New Zealand's hidden golfing gems

OFF THE BEATEN FAIRWAY: Country Courses of New Zealand takes golfers on a journey from Stewart Island to Waitangi.
OFF THE BEATEN FAIRWAY: Country Courses of New Zealand takes golfers on a journey from Stewart Island to Waitangi.

When New Zealand is sold as a golf holiday destination the talk is of Millbrook, Kauri Cliffs, Cape Kidnappers and Wairakei.

They are the crown jewels in our golfing landscape and good enough to lure overseas tourists with promises of stunning scenery and beautiful layouts. And pricey green fees to match.

There's a flip side to this golf holiday experience - the courses you go to when you're already on holiday, where you can wear board shorts and T-shirt. Not necessarily destinations in their own right, these are the hidden gems, off the beaten fairway.

Some of them are captured in a new book I've just written in partnership with photographer Niels Schipper, Country Courses of New Zealand.

They are not the sum total of New Zealand's best country courses - it took some robust discussion with Mr Golf, Philip Leishman, to whittle a shortlist down to a final, golf-oriented, number of 18.

I wasn't too sure about Leishman's enthusiasm for Eketahuna but he twisted my arm and I'm glad he did. Though the course is covered in sheep and their droppings, it offered moments of pure joy, including firm and true greens and a series of back nine holes that would entertain and torment golfers of all abilities. For things to do in the Wairarapa it's up there with a visit to the Tui brewery just up the road.

If you find yourself in the far north this summer, treat yourself to a round at Waitangi, where the back nine, water-laced holes offer stunning views across to Russell.

Or just south of Whangarei, pop into Waipu, a sand-based links course that runs right down to the wide and glistening ocean at Bream Bay. In the distance are Taranga and Lady Alice islands. Take your togs and go for a swim before sitting on the clubhouse verandah and enjoying the view.

North of East Coast holiday spots Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay is a wee gem. Te Puia Hot Springs is short (a par-66) and features only 16 holes (one you play twice and another is played from different tees) but they are intelligently crammed into a limited space full of charm and warmth - it felt like playing in someone's backyard.

At Mahia, just before the town and across the road from the thumping ocean of Hawke's Bay (the body of water, not the province), there are nine holes laid out in a rumpled splendour of clever mounds, hillocks and doglegs. It reminded me of a mini-version of my home course at Muriwai and it was a pleasure to be out there as the sun went down on a late-summer round.

Not all the courses are purely rural. Only an hour out of Auckland, perched at the southern end of the expansive Kaipara Harbour, is South Head, the course that had its moment of fame when Steve Williams, the local lad made good as an international caddie, was still in the employ of Tiger Woods and the two called themselves "mates". Woods, here for Williams' 2005 wedding, did the bag-carrying in a pre-nuptial outing at South Head and had a burger in the clubhouse afterwards. Their picture still adorns the wall. It's worth a visit for that and the thrill of standing on the 17th tee with a sinuous and sensuous hole sprawled in front of you. Even Woods would have found it sexy.

Waitara, north of Taranaki, has some truly stupendous holes, including a magnificent plateau that looks like the mountain from Close Encounters. The back nine holes that run alongside the ocean are a real challenge.

Hunterville is not a holiday destination but if you're passing through the area, you must call in at Rangitikei. I don't think I've enjoyed the finish to any round as much as at this spectacular course, carved into three tiers on the banks of the Rangitikei River. The 18th green is almost a vertical drop below the first tee. The only way up is a cable car offering a ride that wouldn't be out of place at the fun fair. It's not for the faint-hearted or those scared of heights. And in the modern world of resource consent and occupational safety, it would never get built.

I cannot, hand on heart, say Nopera, in Kenepuru Sound, Marlborough, is worth the slow and winding road trip needed to get there but if you're in the Sounds and want some fun, catch the water taxi to a golf course with greens that are little more than electric-fenced, mown patches and fairways are sheep-dung-coated and slightly confusing. In terms of resort courses such as Kauri Cliffs and Millbrook, Nopera is like the down and out relative, but with a real sense of humour.

Speaking of resorts - if you're in Queenstown and don't want to pay the big bucks for a round at Jack's Point or Millbrook, go to Arrowtown.

In fact, go to Arrowtown anyway. Rugged, rocky, with terraced and rock-lined fairways, it offers exquisite views of the snow-capped mountains and is a perfect holiday option.

Further south, there is a course so remote and humble it's a real secret - even the locals don't know it exists. Yet there are Americans and Brits who come halfway around the world to play at Oreti Sands. The first five holes feel lost and wondrous - just you, an expanse of sky, the forlorn cry of gulls carried on the energetic breeze and a truly beautiful links layout. If you love golf you have to play here before you die.

At the end of the country, Ringa Ringa Heights on Stewart Island is only six holes, there's an incredibly steep hill in the middle and the greens are like squirrels - small and furry - but this is a wonderful setting. The views are equal to any I've seen, with the course perched on a finger of land between Halfmoon Bay and Paterson Inlet. If you're a tourist, the fact you have to hire clubs at the post office back in town only adds to the romance.

Country Courses of New Zealand, by Michael Donaldson and Niels Schipper, Penguin, RRP $60.

Sunday Star Times