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Taupo's two championship courses deliver memorable golf

Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary and the Jack Nicklaus signature Kinloch Club are both a short drive from Taupo and are “must plays” for golfers wanting a memorable experience on two challenging courses in completely contrasting environments.

But ‘which one is better’ is the constant debate?

Wairakei’s picture-postcard parkland setting with mature stands of exotic trees, native plantings, water features, bird and wildlife is a perfect foil for Kinloch’s spectacular rural environment and panoramic views over Lake Taupo on the back 9.

Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary

An impressive stone wall and entrance gates hint at something special as you drive from the highway into Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary. An imposing nine-metre high Pouwhenua (Maori carving) features in the middle of an ivy-covered roundabout that takes you to a drop-off, pick-up spot at the entrance to the architecturally designed clubhouse and pro shop. Relaxing on the café’s expansive deck with an excellent flat white, you can take in the views of the 1st fairway over a landscaped pond, presided over by two impressive replica deer. With a view like this and a full breakfast/lunch menu, it’s the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the Eden-like ambience. If you’re in need of up-to-the-minute golf gear and clothing, the pro-shop staff headed by golf pro Steve Jessup are professional, accommodating, and happy to answer any queries. A new treat at the front counter is the Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary honey straight from beehives on the property.

But golf is beckoning.

Head through predator-proof automatic gates into the sanctuary to a well-appointed landscaped practice area with driving area, putting and practice bunkers all within metres of each other.

The course is championship length at 6,460 metres and well protected from the elements. The men’s tees are challenging at 5,800 metres, and the other tee boxes ensure the course is playable for all handicaps. The Pro shop’s golf pro Steve Jessup says most players with a “bit of golf under the belt” and some golf awareness are quite capable of getting around the course without too much trouble.

The course takes around 4 to 4 and half hours to play. It is easy to walk if you’re fit, but a cart is a great way to negotiate the course, concentrate on golf and enjoy the park-like surroundings at your leisure. Two well-situated toilet facilities on the front and back 9 are easy to access and excellently fitted out.

There’s a wow factor the moment you set foot on the golf course. Between the white Peking ducks and swans gliding around the landscaped ponds and the pheasant, qualm, and guinea fowl roaming freely over the course, you can’t help but take in the serene wildlife at each hole.

Wide-open manicured fairways have mainly flat lies and are surrounded by established oaks, maples, exotic and native plantings. The greens are hard and true and have never looked or played as well following a major resurfacing project that was completed in March 2020. Meandering streams with native plantings intersect fairways on a number of holes, adding to the aesthetics and the golf challenge. Be sure to avoid the bunkers at all costs, watch out for the water hazards and the ball gobbling flaxes and it can start to feel like you really are in paradise. The tee boxes are all marked by replica Tui – reflecting the proliferation of native Tui that are drawn like magnets each spring to feed off the cherry trees on the course. We stop to admire an exotic golden pheasant as it picks its way across the cart pathway at the end of the Par 5 No 3 hole to long grass beside a lake that runs along the left side of the Par 4 No 4 hole. Bunkers on the fairway and around the green and a stream on the approach, native plantings, and bridge crossings combine to make the hole challenging and picturesque. A magnificent old oak tree at the end of the green is reminiscent of a Rembrandt painting.

 

One of Wairakei Golf's resident golden pheasants

 

Fly the ball up a slope over water and rushes on the Par 3 No 5 hole and you’re on the green and well placed to make the par.

The stone bridge on the Par 4 8th hole was modeled on the 12th hole at Augusta National and is your stop for a photo op.

The back 9 is as spectacular and challenging as the front 9. A lake surrounded by rushes with a man-made island, planted with silver birches and established trees, runs along the length of the Par 3 10th. On the other side, the lake also borders part of the 18th fairway. Mass plantings of maples and rhododendron on No 10 and No 11 are spectacular. Even more landscaped streams meander through the 11th, 12th and 18th holes requiring your most well-thought-out shots. A bridge over to the 12th green and a pond at the base of a small waterfall with lush ferns add to the aesthetics. Established stands of cedar, Douglas fir, pines and larches surround holes at the back of the course.

Three pairs of rare native Takahe are living on the course and fallow deer are a common sight on the back 9. The course is also used as a creche for kiwi. If you’re lucky you might be in the clubhouse when DOC rangers are doing a health check on new kiwi residents prior to release.

Here you can’t hear the noises of modern-day life– just golf and nature. In the decade since Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary was developed, golf course owner Gary Lane, who describes the property as a ‘slice of paradise’, has achieved his vision of creating an environment where golf and the natural habitat work in harmony

The Kinloch Club

A vast rural landscape, raw beauty, and challenging golf surprise you around every corner best at The Kinloch Club’s Jack Nicklaus signature 18-hole championship course.

A couple of minutes from the lakeside settlement of Kinloch, you enter the main entrance off Kinloch Road which is marked with a simple lichen-covered sleeper fence. The landmark Kinloch Manor, built by current owner Auckland businessman John Sax, and dubbed The Castle by locals, is sited on top of a hill separating the front and back 9 holes. Ten luxury-two-bedroom villas are dotted around the hillside below.

The clubhouse, café, pro shop, practice area and helipad are on the flat - a short drive from the main entrance. Before your game, enjoy a flat white and freshly-made sandwich or a homemade pie. Or for a more filling breakfast, the blackboard menu is tempting.

Nearly 15 years after its completion and official opening, the country’s only Jack Nicklaus signature design 18-hole championship course melds seamlessly into the rural environment as if it’s been there forever. It’s hard to believe that tens of thousands of cubic metres of soil were moved and shaped during the construction phase to form each of the 18 holes– creating undulating fairways, knobs, and tricky approaches to greens that can break three ways on one long putt.

Golf pro Tom Long, who has been at the course since it opened, describes Kinloch as the toughest test of golf in the country – reflecting Nicklaus’s reputation as one of golf’s greatest strategic thinkers. Long advises golfers playing Kinloch for the first time to “think their way around” come prepared for a test and seek advice about which tee box will suit them best.

Return golfers, and there are plenty of them, say it takes at least three rounds to get to know the course.

Its exposure to the elements means it never plays the same.

All the tee boxes, manicured fairways and greens are surrounded by rough giving the course an untamed links look, reminiscent of Scottish links courses. Old man pines that dot the course date back to Kinloch’s days as a working farm and were carefully retained by the Nicklaus design team.

Allow around five hours in a cart to complete 18 holes. The distances between tees and greens of between 50 to 100 metres, the length of the course and the terrain make it an arduous walk. As you play the front nine, enjoy the rural outlook of hill country and the distinctive natural rock face on the eastern side of the course.

 

A magnificent stand of larches alongside the Par 3, 7th hole forms a natural amphitheatre. Lichen-covered totara farm batons and posts have been re-purposed to serve as tee box markers, roped-off areas, viewing platforms and other golf course fixtures. Original round concrete stock troughs add to the rustic feel, and well-appointed toilet facilities on the front and back 9 holes, are housed in two quaint corrugated iron and wooden huts.

There are twists and turns and sloping lies around every corner and over every knob on all the Par 4 and Par 5 holes – adding to the natural beauty of the course and the challenge. A total of 172 cavernous bunkers are strategically located on and around most of the fairways and greens. Approaches to the greens need an array of shots. Bump and run doesn’t deliver at Kinloch.

A man-made lake surrounded by rushes on the Par 3, 3rd tee is a magnet for golf balls. Tom Long is right when he says Kinloch is a “risk and reward” course. Tricky par 4 holes involve lay ups and careful negotiation of gullies and bunkers to get safely to the greens. Finish the first 9 and there’s your photo opportunity at the top of the hill beside the date marker, a viewing platform and the rustic sign-post that points in the direction of world-famous golf course destinations.

The back 9 and Kinloch's view of Lake Taupo

On the back 9, you’re in for more of the same in terms of undulating terrain, challenging lies, and surprises, with the added bonus of lake views over Kinloch to the western bays. If you can keep on the fairway, avoid the rough and the bunkers and get to grips with uneven lies Kinloch is hugely enjoyable. Two short par 3s offer opportunities to fly balls over steep gullies straight onto the green for well-deserved pars.

Thanks to the spread-out nature of the holes and the design, it can feel as if you’re the only golfers on the course – even on a busy day. Sky larks warble overhead and it’s easy to feel one with nature – even when the golf doesn’t go to plan.

When Jack Nicklaus was asked about The Kinloch Club's signature hole, he responded there wasn’t one because all 18-holes fitted the bill. The same comment could equally apply to Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary.

But which one is better?

It’s impossible to pick between the two.

The environments may be spectacularly different, but golfers can be assured of discovering something memorable on each of the 18 holes on both courses – which is probably why we return to play them again and again, finding something new every time.

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