Two Bridges Too Far


At New Zealand’s Cape Kidnappers, Tom Doak designed a world-class course atop dramatic clifftops. However, in this piece the acclaimed architect pines for the rugged, epic layout he imagined but never built down below, amid the property’s sprawling grazing lands and river valleys.

Written by Hal Phillips. Photography by Tom Doak, AI Renders by William Watt

Would-be developers don’t often possess surfeits of stellar terrain. Even a veritable visionary with unlimited funds and lofty aspirations might serve up only 25-50 acres of superior, sandy routing fodder; the rest is something with which a course architect makes do. However, when it comes to matters such as these, Tom Doak is the wrong person to ask. Part of his genius has been the ability, or serial good fortune, to connect with developers not just with great land but thousands and thousands of acres of great land. 

Convincing clients what to build on any piece of ground is central to the modern course design exercise, and not even Doak gets his way every time. The man is human, and over his long and decorated career, these courses not taken are what pass for professional regrets. In his 2020 book, Getting to 18, Doak cites one in particular, “the project I most regret not having gotten the chance to design.”

“The very first time I went to Cape Kidnappers was the end of 2001, and I was late,” the architect told me, referring to his world-beating design here on New Zealand’s North Island, developed by American billionaire Julian Robertson and opened in 2004. “They picked me up in a helicopter and landed me on the point down below, where you can see the Shark’s Tooth. At that time, Julian wanted to build his lodge down there and, in my opinion — then and now — that would have been a superb place to build a golf course. It was flat enough, to go with plenty of acreage. From the moment the helicopter touched down, I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t we build it down here in this valley?’

“It didn’t take long for Julian to make himself clear: The clifftops were his first choice and it’s hard to argue. His vision for golf on those cliffs was inspired. It’s a setting like no other. But I thought then — and I still think — a very good golf course could have gone down there in the valley.”

Doak’s proposed 13th green site on The Farm course
Above: The opening tee shot at Doak’s proposed Farm Course, playing to a green at right.
The proposed 10th, an Alps hole that would play from a tee box situated on the small peninsula bottom right.

Cape Kidnappers earned its modern name after locals attempted to abduct a member of Captain Cook’s crew aboard the HMS Endeavor after making landfall there on 15 October 1769. As is often the case, the Māori appellation for this sandstone headland, Te Kauwae-a-Māui, is far more evocative. And sacred. According to aboriginal teaching, the peninsula represents a fishhook used to pull the entire North Island out of the sea. The presence of Shark’s Tooth Rock — a lonely piece of sandstone isolated and sharpened by eons of wave-enabled erosion — capably underlines this visceral, mythic imagery.

Of course, Robertson did ultimately develop Cape Kidnappers GC on the higher ground, above the famous chalk-white cliffs that rise some 500 feet above the waters of Hawkes Bay. He created the adjoining lodge, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, on ground that was higher still. Doak’s course, laid out ingeniously atop those clifftops, debuted nearly 20 years ago. The ensuing decades have witnessed the debut of dozens more top-caliber designs (and high-class renovation work) from the likes of Hanse Golf Design, Coore & Crenshaw, Doak himself and myriad others. Cape Kidnappers is still ranked among the finest 50 tracks on the planet.

Robertson passed away in August 2022; his family continues to own and operate the property, which occupies some 6,000 acres on this stunning landform, across Hawkes Bay from NZ’s finest wine region. Where Doak had envisioned that original course, thousands of sheep and steer roam and graze the landscape instead. The forbidding terrain directly above the Shark’s Tooth remains home to the largest gannet colony in the southern hemisphere. 

In 2020, when the architect returned to regrass the putting surfaces at Cape Kidnappers, he was refamiliarised with this extraordinary setting and reminded of the road not taken, the course he didn’t end up building — a layout he refers to as The Farm.

Above: The proposed routing for The Farm

“We would take picnic lunches down there when Cape Kidnappers was being built,” he recalls. “I think it was our second trip when we gave Julian and his wife Josie a tour of the place. We had spent a few days on site just sticking flags in the ground — to show what the golf course could be. I think I undersold it back then. Julian’s focus was always on building a top 100 golf course, whereas, at The Farm, Bruce [Hepner] and I were thinking more about a course with sheep and cows all over it. Which is what they use the land for now, of course. That’s what so many ‘country courses’ do, all over New Zealand. 

“I don’t honestly remember when Bruce and I went back and tried to actually route something down there,” Doak continues, referring to his former associate. “It may have been 2008, when business was a lot slower. We had played around with maps from the start, but that was definitely our impetus — to get Julian more interested in a second course down below.”

The renders accompanying the remainder of this article were produced by William Watt using MidJourney AI. They do not present the exact terrain and contours of the site, however may be useful in helping imagine what a modern Doak designed golf course might look like on an analogous landscape. 

When Doak arrived in New Zealand back in 2001, the architect had just embarked on his run of work for clients with ungodly amounts of terrific, sandy terrain — what some might call his Intercontinental Embarrassment of Riches Tour. At that time, he was fresh off his design of Pacific Dunes, located at Bandon Dunes in coastal Oregon, where Mike Keiser started out with some 2,000 acres of coastal terrain from which to choose. Today, the resort is seven courses to the good and Keiser still hasn’t worked through it all. In 2013, Doak christened the first of four courses at the 16,000-acre Streamsong Resort, in Central Florida. Today he’s working with still more Keisers at the 9,000-acre Sand Valley Resort in Wisconsin, where Doak’s Lido homage will soon take up residence beside his heathland design, Sedge Valley. 

The architect also returned to New Zealand in 2013, to design and build Tara Iti Golf Club — it was THIS project that, in a roundabout way, first rekindled Doak’s interest in The Farm course at Cape Kidnappers. The private, seaside Tara Iti debuted in 2015, but its principals had also acquired yet another massive, adjacent parcel that stretched some 10 kilometers down the beach. The South Course at Te Arai Links opened for play there in early 2023. Doak has designed the North Course next door; it will officially open its doors this fall. 

At the turn of the century, Doak’s idea of building a second course at Cape Kidnappers was frankly a bit fanciful, the stuff of picnic whimsy. Today, pushing the limits of middle age, he is more focused on the projects that matter. To him. 

“I’ve not discussed it with anyone there at Cape, not formally. But maybe the Robertsons would think differently about it today — because of what’s been happening up at Te Arai. I don’t lie awake at night thinking about it, but I can tell you we’d jump at the chance to design and build a course down there. I don’t know that there is the will to do it today, but maybe what’s happening at Te Arai has upped the ante some.”

Golf in New Zealand dates back to the late 19th century, but it has come to be branded — internationally, in the 21st century — by a veritable gaggle of world-class dream tracks. Indeed, the Robertsons get credit for starting this opulent trend with its 1999 christening of Kauri Cliffs GC, which is located some 500 km north of Cape Kidnappers and continues to occupy its own sub-tropical place in the world top 100. 

Prior to this lux influx, however, Kiwi golf was better known for producing 1963 British Open champion Sir Bob Charles and the nation’s unique collection of so-called country or “sheep” courses. Nothing could be further from Cape or Kauri Cliffs than these purposely casual, rough-hewn layouts, most of them modestly funded and originally built by locals driving their own DC3 Oliver tractors. Many lie well off the beaten track and double as grazing pasture, complete with fencing around the greens to protect them from the cloven hoofs of creatures bovine and ovine.

When compared to Cape Kidnappers or Tara Iti, these country courses serve up a polar-opposite brand of golf. And that’s exactly what Doak and his colleagues have always had in mind for The Farm.

“First of all, that’s the way all golf courses started out, in the beginning,” Doak points out. “The only reason the Scots founded golf was, they had the land grazed — so you could play around and find the balls. Brora [in NW Scotland] is much like that still today, though someone else owns the grazing rights there, not the club. I hope they never take the animals away; that’s always been part of the charm.”

Doak explained that when he and his crews were building Cape Kidnappers, all these displaced American design nerds became enamored of a sheep course just down the coast: “A really rough little thing. My guys loved it, though it may have since closed. [Wairunga GC did, in fact, cease operations circa 2018] … When my crew was building Tara Iti, my crew fell in love with another charming little course called Waverly, which was just named one of the top 100 courses in Asia-Pacific! I mean, how many votes they truly got as part of that ballot process, who can say? But I love the fact that all around Waverly, on that ranking, you have places like Haesley Nine Bridges [in South Korea] and all these other $100 million developments!”

In 30-plus years designing golf courses, Doak has proved far more than a course architect. Through his design capabilities and his writing, even the odd post on a website, he is seen as something of an evangelist — for treeless/minimalist design styles, for the merits of 19th century golf, for layouts that might otherwise operate in total obscurity. In 2018, for example, he praised Waverly GC in the pages of his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Vol 5. Located three miles from the Tasman Sea, clear across the North Island from Cape, WGC has since taken on something approaching cult status, compete with regional rankings and pilgrimages from far-flung Doak acolytes. Ironically, I have it on good authority that Waverly has gone ahead and planted a bunch of trees along some of its previously unadorned fairways. According to one Waverly GC member/wag, this was undertaken so that when Tom Doak comes back, “We will look like a proper golf course, with trees!”

“When I went to Waverly,” Doak says, “there was nobody there in the tiny clubhouse. We went in the locker room to see if there was someone to pay. Nope. But there were all these signs: ‘No Golf Shoes in Clubhouse’. Why so precious? we all wondered. Well, there’s a balance: You can get the fairways playing pretty good with sheep all over them. But they produce a lot of shit, and folks don’t want that in the clubhouse. It’s a fine line.”

All feces aside, modern folk might be surprised at just how practical and playable NZ’s country golf model can be. For starters, putting surfaces are maintained more or less to modern standards, but for the fencing. Even with sheep on the job, fairways are mowed, if less frequently. Under these conditions, decent turf can be maintained — typically without any irrigation, especially in temperate climates like New Zealand’s North Island, or Scotland’s. Golfers spoiled by 21st century conditions may not realize it, but turfgrasses adapt quite well to natural weather variations and/or livestock-induced trauma. Indeed, those plants that cannot adapt will die off, allowing hardier varieties to take their place.

This is part of the lasting allure of The Farm, so far as Doak is concerned. Where else could one develop a 19th century course, on such superb terrain, and place it beside something so magnificently modern and manicured as Cape Kidnappers GC? It’s not that one track would prove better or more enjoyable than the other. But rather, their wildly divergent experiences would complement, contrast and enhance one another. 

A ny discussion of the 18 holes Doak and Hepner routed at The Farm, back in 2008, must hinge on the land itself. The vast Cape Kidnappers property occupies the entire peninsula, yet much of the most suitable golfing terrain, existing and proposed, occupies an west-facing portion that overlooks Hawkes Bay. Aerial photos confirm Doak’s first impressions upon landing in that helicopter: Closer to sea level and north of his 2004 layout, three relatively level parcels are divided up by two river valleys that meet before flowing as one into the sea. Together, as Doaks routing attests, all three lobes would accommodate 18 exceptional golf holes. 

“I could see starting close to the existing course and working down into that valley,” Doak says. “It’s pretty steep, and we never did figure out a practical way to get down there [from the existing clubhouse]. But if you take the road out there, it goes along the edge of the clifftops. Where it does that, you’ve got a view of the first lobe, out to the point, with the Shark’s Tooth in the distance. Our 1st hole would start there, a short par 5: You’d hit over the corner of the river and down to the flat. Probably a pretty hard opening hole but one of the great opening holes in golf. Very dramatic.

“The second hole is par-3 back over the ravine that flanks no. 1: 150 yards with a 100-yard carry. Holes 3 through 8 are all on that side of the big river that winds through that piece of property. Nine plays diagonally across the same river to another lobe of this property, and that’s the second bridge we’d require.

“I thought some of the coolest land was over on that lobe, 10 to 14. They’d be parallel holes, in a field basically, but the tee for 10 sits on a point with the river wrapping around it: an Alps hole on a pretty crazy scale. I remember a really good green site at 11, while 13 is a short dogleg around the base of a mountain, with just enough room for a fairway — and a green wrapping around the back of it. Crazy dramatic hole there.

“From there you had to take another bridge, then the 2nd hole bridge, to reach 15 tee. That fairway then plays out to the point where Julian wanted the lodge originally. We thought about just ending there, and we could do it differently. But we had 18 coming back inland from there.”

When discussing would-be golf courses and the terrain they might occupy, comparisons always prove useful. Doak says he’s seen pictures of the Los Angeles Country Club when George Thomas was there, in the 1920s, laying out golf holes across and amid massive ravines. LACC back then (before every sort of development imagineable took shape around it) recalled The Farm in setting, Doak says — but not in scale. Doak believes we need to consult that brand new Asia-Pacific Top 100 to find another useful comp: #23, The Himalayan Golf Club in Pokhara, Nepal. 

“You may not believe this place is worth the trip,” Doak says, playing tour guide again, “especially when you’re playing the first two holes — around a range that’s netted in. But then you get down to no. 3, with the views of Annapurna, right there beside the [Bijaypur] river, crossing on bridges that are 4 feet above gushing water. Then you get it. It’s just the kind of ‘golf trek’ we envisioned for The Farm.”

Himalayan Golf Club, Nepal.
As featured in Caddie Magazine Volume Two, photography by William Watt & David Carswell

And yet, neither comparison helps us appreciate The Farm’s scale, nor does aerial imagery. Through such a lens, what appears to be row of hillocks down on The Farm property are revealed to be small mountains when standing on site. I toured this property in April 2023: They are magnificent in the way they frame the lobes of golfing terrain, especially when they meet the coast then fall another 75 meters into the sea. The river valleys, up close? Full-on canyons, some 100 feet deep. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Cape Kidnappers GC may be famous for its massive cliffs but many of its inland holes are riven and flanked by similarly long, deep canyons that, on any other golf course, would stand out as the principal natural feature. 

Down on The Farm, however, those river canyons just happen to be the sticking point. Or they were 20 years ago.

“We had initially envisioned a simple thing — an affordable course with just greens and tees, no irrigation — but the costs were never so simple. I had no idea what the bridges might cost; going over rivers down there, two of them, meant we needed 3 bridges of 100 yards each, across the ravines. We finally got someone who knew that cost: a million U.S. dollars per bridge!

“We were like, Oh crap. This doesn’t work quite so neatly now, knowing that. There are roads that get you down and across those rivers, and you could play the course that way. Technically. But it’s awkward. For example, you can get from the second tee to the second green by going all the way down and around, across the river and back up. But it’s a long drive, much less a walk.”

Course architects are nothing if not problem solvers. Listening to Doak talk about The Farm, it’s clear the as-yet-disentangled conundra associated with this project continue to nag at the man who brought us the reversible Loop course in Michigan. On a theoretical level, the routing posed at The Farm has been solved, yet the practicalities associated with the bridge component continue to stump him. 

“We’ve talked a lot about it over the years, in house. Could we do it with fewer bridges? Well, you’d have to give up that 2nd through 8th hole lobe, or the 10-through-14 area, which is one of the coolest parts. Maybe it makes more sense as a 9-hole thing, not 18? … We’ve also done one or two courses that were conceived as ‘golf as a trek across cool ground’ — meaning courses where the golf starts in one place and ends in another. But it’s weird logistically. At Black Forest [in northern Michigan] we couldn’t get it to work. At Dismal River [in western Nebraska], we did make it work, because we just didn’t come back up such steep terrain from the river.”

At The Loop, Dismal River and dozens more projects, Doak managed to convince the client to take a chance, to try something out of the box. After three decades in the business, Doak has become quite skilled at prosecuting these acts of persuasion, these sales puzzles. His failure to solve this one clearly disappoints him: “Julian and I talked one more time about The Farm, but I never had the sense they were that serious about it. He was getting older and not seeing the appeal of this rough-and-ready thing we envisioned. Somehow, I never managed to convey just how good it would be.

“I’ve been spending so much time in New Zealand of late. It’s hard not to think about The Farm. One thing I want to do some day is go back and build it.” 


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