In the club: The cost of playing golf in NZ

Jane Phare looks at why thousands of Kiwis spend hours trying to hit a small white ball into a hole, and what the exclusive clubs charge for the pleasure.

There must be something to this golf business. More than 500,000 New Zealanders play it, the game is worth more than $1 billion to our economy, and golfers pay thousands of dollars to belong to exclusive clubs.

Speak to golf fanatics and their voices go dreamy. It’s the camaraderie, they’ll say, the competition, the outdoors, the physical and mental health benefits, the thrill of seeing the ball soar up in the air and land on the green or, better still, in that little hole marked by a flag.

It’s a game they can play with friends, strangers, or on their own. And it’s a game where presidents play with prime ministers, creating bonds between the holes.

Adding to the country’s 390 existing courses are several more in the planning including two new courses at Te Arai Links, next to the exclusive Tara Iti at Mangawhai; a 12-hole golf course at Mt Cardrona Station near Wanaka; and a Greg Turner-designed nine-hole golf course as part of a $750 million housing resort at Gibbston Valley near Queenstown.

While Covid-19, lockdown and closed borders knocked the stuffing out of the international market, it seems Kiwis have dusted off their clubs and headed out.

The managers of most golf clubs spoken to by the Herald reported their busiest season ever after lockdown ended, helped by special offers, package deals and the fact that well-heeled New Zealanders are unable to travel.

Here the Herald looks at what some of New Zealand’s top golf courses have to offer, and what they charge.

Tara Iti, 18-hole golf course on the coast at Mangawhai

This place is exclusive, expensive and, according to Golf Digest, excellent.

Run as an equity club, the membership and annual fees are confidential but sources told the Herald that you’ll need around $400,000 to join, plus hefty annual fees.

But membership’s not automatic. Prospective members need a letter of introduction and then go through a discreet vetting process – dubbed the “no assholes” policy.

Membership is capped at fewer than 300 and of those, around two thirds are from overseas. Right now, the New Zealand members – less than a third – have the place to themselves.

However non-members are given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play. They must stay at least one night – preferably several – in one of Tara Iti’s two-bedroom “cottages” or one-bedroom ocean suites, and hire a caddie. It’s an experience that will set them back many thousands of dollars and one that will not be repeated, unless they become a member.

Ranked number two on Golf Digest’s list of the world’s top 100 golf courses, it’s a place where members are just as likely to arrive by helicopter as by car and where co-owner, American billionaire investor Ric Kayne used to anchor his 63.4-metre expedition yacht SuRi off the coast when he visited.

Since then more than two million native plants have been planted across the 1400 hectares and the club is involved in saving its endangered namesake, tara iti or the native fairy tern. The tiny bird is the only emblem on Tara Iti caps and casual wear, a discreet signal to other club members.

Golf carts are a no-no. Members and visitors must walk the entire course, with a caddie.

Kayne and his wife Suzanne have now built a large home on the land, part of the new Te Arai Links development. That will include two new 18-hole golf courses open to the public, multiple club houses, restaurants and accommodation.

In addition, 125 private homes are being built by multi-millionaires to their own design on sections starting at nearly $3m and going up to more than $5m.

The Coore & Crenshaw-designed south course is due to open by October 2022 and the Tom Doak-designed north course is scheduled to open a year later.

The aim is to create the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of California’s 17-Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula which includes Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Spyglass Hill golf clubs.

Tara Iti director Jim Rohrstaff, who is partnered with Kayne in the Te Arai Links development, quotes Mike Keiser, owner of the renowned Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on America’s west coast: “One course makes a curiosity. Two make a destination.”

By the end of 2023, Kayne and Rohrstaff envisage three golf courses stretching along 12 kilometres of pristine coastline. Perfect white sand, surf, fine golf courses with stunning views out to Hauraki Gulf islands.

Says Rohrstaff: “It sounds a bit like heaven.”

He admits Covid-19 and the closed borders have made things tough.

“We’ve had to re-do all of our budgets and we’ve had to rethink how we run this next year.” He doesn’t expect to see the club’s US members back in numbers before mid 2022.

The Hills, 18-hole golf course near Arrowtown, established by Michael Hill, jeweller

This private course is best known for its stunning sculptures placed throughout the course. Golfers will come across huge, iron Clydesdale horses grazing, a pack of bronze wolves tearing up a hill or giant dragonflies hovering over a lake.

Sitting on a three-legged stool admiring the view is UK artist Sean Henry’s giant bronze sculpture, Sitting Figure. A similar sculpture on the North York Moors attracted so many visitors that authorities have now moved it to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Again The Hills doesn’t talk money but sources say the membership is in the order of $40,000. The club doesn’t sell individual memberships. Instead it’s a family pass which includes children up to the age of 25.

The Hills’ general manager Brendan Allen says the long-term goal is inter-generational family membership, a place golfers can take their grandkids.

Like other top golf courses, The Hills relied on overseas visitors to boost its numbers. Allen was bracing for the worst but overseas members, many of them Australians who would normally be visiting now, have kept up their annual fees.

And Kiwis have taken up the slack. Allen says bookings over the next few months indicate the club will do well out of local visitors.

That’s been helped by a reduction in the cost for a casual visit. Pre-Covid, The Hills offered a $1000 golf and hospitality day package, including food and drink, to non-members. Now casual visitors – only 12 non-members a day are allowed to play – are charged $550 for a round of golf but there’s no food or drink included.

Jack’s Point, Queenstown

Not far from the Remarkables ski field, this 18-hole par 72 championship course is set in 1200 hectares beneath spectacular peaks soaring more than 2300m above.

Most top golf courses vie for local and international ranking recognition and Jack’s Point is no exception. Its marketing manager Richard Birkby points out Jack’s Point was ranked New Zealand’s best golf course in the 2020 World Golf Awards, and number two in 2020 (behind Tara Iti) by New Zealand Golf Magazine.

To be fair, Birkby says, the World Golf Awards is contributor-judged and not many people would have played Tara Iti, giving Jack’s Point the edge.

Jack’s Point is a non-membership resort, relying on two thirds of its visitors coming from Australia, the US and parts of Asia.

General manager of golf John Griffin says the business model is well down. Covid-19 hit, then the course closed down in the winter months of June and July and, says Griffin, “we’ve suffered ever since”.

When the course did reopen, Jack’s Point opened for free – a round is normally $250 – as part of a push to draw New Zealanders to Queenstown.

Since then they’ve collaborated with three other courses in the Queenstown area – Queenstown, Arrowtown and Millbrook – to create a Golf Super Pass for $399, which buys a round at each of the four courses.

“We definitely need that bubble [with Australia] to open,” Griffin says.

“Unfortunately it sounds like it’s going to be later in autumn which is almost the point where the golfers stop coming and the skiers do.”

Royal Auckland and Grange Golf Club (RAGGC), 18-hole golf course with another nine-hole underway.

Two South Auckland golf courses, with a combined history of 220 years, combined to create one exclusive 27-hole course.

The club sold off 19 hectares of land, some of it to King’s College, including its old clubhouse, and some to a developer, to pay for three new multimillion-dollar, nine-hole golf courses, designed by renowned golf architect Jack Nicklaus, and a new clubhouse designed by Andrew Patterson.

It’s a private membership club with no casual visitors. Sources say the membership fee is $11,500 but membership is closed and there’s a waiting list.

CEO Rob Selley says with nearly 2000 members from the combined clubs, existing members often can’t play when they want to. The aim is to gradually decrease the numbers through natural attrition.

The new 18-hole course and clubhouse opened in March – just in time to shut down for Covid-19, says Selley – and the final nine-hole course will open later next year.

RAGGC is still a fairly traditional club. Members are expected to wear collared shirts, tailored dress pants or shorts and, if wearing shorts, white socks with no logo.

Cape Kidnappers, Hawke’s Bay, and Kauri Cliffs, Matauri Bay, Northland

Established by American hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson, both golf courses boast stunning ocean views and lodge-style accommodation, designed to lure wealthy international visitors, mostly north American, to stay and play for a few days.

Overseas visitors would happily fork out tens of thousands of dollars to play golf and stay in luxury accommodation, including one of three “residences” built at Kauri Cliffs for Robertson’s three sons and his nine children, each with four bedrooms and a private pool.

With 65 per cent of its clientele coming from overseas, the coronavirus slammed the door on a large chunk of lucrative income. But director of golf for the two resorts, Jon McCord, says he’s been “unbelievably impressed” by the level of local support.

“We have never had a busier winter and spring season,” he says. “It’s amazing what happens when we are able to keep New Zealand travellers in the country and they start spending their tourism dollars on a regional level.”

Knowing that it could be a two to four-year process before Americans are willing to travel abroad to play golf, they’re not letting Kiwis out of their sights.

“Now what we want to do [is] to be sure we look after these new guests that have supported us in our time of need,” McCord says.

Locals play at a reduced rate – $322 for a round of golf in the high season compared with $649 for international visitors – but there will be more special offers for New Zealanders in the future.

Millbrook Resort, 18-hole golf course near Arrowtown

Set in 236 hectares of park-like grounds Millbrook is building another nine-hole golf course that is due to open to the public in early 2022, giving the resort two 18-hole golf courses.

It costs $175 to play a round in the high season, or $125 for a guest staying at Millbrook, but the resort is also part of the $399 deal with three other golf courses in Queenstown.

Millbrook has also experienced a local boom since lockdown lifted. Director of operations Brian Howie says more members are joining, existing members are playing more, and there has been a 30 per cent increase in visitor bookings.

Wairakei Golf Course and Sanctuary

Owned by Richlister businessman Gary Lane, the 180-hectare Wairakei Golf Course is protected by a 5.5km predator-proof fence meaning native birds, including kiwis, takahe and karearea (the New Zealand falcon) and wildlife flourish in the grounds.

Golfers play in a park-like setting to the sound of streams and waterfalls, with fallow deer, pheasants, guinea fowl, Pekin ducks and quail as a backdrop.

Lane made a fortune selling food businesses Healtheries and Hansells in 2006 and later bought 11 Herne Bay properties from the Sultan of Brunei, including Waimanu. At Wairakei he’s worked with the Department of Conservation to establish a breeding programme for takahe and a “kiwi chick sanctuary” on the land.

Membership is just over $3000 and a game of golf, for a New Zealand registered player, is $195. There is a dress code – collared shirts, dress pants or shorts; no denim, track pants, work boots or Jandals.

Golf New Zealand, which oversees the rules and runs the national handicapping system, points out that Kiwis don’t need to be rich or even have a club membership to play a round. The majority of courses are pay-to-play and, in the country’s more rural areas, can cost as little as $10 or $15.

Golf NNZ’s CEO Dean Murphy says of the 390 golf courses in New Zealand only a handful are private members’ clubs. And at resorts like Jack’s Point and Millbrook, everyday Kiwis (non-golfers) can visit to enjoy the grounds or just have coffee and cake.

Tarras Golf Club, 18-hole course near Cromwell

Set beneath towering mountain ranges, this is a golf course where sheep graze on the fairways and small fences protect the greens from the livestock.

The rules are: leave the $15 green fee (9 or 18 holes) in the honesty box at tee 1; very warm clothing in winter is advised, and there’s no need to book.

Oh, and watch out for traffic on State Highway 8. Players need to cross the highway three times to play nine holes, six times to play 18.

Golfers can join the club for $150 which, because Tarras is a fully affiliated club, means they get discounts on other courses around New Zealand. The clubhouse is the Tarras hall and there’s an old “smoko shed” on the third tee where snacks are served during tournaments.

The club dates back to 1956 when three Otago farming families allowed parts of their land to be used for a golf course and that arrangement hasn’t changed. The club now has 210 members, including two members from Amsterdam, and a paid greenkeeper.

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