Friday, July 1, 2011

Paraparaumu Beach

Kia ora from New Zealand. Before Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs put New Zealand squarely on the radar of golf enthusiasts worldwide, Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club (ranked #99 in the world) held the distinction of the best course in this remote country. To get to Paraparaumu we drove down about four hours to the capital city, Wellington, from Cape Kidnappers, through another beautiful part of the country. One of the great things about this quest is the unexpected, pleasant discoveries I've made: rounding a blind curve, going south on New Zealand Highway 2, presented one of them. The first glimpse of Wellington Harbor left the four of us, who were seeing it for the first time, gobsmacked.

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Wellington, New Zealand's Capital city

Wellington has one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world. The water color is similar to that of the Caribbean, a light aquamarine. The city is reminiscent of San Francisco with its compactness and steep hills that rise from the harbor. It is visually very attractive, and unfortunately, like San Francisco, it is prone to earthquakes.

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Wellington's fantastic natural harbor

Located 40 minutes north of Wellington on the Kapiti coast, Paraparaumu is the home course of caddy Steve Williams and has hosted the New Zealand Open 12 times. Paraparaumu means "scraps from an earth oven" in Māori, and it seems obvious why they don't use the native translation in their marketing of the club. Pronounced a tongue twisting "para-para-OO-moo," the locals call it "Paraparam’" for short.

Paraparaumu was designed by Alex Russell on a small plot of just 130 acres. Russell was an Australian Open champion who co-designed one of the world's great golf courses, Royal Melbourne, with Alister MacKenzie. The course opened in 1949, 23 years after Royal Melbourne, in a decade that didn't see much in the way of good golf design. Russell left the rumpled fairways as he found them and exercised restraint in his design choices. The result is a quirky links course with a dearth of bunkers and an abundance of table top greens.

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The first green at Paraparaumu Beach with native grasses in the background

A true links course, Paraparaumu has the feel of a course in the British Isles, although the weather is decidedly better here. Similar to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, you never actually see the water while playing. In addition to sharing the topography of Lytham, the course also has an element of the quirkiness of Scotland's Cruden Bay thrown in. There are a half dozen blind or semi-blind shots, including the 1st tee shot, and holes with some interesting greens, including the 11th, which is a punchbowl.

A collection of short par 4s, the 6th, 8th and 10th take full advantage of the dramatic natural land forms. They make up for their lack of length and bunkering by using the natural contours of the true links land, placing a premium on shot accuracy. Paraparaumu offers plenty of opportunity to be creative and bump and run the ball: a key consideration when playing in "windy Wellington."

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Paraparaumu's eighth shows off the rumpled fairway and green set amidst the dunes

One of the defining characteristics of the course is its appropriate sense of scale, with a continual change in hole direction. The dunes are perfectly proportioned, and Russell routed the course among them with skill. The front nine is routed further from the sea, which is about 500 yards away at its closest point. The front nine is nearer the water, with all but two holes on the course designed to play in a cross-wind.

In the same way that Whistling Straits is defined by its generous use of bunkers, Paraparaumu is defined by the absence of them. There are less than a dozen fairway bunkers on the entire course; and the 1st and 5th holes have none of any kind. The scarcity of bunkering is most pronounced on the par 3s. The two best, the 5th and 16th, have tabletop greens that fall off sharply on three sides. Anything less than the perfect shot will not hold them. As my host said in typical straightforward Kiwi fashion of the 155-yard 5th, "you are either on it, or you're not," meaning correctly, that there is a harsh penalty for missing. New Zealand native and Open Champion Bob Charles calls the 5th "equal to any short hole in the world."

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The par three fifth hole with tabletop green and no bunkers, as seen from behind

The back nine features two world-class long par 4s. Hole 13 is the most challenging on the course and is a 448-yard par 4 that features a dramatic tee shot from an elevated tee. The second shot is the crucial one, since you play over a large swale to an elevated back-to-front sloping green. The prevailing wind is at your back on this hole, and as is often the case on links courses, holes playing down wind can be more difficult to judge distance on. The approach to the 13th is particularly difficult because you have to factor in the severe uphill with the wind.

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Paraparaumu's thirteenth hole seen from the tee

The short but testing 138 yard par three sixteenth is seen below, from the rear of the green.

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Paraparaumu's tabletop sixteenth green

The difficult seventeenth offers a choice of fairways off the tee. The hole is a renowned one. It was selected as one of the 100 best by The 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes, and Golf's 100 Toughest Holes also lists 17 as one of its selections. The 442-yard hole features a choice of two fairways, both set at an angle off the tee. With a breeze coming off of Cook Strait and the Tasman Sea, choosing the correct combination of fairway and distance makes the 17th a real test. The hole features another tabletop green that falls off sharply in the back. The genius of the hole is that by giving so many choices and no clear line to hit on off the tee, Russell ends up creating doubt, which is the last thing a golfer needs when teeing up a ball.

Paraparaumu has one of the cheapest greens fees among world-class courses and provides a good excuse to visit Wellington. No golf trip to New Zealand would be complete without visiting this classic links gem. A lot can be learned about how to make a golf course challenging and interesting by using hilly land forms and dunes as hazards instead of bunkers. I don't think Russell has been given enough credit for the brilliance of his minimalist use of bunkers here. At Paraparam’, less is truly more. This course is worthy of being in the top 100 in the world.

Paraparaumu is also the home course of my Kiwi friends Michael Goldstein, Jamie Patton and Bart De Vries of the phenomenon. Jamie and Michael were gracious enough to caddy for us when we played; thanks guys (and Bart), you are true gentlemen. Their faux-Augusta style caddy uniforms got us a lot of looks out on the course. And Jamie you should have that cabinet in your kitchen smoothed out so nobody rips their pants in the future. Roger has been talking about your legendary hospitability since we got back!

Normally, a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth two thousand.

The fat lady is now following me around and made the trip to Wellington. She's putting on her costume and warming up her vocal cords, getting ready to perform. This can't be a good sign; I don't even like opera.

Post Script

Being a combination moron and frequent traveler, I often leave things behind on trains, planes and automobiles. On my way from Wellington to Queenstown I lost my 3G-CDMA-universal-globa-cell-phone with satellite uplink and anti-lock brakes, as it turns out, in the taxi to the airport. In how many places in the world would a cab driver return to the airport 30 minutes later to find me and give me my phone back? Not many. But mine did, as if it were not the slightest bit out of the ordinary. This tells you all you need to know about the Kiwi ethos. What a fabulous people and country.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How to Play a Top Ranked Golf Course

I am often asked how I have been able to gain access to some of the world's great golf courses. There are many ways to do so, none better than bidding on a charity auction to buy a threesome or foresome.

I posted last month about Jim Colton's selfless quest to raise money for a Ballyneal caddie, Ben Cox, who was injured in a ski accident. Well, Jim has completed his marathon golfing session and raised over $77,000 for Ben's benefit.

You can read news coverage of Jim's marathon below. There is also a link to the auction which includes access to fourteen of the world's top 100 ranked courses including many private and exclusive clubs.







Congratulations Jim, well done!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cape Kidnappers

Cape Kidnappers is located on the middle part of the North Island of New Zealand, near the town of Napier. Napier is a quaint place that is known as the world's most thoroughly Art Deco city and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and was rebuilt over the next couple of years entirely in the Deco style.

An example of the Art Deco architecture in Napier

When we flew down from Kauri Cliffs our our way to Napier after changing planes in Auckland, we never showed any identification or went through security of any kind, which is a nice change from the dehumanizing nightmare that flying in the U.S. has become. My day playing Kidnappers began with a walk on the beach, freshly brewed cup of coffee in hand, wearing shorts and a golf shirt, watching the sunrise with the cliffs of Cape Kidnappers in the middle distance. Louis Armstrong was right. "What a wonderful world." Staying in town, we had the opportunity to enjoy the fabulous architecture and got to mingle with locals on St. Patrick's Day, as opposed to staying overnight at the billionaire's playground for US$1,300 per night. Although not on the 2003 Golf Magazine Top 100 list which I am playing, Cape Kidnappers is ranked #27 in the world on a recent list.

Cape Kidnappers is the second course I have played with a Captain Cook connection (New South Wales in Sydney is the other). Cook sailed the HMS Endeavor into the cove off the course, and one of his Tahitian guides was alleged to have been kidnapped, giving the area its name. The high headlands, which Cape Kidnappers is built on, are visible from Napier and the picture below can give you some perspective on its Gibraltaresque size.

The headlands of Cape Kidnappers seen from Napier

The entry drive at Cape Kidnappers vaults to the top of my list of dramatic golf course entrances. It eclipses all four of my other top entry drives: Sand Hills, Morfontaine, Yeamans Hall and Kauri Cliffs.

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The beginning of the amazing entry drive at Cape Kidnappers

The front entrance is accessible by pressing a button to speak with the pro shop, and the gates are then opened by remote control. Once inside the gate, it is still a full seven kilometer drive up a winding road to get to the course. This has to be golf's equivalent of foreplay, if there is such a thing; the tension and excitement build as you climb each hairpin turn through the forest.

Cape Kidnappers has a more rustic feel than Kauri Cliffs and is more laid back. The staff is welcoming and accommodating, as they should be charging $400 for a round of golf!

The uphill wooded entry drive at Cape Kidnappers

Cape Kidnappers has been one of the most hyped courses built in the last ten years. It begins with a good first hole, but overall I found the 2nd through 6th, 10th, 11th and 17th a bit underwhelming relative to expectations. The course has very wide fairways, and Tom Doak, the course designer, always leaves a bailout area and a more forgiving route to the green for less skilled players. This less skilled player, for one, appreciates this design philosophy. The other side of this design philosophy is that if you play aggressively and make a mistake, there is a big penalty. The big penalty at Cape Kidnappers is being in the high rough, which is almost certainly a lost ball.

Despite the initial letdown of the front, I did like the variety of hole types. The course has some short par threes and some short par fours, which are nice because they take away the tedium of hitting hybrid clubs off the fairway all day long. Cape Kidnappers also puts a premium on putting, 'cause there ain't a flat green out there. I enjoyed the par three sixth hole, which reminded me a bit of the "Calamity" par three at Royal Portrush, but with the big drop-off on the left side of the hole instead of on the right. The hole plays over 200 yards and is a tester; It offers a preview of the immensity of the rocky gorges to come. The drop from the green to the water below is over 500 feet.

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The tough par three 6th hole

The seventh hole features a semi-blind tee shot and then a big hollow between the driving area and the green. It is more than likely that your shot to the large green will also be blind, because the hill is so steep.

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The seventh green seen from the top of the fairway

As is Doak's trademark, the greens at Cape Kidnappers are all interesting; although very hard to read. I didn't understand the eleventh hole at all. It is a 224 yard par three that requires you to walk far from the previous green, up a hill with a dramatic view. The tee shot is played back toward the 10th green alongside it. It seems to me that it would have made a much better hole if it were designed the other way around; that is, with the green situated on the hill, with the dramatic cliffs on the sides. The green would have then taken advantage of the view rather than having your back face it.

The par three 11th green

The course really picks up steam on the twelfth hole, and it is the beginning of an unbelievable set of world-class holes in succession, starting with the twelfth and ending with the sixteenth. This part of the course plays among the fingers of rock formations above Hawke's Bay. All the pictures of the course that you see in magazines or when the course is advertised are of this stretch of the course taken from the air. Twelve is a classic 460 yard par four where the fairway is set at an angle to the tee, and you have to carry your tee shot over a gully. This hole allows you to decide how aggressive to be and is really fun. The green is situated on the top of a hill overlooking Hawke's Bay. The hole's name is "Infinity" because looking over the edge of the green, it looks like it goes on forever.

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The 12th green appropriately named "Infinity"

Thirteen is a 130 yard par three ("Al's Ace") with a beautiful view of the cliffs and Hawke's Bay, and a large and severely undulating green. I recommend walking at Cape Kidnappers because some of the tee box positions are awkward to get to with a golf cart, such as the eleventh and thirteenth. With a cart it is difficult to figure out which clubs to bring to the tee because the wind is hard to factor in.

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The uphill par three 13th green

Fourteen is a fun, short par four, albeit with a weird name, "Pimple." It plays 348 yards from the tips and is a good risk/reward hole with multiple playing options. There is a simple but deadly pot bunker near the green that is as magnetic as the Road Hole bunker at St. Andrews and comes into play in a similar fashion.

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The short par four 14th green

The fifteenth hole ("Pirate's Plank") is one of the best par fives - make that holes of any kind, in the world. It plays 650 yards from the tips and 550 from the tees for high handicappers. The hole subtly gets progressively narrower from tee to green. The left side of the fairway falls off into a jagged gorge with the South Pacific about 500 feet below you. There are at least a half-dozen signs along the left side of the fairway warning you not to go over the fences or get too close to the edge, because it is sayonara if you do. The prevailing wind (at least the day we played) is in your face, adding to the challenge. The green sits on a cliff on the edge of the world, with a dramatic view in all directions.

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The par five 15th seen from the fairway looking toward the green

Aside from the exhilirating views, the fifteenth hole offers options to be conservative or aggressive. I was lucky to play it on a day with only a mild wind. Being so exposed up on the cliff top, I can't imagine playing it when the wind is blowing. As they say down here, it is pure. Below is one of the vertiginous views on the hole. To give you a sense of the sensation you feel playing the hole, one of the guys in our group actually had to back away from the edge of the fairway because it drops off so precipitously and he is afraid of heights. The fifteenth hole is Rara Avis (for my friends in New Jersey, it is a rare bird, quite out of the common). There are not many places in the world where a hole like this can be built. It took balls to build it, and it really came off exceptionally well.

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View of the gorge from the 15th fairway

Like Cypress Point, Kidnappers features back-to-back par fives. The sixteenth is a par five in the opposite direction from the fifteenth, this time playing downwind. The hole is only 500 yards from the tips. The fairway heaves quite a bit in different directions, and the green is elevated and funky. It is a very different hole than the fifteenth and has a wide fairway. It reminded me of the par five fifteenth hole at Kawana in Japan with the ripples and waves in the fairway. The hole is seen below looking back from the green.

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The par five 16th looking backward down the fairway

I've heard the par four seventeenth described as a great hole but I don't think so. I didn't find much about it to be unique. Eighteen is a good finishing hole and features a punchbowl green.

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The punchbowl 18th green at Cape Kidnappers

Cape Kidnappers is in many respects ultimately like Pebble Beach. What makes Pebble Beach so great is a half dozen spectacular holes, which compensate for many holes that are good, but not great. Cape Kidnappers also has a collection of holes that are so superior in their own right that they make up for some average holes and make it a worthy course to be included among the best in the world.

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Not a bad view when changing into your golf shoes: Kidnappers locker room

Just like when we played at Kauri Cliffs, there was almost no one on the course in March. As a commercial enterprise, me thinks neither of these work. It's great to have Julian Robertson subsidize them; he could have chosen to build these and make them exclusive preserves like Kerry Packer did with Ellerston in Australia. It seems to me they are just too remote and expensive to make it on their own, even with the high prices. Unlike The Donald, Robertson actually has class and builds quality, and I for one am grateful he did it and opened up two unique locations for the world to see.

New Zealand has some spectacular and dramatic golf. Combine the front nine of Kauri Cliffs with the back nine of Cape Kidnappers and you've got the eighteen prettiest holes in the world. As I was walking off the eighteenth green I saw that fat lady again, this time she was arriving and looked very serious. I'm afraid at some point in the not too distant future she's going to sing. This has to be more than a coincidence.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I haven't played Ballyneal yet, but wanted to draw your attention to the generosity of Jim Colton and his brilliant act of kindness raising funds for someone in need.

Click here to read the story of the Ben Cox 108 Marathon which will be held on June 20th.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Kauri Cliffs

Tēnā koutou (hello) from New Zealand. Kauri Cliffs (ranked #49 in the world) is located on the northern portion of the North Island of New Zealand.

Getting to remote courses is usually an adventure and half the fun, and Kauri Cliffs is no exception. The fourteen-hour flight from LAX to Auckland was quite ideal given the exceptional service provided by Air New Zealand. The four and a half hour drive up from Auckland on State Highways 1 and 10 were the perfect anecdote to a gray, brutal winter like the one we had in the Northeast U.S. this year. The beautiful winding roads go through a lush part of this peaceful country. The roads were busy with logging trucks coming down the mountains full of recently cut timber, a big part of the economy up here. It took me a while to get used to the hairpin turns, sweeping hills and winding roads while driving on the other side of the road, but soon I navigated it with pleasure.

The best decompressions are always after the longest and most difficult trips. I was a bit grimy by the time we reached the 88 Lodge near Kerikeri after traveling continually for two days. The shower I had at this quaint little B & B was reminiscent of the fantastic shower and night's sleep I had at the Dower House Hotel when I finally got to Woodhall Spa after endless travel. As an alternative to staying at the über-expensive Kauri Lodge, I highly recommend this delightful B & B run by two Brits who decamped here for the better weather and lifestyle. After a brilliant night's sleep we set off on the short drive to Kauri.

The long and winding dirt entry road reminded me of the ones at Yeamans Hall and Sand Hills and helped to build a the sense of anticipation, not that you need much once you see the dramatic land forms and the South Pacific.

The dirt road entry drive to Kauri Cliffs

The golf course was designed by the late American architect David Harman, who doesn't have any other notable courses to his name. The course runs through 800 acres of fern forest, marshland and cliff tops on one of the most dramatic pieces of land I've ever seen. I begin with my simple conclusion of Kauri Cliffs: this place doesn't suck! It is one of the prettiest places on the planet. As an example, check out the view from the driving range:

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Surely the most scenic driving range view in the world

The first hole is a relatively easy 418 yard par four that plays downhill. A problem with playing at Kauri is that it is hard to pay attention to the golf, because of the panoramic views in every direction, and the first hole is a good example. The second hole also plays downhill and is a good warmup hole.

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A view of the first green from the fairway

The par five fourth hole, named "Cambo" after Kiwi native Michael Campbell, is HARD. It is 558 yards with a big dogleg left. The hole slopes pretty severely from left to right the whole way with the wind also blowing left to right, as if you needed more challenge. The walk up from the fairway to the crest of the hill shows the glorious view below from the green.

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The view from behind the par three fifth hole looking backward to the South Pacific

The sixth hole is the first hole that plays back uphill and plays at least two, probably three, clubs longer than the yardage on your second shot. The course views begin to open up around this stretch, with a string of breathtaking holes ahead. The bridge from tee to fairway is seen below.

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The bridge from the tee to the fairway on the sixth hole

Kauri Cliffs is a difficult walking course because of the distances between green and tee and the elevation changes. We had carts with fore caddies from America during our round. About half the staff is from America (our caddy was from Boston and spends the winters down here). Kauri features wide fairways and many forced carries off the tee boxes. It was a busy day when we played in mid March; there were about 60 golfers playing all day.

The book Golf's 100 Toughest Holes lists Kauri's par three seventh among its choices, for good reason. The 220 yard uphill hole is played from one headland to another with a 350 foot drop in between and a 6,200 square foot green. For added pleasure, there is usually a crosswind coming off the water. Once you are on the green (and the eighth tee) you are looking at simply one of the Best Views In The World. We played on a day with a two to three club wind and brilliant sunshine with temperatures of about 75 to 80 degrees. As my Kiwi friends would say, it was a bluebird day. Standing here it is hard not to be in a state of ebullient satisfaction. I would have been content pulling up a chair and just sitting there all day looking out at the water.

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The view from the eighth tee at Kauri Cliffs

The vistas at Kauri Cliffs, and particularly along this stretch of the course, are breathtaking. The whole course is set at the top of an escarpment very high above the ocean with far ranging views in every direction. Similar to Cypress Point, the course takes its name from a local tree found around Katauri Bay, known as the Kauri tree.

The front nine is the better of the two, partially because the views are so awe inspiring on the front that you are inevitably let down on the back. The tenth through thirteenth holes feature no water views. The par four eleventh hole is one of the most architecturally interesting, with a green fronted by a marsh that you have to carry on your approach. Thirteen is a long, nasty par three, with trees blocking the tee shot and the approach to the green.

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The amazing view from the fifteenth hole

My personal favorite hole was the fifteenth, a good risk/reward par five that sports a world-class view. It is 513 yards, plays downhill and is named "Cook's Hook." The tee shot is played in a crosswind off the bay. It has a view of the Cavalli Islands and South Pacific that is worth flying for almost 24 hours to see. This is what a commanding promontory looks like. Look closely at the picture above and note the small crescent-shaped beach set in a protected cove. This private beach is allegedly used by Julian Robertson and his guests. There are vistas like this all over New Zealand; it is a wonderland.

I take pictures of memorable holes and scenery as I gallivant around golf courses (duh). I was not too surprised when I downloaded my pictures at Kauri to see that almost all my pictures were of the scenery, and I have very few pictures of golf holes. There are not more than a handful of memorable or standout holes from an architectural standpoint, but it quite literally doesn't matter, because the scenery is so breathtaking. After the round we were asking each other what each person's favorite holes were and why. No "great" holes came to mind, but great vistas were easily recalled because of the views. This sums up Kauri Cliffs from my point-of-view: it is not about the brilliance of the golf course design, it is about the unique location, being outdoors and enjoying nature and sunshine in one of the prettiest places on the planet.

Although Cape Kidnappers gets better P.R. because of the dramatic cliffs, for my money Kauri Cliffs has views that are more magnificent. I strive to fill my blog with a lot of useless information from time to time and this seems like as good a time as any. New Zealand has about 4.5 million people on a land mass the size of England. They have 10 times as many sheep as people. The view from off the 10th fairway, below, is a typical New Zealand scene.

As we were having our apres-round lunch, Julian Robertson, the billionaire owner of Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnapppers flew in on his helicopter and was quickly led off to the tenth tee. He gave us a friendly wave on his drive by. Apparently, he spends over one hundred days a year at Kauri, and if I were a billionaire, I would probably do the same thing.

It was at the 88 Lodge that I also took an affinity to the local beer, Monteith's Summer Ale. Ideal. As I mentioned, we did not drop the US$1,300 per night at the lodge, which has a minimum two night stay. I cannot afford to stay there and still send my kids to college and the resort is Americanized. We did our research and felt it a better option to stay in town and experience the local atmosphere, which turned out to be a good decision. I highly recommend a visit to Kauri Cliffs if you can ever manage the long flight to Nu Zillin.

We flew out of the Bay of Islands airport in Kerikeri on our way down to Cape Kidnappers. It is one of the smallest I've ever flown out of with no security whatsoever. I guess they are not worried about planes being hijacked to Cuba down here. These lucky Kiwis are living la dolce vita down here. What a great and unique country!

As I was driving out of Kauri Cliffs I saw a fat lady who looked familiar, like an opera singer I think I have seen somewhere before. I have a strange feeling that she is following me as my journey nears its end.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Riviera Country Club

Riviera Country Club (ranked #36 in the world) is located on the west side of Los Angeles in Pacific Palisades. Although I have played and written about Riviera once before, I am now older and wiser and this time brought my camera along.

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The Riviera clubhouse perched at the top of Santa Monica Canyon

Could it be that I am visiting another course where Colin Montgomerie almost won a major championship but blew up? Say it isn't so. Haven't I heard this story before at Winged Foot, Congressional and Oakmont? Monty lost the 1995 PGA to Steve Elkington at Riviera in 1995. The great golf courses of the world are littered with Monty detritus.

My previous and first impression of Riviera was as a comparison to the nearby Los Angeles Country Club (LACC). Riviera seemed corporate to me and the kikuyu grass destroyed me. While I still prefer a more intimate club such as LACC, Yeamans Hall or Somerset Hills, why let the lack of ambiance reflect negatively on a world-class course? I travel often to L.A. and have come to appreciate the culture more. I have become better familiarized with the different neighborhoods and welcomed a return visit to Riviera.

The first tee at Riviera is memorable, a 503-yard par five that plays from an elevation of about 100 feet down into Santa Monica Canyon below. The course is defined on both sides by the canyon and The Most Expensive Real Estate In The World. The first tee gives a hint that Riviera will be much more about strategy than anything else. The tee box lines you up away from the line of play so you have to aim left to hit the straight fairway. Get used to this here, as there are many little deceptions that make Riviera a great course that forces you to think your way around it.

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The birds-eye view from the first tee at Riviera

During my second time around the course, three holes in particular struck me as truly one-of-a-kind, and among the best in the world. The first among them is the 419 yard par four fifth; the tenth and eighteen are the two others. The fifth hole is a tree lined dog-leg left where a tee shot should favor the right side to give a better view of the green, which is located down on a lower tier of land than the fairway.

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The par four fifth as seen from the tee

The man made hill seen on the right hand side, in the distance, is covered in gnarly rough and is an optical illusion. It is set down at a lower level than the initial part of the fairway. Like a lot of what makes Riviera great, it visually makes you want to favor the left side which is not as favorable. Also, like many of the great holes here it has a difficult green, in this case, it slopes back-to-front.

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The fifth hole, approaching the green

There is ravine that runs through the canyon, and the course; in local parlance it is known as a barranca. Simply put, you don't want to hit into it; it exacts a severe penalty. It can be seen clearly in this picture of the 408-yard par four seventh below.

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The seventh from the tee with the barranca crossing

The challenge on the seventh, similar to another great hole with a ravine, the eleventh at Shoreacres, is to decide how aggressive you want to be. Shots played to the left are safer, but leave you further from the green. Shots played aggressively and further to the right will be rewarded with a shorter shot to the green. I won't belabor the virtues of the tenth hole since most people are probably familiar with it from the annual coverage the hole receives when the PGA tour plays at Riviera. It may be the best example of how a hole does not have to be long to be great. It is a par four of 315 yards. It is visually intimidating, with great risk/reward options and a small and treacherous green that all add up to make it a standout. When you stand on the tee, it looks like there is no room to hit the ball on the left. However, the reality is that there is plenty of room on the left side, which only becomes obvious when you walk toward the green.

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Riviera's classic short par four tenth hole

Riviera is made even more interesting by virtue of the majestic houses sitting on the commanding promontory above the course, with views of the Pacific Ocean. Ok, so I used to watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with blow-hard wannabe Robin Leach and am impressed by the glamour of Hollywood and the entertainment business. Scold me for being shallow and easily impressed, but it is pretty cool.

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A house perched atop Santa Monica Canyon overlooking Riviera

To give you some sense of the height of the canyon wall, the picture above is of a quaint little house perched high above the golfer near the thirteenth hole. The canyon walls rise up from immediately off the fairways. Although you cannot see the nearby Pacific Ocean from the course, the houses perched on top of the hill have "jet liner" views. To give you a sense of the property values here, an empty lot along the back nine was for sale for $13 million dollars when I played. Mind you, this is just dirt on top of a slippery hill, in an area that is prone to earthquakes, so it takes mega-wealth to live here. In addition to its other charms, Riviera smells great, from with the mature eucalyptus trees that are in abundance. The sycamore trees also add immensely to the character and olfactory pleasures of Riviera. This tree near the sixteenth green needs some help as it tries to defy the laws of physics.

Tree near 16

A sycamore tree with character near the sixteenth hole

It would be a grave injustice to Riviera not to mention the par threes. The sixth is a class little uphill par three that has a bunker in the middle of the green and the sixteenth is a downhill 166-yard beauty that is visually intimidating. The sixteenth also shows off the beauty of architect George Thomas's bunkering style.

16th at Dusk

The classic short par three sixteenth at Riviera

My first impression of the eighteenth hole was that it was over-rated, and in retrospect that was an asinine view. The 451 yard uphill par four rewards good shots and punishes bad shots. Eighteen slopes from left to right from tee to green, often requiring you to hit to a treacherous green from a hanging lie. It is one of the great finishing holes in the game. Along with Pebble Beach I would put it on my composite list of the world's best eighteenth holes by number. As I said, I am now older and wiser.

Riviera 18th from side

The finishing hole at Riviera as seen from the seventeenth green

The picture above, taken from the seventeenth green, gives you some indication of the elevation change on the eighteenth hole. Randy Newman captures the feeling I had after my fabulous day at Riviera:

"From the South Bay, to the Valley
From the West Side, to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
I love L.A."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Long Journey Home

Unfortunately, my time to leave this fantastic country has come. I had to change my plans to avoid Japan on the way home, which is too bad as I enjoy visiting there.

My departing picture is from one of the most amazing courses I have ever played, Jack's Point in Queenstown. The view of Lake Wakatipu from the fifth hole is below.

jack's point 5th green-2

As conicidence would have it this turned into a four season trip. I left my home in the northern hemisphere in the Winter and travelled into the Summer; the seasons turned to Fall while I was in New Zealand and I am flying back into Spring.