Taking a Swing at Six Courses in New Zealand

Times Staff Writer

"Here is a good climber, strong and vigorous."

We were at the sheep show at Rotorua's Agrodome, and a ripple of laughter rolled down our aisle. It was aimed not at the huge and haughty ram who'd pranced on stage to take his bow, but at ourselves.

For we are a group of not-so-rugged golfers, a bit footsore and weary but getting more in shape each day of our tour.

I'm with 36 people, mostly from Leisure World of Laguna Beach, on one of the first New Zealand Golf Excursions. It's a new year-round venture with Air New Zealand, founded by three avid golfers in Auckland and aimed at introducing groups to the joys, woes and camaraderie of golf in this golf-rich country.

A 16-Day Trip

New Zealand has nearly 400 golf courses. Forty-eight have been singled out by "N Zed G.E." (as the owners call it) for their itineraries. On this 16-day trip we are sampling six.

The Muriwai Golf Club was our initiation. Thirty-five miles west of Auckland, past vineyards, wineries and lush green fields filled with fat sheep and cattle, its name in Maori means "hills behind the sea."

Grassy dunes wander hither and yon, as if seeking escape from winds and the surf roaring in off the Tasman Sea. Holes have names, and I found memorable (although the local spelling perplexed me) the par-4 seventh, "Gilletine."

Rated a tough 74 (par 76 for women, par 72 for men), Muriwai was our first test of endurance, not made any easier by pulling a "trundler." And pull you must, or carry your bag, for there are no riding carts in this part of the world (although they're being introduced this year). Greens fee $6, which, for New Zealand, is a bit high. Most courses charge about $5, although a few are up to $15.

In the clubhouse afterwards, jovial mingling with club members began when June, of our tour, wore her hat inside. As a penalty she had to "shout" her table to drinks, which turned out to be a contagious pleasure with beer or wine 20 cents a glass; whiskey, gin or vodka, 40 cents.

No Tipping

It was here we learned a lesson in tipping. You don't. Tipping is considered rude in New Zealand.

More club entertainment, New Zealand style: You leap to your feet if you have a good joke to tell, and be prepared for sing-alongs. At the end of this first play day, a club member began the haunting Maori song, "Now Is the Hour," and one by one hands reached to grasp their neighbor's in a swaying, ever widening circle.

If Muriwai hints of Maori influence, the Waitangi (weeping waters) Golf Course tingles with it. A three-hour drive north of Auckland, deep in the Bay of Islands, it sits on the hill that 45 Maori chiefs climbed Feb. 6, 1840, to sign a treaty making peace with Queen Victoria's Britain. The logo on the golf balls tells the story.

Tour buses bound for the Treaty House pass by the No. 3 fairway. The largest war canoe in existence bids for attention too, as does a ceremonial meeting house with ancestral carvings representing all the Maori tribes.

But don't hurry your golf game. With its sweeping panorama of hills, islands, bay, wide fairways and smooth flat greens, Waitangi in itself is worth the long flight.

It's Peaceful Now

It's a par 71 for women, 70 for men, rated, respectively, 70 and 67. A plus is bustling Paihia town just down the road, and pretty little Russell across the bay, jaunty cannon pointing to sea from its neat white picket-fenced waterfront. Russell's peaceful looks are deceiving. Back in New Zealand's whaling days, it was every bit as wild a town as Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.

Kerikeri is the name of the Bay of Islands' airport. If you're short on time you can fly non-stop from there to the center of the North Island, Rotorua.

Check out the Prince of Wales geyser in the Maori-run Whakarewarewa reserve, stroll its tiny village (the famous guide, Rangi, is buried there), have a swim in your hotel's guaranteed-warm swimming pool and summon your nerve to tackle the Arikikapakapa (plopping noise) Golf Course.

If the dongas (deep pits) don't get you, its pumice (hot sulfureous) beds will, and fairways crisscross each other several times. Shouts of "Fore!" echo from all directions. Par 69 for men, par 70 for women, it makes for a sporty adventure.

An hour's drive south of Rotorua is the Wairakei International Golf Club. On a volcanic cinder base, the government built this course 30 years ago, and it's New Zealand's most Americanized. Fairways are mown close, greens tilt slightly. (It will be one of the first courses to get motorized golf carts this year.)

The 14th Rogue

Its most famous hole is the par-5 14th Rogue. In the old days, an unpredictable massive bore would blow off steam, often in the middle of one's back swing. In deference to jittery golfers, the bore was silenced. The aura remains, however, and the Rogue is seldom parred.

Here on the South Island, we delighted in playing the flat Russley Golf Club--par 74 women, 73 men (rated 74 and 70). In walking distance of Christchurch International Airport and also U.S. headquarters for Operation Deep Freeze, it sings with birds hiding in the trees that line the fairways. Sudden chilly breezes hint of Antarctica, only four hours away, and of the nearby Southern Alps.

Flying to Queenstown, last stop on the tour, we passed over those Alps.

A supply town for gold miners in the 1860s, Queenstown is still a place of hustle--but a picture-pretty town on a smashing lake with the Remarkable Mountains all around.

Three of us hailed a jet-boat taxi across Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown Golf Club. Two minutes ($5.50) for a distance that took our tour bus half an hour by road. Par 71 for men, 73 for women, the course glides uphill and down, skirting the lake shore, flirting with forest, ogling the mountains. There are also several "nasty steep inches" (as my playing partner called them) to teasing elevated greens.

You hear the occasional hoarse whistle of the lake's old steamboat. All is calm at this honey of a resort.

Tours can be arranged September through May.

Tour Prices

Tour prices are from $1,700 to $2,400 plus $1,100 economy round-trip air fare via Air New Zealand. (Pacific class and first class also available.)

Although we never paid extra for a meal (everything but lunch is included in the tour rates), I would happily return to several restaurants we visited. At Aorangi Peak, Rotorua, have roughy or whatever fish is being featured that day. At Pecator in Christchurch, try steak Maltese-style (with melted cheese on top). Roaring Meg's in Queenstown gets high marks for lamb and apricot pie. Dinner at each costs about $22.

While the others went gold panning on our last day in this country, I couldn't resist sampling one more golf course. Turned out to be the most fun of all.

No pro shop, no office. Arrowtown Golf Club, like many in New Zealand, operates on the honor system. I dropped $2.50 in the box ("For as few or as many holes as you care to play," read the notice) and stepped into instant Scotland. Moors, weirs and peculiar bounces off grass-covered rocks. A bewildering landscape were it not for the "This Way" signs.

Goat bleats and sheep sighs were the only sounds, for I had the course all to myself. Well, not quite. Peter Taylor, groundskeeper, scurried ahead, slicking each green to perfection. It was par 70 for women, 69 for men, and I loved it.

Wonder what "N Zed's" 41 others are like?

The vitals: New Zealand Golf Excursions, 39 Taharoto Road, P.O. Box 65083, Auckland 10, New Zealand, is represented in the United States by Best Tours, 332 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, Calif. 92652. Ask for the "Golf New Zealand" booklet. Toll-free phone (800) 227-0212 within California, (800) 458-6888 from other states.

Basic tours are for 16 or 17 days, but can be tailored for more or fewer. You can either gather your own group, or sign up individually for set departures (first open trip of 1986 leaves Los Angeles on April 14). All are escorted upon arrival in New Zealand.

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