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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. In 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.

Shooting your age

On most 18-hole golf courses, a score below 80 strokes is seen as creditable. ‘Shooting your age’ (playing a round in no more strokes than your age in years) is a fine achievement. Keith Plowman, a member of the Maungakiekie Golf Club in Mt Roskill, Auckland, was 89 years old in 2008. By then he had ‘shot his age’ a remarkable 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 against 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 now attracted interest from a much wider section of the New Zealand population, including more Māori, due in part to the example of young stars such as Michael Campbell and Phillip Tataurangi.

First New Zealand golf club

The world’s oldest golf course, known simply as the ‘Old Course at St Andrews’, is in the town of St Andrews in Scotland. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club was founded there 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 gathered on an open space in Caversham, South Dunedin, to play the first recorded game of golf in the colony. 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, was the first captain of both the Dunedin Golf Club (1871–80) and the Otago Golf Club (established 1892). New Zealand’s oldest surviving club is the Christchurch Golf Club (established 1891).

    • 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 Hutt, Christchurch, North Otago and Otago. This championship remained one of New Zealand golf’s leading annual events in the early 21st century.

New Zealand Golf Association

Other centres soon formed their own golf clubs, and in 1899 a 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, 4,000 of whom were women.

Bob Charles

The first New Zealand player to gain an international profile was Bob Charles, who won his first New Zealand Open competition in 1954, aged 18, and turned professional in 1960. Three years later he won the Open in Britain, one of the world’s leading golfing tournaments. One of the most successful left-handed golfers of all time, Charles competed at the top level 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. Charles was knighted in 1999 and retired from competitive golf 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, the most prominent figure in New Zealand golf in the first decades of the 20th century. Amateurs continued to dominate the New Zealand game until about 1926, after which 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 just 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 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

The number of women players almost equalled the number of men by 1930, and during the 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

During the 20th century New Zealand golf 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 at the weekend. Despite these restrictions, 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 (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, beating world number-one Tiger Woods by two strokes. Parliament put back its sitting time so members 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. Tāreha became the first president of the New Zealand Māori Golf Association, formed in 1932 to foster and promote the game among Māori. It remains active in the 2020s, organising national and regional tournaments in parallel with Golf New Zealand.

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 the age of 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.

Administrative 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, entitled ‘In search of success’. In this he made several predictions which would come to fruition. The most notable was that the New Zealand men’s amateur team would win amateur golfing’s most prized team trophy, the Eisenhower Trophy, within six years.

1992 Eisenhower Trophy

This goal was almost achieved prematurely when New Zealand, as Eisenhower Trophy tournament hosts in Christchurch in 1990, tied for second place. Two years later, at 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 shot the best individual total for the four rounds. He and teammates Grant Moorhead, Stephen Scahill and Michael Campbell won the 1992 Supreme Halberg Sports award, along with team of the year and sportsman of the year (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 the world wars) for more than 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 pin. Wenyung 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) were first staged in 1907, when A. D. S. Duncan, an amateur, won at Napier. The New Zealand Open for men and women and the Amateur Championships remain 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 interprovincial 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 time. In 1935, a New Zealand representative four led by A. D. S. Duncan played in the United Kingdom 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 in Lancashire (1963)
  • Marnie McGuire winning the British Amateur Championship (1986)
  • Craig Perks winning the Players Championship (the so-called ‘fifth major’) at Sawgrass, 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 de Janeiro Olympic Games, becoming New Zealand’s youngest-ever individual female Olympic medallist (2016)
  • Steven Alker being the top-ranked player on the PGA Champions Tour for over-50-year-olds (2022).

Hosting international events

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

In the 2010s, New Zealand hosted two international golf tournaments each year. One was the NZPGA (Professional Golf Association) Championship (known from 1920 to 1963 as the Professional Championship, and later by other titles). From 2002 this event was played in January at the Clearwater Resort in Christchurch. 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 Ngāti Whakaue of Rotorua gifted land to the Crown, and in 1912 part of this 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 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. The economic depression of the 1930s made cheap land and labour widely available and many new municipally owned golf courses were established. 

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 formed the nucleus of ‘golf-focused communities’ that also included a resort, conference facilities and residential developments. Examples include Millbrook Resort near 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

In 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 one of the cheapest countries in which 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 early 21st century

Steve Williams

Between 1999 and 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 played in the 2002 New Zealand Open as a thank you to his caddy. In 2006 Woods caddied 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 was identified as an ideal proving ground for ambitious young sportspeople, especially those from countries such as South Korea. They flocked to New Zealand golf clubs and schools, and through their work ethic became dominant locally, 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. 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 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 at 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 as 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 - Ko became the first New Zealander to have won two major championships. She then won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming New Zealand’s youngest-ever individual female medallist. Ko won a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Signs of progress

Outside the elite competitive side of the game, signs of progress included:

  • a 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 Bob Charles and Michael Campbell as the first inductees. Two years later the amateur legends Stuart Jones and Oliver Hollis were inducted.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Garry Ahern, 'Golf', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Garry Ahern, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013, updated 1 o Hepetema 2016