Architect Tom Doak said it best: “You will never play golf somewhere like this again.”
Those words were like a mantra when we were in New Zealand, playing the country’s major courses. Seeing the quote now makes me want to immediately fly to Los Angeles and board a 12-hour Air New Zealand flight to Auckland. Yeah, it’s a long way, but the friendly flight attendants and fine NZ wines and food make it more than bearable. Overnight you cross the international date line (losing a day) and wake up on the other side of the world — and in the opposite season that you left.
The short flight to Napier clears your head, and the 35-minute drive to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers allows you to adjust to the climate and countryside. The 15-minute drive from the resort main gate, through pastures where cattle and sheep graze, is pure anticipation. Cape Kidnappers, one of the most hyped courses in the world, begs the question: Can it be that good? In the words of late golf architect Robert von Hagge, great courses have “an equal balance of tactical excellence and beauty. A golfer spends about 11 minutes actually striking the ball; the rest of the time he is in pure theater.”
Twenty years after its opening, Cape Kidnappers has proven to be amply endowed with both of those assets — as well as staying power among the world’s top 50 courses. Staying on top takes effort. During COVID-19 Doak supervised stripping and replanting all fairways and greens to return them to their original hard-and-fast condition.
Technically a seaside layout, the 7,147-yard, par-71 natural track features lots of grassy fringes, but it is not a traditional links course. After the inland front nine, the layout follows fingers of land to
the edge of cliffs 500 feet above the crashing waves of Hawke’s Bay. That said, the front nine is not just a warm-up for spectacular cliff holes. The opening holes are exciting, with changes in elevation, carries over ravines and intriguing green complexes … and surprises, such as the blind tee shot on the 544-yard, par-5 fourth hole.
Nearly everyone has seen stunning drone images of the back nine, but the views prove no less captivating from ground level.
Fairways with drop-offs on both sides seem to shrink when the wind is up — a frequent occurrence. Catching a greenside bunker here can be preferable to losing a ball in high grass or in the depths of a ravine.
The Farm at Cape Kidnappers is a 5-star lodge with two restaurants, a spa, 22 rooms and suites, and a cottage. Managed by Rosewood (along with its sister property, Kauri Cliffs), the resort sits in the midst of a 6,000-acre working sheep and cattle station. Surrounded by predator-proof fencing, the property is also home to the world’s largest gannet colony. Visitors can see more than 25,000 birds at close range.
Cape Kidnappers is open year-round, with greens fees ranging $230–649, depending on the season.
Hole 6 “Gulley”
225 yards, par 3
Left lies the danger zone for this long one-shotter to an elevated green. Three deep bunkers protect the left front. Just behind the hazards — and edging the putting surface — a steep, grassy bank descends into a valley. It’s a fun cart ride over a long bridge across the wooded ravine to the green.
Hole 7 “14 Flags”
453 yards, par 4
This hole weighs in as the second-hardest for men and third-ranked for women. It takes a strong drive to top the crest of the fairway and set up a reasonably short downhill approach to a shallow green. Aggressively bunkered on both sides, the elevated green falls off at the back.
Hole 12 “Infinity”
460 yards, par 4
The Pacific Ocean offers a dramatic backdrop on the 10th hole, aptly named “Seaward Ho,” but two holes later lies the undisputed signature hole. You need a big drive here — and the generous landing area invites it — to leave a short iron approach. The fairway narrows along the ridge, culminating in an infinity green backed by Hawke’s Bay.
Hole 13 “Al’s Ace”
130 yards, par 3
The shortest hole on the course ranks among the easiest, but it’s a mistake to take it lightly. Lying close to the cliff edge, the green is subject to wind, and even on calm days it’s known to shed balls off the left side to deep bunkers down below.
Hole 15 “Pirate’s Plank”
650 yards, par 5
Rumor has it Doak was hesitant to include this finger of land in the layout because it is so narrow. But he did. It is rightly the No. 1 handicap and stands out among a wealth of memorable holes. The fairway, only 40 yards wide here, edges a drop of more than 400 feet all along the left and a 65-foot drop on the right. The green falls away on three sides at the cliff’s edge but offers run-up possibilities in front.
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