Friday, July 01, 2011

Paraparaumu Beach

Kia ora from New Zealand. Before Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs put New Zealand squarely on the radar of golf enthusiasts worldwide, Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club (ranked #99 in the world) held the distinction of the best course in this remote country. To get to Paraparaumu we drove down about four hours to the capital city, Wellington, from Cape Kidnappers, through another beautiful part of the country. One of the great things about this quest is the unexpected, pleasant discoveries I've made: rounding a blind curve, going south on New Zealand Highway 2, presented one of them. The first glimpse of Wellington Harbor left the four of us, who were seeing it for the first time, gobsmacked.

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Wellington, New Zealand's Capital city

Wellington has one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world. The water color is similar to that of the Caribbean, a light aquamarine. The city is reminiscent of San Francisco with its compactness and steep hills that rise from the harbor. It is visually very attractive, and unfortunately, like San Francisco, it is prone to earthquakes.

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Wellington's fantastic natural harbor

Located 40 minutes north of Wellington on the Kapiti coast, Paraparaumu is the home course of caddy Steve Williams and has hosted the New Zealand Open 12 times. Paraparaumu means "scraps from an earth oven" in Māori, and it seems obvious why they don't use the native translation in their marketing of the club. Pronounced a tongue twisting "para-para-OO-moo," the locals call it "Paraparam’" for short.

Paraparaumu was designed by Alex Russell on a small plot of just 130 acres. Russell was an Australian Open champion who co-designed one of the world's great golf courses, Royal Melbourne, with Alister MacKenzie. The course opened in 1949, 23 years after Royal Melbourne, in a decade that didn't see much in the way of good golf design. Russell left the rumpled fairways as he found them and exercised restraint in his design choices. The result is a quirky links course with a dearth of bunkers and an abundance of table top greens.

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The first green at Paraparaumu Beach with native grasses in the background

A true links course, Paraparaumu has the feel of a course in the British Isles, although the weather is decidedly better here. Similar to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, you never actually see the water while playing. In addition to sharing the topography of Lytham, the course also has an element of the quirkiness of Scotland's Cruden Bay thrown in. There are a half dozen blind or semi-blind shots, including the 1st tee shot, and holes with some interesting greens, including the 11th, which is a punchbowl.

A collection of short par 4s, the 6th, 8th and 10th take full advantage of the dramatic natural land forms. They make up for their lack of length and bunkering by using the natural contours of the true links land, placing a premium on shot accuracy. Paraparaumu offers plenty of opportunity to be creative and bump and run the ball: a key consideration when playing in "windy Wellington."

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Paraparaumu's eighth shows off the rumpled fairway and green set amidst the dunes

One of the defining characteristics of the course is its appropriate sense of scale, with a continual change in hole direction. The dunes are perfectly proportioned, and Russell routed the course among them with skill. The front nine is routed further from the sea, which is about 500 yards away at its closest point. The front nine is nearer the water, with all but two holes on the course designed to play in a cross-wind.

In the same way that Whistling Straits is defined by its generous use of bunkers, Paraparaumu is defined by the absence of them. There are less than a dozen fairway bunkers on the entire course; and the 1st and 5th holes have none of any kind. The scarcity of bunkering is most pronounced on the par 3s. The two best, the 5th and 16th, have tabletop greens that fall off sharply on three sides. Anything less than the perfect shot will not hold them. As my host said in typical straightforward Kiwi fashion of the 155-yard 5th, "you are either on it, or you're not," meaning correctly, that there is a harsh penalty for missing. New Zealand native and Open Champion Bob Charles calls the 5th "equal to any short hole in the world."

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The par three fifth hole with tabletop green and no bunkers, as seen from behind

The back nine features two world-class long par 4s. Hole 13 is the most challenging on the course and is a 448-yard par 4 that features a dramatic tee shot from an elevated tee. The second shot is the crucial one, since you play over a large swale to an elevated back-to-front sloping green. The prevailing wind is at your back on this hole, and as is often the case on links courses, holes playing down wind can be more difficult to judge distance on. The approach to the 13th is particularly difficult because you have to factor in the severe uphill with the wind.

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Paraparaumu's thirteenth hole seen from the tee

The short but testing 138 yard par three sixteenth is seen below, from the rear of the green.

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Paraparaumu's tabletop sixteenth green

The difficult seventeenth offers a choice of fairways off the tee. The hole is a renowned one. It was selected as one of the 100 best by The 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes, and Golf's 100 Toughest Holes also lists 17 as one of its selections. The 442-yard hole features a choice of two fairways, both set at an angle off the tee. With a breeze coming off of Cook Strait and the Tasman Sea, choosing the correct combination of fairway and distance makes the 17th a real test. The hole features another tabletop green that falls off sharply in the back. The genius of the hole is that by giving so many choices and no clear line to hit on off the tee, Russell ends up creating doubt, which is the last thing a golfer needs when teeing up a ball.

Paraparaumu has one of the cheapest greens fees among world-class courses and provides a good excuse to visit Wellington. No golf trip to New Zealand would be complete without visiting this classic links gem. A lot can be learned about how to make a golf course challenging and interesting by using hilly land forms and dunes as hazards instead of bunkers. I don't think Russell has been given enough credit for the brilliance of his minimalist use of bunkers here. At Paraparam’, less is truly more. This course is worthy of being in the top 100 in the world.

Paraparaumu is also the home course of my Kiwi friends Michael Goldstein, Jamie Patton and Bart De Vries of the phenomenon. Jamie and Michael were gracious enough to caddy for us when we played; thanks guys (and Bart), you are true gentlemen. Their faux-Augusta style caddy uniforms got us a lot of looks out on the course. And Jamie you should have that cabinet in your kitchen smoothed out so nobody rips their pants in the future. Roger has been talking about your legendary hospitability since we got back!

Normally, a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth two thousand.

The fat lady is now following me around and made the trip to Wellington. She's putting on her costume and warming up her vocal cords, getting ready to perform. This can't be a good sign; I don't even like opera.

Post Script

Being a combination moron and frequent traveler, I often leave things behind on trains, planes and automobiles. On my way from Wellington to Queenstown I lost my 3G-CDMA-universal-globa-cell-phone with satellite uplink and anti-lock brakes, as it turns out, in the taxi to the airport. In how many places in the world would a cab driver return to the airport 30 minutes later to find me and give me my phone back? Not many. But mine did, as if it were not the slightest bit out of the ordinary. This tells you all you need to know about the Kiwi ethos. What a fabulous people and country.


Turley2.0 said...

Nice to see Jamie and Michael again!

Leo Barber said...

Great blog. Your last story I can relate to. On the way home from my stag do 10 years ago, unawares, I lost my wallet (standard stag do carry on?). Realising 4 days later I was beside myself and ready to call the wedding off (not really but I was panicked as the lack of id was throwing the honeymoon plans into disaray). 7 days later just as I had come to terms with it, I got a knock on the door from my ethopian taxi driver. Most apologetic he presented me with my wallet that he had found wedged down under a seat. I was floored by this newly immigrated man to NZ who had displayed such honesty and had driven 50km out from wellington to deliver it over a week later. Never underestimate humanity and the joy people receive from having their possessions returned.

Anonymous said...

I'm a kiwi and great to read your story about the honest kiwi taxi driver.

On something different, I thought steve williams is (or was...) a member of South Head Golf Club near Auckland. He took Tiger there once. And there's still a chair in the clubhouse labelled "Tiger sat here".

Ian Andrew said...

Will I see you at Highlands Links this year?

Top 100 Golfer said...

yes, Ian in September, look forward to it.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great blog.

Gareth @ Beginners Golf said...

I love to play courses that take you deep into the countryside. Its so peaceful and tranquil.

Great to see someone exploring golf all around the World its something I would love to do at some stage of my career. Have you ever played on the South West of Scotland? Turnberry, Prestwick, Troon, Dundonald Links these courses are all top notch.