Earliest golf courses
The first golf courses were simply public reserves, also used for grazing sheep and cattle. Since most players were professional men, they set up courses in urban centres. From the 1890s purpose-built sites were either bought or leased. These were at first relatively flat in comparison with modern courses, with fairways flanked by pine trees.
Clarice Espiner played regularly at the Thames Golf Club until a month before her death in 2008, at the age of 97. Three years earlier she scored a hole in one on the eighth hole. A flower garden between the 11th and 17th tees is known as Clarice Espiner Corner.
Historic golf clubs
The Manawatu Golf Club in the Palmerston North suburb of Hokowhitu, which opened in 1895, claims the title of New Zealand’s oldest golf course. Napier Golf Club opened the following year at Waiōhiki, on land gifted by a prominent chief of the local tribe, Ngāti Kahungunu. In the early 20th century the Ngāti Whakaue tribe of Rotorua gifted land to the Crown, and in 1912 part of that thermal reserve land became the Arikikapakapa Golf Course. Its website warns players, ‘There are a number of bubbling mud pools and steam vents that are to be avoided’.1 The ninth hole at Arikikapakapa is often wreathed with sulfuric steam and, uniquely, features on a New Zealand postage stamp.
Professionally designed courses
The economic depression of the 1930s made cheap land and labour widely available and many new municipally owned golf courses were established. These were more carefully planned and maintained than in the past, and specialists were engaged on their design. The country’s first professional golf course architect was Irish-born retired engineer C. H. Redhead, who developed and improved many of the country’s golf courses from 1924. Titirangi Golf Club in west Auckland is the only New Zealand course designed, in 1926, by Englishman Alistair Mackenzie, the most renowned golf architect of his era.
Among the best
In 2012 two New Zealand golf courses featured in the world’s top 100 – Cape Kidnappers, set on cliffs overlooking Hawke’s Bay (at number 33) and Kauri Cliffs in the far north (80). Both were owned by US magnate Julian Robertson.
In 1902 the New Zealand government predicted that in future golf links ‘would provide a source of pleasure to many visitors’.2 By the 1970s those visitors included a fast-growing number of golfing tourists from overseas. Wairakei International, near Taupō, was built in a geothermal environment by the Tourist Hotel Corporation in 1970. It became one of the country’s premier golfing destinations and has been ranked among the top 100 courses outside the United States.
From the early 20th century golf clubs included purpose-built clubhouses offering facilities for members’ recreation, including dining, dancing and card evenings. Most ran a bar, nicknamed ‘the 19th hole’.
From the 1990s new golf courses often formed the nucleus of ‘golf-focused communities’ that also included a resort, conference facilities and residential developments. Examples include Millbrook Resort in Queenstown where US president Bill Clinton played in 1999, Terrace Downs in the Canterbury high country, Pāuanui Lakes in the Coromandel and Carrington in Northland.
A golfer’s paradise
By the 21st century New Zealand had about 400 golf courses, more per capita than any other country except Scotland. Unlike Scotland’s, almost all were playable year-round. They ranged from nine-hole country courses where green fees were dropped into an honesty box to world-class resort courses set in some of the country’s most scenic locations. New Zealand was also one of the cheapest countries to play golf. The average cost of a round was $24 for an international visitor or casual golfer, and $18 for a club member. In comparison, in 2009 it was not uncommon to pay more than $1 million for membership of a golf club in Japan.