QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand — "Here is a good climber, strong and vigorous."
We were at the sheep show at Rotorua's Agrodome, and a ripple of laughter rolled down our aisle. It was aimed not at the huge and haughty ram who'd pranced on stage to take his bow, but at ourselves.
For we are a group of not-so-rugged golfers, a bit footsore and weary but getting more in shape each day of our tour.
I'm with 36 people, mostly from Leisure World of Laguna Beach, on one of the first New Zealand Golf Excursions. It's a new year-round venture with Air New Zealand, founded by three avid golfers in Auckland and aimed at introducing groups to the joys, woes and camaraderie of golf in this golf-rich country.
A 16-Day Trip
New Zealand has nearly 400 golf courses. Forty-eight have been singled out by "N Zed G.E." (as the owners call it) for their itineraries. On this 16-day trip we are sampling six.
The Muriwai Golf Club was our initiation. Thirty-five miles west of Auckland, past vineyards, wineries and lush green fields filled with fat sheep and cattle, its name in Maori means "hills behind the sea."
Grassy dunes wander hither and yon, as if seeking escape from winds and the surf roaring in off the Tasman Sea. Holes have names, and I found memorable (although the local spelling perplexed me) the par-4 seventh, "Gilletine."
Rated a tough 74 (par 76 for women, par 72 for men), Muriwai was our first test of endurance, not made any easier by pulling a "trundler." And pull you must, or carry your bag, for there are no riding carts in this part of the world (although they're being introduced this year). Greens fee $6, which, for New Zealand, is a bit high. Most courses charge about $5, although a few are up to $15.
In the clubhouse afterwards, jovial mingling with club members began when June, of our tour, wore her hat inside. As a penalty she had to "shout" her table to drinks, which turned out to be a contagious pleasure with beer or wine 20 cents a glass; whiskey, gin or vodka, 40 cents.
It was here we learned a lesson in tipping. You don't. Tipping is considered rude in New Zealand.
More club entertainment, New Zealand style: You leap to your feet if you have a good joke to tell, and be prepared for sing-alongs. At the end of this first play day, a club member began the haunting Maori song, "Now Is the Hour," and one by one hands reached to grasp their neighbor's in a swaying, ever widening circle.
If Muriwai hints of Maori influence, the Waitangi (weeping waters) Golf Course tingles with it. A three-hour drive north of Auckland, deep in the Bay of Islands, it sits on the hill that 45 Maori chiefs climbed Feb. 6, 1840, to sign a treaty making peace with Queen Victoria's Britain. The logo on the golf balls tells the story.
Tour buses bound for the Treaty House pass by the No. 3 fairway. The largest war canoe in existence bids for attention too, as does a ceremonial meeting house with ancestral carvings representing all the Maori tribes.
But don't hurry your golf game. With its sweeping panorama of hills, islands, bay, wide fairways and smooth flat greens, Waitangi in itself is worth the long flight.
It's Peaceful Now
It's a par 71 for women, 70 for men, rated, respectively, 70 and 67. A plus is bustling Paihia town just down the road, and pretty little Russell across the bay, jaunty cannon pointing to sea from its neat white picket-fenced waterfront. Russell's peaceful looks are deceiving. Back in New Zealand's whaling days, it was every bit as wild a town as Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.
Kerikeri is the name of the Bay of Islands' airport. If you're short on time you can fly non-stop from there to the center of the North Island, Rotorua.
Check out the Prince of Wales geyser in the Maori-run Whakarewarewa reserve, stroll its tiny village (the famous guide, Rangi, is buried there), have a swim in your hotel's guaranteed-warm swimming pool and summon your nerve to tackle the Arikikapakapa (plopping noise) Golf Course.
If the dongas (deep pits) don't get you, its pumice (hot sulfureous) beds will, and fairways crisscross each other several times. Shouts of "Fore!" echo from all directions. Par 69 for men, par 70 for women, it makes for a sporty adventure.
An hour's drive south of Rotorua is the Wairakei International Golf Club. On a volcanic cinder base, the government built this course 30 years ago, and it's New Zealand's most Americanized. Fairways are mown close, greens tilt slightly. (It will be one of the first courses to get motorized golf carts this year.)
The 14th Rogue
Its most famous hole is the par-5 14th Rogue. In the old days, an unpredictable massive bore would blow off steam, often in the middle of one's back swing. In deference to jittery golfers, the bore was silenced. The aura remains, however, and the Rogue is seldom parred.