Millbrook Golf Resort
It is difficult to imagine a more idyllic setting for a golfing resort. If there is such a thing as a golfing paradise then the Millbrook Golf Resort in the tourism playground of New Zealand's southern lakes district must surely go close. It is true that the surrounding countryside creates an ambience that is unique and it is easy to be swept away by that but the facilities and positioning of this great complex have to be seen to be believed. From the moment you enter the property and drive along an avenue of 100 year old ever changing poplar trees the scene is set.
On one side (to the west) the mountain range on which the ski field of Coronet Peak is based, to the north the Crown Range, which leads to Wanaka, to the east the mountain range of the Remarkables and to the south the magnificent Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. So it would be easy to be overawed by the dynamic and dramatic surrounding scenery but the resort is, in itself, an attraction.
At a time when such a project was unheard of in New Zealand and, when the corporate world was reeling from the effects of the 1987 crash, Graham Smolenski, a Queenstown developer and John Darby a landscape architect and developer from the Queenstown region joined forces to pursue resource and other necessary consents for the development of Millbrook. While both men were entrepreneurial by nature they were, to a very large extent, trailblazing as there was nothing that had gone before in this country to set a standard and precedent. That may well have been a blessing as the final result is, even to this day, very unique and without parallel in terms of its appeal.
The two instigators however required financial support to take the project to the next stage and to this end they sought Japanese money as at that time the Japanese economy was strong, their interest rates low and the Japanese were involved in the development of golf related projects in Australia. Mr Eiichi Ishii became the main shareholder and remains as Chairman of the Board of Millbrook and is very much hands on in terms of ongoing development there.
Sir Bob Charles New Zealand's favourite golfing son was engaged to design his first full project and he would work with John Darby in designing the golf course. Darby providing the technical input and Charles the golfing strategy.
The golf course and resort are on the site of an old 19th century wheat farm. Many of the original contours and topography were maintained in order to retain as much as was possible of the original and natural feel of the site and to reduce construction costs.
Based on the finished product it is clear that the brief was to create a golf course that would complement a resort targeted towards a clientele who would not always be serious golfers but often beginners and I will expand on that comment later.
In late 1992 the course was ready for play with the Resort officially opening in March of 1993.
Millbrook is the ideal golf course for this style of resort. It may not be perceived as a tough tournament course, although having said that it does measure over 6,400 metres from the back, but in the overall scheme of things I am not sure whether that matters. What it does offer is a well presented golfing facility that beautifully complements the surrounding scenery and ambience created by the style of buildings on the property.
The grasses used are obviously cool season varieties including Egmont bent on the greens, a browntop and fescue mix on the fairways, browntop on the tees and a mixture of the above in the roughs.. While it does get very hot in this part of New Zealand in the summer the heat is a very dry one and as such the bents can tolerate such heat where there is no humidity. When I last played the course in March of 2002 the fairways were, in my opinion, as good as you could get them, the greens having just been cored were returning to a good putting surface again and the rest of the course looked a picture. Native tussocks so common in high country areas are also kept in many of the rough areas and add to the alpine atmosphere. As is often the case good presentation can either enhance or destroy even the best of golf course design and in this case it is the former.
As has been the case with previous reviews on this site it is not my intention to go into lengthy hole by hole descriptions but rather select a few holes that in my opinion stand out.
The course opens with a lengthy (505 metres) but generous par five. The first hole that really caught my eye however was the par five fifth. Measuring 503 metres from the back tees the hole turns from left to right in the landing area for the tee shot with bunkers and water right guarding against those trying to get too greedy from the tee. A large tree guards the left side of the fairway and is a consideration with the second. The approach shot from say a hundred yards or so (perhaps much less) is to a green much longer than it appears from the fairway and a gentle tier at about the half way point of the green is another strategic design feature. A very pretty and interesting hole.
The par three sixth is very much downhill and although only playing 160 metres from the back is made more challenging by the elevated nature of the tee especially with the breeze. Bunkers guard the front right and left of the green and water creeping close to the right half of the green another factor.
The par four ninth is likely the most difficult in terms of securing par as it often plays back into the prevailing southerly breeze. Measuring 405 metres from the back it is played from an elevated tee with the second back uphill to a green nestled into a backdrop of the picturesque accommodation and mountains beyond.
The par five tenth (510 metres) opens the back nine with an interesting tee shot set against the hills beyond. It is one of those occasions where you can see the ball against this backdrop throughout its flight. The real strategy for the hole however begins with the approach, either with the second or third dependant on your level of skill and power, to a green guarded by bunkers in the front right and a stream left which is part of the Millbrook network of waterways. A narrow entrance for those trying to run a shot in. Dare I say it again, another pretty golf hole especially looking into the green.
The fifteenth is a 387 metre par four with plenty of character and intrigue. The tee shot is against the backdrop of the Coronet range with the ski field of Coronet Peak evident on the far horizon. The tee shot needs to be navigated between a hazard and bunker to the left and a bunker and stream on the right. Once safely negotiated the second is uphill to a green with a significant ridge running through it ensuring that the job is not completed on merely reaching the green.
The par five eighteenth is one of the most photographed holes in New Zealand golf I would imagine. As the saying goes however it is not just a "pretty face". Measuring 560 metres from the very back much of the hole's strategy is determined by the ability of the golfer to get their tee shot to the top of the ridge some 260 metres from the back tee and beyond. If this is achieved then there exists the possibility of reaching the green in two.
Most however will be happy to play the hole as a genuine three shotter with the approach over water to a green surrounded by the millbrook in the front and left and the original clubhouse to the right. It is a beautiful setting for a green and the culmination of a round of golf that whether you have played well or not will often leave your breathless.
Nothing appeared to be a problem for the golf shop staff at the resort which typifies the overall running of the resort. It was not in your face type service but the type of service that was there when you needed it but not there when you did not. It is that type of resort in many ways subtle yet efficient service.
Full size towels were provided with all buggies and on that issue it is a golf course that you can walk if you wish which may appeal to many.
As can be seen, and hopefully interpreted, from the above I believe the golf course here at Millbrook Resort is just the right mix for a getaway golfing resort. Many who visit and stay at Millbrook are not necessarily serious golfers in fact many are beginners and the golf course offers the balance so necessary in resorts of this nature, that being to appeal to every level of golfer.
Having been involved in the golf course design business for several years I can say that I have read this objective ( the creation of a course to suit all golfers ) as a key means in the promotion of just about very major design company, almost to the point of ad nauseam. Here however is a golf course that has pretty well got it right. It could be said that it leans more towards a resort golf course than a championship (whatever that loosely used term means) one but the key issue is that the golf course meets the requirements of the resort. Given the length of the course (6,400 metres) there does exist the opportunity to tweak it for significant events when and where necessary and under those circumstances it would provide a good test for anyone.
If you are looking for a course which under everyday circumstances will challenge and test very aspect of every golfers game then Millbrook may not necessarily offer that. If however you are looking for a game of golf that will provide a good challenge whilst you absorb one of the world's most spectacular golf settings then Millbrook is your spot.
If they were interested, it would be easy for the folk at Millbrook to strengthen the golfing strategies by the introduction and relocation of bunkering and other measures. I think they know however that if that was to be done the special magic that is Millbrook may well be destroyed.
The accommodation is yet another highlight of this outstanding resort. There is variety in that there are hotel rooms in an area known as the Village Inn which consists of 51 x 1 bedroom rooms which are tastefully furnished in a manner that blends with the environment. Each of these rooms opens either onto the brook running through this area of the resort or onto the golf course.
There are also 83 one or two bedroom villas with aspects over the course or surrounding vistas. They can be viewed by visiting the Millbrook Resort website given here. There are also cottages available for rent but don't let the title "cottage" fool you, these are classy abodes.
The accomodation is so good the Resort was chosen to stage the APEC conference in 1999 with Bill Clinton attending and staying at the Resort.
Only twenty minutes from the tourism capital of Queenstown. 4 hours drive from Dunedin the provincial capital of Otago, seven hours drive from Christchurch or, as I did, by taking one of the frequent Air New Zealand flights from Christchurch which is only about a forty five minute flight. The flight features glimpses of Mount Cook and the region of the lakes districts of Tekapo. Flights to Queenstown with Air New Zealand are also available from other New Zealand centres.