Since its grand reveal, Tara Iti Golf Club has occupied a place in the hearts and minds of golfers across the world.
To most it feels a world away: isolated geographically, almost heavenly in its beauty, and, given its famed privacy and exclusivity, almost impossible to access.
In a country dominated by public golf courses, Tara Iti is an outlier and one which, at first glance, appears to fly in the face of Kiwi beliefs and values. Why? Well, it is a club with only 50 local members, has no public access unless you stay on site (at a VERY premium price) or happen to get invited by a member (good luck) – you could understand how it might look pretentious and stuffy to the average Kiwi. But after a day in its presence, it all made sense.
The road which paves the way to Tara Iti Golf Club is distinctly Kiwi. Traditional winding gravel roads in the middle of nowhere escort you to a non-discrete wooden gate. Ten minutes of paved roads slide through the skeletal remains of pre-existing forestry which gradually thins out to present the holy grail of golf in New Zealand.
Exiting the car on arrival is an experience in itself, I was met by a party of five: caddies (mandatory for all guests) whisk your bags away, while a valet escorts your car to the carpark. For me this came as a true culture shock, years of carpark shoe changes and scrambling for a parking space had been replaced by service with a smile.
The clubhouse is quaint and classy, without being over the top. A fire burned and a barista waited to take my order for a pre-round brew. It was from here that I was granted my first glance of a course which until now had existed only in my wildest dreams.
Slithers of tight, perfectly manicured fescue cut through the sandy wasteland, its lumps, bumps and hollows presented in all their glory – the perfect collision. At first sight it was obvious Tara Iti was truly something remarkable – a wild landscape perfectly tamed.
Strolling through the property, I was struck by the dress code, or lack thereof. My host made it clear that he enquired upon joining and was told he would be allowed to play without shoes if he so desired. This was a country club disguised as a beach club. Tara Iti Golf Club was not, however, a place without rules. In fact there is a single rule which governs the entire property- ‘no dickheads’ – maybe Tara Iti’s Kiwi ethos was shining through after all.
What of the golf course? Golf Digest Magazine has ranked it as high as 2nd in the world despite its tender age – it only opened in 2015. Despite this, my expectations were completely blown out of the water. From afar, the course is visually breathtaking without appearing too overwhelming or difficult. Although undulating, the land looks relatively flat, hazards don’t look too punishing and the course stretches out in front of you. Looks can be deceiving, though.
The magic of Tom Doak’s Tara Iti lies in its ability to maximise its subtleties, every mound and hollow serving its purpose, every angle providing a strategic challenge and every hole serving a smile. As I floated tee to green, over the fescue and through the dunes it became clear to me there were absolutely no weak holes. None. What there was, was ample variety to ensure holes didn’t melt into one other. Each stood alone from the next, presenting a different test and an individual journey.
Tara Iti forced me to think about my club selection on pretty much every tee- my bomb and gouge approach was put to one side as I found myself with two or three clubs in hand a number of times as I wrestled with the intensive risk-reward balance.
The tight fescue fairways are sand-based and linksy in nature. Navigating your ball through the ripples and contours is one of the game’s great pleasures and no matter how straight the shot in the air, I didn’t dare pick up my tee early.
The greens and their surroundings are quite incredible, with huge variety in size and structure, – some had steep run-offs around them which forces you to conjure approach shots and to read putts in a way that is intensely engaging and enjoyable. The number of fun shots that can be attempted is unmatched and in traditional links-style, there are a thousand different ways to get yourself onto the putting surface, with the ground route often the method best rewarded.
Across Doak’s canvas, his trickery is disguised by artistic brushstrokes. Greens melt into the surrounding sandy wasteland, acting as punishing catchment areas for balls ever so slightly off line. Targets appear smaller than they truly are, blind shots yield wide fairways, and infinity greens appear to have flags placed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When the ocean becomes not just a backdrop but a perceived hazard, the approach shot becomes slightly more daunting!
These are elements of the course which you will never see from afar or through the lens of a drone. It was only as my feet folded the fescue that Doak’s genius asked questions of my game.
I say all of this without even mentioning the glorious surroundings which would rival many of the top courses in the world. The coastline of Te Arai is perfectly white, sandy and perfectly isolated, providing a true sense of place for those lucky enough to visit. With its sumptuous sister property, Te Arai Links, just along the way, it’s fast becoming an unmissable golf trip.
The routing of Tara Iti Golf Club presents a myriad of opportunities to take in the sumptuous sea views, which reach a crescendo on the par 3 17th. My favourite hole on the course plays straight out towards the water to a tabletop green surrounded by sand – a salty homage to the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Standing on the tee, waves folding, wind whipping, I remembered exactly how lucky I was to be there, just how special this part of the world truly is, and I felt the joy of Tara Iti’s presence.
To play Tara Iti is to experience the game in its purest form, and the experience is one that should never be passed up. The course finds away to be both strategically brilliant and subtle, while providing a real time exhibit for one of New Zealand’s most pristine and isolated coastlines and having a bad day out here is impossible, no matter how bad the golf is.
Tara Iti’s excellence is well publicised, but it has not bred a hint of arrogance or complacency. Despite its exclusivity and worldwide acclaim, Tara Iti Golf Club has retained its soul, finding ways to honour both the landscape here and celebrate the Kiwi attitude with its transcendent relaxed vibe. It’s aura warmed my golfing soul, quite frankly and feelings like these are only prompted by visits to special places.
Tara Iti Golf Club is one of those places – I only wish more people could see it, and feel its extraordinary impact.