Te Arai Links

Auckland & Mangawhai, North Island, New Zealand

Whether helicoptering amidst Bond-esque luxury or commandeering a targeted redeye mission, determination pays off when I finally capture magic hour’s radiance washing over Te Arai Links’ sublime Coore & Crenshaw design. 

Written, photographed and filmed by William Watt


There’s a wonderful Italian expression called ‘Sprezzatura’. It refers to “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” It’s something I learned how to exhibit working front-of-house at one of Melbourne’s busiest restaurants in my early 20’s. My  manager would encourage us to be ducks on the water, gliding around the restaurant with an air of relaxed efficiency, all the while concealing the mad paddling of our feet, the sweat and swearing of the kitchen staff, and the general tightrope walk that a full dinner service can entail. One wrong order can throw the entire operation into a tailspin (like the night I mixed up the Blue Eye fish special with the Eye Fillet steak, which caused a series of chain reactions that left almost everyone in the restaurant that night annoyed). But when done well, it translates to the customer experience as a feeling of relaxation and confidence, a wonderful state to be in, and well worth the price of the meal (and hopefully, a tip to go with it). 

‘Sprezzatura’ can be applied to many personal as well as professional settings, and golf is a great outlet to explore this state. Is there anything more demoralising to an opponent than getting up and down from a deep greenside bunker, or hitting yet another 5-footer to win the match? Both are skills that require hours of unseen practice to master, yet when executed out on course can appear effortless (provided of course you pair it with a nonchalant celebration). I try to apply a dose of Sprezzatura to my writing, publishing and photography work as well. I don’t speak often of the 4am alarms, the 45kg+ of luggage, all nighters in the editing suite, or the challenge of playing a new golf course on 2 hours sleep. Mainly because for most readers, their experience will be much easier than mine. And that some of these challenges are just the price of admission for getting to work in an industry I love – there are no complaints here. But for this piece, I’m going to write at least a little about paddling under the surface too. After all, the first rule of sprezzatura is to never mention sprezzatura, and I’ve already mentioned it five times, so the cat is out of the bag. 

This story took two full attempts, four flights (two red-eyes), five cars, a boat, a helicopter, and 12 months to complete. The two trips couldn’t have been more different, but both were beautiful in their own way.

Attempt One - The (Almost) Ultimate Luxury Trip

After a relaxing afternoon flight from Melbourne to Auckland, I am picked up at the airport in a black BMW 7-Series and whisked into the city for my single night stay at the Hotel Britomart. For those with design and architecture sensibilities, The Britomart is the place to stay in Auckland. As the beating heart of the masterplan that renowned Kiwi firm Cheshire Architects created in Auckland’s waterside precinct, Hotel Britomart is one of those rare experiences that combine warmth and comfort with an edgy cool. The pale, fine brickwork on the building’s exterior is a hint at the sensory overload of textures, materials, scents, flavors and artwork soon to come during my stay. With a relatively compact footprint, it feels like every inch of the generous lobby has been carefully considered, and it’s perfectly human scale puts me at ease immediately. There’s a subtle scent of cedarwood wafting through the light, bright space – a signature scent developed specifically for the hotel by the architects. 

As we ascend the ten stories up to The Rangihoua Suite, the concierge explains I am being treated to The Landing Package, named after the renowned winery in Northland, who provide a bottle of their best Chardonnay as part of the welcome. There’s also a delicious platter waiting, with freshly baked sourdough bread, cultured butter and dry aged Kahawai all sent up from Kingi, the on-site restaurant which is a destination in its own right. The suite itself is stunningly well crafted – a refined palette, richly textured surfaces, and detailed with a delightful mix of artwork, books and perfectly framed harbour views – that make it tempting to spend the entire stay without leaving room at all. 

But Auckland beckons, including a tour of the Britomart area (included in The Landing Suite package) dinner at one of New Zealand’s best restaurants in Ahi. There’s an unwritten rule when it comes to a really special dining experience – find somewhere where the chef is the owner, and where that owner is still working in the kitchen. It can often be a short sweet spot in the life of a restaurant – the grind of working in a kitchen is tempting to escape, and once a restaurant gains a reputation for quality, most owner chefs gradually ease their way out of day-to-day cooking. Fortunately Ben Bayly is very much still ‘on the tools’, and exudes a passion for the exclusively local organic produce that enters his open plan kitchen. A fine example is the Te Matuku oyster starter, which is harvested at nearby Waiheke Island and paired with a sprig of apple marigold. It’s one of those beautifully simple dishes where the overriding taste is fresh ocean air. It couldn’t be more different from the next dish, the Scampi Corn Dog. “We sell squillions of them. You’ll see why when you taste it,” says Manager Edward when delivering the dish. One bite in, and I’m transported back to the age of 12, watching a demolition derby at the Wellington Speedway with my Dad and sister. That night was my first experience of the New Zealand corn dog (as well as my first and last experience of sprint car racing). Ahi’s version is a brilliant reimagining of this classic kiwi street food and wow, it’s perfect, especially with the house made burger sauce ready for dipping. The dishes keep flowing with a Wallaby Tartare and Courgette Flower – a lovely balance of sheep’s ricotta and fresh farm garden veggies. For my main I have gone for the Speared Butterfish, freshly caught by hand at the tip of South Island. As with everything I’ve eaten tonight, it’s fresh, balanced and just superb. Dessert, in the form of a chocolate delice with cheesecake sorbet, Northland blueberries and milk-jam, keeps the trend intact. 

Auckland + Waiheke Island

After a restful night in one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever experienced, helped no doubt by the organic tea and chocolates provided as part of the turn down service, breakfast arrives early from Kingi and I soak up some vitamin D in the warm morning sun out on the private terrace. The sounds of the city echo up from below, and I’m reminded that check out is imminent and lunch on Waiheke Island beckons a short ferry trip away. Despite being within view of the city skyline, the atmosphere on Waiheke feels a million miles away. Quite, serene and a little bohemian, the locals here seem to know they’re onto a good thing.

Waiheke is home to around 10,000 residents and has become a popular destination for Aucklanders looking for an easy weekend away, or even a day trip to one of the wineries that dot the island. One of the most popular of these is Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, set in an expansive rustic farmhouse high on the hill, with stunning views across the water to Auckland city. As with everything I’ve eaten since touching down, lunch here is superb, with fresh scallops and locally caught kingfish balancing perfectly with the paired estate grown wines.

After lunch, it’s a short trek to the highest point on the property (and one of the highest on Waiheke) to the waiting black helicopter that will be zipping me up the coast to Te Arai in around half and hour. The drive to Te Arai Links from Auckland is not an arduous one (90 minutes direct or 2 hours if done leisurely), but it’s hard to top the unspoilt views, speed and, let’s face it, sheer fun of taking a chopper. New Zealanders love their choppers and have one of the highest per capita fleets anywhere in the world – most likely a reflection of the extreme terrain found here as well the love of extreme sports. As the inventors of the jet boat and bungee jumping, kiwis seem more ready than most to chase an adrenaline hit, and almost any destination you might hit up will have some sort offering in this regard. One exception might be the tranquil surrounds Mangawhai and Te Arai Links itself, but as we descend on the ribbons of bright green turf weaving through pristine white sand dunes and pine forest, my heart definitely starts pumping a little faster. As the struts of the heli touch down gently on the ultra fine fescue landing pad at the end of the driving range, a black van pulls up, ready to take me to my accommodation. The feeling of being on property is serene – everything is paired back, minimalist, and exudes quality. If a singular physical place could define sprezzatura, then this must surely be it.

Zero threshold design looks simple, but is anything but.

Check-in is completed in the serene, ultra minimalist clubhouse and as I roll up to the similarly subdued accommodation pods, I notice something that quietly blows my mind. As someone who spends a good chunk of my working life in a golf cart, I’ve had more than my share of spilled drinks, dropped cameras and crushed sunglasses from the bumps and shakes translated from the uneven ground of golf courses and resorts. But at Te Arai Links, there are absolutely no gutters. Every threshold, from the clubhouse, to the driving range, to the carpark, to the accommodation, is completely flush. It sounds like a simple thing, but as the husband of an architect, I know how difficult this is to achieve, even on the scale of residential buildings. To have no visible guttering or thresholds on a commercial scale shows an attention to detail that is rare. And it doesn’t stop there – the services for each of the accommodation pods – heating, air conditioning, laundry and disposal facilities – are discreetly hidden in separate but matching pods, offering no distraction from the beautifully calm timber cladding and natural landscaping.  

That natural, relaxed feeling continues as I enter the deluxe accommodation, one of 110 rooms on property – 48 Suites, 19 two-bedroom Cottages, and 6 four-bedroom villas. All are single level, and all with zero-threshold design. Warm timber, plush carpets, soft, cloud-like bedding, natural stone and loads of space – the comfort level is off the charts. There’s nothing flashy about it, nothing showy. Just all very high quality. A private balcony overlooking the 1st fairway of the South course, with a veiled view of the ocean beyond through a line of pine trees, tops it off.

But that’s where the smooth sailing, the duck above water vibes, ends for this trip. What follows this jaw dropping arrival is three days of unseasonably poor weather. It turns out in this part of the world at least, the arrival of La Nina means Northern New Zealand briefly resembles Northern Scotland – constant driving rain and gale force winds that bend the surrounding pine trees over like giant flagsticks (which were also bending over). 


Over the course of my stay, I keep hoping for just a small break in the weather to photograph the course in something resembling the typically perfect climate in these parts, but it never comes. Having come this far, I decide to battle out a solo 18 holes on the South Course in the driving rain, and somewhat to my amazement, although I should know better having played a few Coore Crenshaw masterpieces in my time, the course remains extremely playable. In fact, I somehow ended up enjoying the sodden walk and embracing the Contours of the routing through a forced ground game. The satisfaction of putting out on 18, having only lost one ball and logging what for me is a very tidy 80, was immense. After a hot shower and a couple of warming ales at Ric’s, I’m able to enjoy the sort of relaxation only a photographer can know. Horrible conditions = time to put your feet up. It’s a blessing and a curse – whenever fine weather appears, there is an immediate feeling of pressure to go and shoot. Even sitting at home with no particular job on at the time, if a beautiful sunset is brewing I’ll want to be out there shooting it in some way or another.

I do get out on course for a few photography sessions, and am able to capture some solid player’s perspective shots of the course. And I’m enjoying experimenting with film, running some Kodak Gold 35mm through. But in the back of my mind I know I’ll need to return. And that’s a nice thought to have as I’m picked up in a private car and whisked back to Auckland. As we take-off homeward bound for Melbourne and break through the clouds, I see the sun for the first time since getting on the chopper on Waiheke Island. Hopefully next time it will shine a little on the golf course and beautiful landscapes of Te Arai Links.

Te Arai Links South – Attempt One

Attempt Two - Sniper Mission

The weather in our part of the world moves almost exclusively from west to east. This means whatever conditions we are experiencing in South-Eastern Australia are likely to be similar ‘across the ditch’ in New Zealand a couple of days later. But even with this cheat code in place, trying to time the weather for an international trip is purely a matter of playing the odds – nothing is certain and at some point you’ve got to just pull the trigger and go. And so it is that I’ve ended up on a red-eye flight from Melbourne to Auckland, back for another attempt to capture Te Arai Links in better light. It’s been almost six months since my last visit, but the planning for this trip has been a lot more streamlined – no relaxing stay in Auckland, no fancy dinners and winery lunches, and definitely no luxury helicopter transfers. This is a purely tactical, special operations style mission – return with a strong album of photography and video from Te Arai Links, or die. Ok that’s a bit dramatic. How about, just try and get some good photos. Either way, I’m focussed, and prepared for a few days of little to no sleep in aid of my goal. 

It doesn’t take long until I’m missing the creature comforts of my last trip. Since my last visit, Auckland (and large parts of Auckland Airport) have experienced once in a generation floods, and the long trek to the temporary hire car facilities means I’m feeling all 45kg of my luggage. Despite it being 2:30am and being literally the only person at Auckland Airport collecting a car, the process seems to be taking an age. By the time I roll out of the car park it’s after 3am, and I’m already battling with Google Maps –  the route it is suggesting doesn’t seem very ‘tactical’ and looks to involve a bunch of rural roads that I don’t really fancy battling at this time of night. I drag the route back onto State Highway 1 (SH1), the main road artery of New Zealand that runs literally the length of the country, and get going. Before long, a heavy fog rolls in. Like, really heavy fog. I’m forced to slow down to 80km/h, then 60, then 40 – I can only see about 20 meters ahead of me, the dense gray tube of the car headlights barely making an impact. I find some much needed company in the form of a local talk radio station, where they are discussing kiwi fruit gone wild. Apparently the vines that the fruit grow on have escaped the farms and are growing wild all over the North Island, killing off indigenous species and proving very hard to control. The worst part is that they’re not even producing any fruit – without artificial pollination the fruit won’t grow, so you just end up with giant tangles of useless vines. It is not a topic that would normally be all that invested in, but given I haven’t seen another car for 45 minutes and that I’m barely able to decipher the multiple detours and road work signs scattered along SH1 (apparently those same floods have caused massive damage along my route, hence Google’s suggestion of going around it, might have been nice if the hire car people had mentioned it during the 45 minutes I was in their office), the scourge of wild kiwi fruit is a welcome distraction. I battle on as the fog turns into light drizzle, then heavy rain.

The talk back chat moves onto ‘best live concert you’ve ever been to’ which provides some entertaining responses. I’m not sure if it is a joke or if I’m hearing things given the late hour, but one of the callers suggests that seeing Thin Lizzy in the late 70s was their best. As a half kiwi myself, I typically refrain from jokes about the kiwi accent, but hearing ‘Thun Luzzy’ at 4am has me chuckling. As I go further north, SH1 finally clears up, and I close in on the gates of Te Arai Links. Being such a last minute trip, I haven’t arranged after hours access to the resort. Instead I fold down the back seats, get into my sleeping bag and settle in for a power nap before sunrise.

Waking from one of the worst sleeps of my life (who would have thought sleeping in the boot of the car wasn’t a great solution?) I finally roll into Te Arai Links. The sight of the warm clubhouse and pristine fescue of the driving range, is very welcome. Seeing my disheveled state, the staff let me check in immediately, and within 15 minutes I am showered, dressed and sitting in a golf cart with my camera gear, batteries fully charged. Well, camera batteries anyway – mentally I’m just above empty, but nothing that an extremely strong coffee won’t fix. As the glorious caffeine hits my lips, I look up for the first time and realise – conditions are nothing short of perfect. Some light clouds above the ocean look like they are on fire, and as the sun starts to peek over the horizon and reflects off the tranquil ocean, it’s time to get to work. 

I head straight for the 4th hole, a wild downhill par-4 framed by pines and with a stunning coastal backdrop, and I know the trip has been worth it. The early morning rays filter through the pines onto the dew-covered fescue fairways, the deep green colour only revealed as ground staff make their mowing lines. The bold contours ripple and express themselves as I fly overhead, out towards the southern end of the uninhabited beach.  Small but perfectly formed glassy waves are breaking quietly into the pristine fine white sands. Beyond, the Pacific Ocean appears to hold Great Barrier Island aloft, its distinctive silhouette providing a unique backdrop to the par-3 5th hole. The same pin flag that was being battered by wind and hail and bent sideways on my last visit is now completely still, the flag itself only offering an occasional gesture of a wave. This is the Te Arai Links I had been hoping for, ever since visiting the site during construction in 2018 and seeing this green site as pegged out by Coore & Crenshaw. Combining the natural beauty of this incredibly gifted site with the architecture, craft and finishing skills of Coore & Crenshaw and shapers Riley Johns and John Hawker, is a recipe for truly outstanding golf. Add to that one of the best superintendents in the world in Brian Palmer keeping things firm and fast, and an accommodation and hospitality offer that covers every base, Te Arai Links almost asks you – what more do you want?

Te Arai Links South – From the Ground

Later that morning, I’m lucky enough to play the South Course with Grace Rokela, Marketing Manager at Te Arai Links and former college golfer. We decide to have a match, but it is hardly fair. Not only am I trying to play vaguely decent golf on 1.5 hours of sleep, Grace birdies all four par-3’s on the course, going 2-2-2-2 on the short holes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, and understandably she utterly destroys me in the match.  Once we turn for home on 15th, I feel drunk from the endlessly incredible scenery – the glassy waves haven’t stopped breaking all day, and the golf course itself is a thing of beauty too. The routing has variety, strategy, and challenge in spades. As a course that will see many one-time golfers (as opposed to regular play from a members course), there is a strong playability component. I didn’t lose a ball all day, and the ground-game options, particularly around the greens, are plentiful. But if you want to shoot birdies, you will be forced to take on a riskier driving line or approach shot (or, like Grace, just stick it within 12-feet on every par-3 wtf). With 15 holes boasting ocean views, and each one being distinctive and beautiful in different ways, picking favorite holes is near impossible. But as a (half) Australian, I have a soft spot for a short par-4, and the 14th is an excellent one, especially if the local surfers are catching few waves directly behind the green. I also loved the long right arc and elevated tee shot of the par-4 2nd, where the crack of the driver echoes back off the pines. But nothing compares to hitting a sweet drive off the 4th tee way down to one of the steepest fairways I’ve ever seen – the Pacific Ocean backdrop a nice bonus. Actually, hitting the ‘high-road’ line on the 6th was just as good. As was hitting across the dunes on 8. 15 through 18 is also a superb finish.  I could go on, but would eventually name every hole, and this article is already too long. There are just so many top shelf golf holes on this course. 

Te Arai Links South – From the Air

I have some thoughts on the challenges of course rankings and top-100 lists, that I may share at another time, but to me it is as simple as this –  Te Arai Links is a truly world-class golf destination, and worthy of a visit from any serious golfer who is interested in playing the very best the game has to offer. And that’s just the South Course. 

Speaking of more to come, the next morning I tour the soon to open North Course with Managing Director Jim Rohrstaff, whose passion for golf is palpable with every purposeful stride he makes onto the virgin turf of Tom Doak’s latest work. By the end of the walk and talk, I’m convinced the whole ‘no-gutter thing’ is probably due to Jim’s incredible eye for detail and drive for perfection. His knowledge and deep sense for every inch of a course that hasn’t even been played yet is quite amazing. After the North Course tour, I bump into Australian comedian and golfer Mick Malloy, who’s keen for a rundown of what I’ve seen out on the North Course.  After giving my impressions of the wild, expansive terrain and routing, he concludes ‘So he’s gone full Doak then?’ It’s probably a good summary, although it will take another visit to find out for sure – I love a good excuse to get back to Te Arai Links.

Thank you to Tourism Auckland for logistical support with this story, and to Te Arai Links, The Hotel Britomart, Ahi,  Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant  and Helitranz for being fantastic hosts.


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