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The north-eastern section of the North Island was the birthplace of the New Zealand nation, and is a region of rare unspoilt natural beauty with a striking subtropical coastline dotted with gorgeous islands and secluded coves and bays. It was here in Matauri Bay during the 1990’s that Wall Street financier Julian Robertson bought a 4,000-acre cattle ranch, with panoramic views over the headland and out to the wild Cavalli Islands, and looked to create his own luxury golf destination. With the odd cluster of the region’s giant Kauri trees and a site touching enormous cliffs that crash hundreds of feet down into the sea, Kauri Cliffs was born.
Set mostly on heaving pastureland, this thrilling course was designed by American David Harman and enjoys mesmerizing views of the outer reaches of the Bay of Islands. Though only a handful of holes hug the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean the land generally leans toward the sea, meaning it is visible from the majority of holes. Away from the cliffs the rolling fairways tend to follow the curvature of the land, Harman making full use of the dramatic site by routing holes along broad crests, across ravines, through deep valleys and by using inland promontories throughout his bold design. Given the wind strength and extreme penalty for missing fairways, the landing areas are fairly generous from the tee although tighter driving lines are often rewarded with easier approach shots. This is very much a second shot golf course, however, as the key to scoring well is finding greens that are heavily contoured and presented to play firm and fast.
Starting from a central clubhouse, the course winds its way gradually toward the sea with a series of solid holes played through shimmering fescue grasses. Standout moments early include the short par four 3rd which is featureless from the tee but has a pushed up green that is tough to hit from the left half of the fairway. The 4th is an heroic par five for the big hitters who can carry right side bunkers and then blast over a corner hazard and into a large green perched at the end of a sheer drop-off. Unfortunately there are few options here for the average player who cannot make either shot. Both the 5th and 7th are long all-carry par threes with the sea out to your right, while sandwiched between is a brutal par four that demands a strong drive across a ravine followed by a blind, rising approach.
The back nine begins with some decent strategic golf within a deep valley, the ocean out of sight for a couple of holes but right back in your face at the long one-shot 14th, which is set hundreds of feet above the water and stares straight down to the Cavalli Islands. The next three holes along the coast are the most dramatic as the golf gets closest to the cliff edges and the outlooks are totally uninterrupted. Though exciting to play, the horseshoe finish at the reachable par five 15th is a tad severe and probably makes the safe play too attractive for those looking to make a birdie. The sometimes drivable 16th, heading toward the distant sea, also sadly favors the conservative play. It is followed, however, by the best and most spectacular hole on the course, the elevated tee shot on the 17th played across a gorge to an oblique shelf fairway that follows a ridge as it falls toward a well-bunkered green and an unbelievable backdrop.
With a four corners wind that swings around on a day to day basis, there are set-ups and conditions here that are more trying than others but the course remains playable for the average golfer thanks to a wide selection of teeing options. Despite its very obvious attractions, ultimately what hurts Kauri Cliffs is the lack of genuine world-class golf holes to match its astonishing setting. With barely a blade of grass out of place, however, as well as superb scenery and some heroic design, Kauri Cliffs is a visual feast that is sure to impress the vast majority who golf here.