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New Zealand's Millennial Mulligan

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, a six-foot-ten-inch-tall blind golfer named Christopher Bartlett plans to drive a ball off a harborside platform in Gisborne, New Zealand. Gisborne, perched on the eastern coastline where Captain James Cook first made landfall more than two centuries ago, will be the first city in the first country to greet the first day of the twenty-first century. And Bartlett's drive will be the first golf stroke of the new millennium.

Then all sorts of hell will break loose. New Zealanders are planning to stage thousands of Year 2000 special events intended to get maximum promotional mileage out of their geographical position. Public and private celebrations from coast to coast will range from Christian revival meetings and Maori tribal congresses to food-and-wine-tasting festivals, art exhibits, rock concerts, rodeos, triathlons and dog trials.

New Zealand's biggest and longest running Year 2000 sports spectacle is the America's Cup, which organizers postponed for a year in defiance of longstanding quadrennial tradition so that the yacht races will coincide with the millennium and the Sydney Olympics. As host city, Auckland anticipates the arrival of 200,000 rabid Kiwis from throughout New Zealand and an influx of 75,000 tourists and media personnel from abroad.

When I first heard about the impending frenzy over Y2K and the America's Cup, I thought about postponing my own plans to visit New Zealand until Y3K. But after further reflection, I decided to go on an impromptu scouting mission, which I arranged with the help of an outfit called Australia New Zealand Golf Expeditions. Armed with only my golf clubs and a guidebook, I traveled from one end of New Zealand to the other, visiting five cities in nine days, and I have concluded that there may be no better place on earth for golfers to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium.

First off, the weather in New Zealand promises to be perfect for golf. While capitals of the northern hemisphere like New York, London and Tokyo will be in the throes of winter, it will be midsummer in the southern hemisphere. Temperatures in Kiwi country will range from the low fifties to the low seventies, and the local linkslands will be in their prime. New Zealand has a total population of 3.8 million people and forty-eight million sheep, a ratio of better than twelve to one in favor of the rams and ewes. But the country also has more than four hundred golf courses, the vast majority of which are accessible to the public. The highest green fees at even the best courses are only about thirty-five U.S. dollars.

New Zealand is so full of wide-open spaces, there are plenty of spots where you could whack your way through a millennium's worth of range balls and never have to worry about hollering "Fore." The nation's two largest land masses, the North Island and the South Island, are together about the size of the state of Colorado. Even if you don't throw in the rest of the country's territorial jurisdiction, which encompasses a bunch of far-flung, mostly uninhabited islands, you're likely to encounter an average of just 35.4 people per square mile, and the bloody country measures more than a thousand miles long from the tips. New Zealand's natural terrain offers everything from sandy beaches, rolling meadows, alluvial plains and tropical rain forests to towering pine trees, snow-capped mountains, fjords, geyser fields and active volcanoes. These scenic sites serve as venues for all sorts of outdoor adventure activities, along with providing some breathtaking golf course vistas.

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