Down Under Par

An overall reflection of golf seen in Oceania…
For the past two months, I have been travelling around the Southern Hemisphere and no, the ball doesn’t go down into the hole counter-clockwise and I was not attacked by any hoop snakes or drop bears.  I have learned much about the culture and the game of golf down under.  Given the context of these articles, I’d like to reflect upon how the game is played.
Golf is simple.  It is a challenge and it is an opportunity.  It is meant to be played with others, but against yourself.  It is meant to be enjoyed with fresh air and to be talked about amicably with friends afterwards.  It is meant to be laughed at.  It is meant to be a game.
Golf is also serious.  It provides an honest competition that is equitable to all that participate.  Therefore, people that play this game here seldom make excuses and are highly congratulatory to highly adept play.
It seems to have been learned that learning comes from within.  It comes from objective observation of the present moment.  Learning what you do well and when and where you need to focus more attention.  Aussie golfers seem to be very Socratic in that most know that they know very little, but are open to knowing more (a very “empty cup” Zen student approach).
So, I conclude my thoughts and implore you to take a position ready to learn.  Learn from every putt, from every sliced drive and from every chunked wedge.  Gain insight and humility from every pure strike and snake holed.

Tara Iti – a late afternoon game

After Mangawhai Golf Club and a lunch at The Dune with Alec, I rode back to Alec and Ryan’s workplace, Tara Iti.  It was the first time I saw the property despite studying pictures and essays about it prior to my trip.  My first reaction was, this place is in a FOREST?!  Every picture I saw of the course only showed a handful of trees and all of the holes are situated on rolling sand dunes.  Nevertheless, I was quite shocked to see that drive in be tree lined.  Also, the entrances to the new courses are literally situated in the “Southern Forest” to give you a clue about what those sites look like.

Ryan was finishing up at work, so I waited patiently at the staff accomodations (Podville), a series of dorms transformed from shipping containers.  I had plenty to do listening live to ESPN radio following the ACC Championship Game which ended up being a dismantling of UVA.  Eventually, Ryan came rolling in on a golf cart to provide me the tour of the property properly.  All I can say is UNDERSTATED luxury.  Everything that is needed and nothing that isn’t.  Everywhere you go has every one of your questions answered without you having to ask.  Perhaps the most impressive part of the facility’s infrastructure is the learning facilities.  Given the place only does 8,000 rounds (that actually sounds high), this building is to the T, everything you would ever want.  It has a full service bar that looks like it came out of the Great Gatsby.  It has a full simulated golf hitting bay.  It has a full “garage door” to the practice fairway to hit shots from inside.  It has every fitting system known to man.  It has a putting studio.  It has a practice fairway – as in… this is not the range (that is somewhere else and altogether awesome on its own), so you have a private fairway for all your instruction needs (at most there would be another person getting a lesson).  What an incredible facility – one that might not make sense, but most great things in this world do not make sense.

Ryan mentions that there is an American PGA director of instruction on property looking for a game and wants to know if I’m keen.  Duh.  We end up having a fourball and soon enough I am getting ready to embark on my maiden voyage around Tara Iti.  I suppose I will dive into the writing now even though it is overwhelming!

The first tee ball is described by my caddie as the reverse of the first at Sebonack.  I found that a bit odd as I had played there and visually it didn’t click, but the more I thought about it, perhaps it was true.  It is more of just a short dogleg that entices the log hitter to take on the left side if it is downwind.  More of a reverse of the first at Pacific Dunes if you ask me.  All in all, I didn’t take enough care in aiming down the right side as we had a decent headwind that knocked my ball into the short left bunker (I’ll know for next time).  My approach was virtually blind as I was punished by my indifference in shot selection off the tee. I hit a well struck short iron to the back of the green.  The green is well different than Sebo or Pac’s first hole.  The further right you go off the tee, the more the green acts as a backstop, but the more direct line you take off the tee, you are face with a NASCAR inspired bank turn half horseshoe.  With the pin in the very front of the green, long or left is a virtual bogey or worse, and as we’ll learn throughout the day, being pin high is a great key to scoring at T.I.

The second is inspired by owner Ric Kayne’s housesite in Southern California.  Apparently, he overlooks the 6th at Riviera and therefore the donut shaped green.  The small bunker in the middle of the green is supplemented by a large bunker complex guarding the front left side of the green (where the pin was located during our play).  These two bunkers are quite strategic in that they encourage the skilled golfer to use the slopes right of the flag (but challenging the middle bunker) and play a combination of ground game and air game to combat the courses hazards.  What a beautiful theme that you must use both facets of the game (air and ground) to have the most success in scoring.  My high cutting 8 iron proved to be the right shot selection as the ball landed softly and used the right to left slope off the middle bunker to bring my ball 15-20 feet directly behind the hole.  A good read and a meek effort left my first putt conveniently in the middle of the hole just 2 feet short.

The third is a funny hole – lots of local knowledge on this one.  I might have made the only 3 on the second, so I grabbed driver and hit down my caddie’s line but pushed it about 10 yards and ended up in the right waste area fairway bunker.  Then I see Ryan and Alec both blast drivers 40 yards right of me?!  They claim that it adds length to the hole but opens up the angle tremendously, if you play down the 4th fairway.  I’ve got another blind approach out of the bunker, but I trust my line and crisply strike a 6 iron to what I think is left of the green.  I learn from my looper’s vantage point that the wind actually carried the ball 20 yards RIGHT of the pin but grabs a convenient bounce into the green’s punchbowl and ends up about 20 feet under the hole.  We get up to the green and what a marvelous DELL/PUNCHBOWL like greensite.  I understand why Alec and Ryan don’t love the 3rd fairway angle as it can be blocked out by the massive dune guarding the center and right portions of the green.  With the left to right wind we had today, it was important to have a clearer angle unless you were to rely on the short right punchbowl slopes (the ground hook if you will).  We got to the green to find a load of stinky natural fertilizer spread out on the green that was sure to make your ball dance on the way to the hole.  I was third to putt and saw how each of the prior putts bounced all over the place and came up short, so I didn’t put a lot of thought to the line of the putt not thinking it would matter much, but I did focus on make a firm assertive stroke at the middle of the hole and what do you know?!  My first birdie at Tara Iti!


Mangawhai Village Market and Mangawhai Golf Club

This morning, I ran alongside the low tide exposed shoreline of the estuary heading to the Surf Beach I explored yesterday.  Down the sandy shore and back along the front of the cliffside homes was a good enough route for my exhausted muscles from the 15 plus miles of walking the day prior.  I felt that this wasn’t enough movement for me yet and I wanted to get a taste of the local flair so I headed down to the Saturday morning market after a nice shower and reset.  The walk was naturally longer than I had planned, but it took me into a great boardwalk area along the tidal wetlands leading into the Village.  Eventually I had arrived and wow – what a scene!  I was treated to samples of local honey, cheeses, pates, olive oils, and even a “Mexican hot sauce” booth.  To go with the theme of New Zealand, everything was clearly made with love and respect to the ingredients and the land which produced them.  I found that everyone really enjoyed being a part of the community and wanted to engage with each other.  Other highlights of the Saturday Market included the couple playing with wooden string toys called Kendama and the Kendama Pill (see this dude make it look all too easy!) and the musical entertainment acoustic duo named the G Strings (damn, they could seemingly play anything).

After my first hitchhiking experience (Ryan said its not only the safe, but an encouraged method of travel – another awesome part of New Zealand) back to the Heads, I enjoyed the rest of the day with an extraordinarily amazing walk on the beach.  It was long and pure and quiet and peaceful and bliss.  There is something about putting your bare feet on wet sand and allow the waves to softly crash into you.  It recharged my batteries and allowed my brain to process thoughts as passing ideas without having to act on them.  When is the last time you didn’t have to do ANYTHING except breathe, observe and sit?  I highly recommend taking some time out of your busy life to do just this.  You will be happier after you have.

Ryan told me that one of his co-workers, Alec had the day off and was looking to play golf the next morning.  So, we organized to play the local track, Mangawhai Golf Club.  I had walked past the club the day before and met with the woman in the pro shop.  After introducing myself, she was happy to invite me to play during my stay, and I just didn’t know it would be the very next day.  Luckily, she was there to greet us in the morning and take care of us and show us on our way.  A beautiful walk, Mangawhai featured some great rolling turf and interesting bunkers.  A couple memorable holes – one a longish par 4 with a green cut into a hillside with a natural faced bleed out bunker protecting the right and back of the triple tiered green.  With many of the greens elevated, you had to place your approach the correct distance or risk an unlucky bounce from the unfriendly slopes.  After our match was over (Alec used his play every day experience to dismantle my “rusty” excuses), I decided to try a few shots I might not normally.  The best came on the 17th hole? where I hit a 2 iron to the turn of the dogleg to be left with an uphill second to a green that sat 160-175 yards on top of the hill.  I took that same 2 iron and played a LONG “bump and run” shot that skirted up the slope and continued to the middle tier of the green just 6 feet short of the hole!  All in all, the course was a real treat with incredible ground movement and a FUN shot quality all over (especially the back 9).


Paparoa – the world leader in pasture golf

After arriving in Auckland, Ryan and I headed north through a multitude of small towns that I can’t for the life of me pronounce or even remember.  We stopped along the beach for a lite and delicious lunch at a small beach town, hit the grocer and butcher in Warkworth, the coffee shop in Matakana and a small Op Shop (thrift store benefiting local ambulance companies usually).  I learned that that is pretty much the format to every New Zealand town – cafe, butcher, gas station, op shop, dairy, and a pub.  Simple but very good living.

Eventually, we arrived back to his humble abode above the estuary in Mangawhai (the ‘wh’ becomes more of an ‘f’ sound) Heads.  There is Mangawhai Village which is situated deeper inland and near the estuary of the tides which forms a bit of a harbor/wetlands and Mangawhai Heads which is a residential area/town that is closer to the ocean and surf beach.  Ryan drove us down to the surf beach for a quick dip in the Pacific to offer a bit of an awakening to my senses after the long day of travel and to give us some energy for the rest of the afternoon.

Next on the agenda was a trip to the Paparoa Golf Club. Ryan had never been there before, but had heard great things about the experience.  He knew that there would be not many signs to get there and there probably wouldn’t be anyone at the club to show us around (a typical rural honesty box system).  What he didn’t know was how difficult it would be to find this place.  We made it to the town of Paparoa (imagine the bare bones as listed above) and saw a sign with a directional arrow stating “Paparoa Golf Club 10 km.” Good sign as we didn’t think there’d be any signs!  We continue up this road (which soon thereafter turned to gravel) for about 10-12 minutes passing a fork in the road about halfway. We haven’t seen any signs or any signs of anything other than farmland and so we decide that maybe the fork in the road was the way to the golf course.  We flip a U and continue down the hill from whence we just came and hung a right at the aforementioned fork.  Down this road we go for 10-12 minutes and still we see nothing.  Now we are almost at wits end as we decide to go back to the original route and continue just a bit further up the road.  We pass a couple of right hand turns that look promising, but there is nothing in the immediate sight looking down these roads, so we continue forward.  After 5 minutes of driving and seeing nothing new, we backtrack again to those promising looking turnoffs and FINALLY, see just over the crest of a hill (not far from where we initially flipped the first U of the day) the sign for Paparoa Golf Club.

Let me tell you, it was worth every wrong turn we made.  We park the car next to the structure at the top of the hill deemed the clubhouse and after opening the door, I see a little sign and coin drop detailing the $5 green fee and plea for honesty.  A humble clubhouse complete with gentlemen’s trough and shower, Tuesday scorecards and Saturday scorecards and a bulletin detailing some membership notes.  We find a gate to the first tee and much like my experience at Silvies Valley Ranch, “if you open a gate, close the gate.”  We’ll address why on the back 9.  The first required some local knowledge as it doglegs alongside the road and from the tee, it certainly appeared that you didn’t need to hit it very far right.  When I found my drive in the left side of the fairway (I thought I would be right-center), I knew I was in for a bit of a day of surprises.  I had just a flip wedge and figured I would land it short of the green as I just saw Ryan land on the front and bounce over the crowned putting surface.  My ball hit a soft spot and ended up short of the green and short of the fence encircling the green.  Many Americans would have no idea why a fence would surround a putting surface, but when you met the maintenance team at Paparoa, you’ll be soon to find out!  **HINT** they’re not Baaa’d at their job.

So we continue on and play a couple of nice little holes with unique green complexes (the second is built into a hill with a sharp fall off right and the 4th is a nice medium length 3 par with the fall off left of the tiny green.  Then we haul across the road again, opening and closing paddock gates to keep the grounds crew where the club wants them.  The 5th/14th is a magnificent hole that entices a long drive over a crest to set up a short iron into a well protected greensite where short is in a clever hazard and flying your ball to the green would likely have your ball rolling long.  The 6th and 7th shared a really wide fairway begging strategically placed shots for those that have played many a round at PGC.  The 6th plays uphill to allow for an absolutely stunning treat at the 7th tee overlooking the ridges and rolling canyons of the rural Northland. The 8th and 17th had vastly different tee shots to the uphill 3 par.  We played both of them to get the true experience and given the windy conditions and many sheep maintaining the course, the approaches were quite difficult!  Playing one of my patented low running shots was a huge risk in that I didn’t want to peg one of the wooly beasts.  Alas, my shots were safely executed and left 2 par putts to be holed (1 successfully).  The home hole also played uphill, into the wind and into the sheep.  As Ryan lamented, “this fairway is cut a bit tighter” and while I didn’t notice a huge change in firmness or roll, my approach was one of the best of the day leading to a tap in par 4.

Paparoa, you were a true gem and now that we know where you live, we’ll be back again someday soon!