New visitors to New Zealand might imagine that there is a wealth of links courses in the country, given the rugged terrain and abundant coastline. It may therefore come as a surprise that there is really only a handful of true traditional links worthy of the description.
One of that handful can rather fittingly be found in the most Scottish of New Zealand cities, Dunedin. Chisholm Links was developed on reserve land in the 1930s, originally under the name Ocean Beach Links. The club then changed its name to Chisholm Park and in 2016 it was re-branded "Chisholm Links".
Fourteen of the holes sit amongst the dunes behind St. Kilda Beach, with the stretch from 8 to 11 climbing up to a magnificent headland wedged between two beaches. It is this stretch that visitors will remember most keenly, and in particular the 9th. Measuring 386 yards (353m) from the white tees, the tee clings to the edge of a huge precipice over the picturesque Tomahawk Beach, with the hole running along the cliff edge all the way down. The drive needs to be threaded between two dunes, to leave a short iron in to a beautifully framed green that barely clings on to the edge, high above the Pacific.
Other strong holes include the 13th, a short doglegged par 4 that is probably more reminiscent of a British or Irish links than any other, and the 17th, lengthened to 443 yards (405m) in 2009 by setting a new plateau green 60 metres further back.As well as hosting two Australasian PGA Development Tour tournaments, Chisholm Links Golf Club hosted the New Zealand Amateur Championship in 2003 (won by James Nitties), and an Australasian PGA Tour event (the Dunedin Scenic Circle Hotels Classic) in 2004, won by local pro Mahal Pearce.
I’m not one of those people that believes there are any objective truths when it comes to the appreciation of golf courses, so there are no rights or wrongs really. Nevertheless, reading my initial review of the golf course formerly known as Chisholm Park, it feels like I was at least a little bit wrong. Of course, the reality is that I have just developed my tastes in architecture, but certainly my mind has been changed.
I previously listed what I thought were fairly ordinary holes – some of which I still believe are nothing special (5, 14 and 16), but I don’t know why I was missing what I was missing with others. Probably the 3rd is the prime example – it is actually a terrific short par 4, where the risk/reward element is not immediately apparent until you try and get down in 3 shots from a sliced drive. The narrow green, benched into a hillock and wickedly angled, means that the hole has maybe three distinct routes to choose from, and the abundant ice plant to the left of the putting surface can be a real card wrecker. What looks a wide open hole from the tee is actually a real tightrope walk.
I had also overlooked how the green contours of the short 4th absolutely bring the hole out of mediocrity – they certainly need to be thought about when on the tee - and the 12th, a challenging long par 4 with another beautifully benched green site. Since my initial visit, the club / greenkeeping staff have also changed the mowing lines for the long par 5 15th – a simple tweak that has really transformed the hole for the better.
All in all, whilst this clearly isn’t the greatest links course in the world, or even New Zealand, it is a round with great variety, firm conditions, just the right amount of quirk, and some stunning scenery at the far end of the course. I’m seriously thinking that it might be the smart choice for somewhere to join in Dunedin, and I think I might put my money where my mouth is in that regard.
Any review of Chisholm Links as it has been renamed should start from the design perspective. Like many links course the wind determines the difficulty of any hole and at Chisholm the prevailing north easter makes the starting 5 holes very difficult. In a southerly holes 11 through 15 become tigers and the last despite being shorter can in fact be more difficult. However difficulty is only a small part of a good and great golf course. The finest courses feature very attractive and varied green shapes and either bunkers or humps and hollows to provide significance. Chisholm Links has 18 completely different and thus memorable green sites. Condition It is fair to say that in certain times of the year the condition of the links does not match the quality of design. However there are two very good reasons for this. There are only two greenkeepers and never more than three. The second reason is that the city council the owners will not provide sufficient water to keep the fairway grass alive in the dry summers. The two greens superintendents in the last 40 years have done a phenomonal job in maintaining, upgrading and improving the links given the staffing. The latest has just completed revetting all the bunkers. The greens are always in tournament condition. When golf professionals are asked where in Dunedin they wish to play a professional event, over 90% suggest Chisholm Links. With a successful New Zealand amateur held there, now amateurs are also appreciating the beauty, subtlety and difficulty of defeating this classic links course. In order like all courses to be kept relevant, new land and continuous redesign needs to be understood and undertaken, but for most players the back tees at Chisholm Links represents a beautiful, exciting and always different challenge to their skills Five stars.
Straight off the bat, I should say that I’ve long been baffled about the unconditional love people in most countries seem to have for links golf. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore some links courses (Royal St. George’s being a particular favourite), but it seems that it’s almost blasphemous to say that a links is not that great, especially a well-known Scottish or Irish one. So imagine my surprise to read an article by Andrew Whiley (Chisholm’s pro) in The Cut (NZ’s premier golf magazine) which started with the sentence ‘Links courses cop more than their fair share of criticism’. Imagine seeing that in a British golf magazine – it would be sacrilegious! I had not realised the extent to which golf amongst the dunes is viewed differently over here. My take on it is pretty straightforward - that there are good links, and not so good links – just like there are good parkland courses, and not so good ones.
Chisholm Park is reported to have received praise from people such as Greg Turner and Scott MacPherson – men who make a living building golf courses. And whilst Chisholm Park undoubtedly has a certain charm, as well as two or three terrific golf holes, I just cannot bring myself to feel that excited by a round here. The main reason is the sheer number of mediocre holes. 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, 14, 15, 16, and 18 would make an extremely ordinary outward stretch. Join together 1, 6-10, 12, 13, and 17, and you’ve got a highly charismatic inward 9. I would love to get more flowery with my language here, but that’s about it, in a nutshell.
I think the main appeal here is the fact that you have both the rippled dunesland at sea level, but then you also manage to climb through 7 and 8 up to a beautiful headland, where you stay until you boom one off the elevated 11th tee – there are minor shades of the ‘links in the sky’ at Pennard. And the highlight has got to be the 9th – not only is it easily the most scenic golf hole in Dunedin, it also takes the prize for most exhilarating, thanks to the precipitous green site. As it’s also pretty strong from a design perspective, I’d pick it as the area’s best golf hole. I also think that the club made an astute decision remodelling the 17th. If you haven’t visited Chisholm over the last 2 years, you’ll probably remember the final stretch as a disappointing anti-climax – 3 short par 4’s, with very little to recommend them. Well, the new 17th is now vastly improved, not just as a golf hole (that can now be quite a brute into the wind), but because it shifts the whole tone of the round’s conclusion. Before, there was very little left in terms of quality and difficulty after the 13th was played. Now, you’ve got something to look forward to (and be worried about if you’ve got a good score going).
A word on the conditioning – I’d have to sum it up as ‘highly variable’. Sometimes highly commendable (remember, this is a municipal course), but other times just downright scrubby. When I moved to Dunedin in 2008, I was originally going to join up here after playing it on a visit in 2006. During my final round to scope it out, I found it to be rather hacked-up, and I was dissuaded. To be fair, the condition was massively improved when I last played earlier this year, and that was in winter too.
I’m sorry to say that I can’t quite bring myself to award a 4-ball rating. I gave a 4-ball to Dunedin’s other top courses, Otago and St. Clair, and maybe I shouldn’t have – I certainly don’t think Chisholm is much behind those two at all, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Like Otago, this is a course that leaves you feeling that it’s almost a classic Kiwi track, but so far away at the same time. I can’t agree with other people’s claims that it’s the second best links in New Zealand – it’s the 4th highest on our current Top 30, and even that seems a tad kind. I’d even marginally favour an unranked links, Nelson, over Chisholm. What overseas visitors need to bear in mind is that whether Chisholm is the 2nd or 6th best links in New Zealand is fairly irrelevant – just don’t go expecting the same standard you get in Britain or Ireland, because you won’t get it. To pick a UK links I’ve played of similar quality, I’d have to plump for Seascale, but then and again, where can you play a decent course in the UK for less than £20?
If you’re in Dunedin with your clubs, and you love links golf, you’d be silly not to. There’ll be many people who think it trumps Otago and St. Clair as Dunedin’s best – I’m just not one of them. Matt Richardson
You appeared to insinuate that I don’t understand links golf, and that I should ‘make the most of something different’. I lived and played in St Andrews for four years, and have taken in many of Britain’s top links courses, so I’m not totally naïve. Read my first paragraph again – I adore some links courses. My point is that I don’t get the mindset that just because a links is a links, it’s automatically a superior golf course. I just don’t feel that Chisholm is anything special overall. I’ve played our 5 top ranked links, and I’d plump for Paraparam, Oreti, Muriwai, then either Nelson or Chisholm, probably Nelson. I’m not trying to offend anyone, it’s just my subjective viewpoint.
If you think I’m strongly biased against Chisholm Park, read my review of Paraparaumu Beach – at least I’m consistent. And if you’re still worried about biases, I declared them clearly in my St Clair review.
By the way, you keep mentioning ‘the’ NZ rankings. Strictly speaking, that should read ‘a’ NZ ranking. I am not aware of those rankings having any official status – why would New Zealand Golf ever do such a thing anyway, i.e. show preference to any of their member clubs? Ironically, those rankings are compiled by Chisholm Park’s professional, Andrew Whiley. He uses a reasonably good methodology, but unless he gets people to respond anonymously via post (not email), he runs the risk of unintentional bias towards Chisholm – his respondents might not want to rank Chisholm too low, out of politeness, as they know Mr Whiley will read what they rank, and they may want to avoid any awkward feelings. I have no idea exactly how Mr Whiley does it, but I hope he has taken this into account.