To experience Tara Iti Golf Club is to discover golf’s next great oasis. It’s a little-known, mysterious destination, in part because it’s brand new – it opened in 2015 – and in part because the club doesn’t spend any money on advertising or marketing. As such, relatively few photos or details about Tara Iti have made it to the masses.
That’s all about to change, however – golfers worldwide will soon add Tara Iti to their lust list. Tara Iti landed at No.6 on American Golf Digest’s ranking of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses (outside the United States), making it the highest-ever debut on any of US Golf Digest’s various course rankings.
The property is located on Te Arai Beach, a prime surfing spot just south of Mangawhai on the North Island. Understandably, Maoris often refer to Te Arai Point as the lifting point between earth and heaven – Tara Iti edges the ocean’s coast for 10 kilometres.
As recently as 2011 it had been a commercial pine plantation. The Maori landowners sold it in 2012 to Richard Kayne, an American billionaire investor based in Los Angeles. Kayne had fallen in love with New Zealand when he and his wife, Suzanne, visited the country in 1996. Fast forward 14 years, and he had become the owner of 230 hectares and commissioned American architect Tom Doak to build the course for him, his wife, their family and friends. Kayne quickly realised the club was too good to keep to himself.
However, membership of New Zealand’s first-ever American-style private golf club is kept small and handpicked to ensure the club maintains a laid-back, intimate vibe that is void of any arrogance.
You’ll probably never find a grand entrance at Tara Iti. The chest-high wooden gate standing there will likely remain, primarily because most corners of the club offer only modest forms of beauty. As we pulled in, then walked up to and around the clubhouse, we took a moment to pause. Looking out onto the 18th hole from behind its green, and seeing it bend left ahead of an ocean backdrop with rugged mountains in the far distance is the moment it dawns that this is somewhere special.
When the Maoris sold their land to Kayne, they did so with an understanding he would respect it, and that has been his priority from the start. The club honours the heritage of the land in a variety of ways, and it goes to great lengths to preserve the native species. The sounds of sheep, birds and other wildlife permeate through the entire property. Indeed, Tara Iti is named after the Maori words for the local fairy tern.
We stayed in one of eight member cottages, each of which is named after different stages of the sun as it moves through the sky. Our room was Atatu which, translated from Te Uri, refers to the moment the sun breaks free from the horizon and begins its slow ascent. It was a gorgeous space complete with a cosy living room area and large bedroom (both with floor-to-ceiling panes), a kitchenette, and a well-appointed bathroom.
We were even invited to an intimate farm-to-table dinner at Tara Iti’s garden. In fact, everyone at the club was invited because, well, that’s the kind of thing that happens at a place like Tara Iti that handpicks its members and guests. The only thing we knew about each other was that we were golfers, travellers and equable, and those three qualities led to an evening filled with laughs, compelling conversation and lasting memories. We enjoyed everything from steak and lobster to roasted vegetables and fresh sourdough bread, all sourced from local produce and fresh off the grill.
Next morning it was time to actually play Tara Iti. Every hole offers a view of the water. The course, which was built on a naturally sandy site, is covered in fescue grass from tee to green. Doak and his design associate, Brian Slawnik, created a wide range of knolls, dunes and punchbowls that tests a golfer’s game and engages the mind throughout. Washed-out areas of sand pepper the course, but technically there isn’t a single bunker – they’re deemed waste areas and golfers can ground their club anywhere.
There’s very little extra stuff on the course – four sets of tee markers on each hole are marked by stones cut from a local quarry, but that’s about it. And the ‘halfway house’ consists of a modest table with a basket of sports bars – the golfers who play at Tara Iti are rarely interested in pausing for food. We were one of just a handful of groups playing that day, and I was told that represents a typical day.
Tara Iti is inspired by a few clubs that Kayne belongs to, most notably The Vintage Club in Indian Wells, California, and Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, New York. Both of those offer solid courses with excellent service and they’ve been strategic in building their memberships. Tara Iti mirrors those attributes.
Unlike several exclusive private clubs I’ve visited, the vibe at Tara Iti is decidedly low-key. Not once did I feel like I was breaking a rule: I was able to use my phone at will, which I did to take photos; my skirt was on the shorter side but that was entirely accepted; and I was able to laugh as loudly as possible all over the premises without getting shushed, an occurrence that happens elsewhere far more often than I care to admit.
Tara Iti is a private club, but its doors aren’t necessarily sealed shut. Non-members can inquire about playing, but only with the understanding that they’re allowed to visit the club just once (a multi-night stay is encouraged). Tara Iti is able to accommodate more visitors in the off-season months (April-October) than during the peak season months (November-March).
The future of Tara Iti is unknown, and it’s difficult to predict whether it’ll become an even more exclusive or a slightly more public destination as it matures. One thing I know for sure, however, is that Kayne owns a lot more land just south of the golf course right along the beach. Rumours are already swirling about a possible addition of one or even two courses, both of which might be public.
I played Tara Iti with architect David McLay Kidd and his wife, Tara. They were enjoying the first day of their honeymoon. So while he wasn’t on a scouting trip, David – whom you may know from his work at Bandon Dunes – did take a moment to stand up on a bench and observe that vacant land. Only time will tell if that marked the beginning of what might be a second or third course. And if that happens, Tara Iti will transform from being a remote oasis to golf’s next great destination.