Thursday, September 01, 2011

Jack's Point Golf

As a first time visitor to the South Island I am in awe. The breathtaking mountain range near Queenstown, part of the Southern Alps, is known as the "Remarkables" and it is obvious how they got their name after seeing them. The flight path into Queenstown is either exhilirating or hair raising depending upon your perspective. With the possible exception of landing at the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, I don't believe I have ever been so close to a mountain in an airplane. The approach is right through an opening in the mountains and it feels like you can reach out and touch them.

Queenstown at night seen from the air

Queenstown was settled in the 1860's as a goldmining camp and is still a very small "city" of 10,400 people. It is the adventure capital of New Zealand and bungee jumping was popularized here; it is known as a haven for outdoor sports. New Zealand has one of the toughest emigration laws in the world. The place is so damn beautiful and idyllic that if they had an open door policy they would quickly be overrun with people.

Jack's Point Golf Course is set in a valley between the Remarkable Mountains and Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. The course was designed in 2008 by Kiwi John Darby who studied golf and landscape architecture at Harvard. After seeing what he designed here, I would say he graduated magna cum laude. Darby's design philosophy is an interesting one, "look hard, play easy." Jack’s Point was named in honor of “Maori Jack” Tewa who first discovered gold in this region and made a dramatic rescue of a passenger of an overturned ferry off this point of the lake.

Jack's Point is easily ranked as one of the top 25 courses I have ever played. Like my experience at Sand Hills, playing at Jack's Point permanently changes your perspective. The place raises the spirit, elevates your mood and leaves your yearning to come back for more.

The course begins with a conventional enough par four running parallel to the Remarkables. From the fairway to the top of the nearby mountain peak, it rises precipitously, to over 6,000 feet.

jack's point from 4th fwy of runway
The Remarkables taken from the 4th fairway shows how steeply they rise

The remaining holes and overall experience at Jack’s Point are anything but conventional. Holes two through five play sharply uphill and take you out of the valley floor. Like at Gullane in Scotland, the opening holes here rise quickly and sharply. The real drama begins on the 376-yard par four fourth, which offers the first glimpse of the lake.

The fourth fairway aligns with a grass airstrip used by a local skydiving company and our group played Jack's Point while they were diving. When the small propeller plane climbed off the meadow and just cleared the mountain top, it was hard to concentrate on hitting a golf shot. When the divers jumped out of the plane, we didn’t hear or see them; the next audible sound was of the skydivers free falling. The unusual sound was easy to pick up because the golf course, like all of Queenstown, is isolated and eerily quiet.

jack's point from 4th fwy
The local skydiving plane taking off above Jack's Point

The sound of a body slicing through the air in free fall, is unique. After what seemed like an eternity, a series of color parachutes opened above us in rapid succession. The sensation is both mesmerizing and frightening, and I can assure you it is impossible to putt a golf ball when you hear bodies in free fall above you. Like skiers on a slope doing run after run, as soon as the skydivers landed on the ground, the plane came back and they began another jump. The multi-color parachutes present a unique vista against the backdrop of the near vertical rock faces. (Look closely at the picture below and see one red parachute against the middle of the mountain and one just above the tip of the peak. The little white speck behind that top diver is another diver still in free fall, yet to pull his chute). Golfers must muster up all the focus they can to continue their game in this environment.

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The skydivers with parachutes opening between the Remarkables and Jack's Point

The fifth is a demanding 511-yard uphill par five and ends the onslaught of the initial uphill holes. The hole sweeps up the hill in a dogleg from left to right. The fifth is also your full-fledged introduction to the "Wild Irishman," a plant native to New Zealand. Like a crazy uncle, you take pains to avoid them; they grow around the fifth green, and the whole course, as a hazard. Locally called matagouri, they are a thorny bush somewhat like gorse, with small leathery leaves that grow up to 6 ½ feet tall.

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View from the fifth hole of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

The 5th green is at the apex of the hill and offers the most dramatic view of Lake Wakatipu. The panoramic view from this spot features Cecil Peak across the lake and Queenstown situated at its southern end. The magnetic vista is hard to take your eyes off of, but the golfer needs to push ahead, as the best is yet to come.

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View of Lake Wakatipu from the sixth hole

The 149-yard par three seventh hole can be compared to Pebble Beach's hole of the same number in both style and scenery. The small green sits almost 90 feet below the golfer and your tee shot appears to defy gravity for a few seconds above the water, with an astounding view in all directions. The hole was sited here because the prevailing wind is off the lake directly at you so it can make club selection a challenge. The setting of the course between the crystal clear waters of Lake Wakatipu and the dramatic craggy Remarkable mountains creates a vista comparable with many of the great ones in golf; think Royal County Down's ninth hole in the antipodes, and you've got it.

jack's point 7th green
The amazing downhill par three 7th hole at Jack's Point

The fifteenth hole at Jack's Point is both unexpected and unconventional. The walk from the fourteenth green to the fifteenth tee is up a small incline. When you reach the crest of the hill, there is a handmade rough-hewn stone wall, the first on the course. A peek over the top of the wall reveals a 383-yard uphill par four gem. The tee box is built above a high meadow and the golfer must hit a forced carry over it, to a long fairway set at an angle to the tee box. I remember back to the first time I played North Berwick and was awestruck over the placement of the stone walls. The fifteenth rekindles that kind of wondrous feeling.

jack's point 15th
The par four 15th as seen from the tee box

The stone wall frames an elevated fairway and is part of a sheep paddock. If your drive doesn't carry the stone wall and ends up in the paddock, you may be able to find your ball, as the area is still grazed. Our friends at Brora would be proud to see sheep back in vogue on golf courses again.

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The world-class 15th hole as seen from the fairway looking at the uphill green

The fifteenth is a classic risk-reward hole that dares the golfer to take an aggressive line left, with a severe penalty for missing. The approach shot to the well bunkered green plays a couple of clubs longer because the green sits about 30 feet above the fairway. Darby didn't quite achieve his stated goal here since fifteen is a "look hard, play hard" hole, although everything about it is just brilliant.

When this hole was originally designed by Darby he wasn't happy with the way it came out. The original green was down lower. He sat on a nearby rock all day as the crew shaped the hole and came up with idea of the rock wall and elevating the green to a higher position. It is now arguably the best hole on the course. Don't be surprised to find yourself hitting two balls off the tee even if your first drive is perfectly in play. The hole is that much fun. When I mentioned this to Darby, he said he does the same thing when playing the course!

jack's point 15 back
The 15th hole looking back from the fairway shows the imaginative use of the stone walls

The sixteenth takes you most of the way down the hill in one long 463-yard par four. It is a glorious driving hole and lets you take a no-holds-barred swing given the width of the fairway. The course plays a demanding 6,691 yards from the blue tees and 7,088 from the tips.

jack's point 18th green
The 18th green at Jack's Point at sunset

Jack's Point is sui generis. A buzzing plane, skydivers with colorful parachutes, a sheeps paddock, dramatic mountains and a perfect lake combine to create a unique setting for golf. It offers the perfect storm of distractions no matter where you turn, in an environment so pure and unspoiled it is hard for the senses to absorb it all. Even without the extras, the golf course itself is interesting, challenging and fun. All the fortissimo superlatives I have spouted about Jack's Point are not in the least big exaggerated, the place is revivifying!

As the southernmost course I have ever played, Jack's Point is also one of the most unique. After completing his studies at Harvard under the tutelage of Geoffrey Cornish, Darby apprenticed with both Gary Player and Arnold Palmer's design firms. In my view he is the most under-rated architect designing course today. I have a feeling we will be hearing more about John Darby.
The taxi driver who took us from the airport to Jack's Point was an Englishman who moved here thirty years ago. He came over and spent the first couple of years mustering sheep on horseback. People often ask me what I'm going to do when I'm done playing the top 100 courses in the world. I think I've got it: I'm going to drop out of the rat race, move to Queenstown and do the same damn thing. For many weeks after my trip to New Zealand my wife and boss would ask me frequently whether I was listening, "Did you hear what I just said?" Fact is, I didn't. I would just sit there with a dumb grin on my face looking right through them. Mentally, I was up on that sheep meadow in Queenstown, 14,950 kilometers away. Such is the appeal of this place, that it still has a grip on me.