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Surprisingly, New Zealand has only a few world class courses for a country blessed with so many natural wonders that include miles of unspoiled coastline, clear blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, pockets of sandy soil and rolling valleys. Julian Robertson has helped change this in recent times by building the clifftop Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers. However, the first course to truly show off the country’s majestic qualities will always be Paraparaumu Beach.
Located one hour north of ‘windy’ Wellington, Paraparaumu was built in 1948 by Australian great Alex Russell. Having won the Australian Open in 1924, Russell was a talented player but his real impact on golf developed from the five weeks that he spent with Alister MacKenzie during the construction of the West Course at Royal Melbourne. Clearly a quick study, Russell completely grasped the strategic principles that MacKenzie espoused. After his experience with the Good Doctor, Russell went on to design Yarra Yarra in Melbourne’s famed sandbelt as well as Lake Karrinyup outside of Perth in Western Australia. Four years later he came full circle to build the East Course for Royal Melbourne. Unfortunately, world events interrupted Russell’s design career and his next course was here some sixteen years later along the Kapiti coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
Holes to note
First hole, 405 yards; At the turn of the twentieth century, the great majority of holes tended to run in a straight line. Not until the Golden Age of architecture was the concept of bending playing corridors widely accepted as a means of introducing strategy. Especially in windy locations, the benefits of curving fairways is fully realized as the player is challenged to frequently recalculate the type shot required in a shifting wind (subtle or otherwise). Appreciating that, Russell’s doglegs at the first, eighth and seventeenth add immeasurably to the overall variety of shotmaking required by the course. Unlike his predecessors, Russell had access to heavy machinery. In the hands of someone less skilled, this could have been a disaster but Russell used it sparingly and to good effect. For instance, the first fairway is an example where he successfully utilized it to help him snuggle a bending fairway low through the dunes.
Second hole, 205 yards; ‘Less is more’ is a widely understood design philosophy that was coined by building architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Unfortunately, not enough modern golf course architects seem to appreciate his sensibilities as much as Golden Age architects. Take Russell’s work at the second where the general impression is that he smoothed over a dune for a tee and rounded off the top of another some 200 yards away and presto, a hole was born. Of course, there was more to it but the air of easy sophistication emitted by this hole and the course in general is one of the major reasons for Paraparaumu’s enduring appeal. Modern architects talk about working with nature but for a real life example, one is well served by coming here and seeing how the architect stayed in the background.
Fourth hole, 450 yards; While the third and fourth measure a similar length, they couldn’t play more differently because they head in opposite directions. Given a prevailing northerly, the third will be tough slog into the wind and the fourth is the round’s first hole downwind. Set at a 45 degree angle to the fairway, the green begs for a cut shot with the golfer needing not to let his right hand come over top of his left during his follow through. This is no doubt an example where Russell’s skill as a player helped shaped his design process as all good players relish the ability to show off their full arsenal of shots.
Fifth hole, 160 yards; The first of two bunkerless one shotters (both superb, by the way) , Russell built up this pulpit green from its surrounds. The different slopes and grasses that envelope the green complex leave a wide variety of recovery shots, some of which are blind. Leaving it bunkerless demonstrates Russell’s practical nature and Paraparaumu can be playable very soon after a summer storm passes. Indeed, given its sandy soil, the course presents fine playing conditions year around. One can’t help but think/wince of the many modern designs with their plethora of bunkers that are maintenance nightmares, especially after storms. Not here!
Sixth hole, 325 yards; In some ways, advances in technology are the archnemesis of a course like Paraparaumu whose property is hemmed in on all sides. It simply doesn’t have the ability to expand to 7,000 yards like other courses that were built sixty years ago. However, here is an example where technology has made a hole more interesting/fiendish. Rare were the days in Russell’s time when a golfer could realistically think of driving this green but now from its elevated tee, many a tiger golfer is tempted to have a go, save for those days when the wind against is too much. While having a mighty slash is great fun, the player who gets off to either side of this long but narrow green will quickly discover that the angles of play have very much shifted against a potential birdie.
Eighth hole, 375 yards; At perhaps the quintessential hole at Paraparaumu, a driver isn’t a necessity as much as finding the fairway which bends left to right. The temptation is to cut off too much of this dogleg but hitting to this tiny pushed up green is problematic out of the fescue rough as the golfer can’t obtain any spin. At 3,450 square feet, the eighth green is the smallest target on the course and it plays even smaller as it slopes away on all sides. Though modest in length, old timers advise hitting for the center of the green and being content with a fifteen to twenty foot birdie putt. As with so many holes here, greed and/or rash tactics can kill.
Eleventh hole, 430 yards; Great architects like Russell used everything at their disposal for the sake of creating diverse challenge. At the tee, the threat of out of bounds down the left can unsettle the golfer. Still, he doesn’t have much option but to go with driver as he needs to cover a substantial distance in two blows. Yet, Russell angled the long, narrow green among dunes and then bunkered as to best accept shots played from the left portion of the fairway. A fundamentally sound risk/reward hole of the sort that one never tires of playing.
Thirteenth hole, 450 yards; A massive par four played up and down over rollicking terrain, the thirteenth is the most photographed hole in New Zealand and one of the most photographed in the southern hemisphere in part because the Tararua Range form such a handsome backdrop. As the Pacific Ocean is never quite in view from the course, this range serves as the dominant background. In some ways, that works in the course’s favor as the towering landforms are unique, lending another point of distinction to this links. In regards to the hole itself, the author had an interesting experience with its rambunctious terrain. On the same calm day, his morning drive deadened by an upslope, and was shunted sideways leaving a blind three wood approach. In the afternoon however, his tee ball fortuitously carried the crest and took off like a shot, happily bounding down the crispy fairway and only a nine iron remained. As the golfing gods would have it, and highlighting the unpredictable nature of links golf, he birdied the hole with the three wood approach! Russell knew when to leave well enough alone and with land like this, he saw no need for any bunkers. Though it has some outstanding rivals, it may well be the world’s best bunkerless hole.
Sixteenth hole, 140 yards; Seemingly separated at birth from the infamous Postage Stamp at Royal Troon, the sixteenth features the identical landforms as that feared one shotter in Scotland: A large dune to the left, a long, slender shelf for a green, and then a sharp drop off to the right. The only difference is that Russell opted to let the short grass act as a hazard as opposed to the five bunkers that ring the green at Troon.
Seventeenth hole, 445 yards; Despite its remote setting, many golfers make the effort to play this course, so compelling is the quality of its holes. It features truly great holes of the sort that any course that hosts the Open Championship in Great Britain would be delighted to claim as their own. The alternate fairway seventeenth is one such hole. Some elect to take the short route down the right but that requires an all or nothing carry over dunes and two greenside bunkers to reach the green. Others elect to play out left from the tee to create an easier, more open approach that plays down the length of the green.