Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by Garry Ahern

Once the province of the wealthy and the professional classes, golf is played by more New Zealanders than any other sport. In 2009 almost 500,000 people played at least one round.

Origins of New Zealand golf

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.

    • Otago Witness, 18 September 1863, p. 6. Back
    • Otago Daily Times, 11 September 1871, p. 2. Back

Golf’s rise in popularity

First clubs

The Dunedin Golf Club initially faced problems obtaining enough equipment and finding a suitable playing area. It then fell on hard times when the adjacent Fogarty’s hotel, which doubled as the club bar, went bankrupt. Although another golf club was formed in Christchurch in 1873, it was not until the 1890s that golf emerged in sustained and organised form in New Zealand.

Princely problems

In 1920 Edward, Prince of Wales, played at Maungakiekie, Auckland, during his tour of New Zealand. He returned the next day to play with the club’s professional, Harry Blair, but his game went badly. The prince tried one club after another from his enormous and mismatched collection, which had mostly been gifted to him. Finally he asked Blair for advice on his clubs. The reply was, ‘Give them to someone you don’t like.’1

First Amateur Championship

By 1892 the number of immigrants from Britain, including many golf enthusiasts, had greatly increased, and in that year two more golf clubs were established – North Otago and Hutt (founded by David Howden, brother of Charles from the Dunedin club). In 1893 the New Zealand Amateur Championship was held for the first time, as a competition between the four clubs. This championship remained one of New Zealand golf’s leading annual events in the 2000s.

New Zealand Golf Association

Other centres soon formed their own golf clubs and in 1899 the Golf Council was set up to represent clubs and players nationally. This became the New Zealand Golf Association in 1910. By 1924 it represented nearly 100 affiliated clubs and 9,000 regular players, including 4,000 women.

Bob Charles

The first New Zealand player to gain an international profile was Bob Charles. He won his first New Zealand Open competition in 1954, aged 18, and turned professional in 1960. Three years later he won the British Open, one of the world’s leading golfing tournaments. One of the most successful left-handed golfers of all time, Charles gave the game a high profile in New Zealand for more than four decades, winning the Senior British Open (for players aged 50 and over) in 1989 and 1993. From 1986 he donated 1% of his income to New Zealand golf, supporting the Sir Bob Charles Scholarships awarded annually to promising young golfers. He was knighted in 1999 and retired in 2010 after winning more than 60 international tournaments.

First Open Championship

New Zealand’s first Open Championship – for professional as well as amateur players – was held in Napier in 1907 and won by a Wellington amateur, A. D. S. Duncan, who became the most prominent figure in New Zealand golf in the first decades of the 20th century. Amateurs continued to dominate the New Zealand game into the 1920s, but from about 1926 professional players, often employed as coaches at the larger clubs, dominated national competition.

Brassies, mashies and niblicks

Before the Second World War golf was a game mainly for the wealthy and the professional classes, and many significant business transactions were conducted between strokes. Players were expected to be smartly dressed on the course. Until steel-shafted golf clubs appeared in the 1930s, hickory-shafted clubs were used, with descriptive names such as brassie, spoon, mashie and niblick rather than the numbering system used later. Wheeled golf trundlers were unknown, and clubs were carried in a heavy canvas bag by a caddie, usually a young boy.

Golfing boom

A 1948 opinion poll rated golf the 11th-most popular sport in New Zealand. However, from the 1960s general affluence and the introduction of televised games drove a worldwide golfing boom which spread to New Zealand. Player numbers rose rapidly, prize money for national competitions increased, and top international stars such as the South African Gary Player were attracted to compete in New Zealand.

    • G. M. Kelly, Golf in New Zealand: a centennial history. Wellington: New Zealand Golf Association, 1971, pp. 61–62. Back

Changing face of golf

Women players

By 1930 the number of women players almost equalled the men, and during both world wars women members enabled a number of struggling clubs to survive. The first internationally prominent female player was Olive Kay of Whangārei, who won her first New Zealand match-play title in 1930 and went on to take several Australian and trans-Tasman championships.

Gender segregation

Throughout the 20th century New Zealand golfing remained segregated along gender lines. Although men and women played together in mixed foursomes from 1896, such joint competitions were seen as largely social occasions. Women were expected to play golf during the week, leaving the courses free for men on the weekend. Despite these limitations, the quality of women’s play continued to improve. The first women’s professional tournament, the Ladies Classic, was held in 1975. In 1996 the Ladies’ Golf Union changed its name to Women’s Golf New Zealand. In 2005 the New Zealand Golf Association and Women’s Golf New Zealand amalgamated to form New Zealand Golf Inc.

Champion player

Michael Campbell of Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru developed his skills from an early age at the Tītahi Bay and Paraparaumu golf courses. After his success with the 1992 Eisenhower Trophy team he turned professional and in 2005 won the US Open, two shots ahead of world number-one Tiger Woods. The New Zealand Parliament delayed its sitting time so ministers could follow Campbell’s progress over the tense closing holes. Less than a year later he won golf’s richest prize, the £1 million awarded to the winner of the HSBC World Match Play Championship.

Māori and golf

Kurupō Tāreha

Māori have been prominent golfers throughout the 20th century. In 1903 Kurupō Tāreha (Ngāti Kahungunu) won the New Zealand Amateur Championship playing at Waiōhiki in Napier, a course built on land donated by his family. He became the first president of the New Zealand Māori Golf Association, formed in 1932 to foster and promote the game among Māori. It remained active in 2012, organising national and regional tournaments in parallel with New Zealand Golf Inc.

Tāreha’s son, Kapi, grew to outshine his father and was renowned for driving tremendous lengths. Kapi’s daughter, Audrey, also became an outstanding player, winning the New Zealand Māori Golf Association national title many times.

Walter Godfrey

Aucklander Walter Godfrey maintained the tradition of excellence in Māori golf by winning the 1958 Amateur Championship at age 16. The following year he refused to compete in South Africa in protest at that country’s apartheid system. Godfrey turned professional in 1963 and went on to win a number of international tournaments.

Administration changes

The administration of golf in New Zealand changed considerably from 1985 when Grant Clements became secretary of the New Zealand Golf Association. The following year he wrote a paper, ‘In search of success’, making several predictions which would come to fruition, most notably that the New Zealand men’s amateur team would win the amateur golfing world’s most prized team trophy, the Eisenhower Trophy, within six years.

1992 Eisenhower Trophy

This goal was almost achieved two years prematurely when New Zealand, as Eisenhower Trophy tournament hosts in Christchurch in 1990, tied for second place. Two years later, in Vancouver Harbour, the New Zealand four outplayed the hot-favourite American four by 14 strokes over the final nine holes to win the Eisenhower Trophy by seven shots. Philip Tataurangi had the added distinction of the best individual total for the four rounds. He and his teammates Grant Moorhead, Stephen Scahill and Michael Campbell received the 1992 Supreme Halberg Sports award, along with the sports team of the year honours and the sportsman of the year award for Tataurangi.

Local and international competitions

Amateur and open championships

Several of the biggest competitions in New Zealand golf have been held annually (apart from breaks during world wars) for over a century.

Sister act

In 2012, for the first time in the 119-year history of the New Zealand Amateur Championship, two sisters contested the final. Munchin Keh, 19, and her sister Wenyung, 15, of Titirangi, were almost level-pegging throughout the 36-hole contest at the Mount Maunganui Golf Club. At the final hole, from 150 metres and in the rough, Munchin hit to within a metre of the hole. Wenyung then sank a 7-metre putt to stay in contention, before Munchin sank her own putt to win.

Both the men’s and women’s amateur championships were first held in 1893 as competitions between the country’s four golf clubs. The men’s event was won by J. A. Somerville, playing on his home course of Otago, and the women’s by Lomax Smith of Christchurch.

The Open Championship (for both professionals and amateurs) began in 1907 when A. D. S. Duncan, an amateur, won at Napier. In 2012 the New Zealand Open for men and women and the Amateur Championships remained the country’s largest individual golfing events.

Prize money increases

Until the 1940s the prize for the country’s most prestigious golf event, the New Zealand Open, was just £40. In 1946 an Auckland sporting-goods store promoted a Victory Tournament with a first prize of £200. This was the first important sponsored local tournament, and once further sponsorship increased the prize to £1,000, it attracted the reigning British Open Champion. From 1975 to 1994 a second major professional golf tournament, the Air New Zealand Shell Open, was played alongside the New Zealand Open.

Team events

In addition to these individual competitions, doubles and foursomes events for teams of two and four players, in amateur, professional and open categories, have taken place since the 1920s. Other longstanding team events include the inter-provincial championships for the Russell Grace Cup (for women, contested since 1949) and the Freyberg Rosebowl (for male amateurs, since 1952).

First international competition

New Zealand golf was largely isolated from the rest of the world until 1927, when New Zealand won the first men’s trans-Tasman competition, played in Sydney. New Zealand also won the equivalent women’s event in 1933 when the Tasman Cup was played for the first tiem. In 1935 a New Zealand four led by A. D. S. Duncan played in the UK for the first time.

International success

Major international successes have included:

  • Bob Charles winning the British Open championship at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s course in Lancashire (1963)
  • Marnie McGuire winning the British Amateur Championship (1986)
  • Craig Perks winning the Players Championship in Florida (2002)
  • Michael Campbell winning the US Open Championship at Pinehurst, North Carolina (2005)
  • 18-year-old Danny Lee becoming the then youngest-ever winner of the US Amateur Championship (2008)
  • Lydia Ko winning the New South Wales Open at the age of 14, becoming the then youngest-ever winner of a top-tier professional or amateur tournament (2012)
  • Lydia Ko, aged 17, becoming the youngest-ever number-one-ranked professional golfer (2015)
  • Lydia Ko, aged 19, winning a silver medal in golf at the Rio Olympic Games, becoming New Zealand’s youngest-ever individual female Olympic medallist (2016).

Hosting international events

In 1998 New Zealand hosted the World Cup of Golf at the Gulf Harbour course, Whangaparāoa, north of Auckland, when it was won by England’s Nick Faldo and David Carter.

In 2012 New Zealand hosted two international golf tournaments each year. One was the NZPGA (Professional Golf Association) Championship (from 1920 to 1963 known simply as the Professional Championship, and later by other titles). Since 2002 this event has been played at the Clearwater Resort in Christchurch in January. The New Zealand Open, also known as the NZPGA Pro-Am Championship, was held from 2007 to 2010 at the purpose-designed Hills golf course near Queenstown.

New Zealand golf courses

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.

Committed golfer

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.

Golfing tourism

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.

Resort courses

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 early 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 a tourist or casual golfer, and $18 for a club member. On the other hand, it was not uncommon for membership of a golf club in Japan to cost more than $1 million.


New Zealand golf in the 2000s

Steve Williams

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.

Family affair

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

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. At Rotorua’s Springfield Golf Club, Lee soon set a new course record. 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.

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.

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Garry Ahern, 'Golf', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 9 August 2022)

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