a dune we were about to race down:

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And here’s what the same dune looked like from the bottom:

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Everyone made it down. I don’t remember how we got back up.

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Two nights later, I did something that surprised me by being even more fun: I went midnight possum hunting, under the supervision of a Kauri Cliffs employee who is a veteran of the British equivalent of the Green Berets. All New Zealand mammals, except for a couple of rare species of bats, were introduced to the islands by humans and are thus considered varmints until proven otherwise. Possums—which are bushier and less sinister-looking than American opossums—were imported in 1836 by some Australians who were hoping to establish a fur trade. Now there are 80 million of them, and they eat the eggs of the kiwi, New Zealand’s nearly extinct flightless national bird, and they have no natural predators, except people. I hadn’t fired a gun since summer camp in Colorado, forty years before, and was astonished to discover I have a talent for felling treed marsupials with single shots to the head. I had been a somewhat reluctant participant in our hunting expedition, but if, toward the end, our guide had suggested that we stay out till dawn I would have eagerly agreed. Possum-killin’ was also the favorite Kauri Cliffs activity of the golfers Dave Stockton and Dave Stockton, Jr., who, during a visit shortly before mine, went out every night.

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One afternoon, following a round of golf, I toured the entire property with the man in charge of the agricultural side of Robertson’s New Zealand operation. (That’s him in the photo above.) We visited the sheep-shearing shed, climbed over a 9000-volt electric fence, scaled an old volcano whose summit is the highest point on the farm, visited a couple of stunning beaches, saw some cattle that were about to be slaughtered, and ran into the Kauri Cliffs farm manager, who was responsible for twenty-five hundred beef cattle and five thousand sheep. The manager was wearing a golf hat and driving a big ATV, and there were three scruffy farm dogs standing just behind his seat. He said, “Kauri Cliffs is not a golf course with a farm on it. It’s a 6,000-acre-farm with a golf course at one end.” Then he roared off, and the dogs, like surfers, had to shift their weight in complicated ways to keep from falling off.

It’s summer in New Zealand right now. Do you understand what I’m saying?

To be continued.

Golf in New Zealand: Kauri Cliffs

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One of the most remarkable things my wife has ever said to me is that, if I ever told her I thought we ought to live in New Zealand, she’d be ready to move that minute. This was highly surprising, both because she doesn’t really even like to travel and because Donald Trump wasn’t running for President yet. I think her interest was based partly on the scenery in The Lord of the Rings movies and partly on the fact that New Zealand is so far from everywhere else that if you holed up there you would no longer have to think quite so much about the world’s most serious problems. I myself might be tempted to move, if I could persuade all my regular golf buddies to go, too.

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I visited New Zealand in 2007, in the company of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie—who has since died.

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We spent the first few days at Kauri Cliffs, a resort the they had created on a 6,000-acre farm in the Bay of Islands region, near the northern end of the North Island. “I had no idea what I’d bought,” he told me. “It turned out to be one of the most magical pieces of land you will ever see, but when I bought it I didn’t even know that it had waterfalls. I saw it at the worst time of the year, August, and it was nothing but a filthy wet sheep farm, and I really bought it mainly because it was cheaper than a modest New York City apartment.”

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In 1997, he hired David Harman, a golf architect he admired, to design a course for the eastern edge of the property, along cliffs that rise high above the Pacific. That course is now No. 49 on Golf Digest’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. It’s just ahead of North Berwick Golf Club, in Scotland—one of my favorite golf courses of all time. Kauri Cliffs is a terrific course, too, and the views from the ocean holes are spectacular.

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Josie didn’t see the place until the course was almost finished, and when she did she said they would have to build a lodge, too, in order to attract enough golfers to keep the course in operation. “I said, That’s ridiculous, this is a great golf course and they will come,” Julian told me. “Well, Josie was right; they wouldn’t have come. Kauri Cliffs is about as far away from everywhere else as you can get, so it was a real stroke of genius of hers that we did it. And, as it turns out, the lodge business down here has been very, very good.”

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The accommodations at Kauri Cliffs consist of eleven two-bedroom cottages arranged along a secluded walking path, plus the Owner’s Cottage, which is larger, has its own garden and infinity-edge swimming pool, and can be rented (for more than $6,000 a night in the high season) when the Robertsons aren’t in residence. Each suite-size half-cottage has a porch, fireplace, dressing room, and spa-like bathroom, and it looks out over the golf course to the sea. This was the view from my room:

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When the resort was being designed, Josie had a big fight with the architect over air-conditioning: the architect argued that no self-respecting five-star hotel could possibly do without it, and Josie argued that it most definitely could. The winner, naturally, was Josie—and she was right. The outdoor daytime temperature at Kauri Cliffs hovers around room temperature virtually all year long, and one of the great pleasures of staying there is waking up to birds and ocean breezes rather than the cold hum of an HVAC system.

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To be continued.