By Allen Schauffler
STEWART ISLAND, New Zealand — My final putt is dead-center, right in the heart of the cup; a firm, four-inch, no-doubter for bogey.
It’s the last stroke in my best single scoring round of golf ever – a solo, soggy, putt-em-all, no gimmes 27.
Twenty seven; that’s what the card says.
And I nearly didn’t make it to the first tee. I’d come a long way from Powell Butte, Oregon to get here, 7,625 miles as the Kro-Flite flies. ‘Here’ is Stewart Island, New Zealand and the Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Club (529). Don’t ask me what the ‘529’ is all about; I don’t know. But that’s what the scorecard reads.
It rained hard the night before, ‘bucketed’ as the folks here might say, rained so hard it woke us up. Often. And as I lay in bed while the storm turned our hotel room into a rented snare-drum with us inside and played a Charlie Watts solo on our heads I was pretty sure a round at the southernmost 6-holer in the world was not going to happen.
That’s right, a six-holer; my scoring secret is out. Go around three times and it adds up to 18. There aren’t many courses like it out there, but Northwest hackers with a nose for golfing quirks, oddities and road trips will know that we have one of the few right here in Central Oregon. I’d played Kinzua Hills in Fossil several years ago and I’m proudly waving that course’s flag, a prized Kinzua golf-towel as I head out to take a shot at Ringa Ringa Heights and add a second ‘sixer’ to my lifetime list.
My wife Cyndy has that “you’re crazy, you know that?” look on her face as I suit up. But the rain has eased by dawn and is coming down more or less vertically rather than howling in sideways so I figure that’s a positive sign. I put my bag over my shoulder and start off down the waterfront main drag of Oban, a small fishing and eco-tourism center and the only town on the island.
I’m following directions to the course I’d picked up the night before from a few local chaps over beers in the South Sea Hotel pub, the town’s finest watering hole. I make it about a block on foot. The first vehicle that passes me pulls over and the driver offers me a ride. Stewart Island is like that.
His name is Luke, a fisherman headed home. He doesn’t have to ask where I’m going and the fact the golf course is not quite in his direction never slows him down. I hop in and we talk lobster fishing, weather and Oban night-life on the drive to the course.
There’s nobody in the parking lot. In fact there’s no parking lot at all, just a small pull-over spot on Deep Bay Road and a sign for the course.
There’s nobody on the practice green either. Or in the pro-shop, for which ‘no frills’ is a polite description. I am alone.
I had researched Ringa Ringa online of course and found this list of greens fees:
Visitors Fee: $5
Other Green Fees:
18-hole fee: $5
9-hole fee: $5
Affiliated member fee: $5
So, carefully reviewing the available evidence it looks to me like I’ll pay five bucks or so. But when I arrive at the ‘Honesty Box’ the sign reads “$10” and looks suspiciously as if somebody has printed up a new price-tag and pasted it over the old one, just in time for my arrival. I dig out the proper Kiwi coinage and happily pay up. The log book shows nobody has been on the course for 10 days and in the past month I am just the seventh person to venture out onto the greensward of RRHGC (529). Or at least the seventh to cough up the cash and log in.
It’s my kind of course. Funky, dog-eared, loved and tended by volunteer locals and on this day as soggy and barely playable as a golf course can be. On my way to the first tee I pick up the flag stick lying on the No. 5 green and put it back in the hole. I find several more in the same position out on the course, presumably blown out of their cups overnight by the gentle Stewart Island breezes. The cups themselves? All full to the brim with rainwater.
Wet from head to toe, absolutely delighted with where I am, I survey the scene. Ringa Ringa GC (529) is set on sea-side cliffs, the view stretching east past inshore islands to where the waters of the wind-whipped Fouveaux Strait mix with the globe-circling Southern Ocean. Albatrosses ride the wind-streams; long-legged Oyster catchers dot the fairways in a red-white-black painting on a green, green background. An occasional Tui (the first hole’s avian namesake), shiny black with a white cotton-ball tuft at the throat, watches play from the lush forest on the inland side of the course. With good reason Stewart Island feels like it’s a long way from anywhere; it’s a dot of land south of the south end of New Zealand’s South Island; Next stop, Antarctica..
Here’s how that epic 27 rolled out:
Hole No. 1: ‘Tui’ Par 4, 240 metres (262 yards)
My opening drive on the short uphill opener is, as ever, a low, screaming slice. A perfect play in this case as it doesn’t have a chance to plug in the soggy fairway but skips like a flat rock on water, rooster-tailing up the hill in the general direction of the green. For High-Desert golfers it may be hard to understand just how wet the ground is at this point. I squish with every step and adopt a flat, cautious stride to keep my golf-shoes from being sucked off my feet. When I pause to listen I can hear water running downhill all around me. I hit short, chip on to a sodden green barely bigger than the tee-box I just left and two-putt for a happy bogey.
Hole No. 2 ‘Kakapo’ 155 metres (170 yards)
In no rush, I take my time strolling to the second tee, marked by a large corrugated metal sheet with ‘No. 2’ spray-painted on it in yellow. I’m feeling good, a spring in my step, happy to be just plus-one after one. My recent golf has been so bad that even bogeys have been rare and this one is particularly welcome.
I had come to New Zealand to ‘compete’ in the World Masters Games, a huge multi-sport festival and I had stunk up three of Auckland’s finer tracks with truly putrid play. Even bogeys were rare. But out here at Ringa Ringa, away from most of humanity, away from any signs of recent greens-keeping activity and away from any kind of pressure I am swinging slow and easy and taking the game as it comes to me. Admittedly the slow and easy swing might have a lot to do with the soggy layers of rain gear in which I’m encased, which makes a really full back swing or follow-through impossible..
I bogey the downhill par three with a long one-putt over a scraggly green that hasn’t seen a mower since Hector was a pup. Bogey-bogey to start; I’m on a roll.
Hole No. 3 ‘Kiwi’ 98 metres (107 yards)
We never did see any Kiwis in New Zealand, although there are regular birding tours on Stewart Island that guarantee a look at the flightless national bird. On the hole named ‘Kiwi’ though, I manage a routine par, splatting a wedge to the fringe and two-putting on the short par 3.
I snap a picture of the submerged ball. The historical record demands it.
As I walk absently between holes I run into a small dog and her human owner out for a walk and stop for conversation. I’m certainly not holding anybody up and she has a chance to swap stories with a rare, visiting golf nut. We talk about the volunteer mowing and maintenance work that her man and others have done for years, bemoan the younger generation’s lack of interest in lending a hand, and part as new friends from different hemispheres. As I’ve said, Stewart Island is like that.
Hole No. 4 ‘Fantail’ 256 metres (280 yards)
The No. 1 handicap hole, even though it reads short on the card, is a beast; a blind drive straight uphill, then straight downhill, with cliffs and water along the left side from tee to green, all with a swirling, unpredictable wind. Fairway roll? Exactly zero. This is a tough hole on a dry day in summer and I am a long way from that.
The morning feels wild, invigorating, fresh; as far from a Sunday round at the country club as you can possibly get, the kind of golf I truly treasure. Don’t get me wrong; I do love an occasional round at a perfectly manicured, high-end, name-designer track and will gladly come dig up your club if invited. But the courses that give me the biggest kick are the unpretentious local nines and scraggly eighteens that lie patiently in wait, far off the beaten path of everyday golf, the outback tracks that somehow hang on and do business against all odds. Given that set of parameters a day of 6 holes at Ringa Ringa is as good as it gets, a case of the game giving back, offering a one-of-a-kind experience.
I slop a testy downhill wedge to the green from 70 meters out on my third shot and two-putt for another bogey.
Hole No. 5 ‘Kaka’ 221 metres (253 yards)
Kaka is exactly that. I card a not-very-memorable double bogey so I choose not to remember much about it. But I’ll never forget the raw beauty and energizing remoteness of Stewart Island. It’s 650 square miles with a permanent population of only about 400. More than two-thirds of the island is a national park with nearly 200 miles of hiking trails, perfect for the trekkers and trampers of the world who like to leave the rest of the globe far, far behind.
The locals are tough and cheerfully blunt, seemingly as raw and natural as the local coastline; the lodging and dining options simple and often superb. I don’t know where you’ll find better seafood chowder or lamb-shank. Albatrosses followed our rollicking 20-mile foot-passenger ferry ride from the mainland and that sold me on the place before I ever set foot on Stewart Island itself. It’s a slice of magic, way down below the Tropic of Capricorn.
Hole No. 6 ‘Weka’ 137 metres (150 yards)
Speaking of slices, that’s what I do on the finishing hole, a par 3 over a major canyon to a very minor green. No trouble to the right, though, and I chip on, leave a long putt short, then drill that satisfying four-incher to end the round. Not wanting to drown, six holes is my limit.
Back in town after a thoroughly drenching walk through the heaviest rain of the morning I check in at the small office where, among other tourist-related activities, they sometimes book tee-times for Ringa Ringa. You know, just in case there’s a mad rush to play and they have to spread two or three foursomes out over a week or so.
I’m looking for golf swag, a hat, a towel, a divot-fixer, anything to prove I’ve been there and bogeyed that. The rather bemused woman behind the counter tells me no, they don’t have anything with a logo on it at all. But she gives me a name and a phone number (neither of which I remember) and tells me maybe that will help. I make a few calls, get cheerfully referred to other names and other numbers and finally talk to a man who says he’s not sure he can do anything but he’ll “take a look around” and see what he finds. “You’re down at the Pub, right? The American couple?” Yup. The word is already out.
A few hours later during lunch somebody walks by our table and without a word sets down a small box. It’s all so fast and smooth I almost don’t notice it happening. The anonymous deliverer, clearly not interested in small talk, whisks out the back door before I can say hello or thank you or even get up from my seat. In the box is a single golf ball bearing the Ringa Ringa Heights GC logo; Stewart Island in green with the silhouette of an Albatross, wings spread wide, stretched across the map.
Cyndy and I look at each other, “Did that really happen?” we ask almost simultaneously. Yes, it did, and I’m suddenly the proud owner of a Spalding D-Tec ‘Extra Straight’ Maxfli-1. It’s a tangible, hit-able reminder of one of the great days of golf ever, seemingly a gift from Stewart island and the spirit of Ringa Ringa Heights GC itself.
Maybe I’ll tee it up at Kinzua Hills next summer as a sort of trans-hemisphere vote of solidarity with the strange Six-holers of the world. Or maybe I’ll just keep it as proof of a solid bogey round of 27 that nobody can ever take away from me.
Stewart island is like that.
(Schauffler is a free lance broadcast journalist living in Powell Butte, Or. He was most recently the Seattle bureau’s correspondent for Al Jazeera America and previously worked as an anchor, reporter and show host for King-5 for more than 20 years, specializing in Olympic coverage. He also worked at KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo, Ca. and began his career at KTVZ-TV in Bend, Or.)