The Hills’ heavy-hitter designer

On par: Designer Darius Oliver (left) and The Hills general manager Brendan Allen study plans for The Hills Farm Short Course last week

Imagine designing a golf course when you’ve made your name critiquing and even slamming other courses around the world.

Meet influential Planet Golf author Darius Oliver.

He’s in town this week designing The Hills Farm Short Course – a nine-hole, par-three course beside jeweller Sir Michael Hill’s championship course near Arrowtown.

The 42-year-old Australian’s studied more than 1500 courses in 45 countries for his three popular Planet Golf books.

As a result, he admits he’s under enormous pressure when it comes to designing a course himself.

“I’ve got a huge target on my back, there’s no question.”

Though he also acts as a course consultant, this is only Oliver’s second course.

He co-designed the highly-rated Cape Wickham Links on King Island, off the coast of Victoria, Australia.

And he’s also designing a course on Kangaroo Island, off the South Australian coast.

“If at the end of my career they’re the only three courses that I ever have a hand in designing, that’s perfectly fine by me.”

Oliver, who played in the pro-am part of the New Zealand Open at The Hills in 2014, was recommended for the farm course by Kiwi friend Michael Goldstein, who helps organise the Open each year.

Oliver says existing plans didn’t maximise the property’s potential.

“Sir Michael, to his great credit, was comfortable with [using much more land].

“This is stretching his comfort zone considerably because it’s using up prime real estate.”

The key, he says, is that very little land will have to be disturbed to create the nine-holer, while each hole has its own unique outlook.

“It’s a farm that just happens to have superb undulations that we’re lucky enough to use.”

If he didn’t live on Mornington Peninsula, near Melbourne, Oliver says he’d happily play the course – due to open late next year – every day for the rest of his life.

“It is so much fun, and these holes will never play the same.”

Tee and pin placements can be mixed up, “and obviously the wind swirls around here”.

Asked his favourite local course, he perhaps surprisingly singles out Arrowtown Golf Club’s nearby 18-holer.

“It is so unconventional, it’s so natural and organic.

“The ground it’s on, in some places, doesn’t lend itself to what we would deem rational, obvious golf holes, but it breaks the mould.

“I remember the first time I went and saw Arrowtown and fell in love with it.

“As I was travelling the world, I was expecting to find hundreds of Arrowtowns, but the reality is there are fewer great courses and fun courses and hidden gems than you realise because so many of the modern golf courses follow a formula, unfortunately.”

Asked about courses designed by famous golfers like the late Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, Oliver says, apart from a few exceptions, “golf professionals and superintendents are the two groups who should have very little, if anything, to do with designing golf courses because they struggle the most to look beyond their specialist field”.

He admits former golf pro, Arrowtowner Greg Turner, is an exception.

“He’s a bit like Mike Clayton in Australia – those guys are super-passionate about design, and they’re students of it.

“Guys like Greg are more like me – they love the game, they’re golf nerds.”