At their best, golf courses captures the soul of their surroundings, gradually revealing a place over 18 unique chapters: never is that more the case than at Cape Kidnappers Golf Club.
Tucked away on a 500 foot cliff in a corner Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island, this is a place that had occupied my mind long before my visit, and will now stay with me forever.
Why? Well, the scenery is outrageous, filled with ocean and cliffs as far as the eye can see. The history adds to the allure. It was Captain James Cook who christened these dramatic cliffs in 1769 having seen that same drama that would prompt owner Julian Robertson and architect Tom Doak to embark on their own adventure centuries later.
The road to Cape Kidnappers is longer than you think – literally. I’d arrived at an unassuming gate, that rather than being journey’s end was the start of the adventure. A 15-minute drive that wound through active farmland, crossing a multitude of bridges, and weaving through groups of sheep scattered across the gravel roads. Throughout, rugged hillsides shielded me from any glimpses of the famed property. It was as if this mythical golf destination was disguising itself as traditional Kiwi farmland – Cape Kidnappers has an exceptional poker face.
The whole journey had been a monumental tease, the anticipation had built, the senses were heightened and that relatively short final drive felt like an hour as I wound my way through the sheep shit towards one of the golfing wonders of the world. Few courses have benefitted from aerial photography more than Cape Kidnappers Golf Club: from above, the course is seemingly routed across the hand of God, the inland portion routed through the palm, and a series of thin fingers of fairway pointing out into the South Pacific, waves crashing into their bases 150 metres below and greens teetering on the fingers’ tips. However, the drama for the seagulls above tells only a small part of the Cape Kidnappers’ story, and despite knowing the wrinkles of these fingers like my own, as I pulled into the carpark it became clear that I knew very little about the course, nor had I any sense of its sheer scale.
A Cape Kidnappers Walk
Standing on the 1st tee it would be fair to say I was slightly confused. No cliffs, no ocean views and no real drama to be spoken of, however upon the conclusion of the first five holes it all began to make sense. Doak is the master of delayed gratification, luring you into a false sense of calm before dropping a bomb on you. The opening stretch navigates excellent rolling, undulating land, features trademark bunkering and captivating green complexes, they’re engaging and enjoyable without smacking you in the face. I could feel the forthcoming drama, though, it was there, lurking and I knew it, but I was too engrossed in the joys of Doak’s inland excellence to rush.
The 6th is where the magic of the landscape takes over – it’s here you witness Cape Kidnappers’ grand reveal. The scene before you perfectly encapsulates the identity of this place. A par-3 stretches across a deep ravine before you, the green melting into the edge of the first finger of land. Standing over my ball it became clear that anything left would suffer a terrible fall into the Pacific. Rugged bunkers carved into the side of the cliffs lurked as unlikely heroes, lying ready to catch any ball headed for an untimely death- a literal hazard becoming something of a target told me everything I needed to know about Cape Kidnappers Golf Club. Knees weak, palms sweaty, I was in awe of everything around me, every thought whisked away by the stiff sea breeze. On the one hand, it made no sense that there was a golf course here, but on the other, every fibre of my being told me that it needed to be here.
THE UNRELENTING CHALLENGE
My hike around Cape Kidnappers was flooded with moments of disbelief and wonder, a journey which drew me to the tips of its fingers and then pushed me away, exposing me to Mother Nature in her purest form- sunshine, wind and scenes beyond belief. If Te Arai Links, with its smooth dance with the ocean, was Coldplay, then Cape Kidnappers was AC/DC. Thrilling, loud and chaotic- a sharp slap in the face, and the feeling of impending danger over countless shots. Tumbling across deep ravines and tiptoeing along the cliff edges had blood pumping through me in ways a golf course has no business doing. Adrenaline on a golf course – who knew?! There were holes that gave me goosebumps and shots which jolted shivers up my spine, the magic of Cape Kidnappers was clear.
In my current life or any other, I knew I had never seen or felt anything like the 15th hole. The aptly named ‘Pirate’s Plank’ is the crescendo of one of the golfing world’s most dramatic albums. The longest offering is stretched along the length of one of the Cape’s fingers with a thin wire fence the only thing standing between the fairway and a 500-foot tumble. With views as far as the eye can see, those not fond of heights would be wise to keep their eyes front and centre! Every shot is stressful, every angle magnificent, and every step towards the green, savoured.
Cape Kidnappers Golf Course is dramatic, it’s compelling and in places it’s downright unbelievable. Tom Doak has designed a course featuring a swathe of holes that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and there lies the secret to its success. The aerial photos may well have been the catalyst for this particular Wandering Golfer, but from the ground Cape Kidnappers is every bit as remarkable. In a golfing world where links, park and heathland reign, Kidnappers was crafted to be a round peg in a square hole – a place so remarkable in scale and design that it can’t be defined, thrown into a box or replicated. This golfing wonder of the world stands as a secluded, rugged piece of clifftop excellence that will continue to shake up the imaginations of all those who make the journey.
The idea of playing golf on the edge of the world is crazy, but Cape Kidnappers brought me as close to that as I’ll ever experience and left me feeling that perhaps this was how our game was meant to be played. Those six extended fingers of land had been a refreshing, thrilling reminder of why I love the game of golf and the places and landscapes it takes me. Cape Kidnappers Golf Club is a piece of land which beggars belief. In many ways it simply doesn’t make sense that there’s a golf course here at all. And that’s exactly why it makes all the sense in the world.