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.

Reader’s Trip Report: Askernish Golf Club, South Uist, Scotland

Askernish satellite view

Askernish is on the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, off the coast of northwestern Scotland. 

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I first visited in 2007, on assignment for Golf Digest, and I went back late the following year on assignment for The New Yorker. Getting to South Uist requires determination. In 2007, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, which is one island to the north and is connected to South Uist by a half-mile-long causeway: 

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In the air, I looked down, through breaks in the clouds, on the fjord-like creases that rumple Scotland’s west coast and on the waters of the Minch, the stormy channel that separates the Outer Hebrides from the Scottish mainland. The only other passengers were the day’s newspapers and two guys accompanying a load of cash for ATMs in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, where we stopped first. Here are the newspapers, in containers belted into the seats:

newspapers on plane

In 2008, I took a ferry from Oban, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Glasgow. The ferry sails three or four times a week and makes a brief stop at Barra, another island. I actually could have flown to Barra, although the flight schedule depends on the tides, because Barra’s runway is a beach:

Barra runway

The South Uist ferry trip takes about six and a half hours in good weather. We passed the islands of Mull, Coll, Muck, Eigg, Rum, Sanday, Sundray, Vatersay, Hellisay, Gighay, and Stack, among others. We also passed this lighthouse, on a tiny island called Eilean Musdile. It’s just off the shore of a larger island, called Lismore, which has a population of 146. The lighthouse was built in 1833:

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Until 1974, cars on the South Uist ferry had to be loaded and unloaded with a crane, like freight; nowadays, you drive on and drive off. The ferry docks in Lochboisdale, a few miles from Askernish:

Lochboisdale harbor

The original course at Askernish was laid out in 1891 by Old Tom Morris. At some point, probably during the Second World War, most of Morris’s holes were abandoned, and until roughly a decade ago they were essentially forgotten. Since then, a plausible version of the old course has been restored, by a group that included Gordon Irvine, a Scottish golf-course consultant; Martin Ebert, an English golf architect and links-course specialist; Mike Keiser, the founder of Bandon Dunes; and Ralph Thompson, who used to be the manager of the island’s main agricultural supply store and now works full-time as the golf club’s chairman and principal promoter. Here are Irvine and Ebert, discussing the routing in 2008:

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My New Yorker article about Askernish caught the attention David Currie, a reader and retired investment banker who lives on a small farm outside Toronto. (He’s front-row-center in the photo below.)  He first visited Askernish in 2010, and has since joined the club and returned two more times—most recently in June, for the first annual gathering of its “life members.” (I’m one, too, but couldn’t make it.)

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Currie also sent two photos of the course. Here’s the eighth hole:

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And here’s the sixteenth, Old Tom’s Pulpit, which is one of my favorite holes anywhere:]

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Currie writes:

I had always known that my roots were in the west coast of Scotland. Although my paternal grandparents came from the Glasgow area, I was aware that the Currie DNA was scattered along the coastal shores north of Glasgow. (Apparently, my ancestors slept around.) Other than that, I had little family history to go by. In 2011, Ralph Thompson mentioned that a Robert Currie had traveled to South Uist from New York to meet with the local council about erecting a memorial cairn acknowledging the contribution of Clan Currie to the cultural development of the island. I was present at the dedication of the cairn, in 2012:

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MacMhuirich was our original name centuries ago. And here’s a shot of my opportunistic wife, Liz, who never could resist a handsome man with his own whiskey bottle. Actually, the handsome man is Alasdair Macdonald, the owner of the croft where the cairn was erected:

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The Life Members Challenge was a Stableford. Currie came in second, one point behind Eric Iverson, an associate of the architect Tom Doak (who also played).

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Currie continues:
The initial six holes at Askernish can cause one to question what the fuss is all about. They are certainly quite nice, but nothing unusual or special. However, the WOW factor kicks in as you climb the dunes from sixth green to seventh tee and you stand there gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, but I wasn’t about to allow that to happen, at least until I finished my round!

If you visit South Uist, drive carefully. Most of the roads are single-lane, and you have to share them.

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