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.
Date: December 16, 2019