A study in golf course architecture on New Zealand's North Island: Why Tom Doak gets it
HAWKE’S BAY, New Zealand – Golfers don’t need to travel halfway around the world to understand why Tom Doak remains such a popular golf course architect.
But never was the Doak difference more on display than the past two days during my tour of the great golf courses of New Zealand’s North Island.
Playing Doak’s Cape Kidnappers and The Kinloch Club by Jack Nicklaus on back-to-back days was like sitting in course architecture 101. Both courses couldn’t be more stunning, yet the experience of walking off of both couldn’t have been more different.
After just nine holes of The Kinloch Club, I was ready to quit the game. After 18 holes on Cape Kidnappers, I was ready to retire, move to New Zealand and play golf every day the rest of my life.
Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with the setting. Cape Kidnappers (photo above) has the massive cliffs and ocean views as a draw, although The Kinloch Club (photo below) certainly ranks among the most beautiful courses in New Zealand as well. This is about how each course was designed.
Maybe because he’s a normal golfer like the rest of us, Doak designs courses that are fun and playable, slanting more toward the forgiving side. I’ve played very poorly all week in New Zealand, but Doak’s well placed tees, wide fairways and ample bailouts allowed me to slap my way around to a solid score. I even sank three birdies, all because the greens were fair and there was no gloom-and-doom standing over shots that looked impossible.
The Kinloch Club, however, penalizes even good shots. It looks like an inland links, but plays nothing like one. Every approach shot must come in over the top. Shaggy Doak-like bunkers pinch almost every landing area. Nicklaus never needed bailout areas as a player, so maybe that’s why he didn’t add them to The Kinloch Club. At least six blind shots add to the chaos of playing the course for the first time.
Too be fair, The Kinloch Club is a great test of golf. I have met more than one player who loves its challenges. There’s also a fair number of people like me who believe removing a few bunkers and softening a few features - whether they be greens or curvaceous landing zones - would do wonders for the place. And I’m not knocking all of Nicklaus’ work. He’s certainly a great architect and his Punta Espada Golf Club (read my reviews here and here) in the Dominican Republic and the Ocean course at Cabo del Sol in Mexico (read my review here) continue to sit among the top golf experiences I’ve ever had.
This isn’t about Nicklaus vs. Doak. This is about making golf fun again. I don’t want a course to be easy. Cape Kidnappers certainly isn’t easy. At least Doak gives us all a fighting chance.
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2. Kinloch and 3. Jacks point. The layout and scenery of 'The Hills' in Queenstown would make it number 4 but personally I would even rank Paraparaumu and Wairakei above Cape Kidnappers and the both of those you can play for a fraction of the price of Kidnappers.
I struggle with the title of your piece, and also the finish of it. You are clearly a Tom Doak fan, as I am, yet I get the feeling that you are implying that you are in fact a Nicklaus fan also, by steering people to your "good" Nicklaus articles....yet you've had a pretty good left-field swipe at Kinloch here (which incidentally many see as one of Jack Nicklaus' finest designs to date).
I do love the fact that golf offers and opens up so much debate about golf course architecture, however it does interest me when I see it come from someone who only played 9 holes of a golf course. Clearly you did not have the time to enjoy the full Kinloch experience...? Had you run out of ammunition? That happens...!
Now, you say that Doak "gets it". That implies that Nicklaus doesn't. You need to understand the context of what the brief was for both architects. Nicklaus was asked to design a members "Championship" layout which would be enjoyed by members for years to come. Kinloch definitely does not benefit from a single round there, and does often defeat people, but I would disagree with you saying that happens endlessly. Once you are familiar with the layout and the variety it offers, it is one of the finest challenges in world golf. That is why there is a great emphasis on visitors to have at least 2 rounds to fully benefit from playing there (discounted green fees for subsequent rounds).
Tom Doak on the other hand had a brief to design a stunningly spectacular, playable course as part of a complex to be enjoyed by all visiting golfers in particular for guests staying at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers. And that he did.
I personally love both courses - they offer a completely different set of challenges and are incomparable on the same piece of paper.
So, please, if you are going to bag a designer or his design without having fully experienced it or grasped it, then it really should be saved for your private journals.
However, saying that, there is not a lot wrong with creating "polarity", since debate in the clubhouse after a round is what we love to look forward to...!
Finally, I will say that your statement of : "This is not Nicklaus v Doak" - in my view has made it such... I too, respect your opinion - you said you weren't playing very well, and it has always been recognised that to enjoy Kinloch, you are advised to bring your "A" game!
I hope that next time you visit New Zealand, you find the time to return to Kinloch to be able to experience it for all its glory, as part of a fantastic piece of the New Zealand golfing jigsaw that offers some of the worlds greatest golf courses.
Incidentally - if you could make a few "minor" tweaks to Kinloch as you call them, what would the two at the top of your list be...?
And I don't get the sensitive nature of those defending Kinloch. I gave it much praise. Its layout is strong and beautiful. You are nitpicking my every word. It's a great course, one of the top five in New Zealand, and I'd love to return for a second look.