Tom Doak’s quote unequivocally sums up New Zealand’s golf transformation. Although in hindsight, he may have been a few years off.
New Zealand’s golf revolution likely started with Millbrook Resort, which opened its first 18 holes in 1993. At the time, many pundits questioned the decision to build a destination facility in Arrowtown, an area once considered a world away from Queenstown.
Prior to Millbrook’s development, New Zealand’s golf market had relied heavily on club courses, found in nearly every town throughout the country and almost exclusively serving domestic golfers. Terms like “golf experience”, “service”, and “standards” were not part of the vocabulary, and the utilitarian membership at these club courses didn’t object.
There was an early attempt in 1970 by the government to use golf as a means to generate tourism when they engaged Commander John Harris, Michael Wolveridge, and Peter Thomson to build Wairakei International Golf Course in Taupo. While the trio did a fine job, one golf course of international standard was not sufficient enough to lure golfers to New Zealand.
Since 1970 (thanks to New Zealand’s growing appeal and forward thinking course owners), Wairakei is now considered one of the nation’s top courses by members, domestic golfers and international visitors alike.
In the early ’90s, while club courses still dominated New Zealand, new course construction was gaining momentum around the world. And by 1997 the Tiger effect was in full swing. Whether it was this new dominant force on the PGA Tour, or just fortuitous timing, one thing is for certain . . . the golf market in New Zealand was about to change in a big way.
American Julian Robertson started New Zealand’s modern golf revolution in 2000 with his masterpiece The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs. An avid golfer and passionate fan of New Zealand, Robertson bought the land sight unseen, not truly realising what he had until his first visit to the property.
Kauri Cliffs was a significant statement. It was built as a destination property with a focus not just on golf, but creating an experience. The concept was very new to New Zealand. While golf courses blanketed with residential housing were being built around the world, there was no mention of any housing at Kauri Cliffs. And the adjoining luxury lodge was built as a bit of an afterthought, believed to be necessary to provide suitable accommodation for visiting golfers.
The nearest town was Kerikeri with less than 5,000 residents. Auckland was four hours by car. Therefore, embarking on a journey to play the course was a necessity.
Yet in the first year they came from every corner of the globe and descended on Northland. Solid design, incredible views and world-class service made Kauri Cliffs a ‘must visit’ course. American Golf Digest agreed, naming it the best new international course in 2001.
I would say the course could only survive if golfers were willing to travel, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Mr Robertson, considered to be the ‘Michael Jordan’ of the hedge fund world, knew that losses were inevitable given the property’s standards, service levels, and location.
However, Kauri Cliffs was a passion project for Julian and his late wife, Josie. It was a part of their legacy, a part of their family and in hindsight one of the most generous gifts ever given to New Zealand and our now booming tourism economy.
The Farm at Cape Kidnappers was soon to follow, opening for preview rounds in 2003. Another investment by the Robertson family, the concept was very similar to Kauri in the sense of the “experience” . . . world-class design, exceptional service and incredibly high standards were a mirror image. However, the look and feel of the course was a total contrast.
Built at the southern tip of Hawke’s Bay, it was within 30 minutes of the cities of Napier and Hastings. But tourism to the area was sparse in 2003. If you were looking for a return on your investment, Cape Kidnappers would not be the project for you. And while Mr Robertson would find it rude to discuss costs, it is safe to say the driveway alone – at almost 10 kilometres in length – carried a construction cost that was more than some super lotto jackpots.
Designed by American Tom Doak, Kidnappers was also the first time a ‘superstar’ designer was brought to New Zealand . . . but it wouldn’t be the last. With Doak’s work on a course currently ranked No.16 in the world by Golf Digest, it became a magnet for players from all over the world.
After a few years’ pause, 2007 brought us the opening of The Kinloch Club. Unlike Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, Kinloch was situated just 15 minutes from Taupo and only an hour’s drive from Rotorua, one of New Zealand’s most popular tourism destinations (both then and now). A Jack Nicklaus signature design, it was another example of an owner investing in a designer that was known throughout the world.
Nicklaus has been a frequent visitor to Taupo for fly fishing and was actually a partner in the development of Kinloch. The PR benefits of Jack’s name are significant and the course is unlike any other he has ever built. Kinloch’s high-profile opening continued to ensure the spotlight was pointed in New Zealand’s direction.
The momentum continued in 2008. Firstly, Jack’s Point was a welcome addition to Millbrook and the start of turning Queenstown into a legitimate golf destination. The setting at Jack’s Point, with alpine mountains on one side and an alpine lake on the other, continued building on an expectation that in New Zealand, bringing your camera was equally as important as bringing your golf clubs.
With two incredible resort golf experiences within 15 minutes of each other and local club courses adding to the mix, Queenstown was building a reputation that would soon surge. And 2008 saw the first of two ‘Kiwi Challenge’ tournaments – PGA Tour events played at Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers with prizemoney of $US2.5 million. The Kiwi Challenge was broadcast all over the world and provided one of the best platforms to show off New Zealand’s increasingly impressive golf and tourism products.
Without really knowing it, private owners had developed the framework for a New Zealand golf trail . . . starting at Kauri Cliffs and moving southward to Taupo and Hawke’s Bay, and down to Queenstown.
While these resort courses make up a small percentage of New Zealand’s golf product, their development helped put the game on the map with golf media from all over the world paying attention to our little corner of the Pacific. As a result, visitors started adding golf to an itinerary that already included iconic activities like the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the Tongariro Crossing and Milford Sound. Many would still argue that during this time, New Zealand was not a golf destination, rather a destination that happened to have nice golf alongside wonderful lifestyle activities. That was soon to change.
Golf’s ability to show significant economic impact comes when we draw people to the country with golf as the hero activity. It took the addition/transformation/upgrading of other properties like Peppers Carrington Resort, Gulf Harbour Country Club, Peppers Clearwater Resort, Terrace Downs, a third nine holes at Millbrook, and the completion of The Hills to truly provide enough critical mass for New Zealand to be considered an actual golf destination. All of a sudden, we had a legitimate golf trail, especially when considering the outstanding club layouts in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington (where Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club had already made a name for itself as one of the finest links courses in the Southern Hemisphere).
Today, what does this mean for the country? As the director of golf for Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers from 2009-2014, and the golf consultant to Tourism New Zealand since then, I am very proud to say I have played a role in putting a strategy in place to leverage our existing golf assets, and to encourage further development to take place.
We now track the origin of visiting golfers and have methodologies in place to analyse their travel, time in country and spend. These visitors are contributing more than $300 million to our economy annually with opportunities for growth still very strong.
We have better data, which allows us to craft our message, focus on specific markets and promote travel to regional New Zealand for high-spending visitors. We’ve also seen a very strong correlation between the origin of the course’s owner and the source of rounds played at the course.
For example, Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, owned by an American, see a significant number of Americans playing golf there. The same goes for Millbrook and Terrace Downs, both owned by the Japanese. It is becoming very clear that our foreign owners, all influential in their home countries, wave a very big tourism flag for us, which is something we can’t place a value on but know to be a massive contribution to our golf economy.
While we have seen several course renovations and some new construction at club level since 2000, the majority of our development has been in resort golf. This transformation has changed how the rest of the world perceives golf in New Zealand. It has brought significant international tourism dollars that benefit many stakeholders in our economy from hotel owners to all types of tourism providers, especially those living in regional areas. Our club courses, which have started to recognise the opportunities that exist by capturing more visitors, have started their own reinvestment, further strengthening our brand.
While we have come a long way in a short while, if we continue to be quick with our thinking, innovative with our product and stronger in our desire to provide world-class service, the opportunities for New Zealand’s golf market are significant.