There are not many days as an adult where you get those same tingling feelings you had as a five-year old waiting for Christmas morning. For me, I experienced this excitement just recently when, at 8am, I was waiting at the construction gate of New Zealand’s most exciting golf course build projects in many years. Te Arai Links.
Located 20-minutes south of Mangawhai, the course is being developed by Ric Kayne who also developed the world-famous Tara Iti Golf Club and his partner Jim Rohrstaff, also involved in the creation of Tara Iti. My host for the tour was Jim Rohrstaff, Managing Director, Te Arai Links. And guess what? The visit was as good as any youngster’s favourite memories of Christmas, and I only got to see 11 holes.
How cool is Te Arai Links?
There have been a lot of rumours running around the NZ golf scene about how good it is, how the holes go and ‘will it or will it not be’ as good as Tara Iti? To be honest, the answer to that will be based on individual preference; certainly, from my time playing and walking around Tara Iti and then seeing Te Arai Links, that would be like having to pick your favourite child when you love them both. On the day, any course can cause you anguish or be a pure delight but in the end, you will always love them.
So what makes Te Arai Links so special?
That is probably the outstanding landscape and how the architecture team of Coore Crenshaw have embraced it. They have designed a golf course that will be extremely playable for all levels of golfers and where the views of the ocean are stunning. Bill Coore, the golf architect, has been very hands-on making several trips to New Zealand and enduring three stints in MIQ over the past year. That gives you just some indication of the passion that Bill has put into this project, as not many would have been keen to repeat an MIQ experience.
The local Maori meaning of Te Arai is “the other side of the veil” and it does summarise the area very well. As you play from the 1st tee, the land, the surrounding terrain and the ocean are all unveiled as you play. This is a special place for the local Iwi and they continue to be involved in the land, local plantings, habitat development and protection of the wetlands. Plus, with over 150+ jobs being created from the golf development, this will provide employment opportunities for local Iwi and nearby communities.
When I visited the clubhouse, which will house the golf shop, the locker rooms and reception areas, it was halfway through construction. The practice fairway out in front meanwhile is potentially ready to be used. The clubhouse itself is not a particularly spacious one, but it blends in with the surrounds, along with the soon to be completed 48 accommodation units (called the suites), with more units to be constructed in the next phase, including two-bedroom cottages and four-bedroom villas.
My first “Wow” moment came when I was standing on what seemed like the largest putting green you have ever seen. Here you are thinking “What is this course going to be like?” and “Are all the greens on the course going to be as undulating as this?” It turns out that the bottom part of the green is the practice green and the other larger 100+ metres is going to be an adventure 18-hole putting course. Here you will be able to take on your golfing partners to a challenging putting competition. Overlooking the putting will be a casual pizza restaurant, called “Ric’s”. This will be a relaxing place to chill out and enjoy great food and a quiet beer while you watch others tackle the putting course.
Now on to the golf course. The first hole looks a stunner. It is a gentle rising uphill Par 5. It will prove to be a welcoming opening hole and even if you hit one of those dreaded slice tee shots that curl more than you like, you will be able to easily locate your ball and hit it again. I soon discovered that many of the fairways will be generously wide with lots of areas for bail out which will be accommodating for all levels of golfer. However, the better golfers off the back tee will need to be precise as certain humps and hollows will capture a drive not quite on the perfect line.
The other neat feature I discovered, as I looked over the first hole, was how mounding and hollows could affect your depth perception on the approach shot you are about to play onto the green. It may say 100-metres on your yardage device, but you will question yourself, as it will either look like 85 or 110-metres. The plus is, that nearly all the greens I looked over, are spacious with bail out areas, friendly banks to get the “member’s bounce” or designed to have various options of chipping or pitching up to the pin. Most greens will at least have four club selection options depending on where the pin is positioned from front to back, and then you will still have to accommodate for the effect of the breeze.
There are very few bunkers on the course, despite there being quite a lot of sand. One bunker I saw looked like it was dug for a coffin it was that deep. Another bunker looked like it came out of the “Postage Stamp” on the 8th hole at Troon in Scotland. This bunker will capture nearly any shot going near it as the wider terrain slopes into it.
The second and third holes add to the warm-up and test your shot-making ability. They are very playable holes, but I think the third hole could wreck a golfer’s confidence if you do not play to the design and try to tackle it with enthusiasm. I can see myself playing a hybrid off the tee and then hitting a good wedge shot onto the elevated green.
Standing on the fourth tee was another “Wow” moment. It is likely to be a beast of a hole when you look at the scorecard, however, you will love it. The view is stunning from the elevated position which is the highest point on the course. This is also the first time you get a clear view of the ocean. It will have you excited about the upcoming holes but first, you will have to navigate this monster Par 4. It is long at over 460-metres off the championship tee; with a solid tee shot you will be playing a mid-to-short-iron into the green. It reminded me of a great downhill ski slope where, with the right contour, your ball will run on nicely. If you get a little off course and you could be in the trees wondering what to do next.
Looking at your scorecard, you will be thinking that the fifth hole will be a gentle 135-metre Par 3 off the back. But wait until you are standing on the tee and looking out across the green, with the ocean and estuary off to your right. It all looks stunning but you will have to be precise with your iron shot or get the right line if you are going to run it up onto the green. Like most greens, the contours surrounding the green will penalise the slightly errant shot.
By this time, I was in awe of how Bill Coore and his team had the vision to see the opportunities that the land provided to them. They have blended in the contours and only shaped the landscape, rather than moved it. When standing on the tee, you keep thinking that there are only little pockets of fairway to drive to, but the fairways really do open-up. Because of the variation of tees to playoff, the Pros and low handicap players will need to select the right line when hitting off the back tees so they don’t run through the fairways but end-up in a position to attack the green. This course design will also assist the high handicapper to get around the golf course and enjoy playing their second shots off the fairway.
The sixth hole is where the golf course is introduced to the sweeping coastline. The gentle dogleg Par 4 will test you off the tee but once on the fairway, you will enjoy looking over and seeing the breaking surf and one of New Zealand’s best beaches. Even though you feel you are right next to the breaking wave, you are quite elevated at about 40-metres above and over 120 metres away, so you can look down and enjoy the power of the ocean.
The seventh hole is a spectacular gentle rolling downhill dogleg Par 5, and again the subtlety of the design encourages you to take a risk-reward approach off the tee. Any drive that is to the right of the fairway will see your ball drop away into the sand dunes so selecting the right line is extremely important. Play the aggressive line and you can probably tame the hole but be prepared for the penalty you could face. Playing the conservative approach and you will have a straightforward 3-shot hole. I cannot wait until I will be standing out on the fairway 90-metres away from the green, enjoying the view and watching the surf, thinking how to attack the pin with my gap wedge. Unless I hit it close, I will have a challenging two-putt. What a great hole that seems to have it all.
The Par 3, eighth hole, will look like a straightforward solid mid-iron shot but like many of the greens Coore Crenshaw have designed here, they will always challenge you. The green on this hole, like many on the course, is much larger than you anticipate and very undulating. Depending on the pin placement, you could have a four-club difference and that is not factoring in what the breeze will be doing. Again, you will always be thinking and challenged to hit the right shot with lots of risk-reward.
The Par 4, ninth hole has you heading back towards the intersection of the 1st tee, 10th tee, and 18th greens. Like many of the other tee shots, I really liked the visuals on this tee: “What is the right line?”, “Does the sandy area come into play?” and “What challenges am I going to have playing onto the green?”. It does seem like a straight-ahead hole, but the subtle mounding does make it quite entertaining, and again, like the rest of the putting surfaces, there is nothing easy about this green.
I only got to look at two of the holes on the back nine; the 10th and 18th. The 10th hole has one of the widest fairways you will ever play. Even though it is a slight dogleg left, you do not want to hug the left side as it will probably block you out from attacking the flag. The feature around the green is a large mound which dominates what will greatly affect a slightly offline second shot. You will probably joke that what has been buried there must be big. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of it or making par will be a real challenge.
The 18th hole is going to be one of those memorable closing holes that will play mostly into the prevailing breeze. It is a Par 5 that is going to be very much about how you play your second shot. The big and very deep sand dune area just left of the green or the elevated mound to the right of the green, are key features. The green has some subtle contouring that is going to make the two-putt for par a bit of a challenge, especially if your fellow golfers are watching from the mound area.
Another special feature of the 18th hole will be the 19th lounge restaurant that looks across the fairway, green and out to sea. This will be the ideal place to chill and unwind after a great day on the course. For me, I would be excited to join my fellow golfers for a couple of beverages at Ric’s before trying to win my money and pride back on The Playground, the 18-hole putting course.
The 36-holes at Te Arai Links are going to be special; it will be unique in the world of golf as it will be a combination of membership and visitor play. With the two courses, guests will play conditions set up for the membership. One day the members will play the South Course (Coore Crenshaw design) and the next day they will play the North Course (Doak design). Guests will play the opposite course to the members on the day. Another feature I really liked, was that there are no cart paths but only tracks for the maintenance equipment to move around the property. Golfers will walk with trundlers or will be encouraged to use a caddy as the local knowledge will be invaluable.
If you were planning to come to play the golf courses, I would recommend staying for several days as you would want to play each course at least twice to enjoy the environment, design and understand the nuances. After the first round, you will be talking about how much fun it was “if only” you had known this or had done that. It is the second round that will really allow you to enjoy the design and capitalise on the knowledge you gained in the previous round. I expect then you will have a slightly different breeze, so you will always face a new challenge.
Regardless of how you will play, I believe that there are three main ingredients that will make Te Arai Links the best golf destination in New Zealand, and one of the best in the world. The first is that it is going to be extremely playable for all levels of golfers. Secondly, the views, sounds of the ocean breaking near you and the smell of the ocean, will ignite all your senses. Thirdly, “the vibe” of the golf facilities, hospitality area and accommodation will be first class. You will simply love the total experience and the magic of the area; from the time you drive through the gate until you leave.