From 1999 to 2011 New Zealander Steve Williams was the highest-profile caddy in professional golf. He was engaged by US golfer Tiger Woods, the world’s top-ranked player for much of this period. Woods took part in the 2002 New Zealand Open as a thank you to his caddy. In 2006 Woods acted as caddy for Williams during a game at his home course, South Head Golf Club in Helensville.
An ideal proving ground
Tiger Woods’s success made golf appealing to a younger and more ethnically diverse population than ever before, and many young (even pre-teen) golfers set their sights on a professional career. New Zealand has been identified as an ideal proving ground for such ambitious young sportspeople, especially from countries such as South Korea. They have flocked to New Zealand golf clubs and schools, and through their work ethic have become dominant, especially in the women’s game.
Players of all ages can enjoy golf, and several generations of the same family often compete together. The 14th hole at the Hokitika Golf Club is named Thompson’s Corner after early member Arnold Thompson, his son Michael, who won the men’s championship 24 times, and Michael’s son Stuart, who defeated his father to become club champion.
Danny Lee and his parents migrated to New Zealand from South Korea in 1999, when he was aged 11, specifically to improve his chances at golf. Lee soon set a new course record at Rotorua’s Springfield Golf Club. In 2008, just a month after his 18th birthday, he became the then youngest-ever winner of the biggest title in amateur golf, the US Amateur Championship. He then turned professional after becoming the youngest player ever to win a professional European Tour event. In 2023, Lee pocketed $6.3 million after winning a LIV Golf tournament at Tucson, Arizona.
Cecilia Cho and Lydia Ko
Two young Korean-born New Zealand-based women have also made world headlines. Cecilia Cho won the New Zealand Amateur Championship as a 14-year-old in 2009 and turned professional three years later. Her Auckland and New Zealand teammate Lydia Ko won the New South Wales Open in 2012, also aged 14, becoming the then youngest golfer in the world, male or female, to win a professional tournament. She had won the Australian Amateur Championship a week earlier and was ranked the world’s top women’s amateur. In 2015 she became the world's top-ranked female professional golfer, the youngest-ever winner of a major championship, and the youngest to win 10 Ladies Professional Golf Association titles. In 2016 - not yet 19 - she became the first New Zealander to have won two major championships. She followed that up with a silver medal in golf at the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming New Zealand’s youngest-ever individual female medallist. Ko won bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Signs of progress
Outside the elite competitive side of the game, other signs of progress included:
- the rise in player numbers, from 272,000 in 1985 to 480,000 in 2011
- growth in club memberships, from 100,000 in 1985 to 112,430 in 2011
- an increase in junior memberships, from 5,000 in 1990 to 7,164 in 2011.
Golfing Hall of Fame
In 2010 New Zealand Golf established a Hall of Fame with Sir Bob Charles and Michael Campbell as the first inductees. Two years later amateur legends Stuart Jones and Oliver Hollis were also inducted.