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New Zealand's Millennial Mulligan

Auckland - Sailing The City

On my first full day in New Zealand, i hiked to the edge of the sixteenth tee at Gulf Harbour Country Club, squinting across the Whangaroa Peninsula at the wind-whipped whitecaps of Hauraki Gulf. Auckland, the "City of Sails," was moored atop a cluster of dormant volcanic domes a good ten miles away, the saucer-topped mast of its Sky Tower serving as a beacon for the flotilla of seagoing vessels bustling about the harbor.

Duly designated as Gulf Harbour's signature hole, the 466-yard par-four sixteenth is the best hole designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. says he has ever laid out. The fairway doglegs right, around the rim of a cliff with bent trees, toward an elevated, double-tiered green guarded by a yawning heart-shape bunker. The sanest route is to stay left, well away from the cliff; stay safely to the port side. But like a siren of the sea, the sixteenth beckons you to risk cutting the corner with your drive to set up the shortest possible approach, a temptation that can lead you to a watery grave.

The sixteenth at Gulf Harbour is also the best place to watch the America's Cup. Organizers have insisted that all participating syndicates build their boat sheds around Auckland's harbor within easy walking distance of downtown. But the racing will actually be done in Hauraki Gulf, off the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, a good forty-five-minute drive from Auckland but less than three miles from Gulf Harbour.

Opened two years ago, this golf course suffered a barrage of player criticism after it hastened to host the 1998 World Cup. This 7,142-yard parkland by the sea might be classified as a work-in-progress with no end in sight. The front side meanders across a series of mostly treeless humpbacks and a lake-lined meadow, culminating in an architecturally indecisive ninth hole with two completely separate greens. But the closing holes on the back side are visual treats, especially the sixteenth and the 184-yard par-three fifteenth, which slips through a chute of pines to a triple-bunkered, sternly contoured green just a lob wedge short of the cliff overlooking Hauraki Gulf.

I spent the morning rattling around Gulf Harbour, a jet-lagged landlubber, then returned to Auckland for some direly needed shore leave. Centered on an isthmus bounded by the Tasman Sea on the west and the South Pacific on the east, Auckland is a cosmopolitan place, seventy percent European-descended Pakeha and thirty percent indigenous Maori spiced with Japanese, Fijians, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders. The formerly filthy harbor has been cleaned up for the America's Cup races, and there is a waterfront construction boom.

Even so, I was initially taken aback by Auckland's relative lack of bright lights and big-city flashiness. Although New Zealand is struggling to transform itself from a welfare state into a privatized global trading power, almost everything and everybody still tends to meet in the middle class. No wonder the newspapers are heralding the arrival of super-rich super-yachties for the America's Cup.

I was heartened to discover, however, that the absence of garish opulence in Auckland and the rest of Kiwi country seems to abet an old-fashioned friendliness and thriftiness that can get to be a bit addictive. Tipping is neither expected nor widely practiced, and most New Zealanders are willingly helpful when it comes to providing directions to strangers or changing flat tires for stranded motorists. Just don't rile up the local pubbies by comparing New Zealand with arch-rival Australia. Also be advised that New Zealand is presently preparing to take on the rest of the world in the America's Cup yacht races. The Kiwis intend to win.

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