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Cape Kidnappers GC turns 10, continues to belie all comparisons

May 7, 2014 Golf Tourism No Comments Email Email

With its lofty rankings, design pedigree and devoted international following, Cape Kidnappers GC — which celebrates its 10th birthday this year — is one of the most talked about and photographed golf courses on earth.

It’s also surprisingly difficult to classify. So says American architect Tom Doak, the man who designed the course (www.capekidnappers.com), which opened in 2004. It was Doak who laid out the fabled fingers of fairway, which dodge menacing ravines on either side and skirt the Cape’s signature chalk-white cliffs, which rise some 500 feet from the shores of Hawkes Bay.

Doak credits the Cape Kidnappers project with launching his career — perhaps the most decorated course design career of the 21st Century.

Just don’t ask him to define exactly what sort of course Cape Kidnappers is.

“To me the key with Cape Kidnappers is that it’s just different from everywhere else,” said Doak, whose extended comments on the golf course, its design and construction, can be heard here. “I wouldn’t describe it as a links. Seaside? Yes. But links? No. It’s not sandy… I think of classic links courses as being really bumpy, with uneven fairways, which Cape Kidnappers doesn’t have at all. I hesitate to use the word ‘heathland’, as I think of the courses around London with heather all over them. I would love to build a golf course in terrain like that some day… but Cape Kidnappers isn’t that.”

In some respects, it’s easy to define Cape Kidnappers:
* It is #22 in the world according to Golf Digest (“The World’s Greatest 100 Golf Courses“);
* It is #38 in the world according to GOLF Magazine’s (“Top 100 Courses in the World“);
* It is among the top 5 stay & play venues in the world, owing to the fact that it’s on-site hotel, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, has earned a place on both Travel+Leisure‘s “World’s Top 50 Hotels” and Condé Nast Traveller‘s Gold List;
* It is perhaps the most ambitious golf property on Earth in terms of environmental activism, with its organic maintenance regimen, Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary designation, its 11 km predator-proof fence encircling the property, and its resulting on-course habitats for multiple endangered species — including kiwi birds, whose footprints can be found in the bunkers some mornings.

Cape Kidnappers head professional Jonathan McCord is more willing to take a stab at apt course descriptions. “I’ve always thought that ‘Pebble Beach on steroids’ fit pretty well,” McCord said. “There is definitely this feel of Northern California and the Big Sky country of Montana and the American Midwest. It’s just a completely unique setting — which, I think, helps explains why it has risen to international prominence so quickly, just 10 years.

“But hats off to Tom Doak, because having a unique property is one thing. Finding and linking together 18 amazing holes — as opposed to three amazing holes and 15 average holes — took some true skill. Because that’s what sets Cape Kidnappers apart: There are 18 stunning holes out here.”

Doak has favorites holes at Cape Kidnappers (see here two aerial videos where Doak describes them). Just don’t ask him to generalize about them, stylistically.

“We’ve now built four or five golf courses next to the ocean, and 2-3 more overlooking huge bodies of water,” Doak said. “But Cape Kidnappers is different from those — because of the setting, so high up on the cliffs; because it’s not sandy and bumpy. Everybody thinks that sandy, bumpy links courses are the end-all, be-all of golf, and I kind of do, too, in some ways. But there are a lot of those golf courses. When you build a new one, you have to compare it back to St. Andrews and Sandwich and Royal Birkdale and all the great links in the British Isles. There is nothing in the British Isles like Cape Kidnappers — nothing anywhere like Cape Kidnappers. That’s why it’s so cool.”

Cape Kidnappers is also an actual landform unto itself, a triangular headland that juts some 8 kilometers into the Pacific from the North Island wine-region community of Napier. Owned by American hedge-fund legend Julian Robertson, the golf course and lodge, Farm at Cape Kidnappers, occupy but a fraction of a 2,400-hectare property that represents the largest privately owned wildlife preserve in New Zealand.

This was the land Robertson had purchased early in the century, after having developed Kauri Cliffs GC in the North Island community of Matauri Bay. Kauri Cliffs is no slouch. Indeed, today Golf Digest ranks it #39 in the world (GOLF pegs it at #74).

But Robertson wanted a second course, at Cape Kidnappers, and he wanted Doak to design it. He made that decision after playing Doak’s course at Pacific Dunes, on the coast of Oregon, in the U.S.

“Cape Kidnappers is probably the most important job of my career, or the second,” Doak said. “I knew Pacific Dunes would be a really special project, and that maybe it could lead to more. But I also knew that everyone would say, ‘Well, yeah, with such a great piece of land, anyone would have done a great course on that’ … If I built something great right after Pacific Dunes, then we’d get a lot of other great jobs going forward. If we did something that wasn’t well received, Pacific Dunes would have been considered a fluke.

“If Julian didn’t play Pacific Dunes right after it opened, he wouldn’t have talked to me about Cape Kidnappers.”

But Robertson did talk to Doak, retained him, and the rest is history.

Ten years ago, New Zealand golf was largely associated with British Open Champion Bob Charles, Tiger Woods’ caddie Steve Williams and a new, remote course called Kauri Cliffs, which very few people had played but whose pictures had whetted plenty of golfing appetites.

Ten years later, the lefty Charles is still the only Kiwi major champion, but teen sensation Lydia Ko is likely to join him, someday soon. Williams has left Tiger’s bag for Adam Scott’s, and Kauri’s sister course has inspired another, more widely shared generation of golf porn.

“Some of the photos I’ve seen of the course are astonishing,” Doak said, “but I don’t think photos can ever capture the scale of the property. And, some of my favorite memories of the place are just having a picnic lunch on one or another great spot among the 5000 acres of the farm… We’ve been fortunate to work on a bunch of great projects and it’s hard for me to compare them, but I think it speaks in Cape Kidnappers’ favor that it’s not like any of the others. It’s a place unto itself.”

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