Fairways to heaven: Golfing in Queenstown

Mar 15, 2012

by PAUL MYERS, Travel Writer

Such are its heavenly natural qualities, that New Zealand is often referred to as “Godzone” by its inhabitants. There are many reasons why, none more appropriate than the utopian lakes and mountains setting of Queenstown in the South Island.

Gold first brought Europeans to this part of Central Otago in the 1860s. More than a century later, skiers and snowboarders discovered the attractions of Coronet Peak and The Remarkables and, soon after, Cardrona at nearby Wanaka. Now, Queenstown attracts more visitors in summer than winter, many of whom head to this corner of paradise for golf.

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Queenstown’s pearly gates are the shores of Lake Wakatipu – New Zealand’s third largest – that makes an attractive out-of-bounds on two of seven golf courses within easy reach of town. But you won’t want to put your golf ball deliberately into its sparkling blue waters. It will cost a couple of shots on your scorecard and it is mighty cold, 9C in summer. But there is no more enticing foreground for golf this side of Utopia than the lake on which Queenstown nestles, nor a more aptly named backdrop than The Remarkables, a mountain range that points true north-south and soars to 2300m. The lake or the mountains, or both, are always in view when you play golf in or near Queenstown. The choice of a camera or five-iron isn’t a golfer’s usual dilemma, but it is here.

Queenstown’s golf courses stay open year-round, even between June and August when maximum temperatures are in the low to mid single digits. Snow at lake level is uncommon, although last year there were three dumps that temporarily halted play. But from October through April the 500-year-old sport/obsession can be played as if on Cloud Nine in an environment not unlike that of far-off Scotland where the game developed.

Five courses within 30 minutes of Queenstown provide enough variety and challenge for a week of enjoyable and demanding golf. If this isn’t enough, Cromwell, 62km east, and Wanaka, 117km north, are additional options. Just which is Queenstown’s best course is a matter of conjecture – and fierce local rivalry. Many say it is The Hills, developed by Kiwi jewellery magnate and golf aficionado Michael Hill, who lives on the course.

Opened in 2007 and, subsequently the host of three New Zealand Opens, The Hills is a private club with 100 members (it accepts out-of-town visitors – at a price), located near the historic gold mining village of Arrowtown, immaculately groomed and featuring challenging shotmaking and unusual sculptural diversions.

At $NZ500 ($AUD388) a round, it’s expensive, but has fast become a bucket-list course to which many keen golfers head – as they do to St Andrews in Scotland, Pebble Beach in California and Royal Melbourne.From the moment you enter The Hills’ unmarked, farm-style front gate, it’s a surreal experience, not just because of the golf. The clubhouse – a finalist at the inaugural World Architecture Festival in Barcelona in 2008 – was designed to complement the setting. Less than a quarter of the pitched, flat-roofed building is above ground. Inside, modernist minimalism and plate-glass floor-to-ceiling windows ensure the focus is on the course itself, where native red tussock and rolling hills abound.

A collection of steel sculptures made by Hill’s son, Mark – whose studio is near the fourth tee – adds to the surrealism. A giant weta, a native insect, greets players on the first hole; red tussock-like spikes stand beside the driveway to the clubhouse; more insects are placed in Dragonfly Lake on the sixth hole, and soon “a paddock of full-size bronze horses”, as Michael Hill describes them, will appear beside the 11th hole. Pronounced by Sir Bob Charles (1963 British Open winner and sometime local resident) as the best course in New Zealand, The Hills “just happened”.

“It started with a green in front of the house, then one hole, but I thought we should build another hole back to the house,” Hill explains. “It just grew from there.” Of many wonderful holes, the par-5 17th is an absolute cracker, played uphill through a narrow canyon to an elevated green with a waterfall seemingly pouring into a bunker along the way. Preceded by the shortest, but perhaps toughest, hole on the course and followed by a scenic downhill beauty back to the clubhouse, these may be the best three finishing holes in New Zealand.

Just across The Hills’ boundary fence, separated by a quiet country road, lies Millbrook, for almost 20 years Queenstown’s premier all-season lifestyle resort. Originally a wheat farm, founded by two French brothers in the early 1860s, it once supplied grain to hungry goldminers. Millbrook attracted global attention in 1999 as host of the APEC summit attended by US President Bill Clinton. Many original stone farm buildings have been put to use as the office and pro shop, function centre, cafe and restaurant. They serve as a pleasant backdrop to the final holes of two of the three nine-hole layouts.

The original 18 holes, nine of which Sir Bob Charles advised on, were joined by a new nine last year, bringing a modern edge, increased difficulty and wonderful on-course views towards Coronet Peak. Several of the new holes rate among the best in the region – especially the par-5 finishing hole on the Coronet layout and the spectacular downhill par-4 12th with the mountains as a backdrop.

To add to its impressive credentials, Millbrook was, at the World Travel Awards last September, named as the best golf resort in Australasia for the second year in succession.

One remarkable fact is that the original major Japanese shareholder of Millbrook, Eichii Ishii, remains the owner long after other Japanese owners fled 1980s-’90s tourism investments in Australia and New Zealand. Now with modern, privately owned houses and villas, a controlled number of which are built and sold each year for up to $NZ3m ($2.3m), Millbrook has kept its charm and appeal in the face of stiff competition from new golf courses and other resorts that have turned Queenstown into an international destination.

A couple of kilometres down the road, almost opposite The Hills, Arrowtown’s narrow canyon-like public course is one of those quirky tracks favoured by both locals and visitors. At $NZ65 a round for visitors, a fraction of the cost compared with its illustrious big-name sister courses, Arrowtown offers a rare golf experience in the way it revels in its natural surroundings. The par-70 layout dates back to 1936 and features holes with names such as Golden Arrow and Sons of Fortune, a reminder of the region’s rich goldmining past in the adjacent Arrow River.

Right on Queenstown’s doorstep, the guardian angels of the region’s golf are Jack’s Point and Queenstown Golf Club, known as Kelvin Heights. Golfers can be thankful a course was laid out here. Anywhere else it would be prime real estate. Old-fashioned it may be, but as new land isn’t being made any more, the pine-fringed fairways and native bush areas occupying a peninsula jutting into the lake’s north-east arm couldn’t be more perfect for golf.

There are some great holes, such as the par-4 fifth that invites bold players to hit across the shores of the lake, and the beautiful short downhill par-3 10th that is among the best short holes in the region. Some 10km further around the lake, Jack’s Point also couldn’t be more ideally located. Occupying a thin strip of land between Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables, it was designed and developed by local landscape architect and property guru John Darby – who also designed The Hills and had a hand in developing Millbrook.

While this is a course for which superlatives come easily to mind, the fifth, sixth and seventh holes hugging the lake may be as close to golfing heaven as you can get. Here, perfectly manicured fairways and greens contrast against deep blue hues of the lake, while the whisps of snow nestling on the towering peaks of the alps suggest divine intervention had a hand in this stunning landscape.

When, on the very first hole, you observe hang gliders floating high above, like angels against the jagged spires, it is easy to ponder whether those mythical gods to whom all golfers appeal may, in fact, exist. Inevitably, on this course, they don’t, even though thick, rough, spiky matakauri bushes, reedy watercourses and treacherous slopes soon make it apparent that earthly prowess may not be enough. On the par-4 15th hole, the tee shot to the fairway is over two stone walls and a paddock with sheep, reminiscent of courses in God’s own golf country (Scotland). You’re blessed if you make it safely, as you are just to experience this gem of a golf course.

Queenstown’s... Best Holes: Par 5: 17th at The Hills, 18th (Coronet Nine) at Millbrook; Par 4: 16th at Jack’s Point, fifth at Kelvin Heights; Par 3: 10th at Kelvin Heights, sixth at Jack’s Point
Best presentation: The Hills & Jack’s Point Most challenging: The Hills
Best views: Jack’s Point Best location: Kelvin Heights Best value: Arrowtown Best clubhouse: The Hills Best pro shop: Millbrook
Best food: Millbrook Best accommodation: Millbrook Best coffee: Jack’s Point Best overall experience: Millbrook

The Hills
Private course. Visitors can play on request. $NZ500 ($AUD388) for 18 holes.

Public-access course and resort. $NZ80 ($AUD62) for 18 holes (house guests), $NZ180 ($AUD140) casual visitors in high season (until May).

Jack’s Point
Public-access course.
$NZ175 ($AUD136) for 18 holes.

Arrowtown Golf Club
Public-access course. $NZ65 ($AUD50) for 18 holes.

Queenstown Golf Club, Kelvin Heights
+64 3 442 9169.
Public-access course.
$NZ95 ($AUD74) for 18 holes.

Source Qantas The Australian Way April 2012

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