Established in 1903, Hamilton Golf Club moved around a couple of times during its first decade in existence before its members finally found the ideal site for their golf course. H T Gillies, a local lawyer, and Arthur Duncan, a national Amateur Champion from Wellington, laid out the fairways which were unveiled to an expectant membership in April of 1913.
Named St Andrews, the course at Hamilton Golf Club remains largely unaltered since Charles Redhead revised the course in the late 1920s. It's a fine example of a solid parkland layout that has stood the golfing test of time in a very peaceful setting that borders the Waikato River.
A feature hole on the front nine is the 495-yard 4th which doglegs from tee to green with the river awaiting shots that stray too far from the fairway. Unusually, the round ends with a 165-yard par three, one of only three short holes on the scorecard. Played uphill with out of bounds to the right and an enormous bunker in front of the green. It’s a more testing finish than many first time visitors realise.
The club hosted six national Amateur championships between 1920 and 1994 whilst the New Zealand Open has also been held over the course on five occasions. A look at the statistics for the Open champions at Hamilton reveals an improvement in total score every time the event took place here, starting with 304 for Joe Kirkwood Snr in 1920 and ending with 272 for Bill Dunk in 1975.
In 2019, the club embarked on a bunker redevelopment and tree thinning programme under the stewardship of Greg Turner. The project will be tackled in three stages over three years and is scheduled to complete in October 2021.
I’ve now done many similar reviews for parkland club courses that sit between 20 and 50 in our rankings, and have also visited a few that didn’t quite make the cut. Just to recap what I’ve said previously, it seems that if a parkland course is to have a chance of being ranked Top 50 in New Zealand, it generally needs to have something extra, to help it rise above the mire of tree-lined mediocrity that you’ll find with alarming regularity in this country.
From any Google Earth type inspection, you would be forgiven for thinking Hamilton (aka St Andrews, after the suburb it resides in) is just another one of those two-a-penny Kiwi courses. It’s crammed into a fairly tight piece of property, with the routing often simply tacking back and forth.
But to play it is a different proposition, and the main reason for that is the absolutely superb conditioning, which I assume is largely due to the head greenkeeper, Grant Saunders. Grant has some valuable experience not only as a greenkeeper but working as a shaper, including being part of the construction team at Castle Stuart, and also with Greg Turner and Scott Macpherson on some great Kiwi constructions and renovations.
When I say superb conditioning, I don’t mean emerald green fairways with intricate mowing patterns – that’s just superficial window dressing. I’m talking about proper firm and fast conditions, which totally drives the gameplay, preventing simplistic target golf and forcing you to use your intelligence and imagination on every shot, tee to green. The greens were also in fantastic condition, the perfect speed for the degree of undulation (fast but not crazy), and true as you like. I shan’t wax on any further about Saunders and his team’s work (thoughtful use of short grass as a hazard around the greens, thoughtful mowing lines etc) but this is a great example of how a knowledgeable and intelligent superintendent can transform the playing experience, far beyond just decent manicuring. I don’t know what he is being paid but I assume it is worth every cent, because more than anything else, his work makes this golf course fun.
But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so it needs to be said that Saunders is not entirely pulling a rabbit from a hat here. After all, fast and firm golf is most fun when you don’t just take dead aim at the hole every time, and the ground at St Andrews has just enough movement to work with, especially in and around the greens.
On the down side, yes the holes are a tad samey - I am normally able to remember every hole on a golf course with ease, but here I probably need Google Earth to remind me of a couple of them. Because of this, the course does not have an abundance of personality and charisma - more of an unassuming but solid friend who won’t let you down. I only raise this because there needs to be a reason why it’s not in the Top 20 in New Zealand, and this is undoubtedly why.
It is important to report that the club are currently coming to the end of the first stage of a three stage renovation, overseen by Greg Turner, and keeping much of the construction work in-house with Saunders. The work is focusing largely on taking the difficulty out of the game for the higher handicappers whilst maintaining the challenge for the better players, mainly by reconfiguring the bunkering to take the design away from the penal school and more towards strategy (seems thoughtfully done) – however, that includes removing / reshaping most (all?) of the extremely deep bunkers that characterised the original layout. There will also be some tree removal, although I have been informed that this will not be drastic. For someone like me, I guess I might have preferred some of the deep bunkers to remain, to provide some quirk and a clear point of difference to other club courses, but I also accept that I am probably in the minority here, and most higher handicappers will have been frustrated as hell by not being able to get out of those deep pits in one, so I get it. Much as I don’t love any move towards homogenization of golf courses, ultimately golf has to survive and clubs have to serve their members’ needs.
In terms of NZ rankings, and comparing to courses of a similar ilk, I’d place it below Christchurch and Cromwell, but above Hastings, so anywhere from 25-40 seems fair. But I would imagine once the renovations are complete, a jump upwards looks like it will be warranted.
Locally probably the best course around. It does nothing dramatic but also it never lets you down. Neat and tidy and very affordable.
The course is laid out on a reasonably rolling tract of land adjacent to the mighty Waikato River. Mildly undulating, it is quite a comfortable walk through a beaut parkland setting and players of all standards are well provided for as four sets of tees are available.
Par at St Andrews is 72, 37 out and 35 home, concluding with a great par three, a little out of the ordinary, but definitely not to its detriment. The layout comprises just three par 3’s and three par 5’s. The course is rated at 72.3 and slope of 124 measuring 6179 metres from the tips.
The round commences quite comfortably with the 350 metre 1st and builds steadily to the 450 metre, par 5, 4th. This hole carries the Waikato on the right and a watery grave awaits anything pushed or sliced as the lie of the land promotes everything toward the river.
The 7th and 8th, at 292 and 270 metres respectively, are a couple of short but very effective par 4’s where leaving the driver in the bag is highly recommended as placement of the tee shot is integral to a good score. They epitomise the age old adage; ‘A hole need not be overly long to adequately test a player’s proficiency’.
The 11th, Index one on the card is the great dogleg right, 420 metre, par 4 culminating with a huge, two-tiered green. Hit the wrong level at your peril as a lengthy, severely breaking putt awaits you.
The feisty closing hole is one of only a trio of par 3’s at St Andrews, the 150 metre, 18th is a great conclusion to the round. Rated 13 on the card, this is a real sleeper. The putting surface is huge and dependent on the prevailing wind and pin placement, I conservatively estimate that your choice of weapon may vary up to four or five clubs. Front left of the target is protected by a most intimidating bunker, extricating oneself from which will require a hot of some 2 ½ to 3 metres just to clear the lip and find the short stuff.
The course condition could only be described as excellent. Tee boxes a treat. Level and due to obvious regular relocations, decidedly less ‘battle-scared’ than most. Through the green the playing surfaces were great and anything less than a good lie the exception. The most significant factor in recording a good score at St Andrews will be conquering the greens. On the day of my visit I found them fast and true and a real test of your ability to read the subtle breaks encountered.
I completed a most enjoyable round here in the most convivial company of President, Simon Brandon and club stalwart, Ian Schultz in perfect conditions. Sunny and the wind but a zephyr. What a welcome change..... St Andrews – a most pleasant and testing parkland experience.