Story: Golf

Page 1. Origins of New Zealand golf

All images & media in this story

New Zealand’s most popular sport

Golf is played by more New Zealanders than any other sport. During 2009 almost 500,000 people (both registered club members and casuals) played at least one round of golf, making it the country’s most popular game in terms of participation rates.

Shooting your age

On most 18-hole golf courses any score below 80 strokes is considered impressive. As a result, ‘shooting your age’ (scoring no more strokes than your age) is a remarkable achievement. Keith Plowman, a member of the Maungakiekie Golf Club in Mt Roskill, Auckland, was aged 89 in 2008. By then he had ‘shot his age’ 1,179 times.

What is golf?

Golf is a ball game played on a large ground called a course or links, divided into a series of ranges, each with a tee at the start and a hole at the end. These ranges are called holes, and a golf course usually consists of either nine or 18 holes. Each player attempts to hit their ball into each hole with the fewest possible strokes, using a variety of sticks called clubs. The holes are rated for length and difficulty into par-three, par-four or par-five, par being the number of strokes a good golfer might expect to take on that hole. A handicapping system enables players of differing ability to compete with each other.

Unlike many ball sports, golf is not played under the supervision of an umpire or referee. Instead a complex set of rules and an even more extensive body of customary etiquette guides the players and controls disputes between them.

New Zealand connection

The grounds of Brooklands House, Surrey, UK, ancestral home of the King family, include a private golf course known as the New Zealand Golf Club. This was built in 1893 to commemorate Captain Henry King, first commissioner of New Plymouth in 1841, and later a resident magistrate. During the Taranaki war King’s house was burned and his son killed, and he and other settlers were forced to withdraw to the fortified area of New Plymouth. The club’s premier trophy, the New Zealand Gold Medal, depicts a Māori warrior, a ponga (tree fern), a moa, a sleeping hut and a flax bush.

From formal to casual

Until the mid-20th century golf in New Zealand and elsewhere was played mainly by older people, especially men. The game had connotations of elitism and was relatively expensive, so joining a golf club could be an intimidating experience. Jackets and ties were mandatory wear for men, at least in the larger metropolitan clubs.

Golf’s popularity exploded globally from the 1960s, and in New Zealand it became more casual and affordable. The number of courses greatly increased, and although some are extremely expensive, charging several hundred dollars for a single round, most are more reasonably priced. Golf therefore attracted interest from a much wider section of the New Zealand population, including more Māori, due in part to the example of young Māori stars such as Michael Campbell and Phillip Tataurangi.

First New Zealand golf club

The world’s oldest golf course, known as the ‘Royal and Ancient’, is St Andrews, north-east of Edinburgh in Scotland, founded in 1754. Until the 19th century golf was more widely played in Scotland than anywhere else, so it is not surprising that the first appearance of the game in New Zealand was in Dunedin, the ‘Edinburgh of the south’.

In September 1863 the Otago Witness newspaper carried an advertisement seeking ‘gentlemen desirous of forming a golf club’.1 The response must have been discouraging, since it was not until September 1871 that a dozen players finally gathered on an open space in Caversham, Dunedin, to play the first recorded game of golf. The Otago Daily Times reported that ‘a foursome was played, affording an excellent afternoon’s recreation … we trust before the season has far advanced to hear that a Golf Club has been organised, and that golf promises to become a popular recreation.’2 One of the players, Edinburgh-born Charles Howden, became the first captain of the Dunedin (later Otago) Golf Club and deserves the title of ‘father of New Zealand golf’. The Otago Golf Club is the world’s fourth-oldest outside the United Kingdom.

  1. Otago Witness, 18 September 1863, p. 6. Back
  2. Otago Daily Times, 11 September 1871, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Garry Ahern, 'Golf - Origins of New Zealand golf', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 March 2023)

Story by Garry Ahern, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2016