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Pucker Factor

The 17th at Tara Iti. Par 3 - 165 yards
Yardage Book Tara Iti

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With the South Pacific Ocean as its backdrop, Tara Iti’s famed par 3 debuted in 2015, yet is already in the pantheon of the game’s most picturesque. But it’s no pushover–it’s a devilish one-shotter that even the hole’s author remains frightened to play.

Tara Iti
Art by Thomas Young

Not the first choice

Par 3 holes have never really been my favorites to design, because there is comparatively so little strategy to them. Many of the world’s most famous one-shotters aren’t much more than a green surrounded by bunkers framed by a beautiful setting, and I’m the first to admit that sometimes I try too hard to resist the easy win.

But at Tara Iti, it was obvious early on where No. 17 would go, and that it would be special. Still, it took some twists and turns to get there.

The first time Ric Kayne called us about his dream project in New Zealand, the topo map didn’t look so much like one. The coastal property was rugged and severe, and I didn’t think it would yield a great course. We were busy with other projects at the time, so I asked my associate Brian Schneider to make the trip with Ric to check it out, with instructions to make sure I hadn’t lost my ability to read a map before we turned the job down. Sure enough, Brian went over and broke the news that while we could build a few spectacular holes on the site, some terrible ones would have to go alongside them. So, Tara Iti wasn’t built 100 miles north from Auckland, and we had to cross our fingers that Ric would come back to us if he found something better.

Six months later, he did: a beachfront site on the east coast near Mangawhai, much closer to Auckland. When I went to see it with Ric and my associate Brian Slawnik, the oceanfront property was completely covered by a planted pine forest that obscured most of the dunes. We could smell the ocean, but we couldn’t see it until we came out of the trees, 50 yards before the beach.

The thin red line

Our main access into the property was a logging road running parallel to the shore about 200 yards back until it turned sharply inland near the northern end of the site. A few days before our arrival, the local developer, John Darby (who has designed a couple of the best courses in New Zealand himself, including Millbrook and Jack’s Point), cut some of the pine trees on a line to the Hen and Chicken islands off the coast so we could understand the view. 

Today, that bend in the road is where the front tee sits for the 17th hole. As I started to route the other holes, it just so happened that several of them congregated around a small plateau that seemed like a perfect site for a clubhouse, about 500 yards away from John’s clearing. Using the clearing for a par 3 toward the ocean, and following that with a par 5 back underneath the clubhouse, seemed like the perfect finish.

The crosswind coming hard off the water makes No. 17 difficult to judge.

The clearing line from the road toward the islands intersected a small dune that was slightly fewer than 100 yards from the beach, just on the wrong side of a red line on the map that was labeled the “ONL” boundary—short for “Outstanding Natural Landscape.” Sometime after I’d built Cape Kidnappers there a decade earlier, it dawned on New Zealanders that development pressure was coming to the beautiful rural areas of their country, and they reacted by drawing red lines where they wanted to restrict development. 

The ONL line wasn’t a straight setback from the high-water mark, because it jogged in and out along the way. Eventually I sorted out that it had been drawn on an aerial photograph where there was an old line of trees that we were allowed to take down, which negated the rationale for the position of the line. A setback from the beach was still required, but we managed to negotiate for an “average” setback that allowed our third green, 15th tee and 17th green inside the ONL line. Not coincidentally, those are three of the best holes on the course today.

Pucker up

The little dune was just the right size for a green site and the 18th tee behind it, with the hole playing straight toward the Hen and Chicks (as the locals call the islands), about 25 miles out at sea. At that point, I had a feeling it would be an iconic hole, but I was concerned it might be too difficult, since it would often play into a left-to-right crosswind. So, with Brian at the controls, we built a relatively flat green complex with a generous bit of space short left to reward the player who successfully hit the target.

Carrying the massive bunker in front is Step 1. Step 2 is don’t be long.

When I returned to New Zealand for my final construction visit, the green had just been seeded the week before, and the grass was starting to come up. All through construction, Ric and I had overlapped our site visits by a day or two to catch up, but this time we couldn’t do it, so after getting the team started on the final edits to holes 12 through 14, I called Ric to check in on what he thought of the holes that had just been planted. 

He told me the good news first, then hit me hard. “I really love how the 15th came out; that is better than I imagined,” he said. “But I’ve got to be honest: I was a little disappointed in 17. It just doesn’t quite have the ‘pucker factor’ I expected it to have.”

My heart sank. Throughout the job, Ric had been enthused about everything we had built; this was the first time he’d expressed reservations about something, and I wanted to take his comments on board. But there were baby grass plants coming up on the green, and we were just a few days from putting the last holes to bed. I told him I needed a couple of days to think about it.

No easy way out

It didn’t take long to realize that Ric was right. I had deliberately backed off the design of the green site a little to make it more playable, but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted us to go all in. I needed time to figure out how I could change that without tearing up the entire green site, and how to explain to Brian and the superintendent, C.J. Kreuscher, that regardless of how much, some of that green they’d just finished was coming back up.

When I broke it to them a day later, I’d formed a plan: We would extend the bunker at the front right to make the approach and green a little smaller. Then we would use the sand we dug out to add some contour to the green by building up the back-left and front-right hole locations. We’d still need to reseed the green, but not much beyond that. The excavator work was done in a matter of hours.

Did that last-minute change make a real difference? On the one hand, I know it’s more the nature of the place and the backdrop that make the hole so attractive to golf course photographers and raters, rather than anything to do with its playability. On the other, it was important to Ric to have the hole present a certain feeling, and that’s the least we could do for him in return for bringing us to work in paradise.

I’ve worked hard the past few years in trying to vary the character of the short holes on our designs. The other par 3s at Tara Iti provide more choices, thanks to the bunker in the middle of the second green and the shoulder of land you can try to bank shots off at the 10th. So Ric made an excellent point in saying that the 17th didn’t need to give players that same out. It’s the shortest hole on the course and—along with the tiny green at the short par-4 seventh—the tightest target.

There’s no denying it now has that pucker factor. With deep bunkers already surrounding it, and the stiffened green, it is the hardest shot on the golf course for me personally—because we made it harder than I wanted it to be. Every year, we throw a tournament called the Renaissance Cup on one of our designs, and we held it at Tara Iti a couple years after it opened. When C.J. and I got to the finals, I was thrilled that we managed to close out our match on the par-4 16th. No way did I want to step up and hit that tee shot with everything on the line. 

Tara Iti
After making No. 17’s landing more difficult, even its architect is afraid of it.