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By Ray Chatelin
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

(Photo 1: Cape Kidnappers Golf Course near Te Awanga at Hawkes Bay)

Every country has its own way to say hello. The Hawaiians place a wreath of leis around your neck; the French kiss you on the cheek; the Germans like to shake hands. New Zealanders, on the other hand, want to know your handicap.

For the country is a golfer's paradise - a Birdie in a world of Par golf, having more golf courses (397) per capita than anywhere in the world except form Scotland with its 543 courses. Many are unattended and have honor boxes for payment. Drop your cash in the box, pick up your score card and head for the first tee.

Besides, the real adventure in golfing New Zealand is when I tell my friends the courses I played. With courses named Muriwai, Huapai, Titirangi, Pukekohe, and Arikikapakapa you almost need elocution lessons. Off-shore golfers asking directions are a constant source of amusement for locals.

It's also, without doubt, the most affordable place in the world in which to play a round with prices ranging from $5NZ for a pasture course, to $50NZ for a championship course.

Yes, there are more high-end courses scattered around the country where you’ll pay more such as the super-spectacular and luxurious Cape Kidnappers Golf Course near Te Awanga at Hawkes Bay where the green fee for a walk-on is $330NZ – about $293CN.

But, for the most part, golf in New Zealand is its national recreational sport.

Pick a style. There are courses where hazards include wandering sheep and cattle (and their leftovers) as well as the finest layouts in the country such as Jack’s Point at Lake Wakitapu, a 20-minute drive from Queenstown; or Kauri Cliffs – 30 minutes north of Kerikeri.

And there are plenty in between.

Some 482,000 adults over the age of 18, golf each year on private and public golf courses and it is the number one sport for men and number two sport for women, behind basketball-like Netball.

There are 138,000 registered golf club members and seven million rounds of golf are played in New Zealand each year as practically every small town has its own course or links.

In New Zealand, golf is a walker’s game. Many championship courses have power carts. But don’t expect them at every course. And distances are usually in meters. Just add 10% to the metric distance for an approximate distance in yards.

Start north of Auckland and then work your way down to Christchurch on the South Island. Each night check the map and pick out the courses you want. Unless it's a Sunday or a designated club tournament, chances are good you'll get on. If not, try the one that's always down the road.

(Photo 2: Rotorua Golf Course with Hot Springs as a Hazard)

But golf isn’t the only pleasure to be found here. It’s a nation filled with art and history and Maori culture, sweeping beaches, tropical vegetation, and volcanic springs.

No matter where you play, you're always near a unique cultural experience. The Arikikapakapa course at the Rotorua Golf Club is an 18-hole, par 70 course with many holes played over and around both dormant and active thermal areas.

The club is also near the Maori Institute, one of the most visited places in New Zealand - a living museum in which visitors can experience traditional Maori life.

(Photo 3: Art from the Maori Institute near the Rotorua Golf Course)

When you play the 5987-metre (6548 yards) Napier Golf Club at Hawkes Bay in the central region of the north Island, you have access to superb Chardonnay's and Pinot brands not available in Canada, from nearby vineyards.

At the 5869-metre (6418 yards) Waitangi course, north of Auckland, you wander along the ocean, overlooking the spectacular Bay of Islands. The 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th holes demand concentration as you shoot towards the lush greens set along the water.

Nearby, is the site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi where, a century and-a-half ago, Maori Chiefs signed over the right for the British to settle the islands.

Still, the most unforgettable experiences in New Zealand may not come from the big and the best courses, but from the little places - villages and towns that have their own 18-hole courses.

My favorite area for anyone with limited time is the Coromandel Peninsula, due east of Auckland on the coast where 18-hole courses such as The Dunes Golf Resort Matarangi, the Lakes Resort Golf Course at Pauanui, the Mercury Bay Golf and Country Club at Whitianga, and the public course at Whangamata - offer a variety of styles with local character and some spectacular vistas on and off the course.


PHOTOS: By Toshi

1. Cape Kidnappers Golf Course near Te Awanga at Hawkes Bay

2. Rotorua Golf Club with Hot Springs as a Hazard

3. Art from the Maori Institute near the Rotorua Golf Course

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