It says much about the embarrassment of golfing riches along this spectacular coastline, an hour or so north of the capital Auckland, that ‘only’ having seven of the 18 holes feature the ocean could prompt some to think architect Tom Doak had drawn the the short straw when he was tasked with designing the North Course at Te Arai Links.
While the South Course has views of the Pacific on 16 holes, The North starts and finishes by the ocean, but its a rollercoaster of inland holes which really give the North it’s identity. The golf course Doak has produce speaks for itself and will dispel any lingering doubts the North was ever a poor relation. On my first visit to Te Arai Links in 2022, I compared the South Course’s smooth and relaxing routing to a Coldplay track, however a loop of the North is more akin to AC/DC – an intoxicating collision of beauty and chaos. And a wonderful, and very deliberate, contrast to its big brother, The South Course.
TE ARAI: GOLF ON A GIANT SCALE
As I weaved through pine trees and over sandy expanses, the firm fescue crunching beneath my feet, there was a single word which I felt encapsulated the essence of the North Course at Te Arai Links – scale.
There are fairways like airport runways, enormous landforms, slopes and run-offs like halfpipes and skate bowls, dunes and mounds which towered over me and drop-offs like black holes which seemingly plummeted forever. Without fail, these wild features captivated us on every single hole of the North Course, their treatment of our golf ball constantly pushing us to different corners of our emotional continuums. The layout is rock’n’roll, all gas, and no brakes – a relentless overload of the golfer’s brain and a constant examination of the golfer’s emotions. A golfer who can’t find the fun in the North is no golfer at all.
The North Course at Te Arai Links is Doak’s ultimate freedom of expression. Over the last few years, I have flooded my ears and eyes with the words and dulcet tones of Mr Doak, endlessly fascinated by his thoughts and perspectives on both life and golf – in many cases they are one and the same. He can, to some, be a polarising figure, with a propensity to not mince words, opting to speak in absolutes – often to the displeasure of the subject. In a world of hoop-jumping, conforming, and pleasing the masses, Doak’s well-crafted brashness is refreshing. By listening to him speak with such articulate, blunt force, his approach to golf course design has begun to make a lot more sense too. This is a man who isn’t afraid to step away from the rules and the blueprints, and a lunge toward the unique, the bold and the downright compelling. The Te Arai North Course is all of that and more.
GREENS LIKE NO OTHER AT TE ARAI
Take the greens, for instance. Now, Doak is celebrated for designing and shaping some of the most heavily contoured greens in golf, but with the North Course at Te Arai Links, he has surpassed himself. Large complexes with severe rises and falls and brutal slopes provide opportunities for a wide variety of pin positions which ultimately shape the strategy of each hole – you’ll find mind-boggling contours waiting to embrace and repel golf balls based on the quality of your approach. Doak himself has owned up to shaping the 2nd, 4th, and 7th greens (arguably the most severe on the course), sheepishly noting they are the way they are, because he’s “still not very good at making things flat with a bulldozer”.
The variety in the greens is incredible. There were times during my round when some three-putts felt hard earned. At times, a good sense of humour is required and I found myself making putts at right angles to the hole. That said, the creativity this golf course demands and freedom with which you can attack it, had me playing shots I never imagined I would and grinning ear to ear as I watched them unfold.
CREATIVE, CHAOTIC: TE ARAI NORTH
Golf on the North Course at Te Arai Links feels like a sport: a game of reacting to the environment and solving the puzzle on the fly. It’s an ethos which evokes the spirit of the oldest form of links golf. Rather than a plotting direct path from point A to point B this is golf in its 4D. Yes, the course is hard to work out but that’s because there isn’t one correct answer or a single distinct formula, rather there are a myriad of different ways to solve the puzzle.
I could play the North Course at Te Arai Links a thousand times and never feel like I had played the same layout twice – it’s a quality I have found only on the most compelling courses on the planet. In my mind, another marker to define the greatness of a golf course is to measure the depth and array of the emotions it provokes in me. As I watched my golf ball funnel towards flags, tumble off mounds and leap sideways off hills, there wasn’t a moment where my heart wasn’t full – either with anguish, relief, frustration or more often than not, laughter and joy. Yes this golf course is chaotic but in the best possible way. In creating Te Arai North, Doak’s creative genius has been given a licence to to thrill. And yet despite its sheer scale and the drama of those green complexes, Te Arai North still feels beautifully balanced: there are plenty of opportunities to make birdies, and for every slope which might hurt, there is one that will help – give and take.
Half-par holes are also to the fore, with a number of short par-4s and par-5s presenting scoring opportunities alongside a really challenging set of par-3s. The generous width of the fairways also means its playable for all abilities and even allows for the odd heroic recovery shot into greens from tough angles. No two holes are the same, each asks a different question of the golfer.
TE ARAI NORTH: Beautifully different
So how do you sum up the experience of playing the North Course at Te Arai Links? It’s beautifully different to anything else on the planet. Tom Doak and his team at Renaissance Golf Design have crafted a piece of art with its own wild identity, free of the restrictive design rules, compliance, and the burden of trying to please the golfer who views courses through two numbers on the scorecard: the par and their one-eyed pursuit of it. This golf course is unique and attempting to place it in a box with others doesn’t feel right.
Mike Keiser, the esteemed developer of Bandon Dunes and the Cabot collection, once said that in golf 1+1=3, meaning that the development of a second course at a resort was often the catalyst to transform a curiosity into a compelling destination. Those words were echoing in my ears as I walked the North Course at Te Arai Links. By adding North to South, Te Arai links has achieved something extraordinary: two courses (three if you include Tara Iti down the road) which occupy the same stretch of coastline but look, feel, and play distinctly differently. Each have their own clearly defined spirit and personality: like three brothers, there are bonded together for life but wonderfully different too.
The South Course at Te Arai Links quickly found its way onto Golf Magazine’s World Top 100 list, joining Tara Iti, and now the wonderful North Course looks sure to follow suit. New Zealand’s North Island has evolved into one of golf’s truly special corners of the globe, and there are few places I would rather spend a weekend.