Day 36 was a game of two halves. We've had a few days to date where a 'day' yields two entirely different stories. In this case, we spent the morning in Palmerston North - playing the wonderfully mature Manawatu Golf Club - and the afternoon in Taranaki dairy country, with our hosts for the evening, the Cleavers.
I'll start at the beginning, for that is a good place to start. The evening of Day 35 was an awesome one; the Kennedys, with whom we were staying in P North, put on a beautiful dinner on a barmy summer night. Conversation around the dinner table was sparkling, and I particularly enjoyed chatting with a chap called Mark Sinclair, with whom we were meant to be playing with on Day 36 (I say 'meant to be', because Michael and I managed to botch the fixture by shifting our itinerary without telling him - very embarassing - if you're reading this Mark, again, sorry!). Roger and Debra were great hosts, and it was nice to see another side of Palmy, from the perspective of an insider (rather than as a passing tourist, as we are used to).
We farewelled Debra in the morning and made our way 4 minutes round the corner to Manawatu Golf Club, one of the oldest in New Zealand. In the pro shop we bumped into Oliver - the new trainee pro - whom we sat with at the NZ Golf Awards Dinner in Queenstown last Saturday. He kindly sorted us out with a cart and a course guide, and sent us to the 10th tee to avoid the packed field. Sun shining; course in great nick; stars aligned for a good game of golf. Mike and I even managed to flush a couple of 2 irons down the middle to get the ball rolling - a rare occurrence. A good few tees at Manawatu - at least a good few of the blue tees - demand an arrow straight blow, failure to deliver which will invariably result in that ball on wood sound. An all too familiar sound. Playing among such mature trees is something of a rare treat in New Zealand (or at least the courses I've come across); it gives you a sense of tranquility - even if you find yourself closer to them than you'd care to.
Before today we'd heard only good things about Manawatu, and we weren't disappointed. There are no weak holes. And the bunkering is thoughtful. The par 3s were probably the highlight for me - some reminded me of the Melbourne sandbelt courses, where you play to greens surrounded first by bunkers then by trees. The par 5 14th was my pick of the holes, a wandering dogleg left that rises gently as you reach the green. The recently built par 3 4th hole - ominously called "The Devil's Own" - was a good one too; it's named after an annual lawyers' golf tournament held at Manawatu, which must be of some fame if they've named a hole after it.
A 270 degree lip out for par on our last hole, the 9th, left a sour taste in the mouth - but wasn't enough to tarnish an otherwise great experience. Next time I'm passing through Palmy I'll definitely make the effort to get to Manawatu again - it's the sort of course you're itching to have a second crack at after your first. I had an unsatisfying 80 (8 over), and Mike an even less satisfying 88 (37 and 25 points respectively).
Now to the second half of Day 36. We set sail for Hawera, a couple of hundred kilometres up the road towards New Plymouth. I should say that on the way Mike did his loser's forfeit, which was incredibly entertaining. It took him 2 minutes 44 seconds to chow down 2 dry weetbix - poor bugger. Hijinx aside, it was a nice drive, if not a very hot one (the passenger window doesn't work on our borrowed car). Just past Hawera we hooked up with Roskoe - or Ross Cleaver to give him his proper name - who took us back to his farm in the plains under Mount Egmont. A quick hello to wife Julie and we were back on another golf course, this time the local track called "Te Ngutu". Very picturesque (there's a couple of snaps in the photo gallery).
Ross, Michael and I were joined by another Ross (Glover, a local cricket hero and golf guru to boot) - and no, he didn't have 6 fingers, as Ross C quipped. R & R took us round 8 of the best holes (18 was asking a bit much of tired legs), which were a very good 8 holes indeed. One of the better country tracks I have played. On the way around thoughts were swapped about the course's design; about Ross G's grand plans for improvements. We also had a bit of a haggle, which Ross C and I took out (Ross C by himself, really - he putted like Ben Crenshaw). Michael after losing the morning match was particularly keen to take something positive out of the day, but Ross C rained on his parade, much to my amusement. We got some good snaps of a very old red barn and of Mount Egmont - at the moment it seems we take more photos than a Japanese tourist in Rome.
Those 8 holes were enough to give us a thirst, so it was quickly back to Cleaver Manor for a cold beer on the patio, from which there were spectacular views across green paddocks to the mountain. Julie put on a lovely BBQ meal; like the evening before a couple of locals came around too - one being Ross & Julie's daughter, the others being another local dairy farming couple, Grant (aka "Possum") and his wife, Colleen. We swapped stories and - as often happens in NZ - quickly realised we had a good few mutual friends in common. It's a small place. 2 degrees of separation and all that.
Possum and Ross are part of a 4 that pack their bags twice annually to head off on a boys' golfing trip. Reckon they'd get up to a fair bit of mischief while they're away too. 2010 is the 35th anniversary of their maiden trip, so they're off to Cairns in June (the girls are coming too - they get along to one of two each year). Good on 'em.
Day 36 - which feels like 2 days - has been an epic one. We played two very contrasting golf courses, each being an absolute pleasure in its on right. Manawatu was tight, mature and manicured; Te Ngutu had wonderful views and bags of country charm. We had great company in the Kennedys and the Cleavers (& respective friends) at both ends too. Tomorrow Ross is taking us on a tiki tour of the area - around the gas and milk products plants - before we head down the road to play Nga Motu in New Plymouth (reputably one of the best courses in the land).
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