Against mountain backdrops, Daniel Fallon discovers the fairways, bunkers and food of the South Island.
As the jet banks hard right to avoid the side of another snow-peaked mountain on approach to Queenstown, I begin to wonder how long the runway is. The mere existence of a major airport squeezed between these natural wonders seems doubtful. The topography also makes me curious about the types of golf courses we are skimming over. My goal is to fit in as many holes and as much fine cuisine as humanly possible in five days.
Queenstown is an alpine nirvana on New Zealand's South Island famous for its adrenalin-pumping adventures – from jet boating to hang-gliding, skiing to bungy jumping. But it also offers one of the most breathtaking golf holidays anywhere in the club-lugging world. There are five highly challenging 18-hole courses within about 30 minutes' drive of the town's centre.
Clearly word has spread – everyone appears to be claiming clubs as our flight's baggage arrives. With clubs in tow, I'm whisked to the luxurious Rees Hotel and Luxury Apartments where I take in the stunning view of Lake Wakatipu. The hotel makes the most of its locale, even the toilet is strategically positioned to enjoy the outlook.
Warm weather greets us at Millbrook Golf Club the next day and the view from the first tee has my spirits soaring. Designed by Sir Bob Charles and currently being upgraded by former New Zealand pro Greg Turner, the championship course sits snugly in a valley ringed by snow-capped mountains. Hitting off the first tee, the ball seems to hang in the air for an incredible length of time, passing the ski fields that run down Coronet Peak before finally meeting the fairway, a mix of fescue and browntop grasses. This is spectacular golf.
There are plenty of open spaces, inviting big hitters to swing their drivers freely, and four tee positions cater for everyone from tourist to scratch golfer. But while its fairways and greens are beautifully groomed and manicured, Millbrook can still punish those who stray as I find myself hacking away at sinewy rough on the first.
The greens are well protected by bunkers filled with fine glacial sand. I find the greens fast, too, with an embarrassing four-putt. But really, you don't need to be in top form to enjoy yourself at Millbrook. The fairways climb and fall to present magnificent vistas on each hole – the views are almost a distraction.
After finishing my round, I'm invited to tag along with Turner, who is overseeing the design of an additional nine holes to Millbrook. Australian pros Peter Fowler and Peter O'Malley join him to try out the nearly completed holes. Watching them tee off reminds me of my amateur status but Turner isn't satisfied with his blast. "Designer gets a mulligan," he cries. No one can argue with that. However, all three players have tips on what golfers can expect on the South Island.
"The thing we enjoy is the variety of courses," Turner says. "Cromwell is close to the sand belt of Melbourne. Oreti Sands is the southernmost links in the world, an authentic British links, but the cold wind comes from a different direction."
"[Around Queenstown], Jack's Point is more masculine – stunning and exposed, while Millbrook is more feminine and soft."
O'Malley agrees. "Every course is completely different," he says. "You get to have a golf course that no matter what level you are, you enjoy it."
Back at Rees, the jovial chef is preparing something special for us. We sit down to a seven-course degustation of local fare. It starts with Bluff oysters and a drop of Quartz Reef Brut bubbly from Bannockburn, progresses to pumpkin soup with solid truffle oil that melts as I sprinkle it on top and then tartare of Stewart Island salmon washed down with a drop of Peregrine Pinot Gris 2007 from nearby Gibbston. Then it's tender Haka Valley merino lamb paired with Rees Peregrine Pinot Noir 2006, chased by Manuka honey-roasted Cromwell Basin peach with vanilla yoghurt and lavender ice.
"This really reminds me of home," I offer to host Mark Rose and a smiling chef. "Just like a regular meal at home."
Rising early the next day, I learn my playing partners at Jack's Point will be an Australian golf journalist, Tony Webeck, and young Victorian pro Matt Griffin – two formidable opponents on a championship course.
It's a chilly morning as we line up on the first tee. The sun is slowly burning through low-lying mist. Having loosened my back muscles by spraying a small bucket of balls on the practice range, I wait nervously for my opponent to tee off. After representing his country as Australia's top-ranked amateur, Griffin turned professional last year. As this is seen as a serious practice round, we're playing off the championship tees that add an extra 20 metres to 40 metres to each hole.
On our left, the Remarkables rise some 2300 metres, with dazzling snow on the upper reaches. On our right side, the emerald course climbs a huge hill that suddenly drops into Lake Wakatipu on its other side.
"Swaaaack!" Griffin's ball rockets into the air before coming to rest some 270 metres away. I stand over the ball, desperate to match his gladiatorial stroke. "Ping!" My driver makes a far less impressive sound.
"Good shot," he says encouragingly. It wasn't but I focus on the next stroke, a seven iron from about 135 metres to an elevated green, and swing confidently. A couple of putts later on the still-damp green and I've squared the hole with a par.
The next four holes climb steeply, adding distance and difficulty. Daunting bunkers with steep lips protect the greens – you must play an expert sand wedge to have any hope of scoring well out of them. "These holes are tough," Griffin says. "They play absolutely brutally going uphill."
Jack's Point follows the contours of the land with minimum excavation so you don't always have a view of the green and you must adjust your swing to cope with the undulations. We now have a spectacular view of Lake Wakatipu on the sixth tee. "Have a look at this," I gasp.
"It's pretty ordinary," Griffin deadpans, before taking a photo.
Hole seven is a par three with a huge elevation difference – the green looks relatively tiny below. Griffin's ball is already on the green when I grab my trusty eight-iron. The ball soars into the air and seems to take forever to drop onto the green, then tracks directly for the pin.
"This is my opportunity," I tell myself as the pro taps in for his par. After a few deep breaths, and reading it to be a straight 1.5-metre putt, I make the stroke and the ball rolls slowly before dropping in.
"And the best hole on the course is ..." Griffin says, pre-empting this course review and smiling.
"It's your honour [on the next tee] – you won the hole."
The combination of the view and elation makes me feel almost giddy. Then the Terminator steps up and crushes the ball 50 metres further than mine, reminding me of my place. My confidence drains away and I start to post double bogeys. I turn to the pro for advice. "Stand behind the ball and picture where you want to hit it," he says. "Before you hit the ball, look at your target – forget everything else and hit confidently."
It is sound advice – I ignore the hazards and start to make pars again. The breathtaking views continue – every hole has a different aspect. The jaw-dropping 15th tee could well be the start of a ski trail as we hit back towards the Remarkables. Finally, the par-four 18th curves around a lake and offers the classic risk-reward for the second shot for those who are keen to shoot over water to make the green – or in my case, the fourth shot.
It doesn't matter, though. As Griffin taps in for another par and we shake hands, the score is forgotten and the mountains grab our attention again. It has been a remarkable day of golf.
Daniel Fallon travelled courtesy of New Zealand Tourism.
Air New Zealand has weekly non-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Queenstown for about $344 one way including tax. Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney for $346 one way including tax, while Melbourne passengers pay about $395 with a change of aircraft in Sydney. Jetstar and Virgin Blue have regular flights to Christchurch from where you can fly or bus to Queenstown.
Golfing near Queenstown
Millbrook: A magnificently groomed links-style course with stunning views of Coronet Peak. With 61 bunkers, eight water hazards and fast greens, your score can quickly add up. An extra nine holes will be playable by March. Green fees: $NZ60 winter, $NZ135 summer. Cart hire: $NZ42. Par 72 over 6420 metres (championship tee).
Jack's Point: With the Remarkables as a backdrop on one side and views of Lake Wakatipu on the other, this links is spectacular and challenging. The first five holes climb the hill and add distance to tee shots. The greens are slick, the bunker shots tricky and you'll be punished off the fairways. Green fees: $NZ70 winter, $NZ110 summer. Cart hire: $NZ25. Par 72 over 6388m (championship tee).
Queenstown Golf Course: On a peninsula surrounded by Lake Wakatipu; many of its undulating fairways are lined with pines. Strategically placed bunkers will punish inaccurate approach shots. Watch out for the view on hole 5. Green fees: $NZ75. Cart hire: $NZ35. Par 72 over 6103m.
The Hills: Created by entrepreneur and golf lover Michael Hill, this exclusive club is the new home of the New Zealand Open and is adjacent to Millbrook. The championship course is immaculately groomed and very challenging. Expect unsighted greens, undulating fairways and bunkers deep enough to wear a caving helmet into. It is also prohibitively expensive. Green fees: $NZ500. Cart hire: $NZ55. Par 72 over 6610m.
Arrowtown: A more affordable option and a more rugged course. The first nine holes follow landscape contours with fairways between narrow gullies and rocky outcrops. There are many unsighted greens so the odd ball might land near you. The back nine opens up significantly. Green fees: $NZ50. Cart hire: $NZ35. Par 70 over 5409m.