New Zealand, Surrey
The Twelve Days of Christmas, #9
(This series is neither well planned or coherent. What it is, though, is the result of spending a few spare hours at Christmas 2021 looking through some recently located files of pictures, and thinking about my golfing journey to this point. I’ve been lucky to have played in some pretty special places, and made some lasting connections along the way, and year end seems as good a time to reflect back on a dozen of these as any. Who knows, it might inspire me to plan a few more exploratory trips for the year ahead. All suggestions & invites are welcome!)
The image above is not an inspiring one - after spending a considerable amount of time sorting through parental possessions I realise that my eye for an awful photo is to some degree a genetic issue, sorry Dad - but it does speak to me. For this is mid-afternoon on 17th July 2006, and after closing the lens of the camera, a friend and I would strike our balls down the centre of New Zealand’s opening fairway, and my deep and lasting connection to that place would begin.
As these pieces have reflected before, I am interested in the first impressions that golf courses make on us, and the photos and notes in my archives are wonderful for that. But even from the earliest childhood golfing odyssey, I was also aware that, as in any experience, it is easy to not look beyond the initial highlights - of a stunning vista or a beautiful smile, say - and thereby fail to notice the subtler points that don’t scream for attention, but which can offer so much more than a glance can reveal, given time.
This game has much to do with relationships - with the people we play with, with our own character and mindset, and with the landscapes through which we play. I’ve played a fair amount of golf by myself, mainly when young - endlessly practising - but also occasionally in adulthood, and in certain places, even by yourself you don’t feel alone, as you are building a rapport with the holes you play, and at the same time, the (often long-dead) architect whose version, or perhaps vision, of the game you are playing.
That sunny afternoon, with the rhododendrons in bloom around us, and the heather thickening before starting its own flowering cycle, I began a friendship with New Zealand that is among the most special, unspoilt things in my life. For by the time I turned around behind that 1st green, to take another (equally bland!) photo up the hill, that golf course would have me hook, line and sinker, and I have walked those heathland corridors regularly ever since.
So, to first impressions. It didn’t take long to feel the tug of the vigorous heather on our clubs, dragging the ball left and down mostly, but occasionally - and often enough to make you believe it is possible - it would let you escape with a decent strike, and so you would be too greedy the next time. The heather here grows so thick and so fast, as a result of the limited deciduous leaf litter, and wonderful, acidic soil.
The course is very flat, with no more than micro-contours, and makes for easy walking, which suits fast golf and playing well into one’s 80’s and 90’s, as many do. Here and there, the modern golfer might spot an intriguing path off to the left or right when approaching a tee, which to the discerning eye point to the continued use of foursomes here, another feature that indicates a certain type of golfing pedigree.
I remember watching my ball approach the 6th green, then fall back into the firm swale in front of that surface, and my playing partner’s ball, from further left, took the momentum of the same hollow and found the right hand bunker. The theme of these swales would be seen again on the 8th, the 12th, and most memorably on the 18th, with a less central one guarding the right of the 13th, and I recall thinking about how delicate but effective those slopes were - permitting ground play at all times, but forcing the aerial shot to show great accuracy.
A number of other images from that first visit capture a few bunkers, whose placement are physical manifestations of the genius of Tom Simpson, who came here in the late 20’s to transform the course’s hazards from the penal school of architecture into the strategic, changing a few holes at the same time. The positioning of the central ones in the 8th and 15th approaches dominate play, with a tribute to the Principle’s Nose bunkers from the 16th on The Old Course splitting the 13th fairway.
In addition to the placement, Simpson’s bunkers - in places as well preserved here as anyone could expect after almost a century has passed - show a refined sense of how a landscape must flow in order to look natural. As his sketches - including of the new 18th here as well as that other Principle’s Nose hole, the 4th at Woking - show, he was an artist at heart, and the imaginative green sites and landscaping, in a time of minimal earth movement, still provide ripples of land that are pleasant on the eye, if not always the ball.
I left the deserted car park that evening with a notion that the course ramps up its visual and strategic appeal as you arrive back east of Martyr’s Lane and step on to the 12th tee, and to some degree I still hold that view, although the whole journey is wonderful. The 12th green sits nestled alongside another couple of swales and a gorgeous patch of heather to its right, into which no one should really hit, but they do.
The 15th and 16th both point the same way, through a sea of heather, and the silent tranquillity of the latter is one of my sacred places - a spot so beautiful and appealing despite the unusually demanding carry.
Simpson tore up the original 17th and 18th holes as he was gifted another small patch of land to work with in the far corner of the property, and the penultimate hole is a bold piece which speaks to his bravery and ingenuity. For the dogleg left is probably something like a seventy degree angle, and the contouring of the wild green that hides round this corner makes positioning of this demanding tee shot so important. From further right, any sort of draw or weak approach will slowly but surely gather into a devilish left hand bunker, while the tighter tee shot will give a more neutral landing for the second, and the option to thread a lower shot between the bunkers, as the equipment back then must have required of every player.
Another bunker awaits short right, running up to the tier in this green, and from position A in the centre of the fairway’s elbow-pit, it still looks daunting. But fly it a bit further, beyond the trouble, and the lurch of the first bounce will be straighter, and when you arrive at the back of the green, you find Simpson left plenty of room back there, but hid it. Combine this with our ever-present tendency to under club or over expect, and you have a hole that will bring you to your knees time and again, ad infinitum. If you said I had a bag of balls and a couple of clubs with which to spend all eternity, I’d probably head for that green complex, and never, ever tire of it.
The closing hole does justice to the architect’s sketch of it, too. A vicious right hand bunker and the Valley of Sin-type hollow and false front protect the course up until the final strokes, and with the Clubhouse and refreshments behind, it’s a fine view to behold.
In the 15 years that have since passed, I was fortunate enough to spend half of them working at New Zealand, and like all the best Clubs there are enough stories to fill a book or two rather than a blog post, but it is this growing sense of the integrity of the course and the mind that renovated it that has rewarded me most from a few hundred loops here. Beyond those first impressions, I have grown to appreciate the quieter aspects of the layout, on a course where subtlety is part of the fabric of the land.
The marginal ridge ahead of the 4th green, which from the slightly lower fairway foreshortens the view of the approach shot, and catches out even the most laser-device-focused player. Such a tiny feature, but it costs people shots, time after time.
The simplicity but ongoing challenge of the 11th, which at first glance seemed just the quickest way to get to the 12th tee, but whose wide open fairway, with a single left hand bunker to protect (and for the architecturally minded, indicate) the preferred line of attack for the second shot, is nothing short of marvellous in its simplicity. That line in turn reduces the impact of the right hand fairway bunker and subtle (again!) approach contours, and so the mental game continues.
The way putts across the 8th green seems to break up the hill, which still catches me out, as it is clearly impossible, verging on witchcraft. These small but charming features are the fruits of a more committed approach to get to know a course, but they are all part of the legacy - this rich tapestry - that the best course architects leave behind. At places like New Zealand, the gulf between this sport’s complexity and challenge and that of the carbon copy courts and pitches of the more predictable, perhaps less cerebral sporting endeavours is so evident.
We can play this game from when we are very young until we are very old, and it will keep us honest, interested, and engrossed throughout if we let it. We will never win long-term if we care about the score, or our handicaps, as the game - and at New Zealand, the ghost of Tom Simpson - will always retain the upper hand, but if we approach it as our teacher, perhaps even our mentor, it will show us how to behave, how to take care of ourselves and others, and the environment around us.
It will teach us humility quicker than we’d like, show us Triumph and Disaster at every turn, heavily leaning towards the latter, but if we are lucky - and we are all so, so lucky to live in a world where golf even exists - we will stay young through investing in this very special relationship. We will go golfing again soon, ever hopeful.
Before that, though, another New Year’s Resolution. Photography lessons. These places look too good to be described in words only.
I hope you enjoyed this! If you did, please share it with a friend or two, and encourage them to subscribe. This in turn will encourage me to keep on writing this stuff! You can find a link to some other pieces here, and please also consider following my twitter feed here. Happy New Year fellow golfers!