By Patrick Smith
“I’ve always believed we’ve got a great product and we’ve finally got an owner who cares about it, and with the vision to put it on the world map,” says Tom Long, who’s been head pro at the Kinloch Club near Taupo for the past eight years.
“Kinloch really is an undiscovered diamond among New Zealand golf courses.”
The owner he’s talking about is John Sax, multimillionaire investor and executive director of Southpark Corporation, who bought the Jack Nicklaus-designed course and 69 residential sections in 2011.
Sax, who owns Treetops Lodge & Wilderness Estate, an exclusive property set in 2,500 hectares of beautiful wilderness near Rotorua, saw the two high-end ventures as a neat fit.
Kinloch, he told news media at the time, offered an opportunity to create “a unique lodge and estate in one of the country’s most scenic areas” and the lodge, he said, would offer guests “a world-class resort experience”.
The lodge is about to open for business. The brief to award-winning Auckland architect Andrew Patterson, who designed the clubhouse at The Hills, was inspired by the baronial features of Kinloch Castle on Scotland’s Isle of Rum.
What Patterson has achieved is a thoroughly modern 21st century interpretation of that concept. With its simple lines and walls of local schist stone, the lodge presents an imposing face to arriving guests. But once through the impressive entranceway, they find themselves in a welcoming central courtyard complete with outdoor fire place and reflecting pool.
Views from lodge windows take in the rolling fairways and greens of golf course and the blue expanse of Lake Taupo.
Lodge interiors are the work of Virginia Fisher, the go-to designer for a number of top lodges and hotels in New Zealand and around the world.
The main Great Room, an opulent mix of lush textures—velvet, fox fur, brass and copper—leads to the dining room, a light and airy space with seating on banquettes and plush sofas.
The Bar has a clubby, masculine feel—all leather and rock surfaces, cowhide, goat fur and burnt-wood flooring—while The Den, with its slate floors and designer rugs, is the place for private dinners or meetings.
The lodge’s opulent suites are the perfect place to stay for well-heeled golfers and others, as are the two and three-bedroom on-course villas situated just a short stroll from the lodge. Their dark-stained exteriors help the buildings to melt into the natural setting of the surrounding course.
Outdoor patios and furnished terraces lead into calm, elegant rooms with handmade rugs scattered across oak floors, statement fireplaces and sumptuous en suite marble bathrooms with freestanding tubs.
A world-class restaurant uses produce reared or grown on Sax’s Treetops estate; wherever possible, the lodge’s philosophy is one of organic “estate to plate” food. The wine list includes some of New Zealand and the world’s finest drops.
As well as golf and the area’s myriad other attractions—think trout fishing, swimming, water-skiing, flightseeing, geothermal activities and more—there’s an onsite spa specialising in sporting, therapeutic and organic wellness treatments, an infinity pool, gym and tennis courts.
Staying over might also tempt golfers into a second round on the Golden Bear’s masterpiece—and the chance to better appreciate its unique challenges.
Come to that, you could play it every day if you lived on the course. The freehold properties for sale range from luxury villas to residential sites with golf course views and larger hillside sections with views over the golf course to Lake Taupo.
As to the course itself, it was the Golden Bear himself who drove the opening ball when Kinloch’s front nine was completed in 2007 and Nicklaus flew back a year later to tee off for a full 18 holes.
After his round he declared the course “pretty unique”, adding, “You won’t find another golf course that looks much like this in the world.”
But as has been well documented, the club and its par-72 championship course—the only Jack Nicklaus Signature Course in New Zealand—struggled financially over the following years until Sax stepped in, buying the land and course from one of its major creditors.
Soon after it opened, the course, a hybrid of links and parkland features, was named in the top 10 new golf courses in the world by U.S. Travel + Leisure Golf magazine (the only course outside North America to feature in the list) and its reputation has only grown since: In the last two years it has been ranked the country’s top layout by a team of Kiwi golf professionals.
Others have pronounced the course—6734 undulating metres from the tournament tees— “a hell of a challenge”. They should probably have listened to Nicklaus who, after his own round played from the back tees, remarked, “If you find a golf course such as this, which has quite a bit in it, it’s probably far more fun to play short rather than long. The only reason those gorilla tees are back there is for these [long-hitting] young guys. But most people who play, you should play the golf course on the short side. It’s meant to be a sporty-type golf course, a fun golf course; don’t go back and ruin your day by playing the course too long.”
When Sir Bob Charles played it for the first time with Tom Long, he commented: “I can honestly say this is the number one golf course in New Zealand. For those unable to play the great links courses of Scotland, Kinloch compares with the best of them. A true links experience with Jack Nicklaus at his best.”
Says Long: “It’s a thing of perception. It’s a championship golf course but people come here thinking they’re going to murder it the first time they play it. Realistically, though, if they did that they’d drive out the gate and have no reason to come back. I’ve given out a fair number of hugs in the car park after rounds!”
And people do come back, he says. The reason? “You’re not always going to score well, but you’ll never be bored. I’ve said before, if there’s one golf course I could play for the rest of my life and not get bored, it would be this one.”
Long believes that when it comes to golf course design, Nicklaus is “the best strategic thinker of all time. You’ve got to gauge where you take your medicine,” he says. “I think it’s an awesome golf course for the mental game.”
Long grew up in the U.K. playing on traditional links course where the two nines stretch out and back again beside each other. “Here,” he says, “the way the holes are angled, you’re only aware of the hole you’re playing. It feels like being out there on your own; it feels like there’s this multimillion-dollar golf course and it’s all yours.”
When Nicklaus was asked which was Kinloch’s signature hole, he replied that every hole on this course was a signature hole. But Long confesses he does have a favourite: the fourth, a 454m (391m from the white tees) dogleg par 4 with a bunch of fairway traps on the left and a well-guarded green. Long hitters may clear the fairway bunkers but then leave themselves a downhill lie for their second.
“It’s not always a hole I play well but I love the design of it, and that you’ve got so many options It’s a risk-and-reward hole, a brilliant par four, and it comes quite early in the round.
“The third is the visual gem of the front nine. You hit over a small lake and you see Lake Taupo in the distance. The rest of the front nine is all about the golf course and then you arrive at number ten. It’s an elevated tee and you get this fabulous vista of the lake. Fifteen and seventeen are also visually beautiful holes.”
The pro suggests golfers “bring their A-game” and that they don’t get hung up trying to play to their handicap the first time out. A pre-round practice session might be a good idea.
Towards this end, the club has a grass-tee driving range, a putting green and chipping green with bunkers. There’s a fully stocked pro shop and you can hire clubs, carts and trundlers.
Post-round, the modern, glass-walled clubhouse is a pleasant spot to relax over a drink or a meal from the daily menu while you take in the view over the course to Lake Taupo.
Guests at John Sax’s exclusive Treetops Lodge, an hour’s drive away (10 minutes by helicopter!), can book a package that includes 18 holes at the Kinloch Club.