Gulf Harbour - A Cautionary Tale

In 1997 a new age dawned for New Zealand Golf. The Gulf Harbour Golf and Country Club opened to great fanfare. Kiwi golfers could now experience a truly international golf course designed by a renowned American architect at the peak of his profession. Previously, a few lucky New Zealanders may have been able to afford to travel overseas to test their games on first-class courses, and to enjoy all that went with it. Now the enticing package had arrived in New Zealand. The new facility had a well-stocked pro shop, friendly uniformed staff and top-class food and beverage before and after play.

High hopes were held for the spectacular course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr sited on the scenic Whangaparaoa Peninsula. Shortly after opening, Gulf Harbour further enhanced its reputation by hosting the 1998 World Cup of Golf. Visiting golfers including Sir Nick Faldo and John Daly enhanced the event. Spectators came in droves to watch with many congregating on the dramatic signature hole, the par 4 16th hole perching on the dramatic clifftop. Gulf Harbour had become the name on golfers’ lips throughout the country.

In July of this year the current owner of Gulf Harbour Country Club, property developer Greg Olliver, closed the course that he had purchased two years ago, abruptly ending the Gulf Harbour dream. Oliver knew nothing about golf and had been banned in 2021 for four years from acting as a company director for “mismanagement” and to protect the public from the “risk” he posed. The closure announcement was made by Wayne Bailey; the director appointed to control Olliver’s company. Bailey stated that he had been “unable to make the running of the club viable” and that it would close “with immediate effect.” Had Oliver and Bailey ever intended to achieve their stated objectives? From the start members and locals had suspected that purchase was a cynical property play by Olliver. Bailey has since confirmed no part of the course is for sale.

Is this seemingly orchestrated closure the end of the Gulf Harbour story?

Looking back over the troubled 25-year history of the course permanent closure of Gulf Harbour may have been inevitable. From inception Gulf Harbour has suffered under a series of owners with little genuine interest in either golf or the members. Deferred maintenance and faulty membership structures have not helped the cause. In 1997 Mr Goh established the club. Member shareholders paid $25,000 for a membership interest and carried a subscription liability in perpetuity.

Two European Tour events were held in 2005 and 2006 at Gulf Harbour when the venue hosted a pair of New Zealand Opens. The flawed financial structure of the two events ensured substantial losses were inevitable. The European Tour’s contribution to the event reduced as the staging costs increased, creating a ticking financial bomb for New Zealand Golf. Mark Bryers and his faltering Blue Chip companies entered the scene and became the naming sponsor in 2006. A result was a $900,000 loss for New Zealand Golf. A swift extraction from the five-year contract with both Blue Chip and Gulf Harbour followed as the Open was moved to a safer haven of Sir Michael Hill’s private course in Arrowtown.

Bryers continued his trail of destruction at Gulf Harbour. He announced in 2006 that he had “bought” the course from the 2004 owner Jamie Peters. He paid for Gulf Harbour by transferring a parcel of degraded assets to Peters. A number of these assets had already been sold to third parties.

Bryers played with 2005 US Open Champion, Michael Campbell, in the winning team at the pro-am preceding the 2006 New Zealand Open. Campbell was then unwittingly dragged into the mess announcing “Mark Bryers and I have a wonderful vision for New Zealand Golf. It is more than just me being associated with the course, it is about the development of the practice facilities, getting coaches and making this the home of New Zealand Golf.” Campbell cut his ties with Kauri Cliffs, showing up to the Masters in 2007 with the Gulf Harbour logo emblazoned on his golf bag.

Shortly thereafter, the Bryers pack of cards fell over; his investors had lost $80 million by 2008. Bryers was personally bankrupted in 2009 for $220 million. The vendor of the course, Jaimie Peters, fared little better and was himself bankrupted in 2009 for $3 million, leaving behind claims for a further $14m based on his personal guarantees.

Where did this leave Gulf Harbour and the well-meaning Campbell? In 2008 12 members known as “The 12 Apostles” banded together to buy the golf assets from Bryers’ and Peters’ receivers for $5m. On the takeover date they found three unpaid invoices sitting in the club’s office. The first invoice was for an initial instalment of US$100,000 owing to Michael Campbell for his endorsement of the club, the second invoice was from IMG for US$1m for design services and the third invoice was from a US hotel consultancy firm for US$500000. All three were passed to the receiver of GHCC and remain unpaid.

The group of investors tried valiantly to make their investment, and the club, work - but they were faced with serious underlying issues relating to deferred course maintenance. The bunkers and watering system both needed investment. Construction and maintenance issues with the clubhouse did not help. The club limped along with the group of well-meaning investors trying everything possible to make the club viable. An incorporated society was formed to simplify administration but, unfortunately, the 400 members did not provide enough critical mass to ensure financial success.

In 2016 yet another investor purchased Gulf Harbour. Mr Lee from China wished to obtain a business visa and purchased Gulf Harbour to achieve his goal. Several of “The Apostles” had dropped out at this stage and those that remained were becoming fatigued. They were relieved to recover their capital of $5 million with two years interest (the first three years interest was forgone) from the sale. Mr Lee knew little about golf but did at least invest in machinery and made a modest capital reinvestment in the course. The underlying deferred maintenance issues continued to mount as did the cash flow problems.

In 2021 an even more unsuitable owner in the form of Greg Olliver arrived on the Gulf Harbour scene. He purchased the 89-ha course with property development as his clear objective. Olliver had escaped bankruptcy a few years before by offering his $90 million worth of creditors less than one half a cent in the dollar. (National Business Review.) One long-time member, ex-Apostle and ex-general manager Graeme Rothwell recently reflected “we continued with the long line of owners disinterested in the business of golf.”

Covenants on the land may possibly protect the course from further residential development by Olliver. Bailey seems confident that obtaining resource consents will overcome this issue. Olliver has bought into a fight with the locals who will oppose him all the way, but will there be any winners at Gulf Harbour?

A course design by an eminent architect such as Trent Jones is clearly not enough by itself to protect a golf resort from fundamental structural and ideological flaws. Two of Jones’ courses - Whitesands in Vanuatu, and Coolum on the Sunshine Coast (recently partially revived) have failed in the past. David Graham’s A$120m masterpiece at Laguna Quays in the Whitsundays lies derelict. On a smaller scale Greg Turner’s skilfully remodelled Oreti Sands in Southland has sadly also been abandoned.

Developing top class golf courses is not for the fainthearted. Success in New Zealand has been achieved by owners with deep pockets coupled with a genuine passion for the game. Examples of this are the Ishii family at Millbrook, the Hill family at The Hills, Gary Lane at Wairakei, the Robertson family at Kauri Cliffs and Cape kidnappers. Ric Kayne and his small investor group seem certain to make a success of their stunning trio of courses Tara Iti, and Te Arai North and South.

Gulf Harbour may be in the right place but is fast becoming a monument to the wrong owners arriving on the scene at the wrong time.