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Michael Donaldson’s outdoor temple (Photo: Petra Leary)
Michael Donaldson’s outdoor temple (Photo: Petra Leary)

PartnersOctober 30, 2021

Birdseye View: Michael Donaldson on the meditative power of golf and beer

Michael Donaldson’s outdoor temple (Photo: Petra Leary)
Michael Donaldson’s outdoor temple (Photo: Petra Leary)

To celebrate 10 years of Parrotdog, The Spinoff is partnering with the brewery to share the stories of New Zealanders doing great things. In the first series of Birdseye View, we’re interviewing 10 interesting Aucklanders about their relationship with the city and how it shapes their lives. 

In part two, journalist Michael Donaldson tells Alice Neville about his secret sanctuary at the Titirangi golf course. 

It has a reputation as a haven for eccentric creative types, but it was sport, not art, that attracted Michael Donaldson to Titirangi.

New Zealand’s foremost 20th century painter may be the west Auckland suburb’s most celebrated former resident, but in a young Donaldson’s mind Titirangi was more associated with Martin than McCahon – Crowe, that is. The legendary batsman grew up there and attended Titirangi Primary School before going on to become one of our greatest cricketers. 

Then there was the golf course. “I can remember absolutely vividly Bob Charles winning the New Zealand Open at Titirangi some time in the 70s or early 80s,” says Donaldson.

For those vague, tangential reasons, the journalist and author always had a feeling he’d live in Titirangi one day. “It was like this weird kind of connection, where in my head I knew it was a place I was going to end up for some reason. And now that I’m here I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

With a dad in the air force, Donaldson moved around as a kid, going to boarding school in Upper Hutt, then studying and working in Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch before crossing the ditch to Sydney, where he spent a decade. 

Returning to Aotearoa in 2004, he and his wife Deirdre settled in Auckland, initially choosing Ponsonby, but after six months or so serendipity intervened. Donaldson had got a job as sports editor at the Sunday Star-Times, which meant working every Saturday, and one day, Deirdre decided to go for a solo drive to Piha. She didn’t make it to the famed west coast beach, however. “She set out driving – this was in the days before GPS – and she got completely lost, but called me and said ‘I’ve found this really cool place called Titirangi’,” Donaldson recalls.

“I’d love to live there,” he told her, and Deirdre asked if he knew anything about the suburb. “No,” he said. “But it’s got a really good golf course.”

Later that year they bought a house in Titirangi and Donaldson joined the golf club, which was to become a big part of his life. These days he plays once a week, though would love to up that to one-and-a-half (18 holes plus a cheeky nine), and says twice a week would be “the dream”. The five entirely golfless weeks Auckland recently spent at alert level four were “really hard”.

“I quite like rocking up and not knowing who you’re going to spend the next four hours with.” 

‘Golf is like a series of short meditations where you totally lose yourself in the moment’ (Photo: Simon Day)

He’s always known that the course, just a seven-minute drive from his house, is regarded as one of the country’s best, but only in recent years has Donaldson come to truly appreciate its history. With his friend Phil Hamilton, he’s in the process of writing a book with the working title Sweet Spot: The Art, Beauty and Design of New Zealand’s Best Golf Courses, with photography by Arno Gasteiger.

Yes, it’s about golf courses, but there’s more to it, he says. “It’s very much a book about unique New Zealand landscapes as reflected or told through golf courses. Golf courses are the medium for looking at landscapes.

“And in the course of learning more about golf course design and architecture, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that where I’ve played my golf all these years is a really special place.”

Titirangi is New Zealand’s only course designed by Alister MacKenzie, who Donaldson describes as the “godfather of golf design”. A Yorkshire-born Scotsman who’s responsible for world-famous courses such as Augusta and Cypress Point, MacKenzie visited New Zealand for about a month in 1927, having been across the ditch revamping the Royal Melbourne course. A golf course already existed on the Auckland site – which is technically in the neighbouring suburb of New Lynn rather than Titirangi proper – but MacKenzie produced a new plan for its redevelopment, including detailed diagrams of nine greens to be revamped.

“He’s a man who really appreciated how to use the land as he found it to create a kind of test of your ability to solve a puzzle,” explains Donaldson. “I’m not a good enough player to be able to execute what needs to be done but I can appreciate the whole setup. A really good golf designer basically offers you many ways to achieve the same result, which is to get the ball in the hole in the least number of strikes.”

It’s the psychological challenge of golf that draws Donaldson to the game. Golf is not just a test of physical skills, but your mental acuity, decision making and emotional temperament, he explains.

“The only real judge is yourself. You’re not playing against anyone else, you’re playing against yourself and the golf course. I just love it as a game.”

Titirangi is New Zealand’s only course designed by Alister MacKenzie (Photo: Petra Leary)

In the low sun on a crisp afternoon in late winter when The Spinoff photographed Donaldson at the Titirangi golf course, his shadow formed a long silhouette as he hit his drive from the first tee. Alone on his stroll up the fairway, he seemed completely at peace. 

“For me, golf is like a series of short meditations where you totally lose yourself in the moment. And I guess that makes this golf course an outdoor temple.”

He’s well aware of golf’s snooty reputation, but says in New Zealand it’s more complicated.

“Golf gets a lot of bad press. But while we do have those elitist clubs like Tara Iti and The Hills, by and large it’s quite egalitarian in New Zealand. When you go to those country places,” he says – name-checking Ahipara, Ōhope, Waitara and Waverley – “it’s so down to earth and kind of connected to the very origins of the game, which is Scottish shepherds whacking a stone around a field with their crook.” 

When he started playing, aged 12 or 13, Donaldson was living at the Woodbourne air base in Blenheim, which happened to be home to a nine-hole golf course. “It was literally across the road from our house. I don’t even know how we got golf clubs but me and my two brothers would go and play. We had no idea what we were doing but it was there and it was something to do, especially in summer.”

Donaldson mostly stopped playing while at uni but he got back into it when he found himself working alongside a bunch of golfers at The Press in Christchurch, his first job out of journalism school. Donaldson came to journalism “by accident”. At school he was very good at maths and physics, so that’s what he began studying at Victoria University of Wellington, but after a couple of years he “absolutely hated it”.

“My best mate from school had gone to Dunedin to study medicine and kept on saying how amazing it was, so I literally got the handbook and thought, ‘what could I study in Dunedin?’ and landed on physical education, because I’d always been a sporty person.”

(Photo: Simon Day)

Despite spilling beer on his application form – perhaps an early portent of the importance this particular beverage would come to play in his life – he was accepted into the course and completed his degree. He loved it, and began working on a research project that was going to become his masters, but fate intervened when a classmate called on him to fill in for her at the Otago Daily Times. 

“I was sort of what you’d call a stringer for them, covering basketball and club rugby league in Dunedin. I was flatting with my brother and his wife and I would type up the copy on my sister-in-law’s typewriter and take it in.” 

He was quickly “hooked”, ditching the masters and instead enrolling in the University of Canterbury’s post-graduate diploma in journalism, which he completed in 1989.

Then came the job at The Press, followed by a stint at now defunct news agency NZPA in Wellington, which saw him sent to South Africa to cover the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup after just a year in the job, and eventually transferred to Sydney. The mid-90s was a great time to be a New Zealand sports journalist, with the birth of the Warriors and the Super 12 rugby competition. “There was money around to go places,” he recalls. “A typical weekend for me would be Friday night rugby in Canberra, fly to Brisbane to watch the Reds play the Hurricanes, back to Sydney on Sunday to watch the Warriors… it was full-on but it was great.”

Donaldson wasn’t ready to return to Aotearoa at the end of the three-year placement so stayed on in Sydney, nabbing a job with press agency the AAP, where he stayed for half a decade before being lured to Auckland by that job with Fairfax (now Stuff) at the Sunday Star-Times. He edited the sports section for another half decade before he was beckoned over to the news side of the business – a move he regrets. 

The 19th hole (Photo: Simon Day)

In a stark departure from the cash-fuelled mid-90s, in 2010 New Zealand’s media companies were struggling to figure out how the hell to survive in a scary new world where far fewer people were buying newspapers, but there was little desire to pay to read news online, where ad revenue was a fraction of print. In the larger companies such as Fairfax and APN (now NZME), the digital and print sides of the operations had been kept largely separate. There was a growing realisation that had to change, but the forced integration didn’t exactly run smoothly.

“Everyone was in this state of flux,” recalls Donaldson. “Sales were going down and there were massive shitfights over resources. Everyone thought it was like the Titanic but actually everyone was going in that direction. It wasn’t the most enjoyable time.”

One good thing to come out of those fraught Fairfax years was Donaldson’s foray into what’s now a career mainstay – beer. 

The beginning of the 2010s was when New Zealand’s craft beer scene really kicked off, and Donaldson was an early adopter. When a new editor came on board keen to give the somewhat high-brow Sunday Star-Times a down-to-earth makeover, Donaldson, a home brewer and “adventurous” beer drinker, made him an offer. 

“I said to him, half-jokingly, ‘Why don’t we replace the wine column with a beer column that I’ll write – and you’ll save money because I’ll do it for free.’” To his surprise, the editor agreed, and within a couple of weeks the wine column was gone and he was given a beer column.

“It was a really, really fast learning curve, because I had to come up with 500 words every week on an industry that I didn’t really know well.”

By 2015, following a massive restructure that saw nearly 200 journalist roles at Fairfax disestablished, Donaldson decided to set out on his own. He started editing the Pursuit of Hoppiness, a free magazine put out by SOBA (the Society of Beer Advocates), and in the following years wrote a number of books about beer and golf.

Michael Donaldson’s favourite spot (Photo: Simon Day)

The Pursuit of Hoppiness gig was effectively voluntary, and after five years he was over it. After threatening to quit, he ended up buying the magazine. 

“I had to teach myself how to make a website, then I set about getting it rebranded to refresh it. Then I managed to sell some ads.”

The magazine has been around since 2008 and there’s a lot of love for it in the beer community. People want to support it, and he’s now in a position where it’s sustainable. “It still doesn’t make a profit, but it’s a break-even proposition when I pay myself for the actual hours I put in,” he says.

“I never thought I’d be a publisher, but I’ve learnt so much.”

Donaldson draws a parallel between the evolution of the beer and media landscapes over the past decade. While the big guns (the Lions, the Stuffs) still dominate, a number of small- to medium-sized players (the Parrotdogs, say, or The Spinoffs) have carved out a decent place in the market, with the little guys (that’s the Pursuit of Hoppiness, and any number of small regional breweries) more than holding their own. 

He describes it as a democratisation. “Good beer is now really accessible in that regard. Those big breweries still dominate the landscape in terms of sales and marketing strength, but the whole craft revolution has kind of brought beer to the people.”

As for his own career, he’s happy he now gets to devote his working life to his two favourite topics. The golf course book will be his eighth, meaning he will have authored four on golf and four on beer. 

Donaldson’s house is at the very end of Wood Bay Roadd, at the bottom of the labyrinth of winding streets that descend down from the Titirangi Village, past Colin McCahon’s cottage through the nikau and kauri trees. Perched above Oatoru Bay, Donaldson’s favourite spot is in his favourite chair looking out through the clearing in the bush over the Manukau Harbour. Beer in hand, of course. He seems as content here as on the golf course. 

“In about 2012 I set up a blog dedicated to beer and golf called The 19th Hole,” he says. “Not to get all new agey, but if you visualise it… I do think there was something there even back then – so if I can keep it going for a few more years until I retire, I’ll be happy.”

Keep going!