The city of Dunedin, in the deep south of the South Island of New Zealand, has always had strong Scottish roots (the city itself is named after the Gaelic word for Edinburgh). It should therefore come as little surprise that it was here that the game of golf first became an organized and established entity. In 1871, the Otago Golf Club was first set up, and is hailed today as New Zealand’s oldest, as well as being one of the oldest golf clubs in the Southern Hemisphere. Back then, members played over a course firstly in Caversham, then on a nine-holer in Mornington, about a mile and a half south of the present-day course, using a local hotel as the clubhouse. When that hotel was sold in 1876, the club found itself in limbo, and it was nearly 20 years before the club found itself a new home.
The club took up residence at its current location before the turn of the 20th century. The Balmacewen course was constructed on the edge of Dunedin, half way up the hill from the harbour. In 1893, the first New Zealand Amateur Championship was staged, and Otago has hosted this tournament on ten further occasions. The course also went on to host the New Zealand Open seven times, the first in 1908, and the last being in 1971 (won by the great Peter Thomson). Many other golfing legends have graced the club’s fairways over the years, including Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Nowadays, the course has become somewhat overtaken by technology, and struggles to stay in the higher echelons of New Zealand golf. Now surrounded by suburban housing, there is little room to expand or lengthen its 5,917m (6,471yards). However, it remains a challenging course, as the relatively high slope rating attests. The fairways are narrow, and there are some dramatic undulations, presenting the golfer with some difficult stances to play from, and the putting surfaces are generally superb. The most renowned hole is the 11th, known as The Glen, sitting in a little valley of its own. The tee peers down from a great height onto a fairway claustrophobically hemmed in by a brook and native bush, with a pulley system akin to a ski lift on hand to winch golfers out of the ravine.
Visitors to Dunedin will find three courses, all of comparable quality, but cut from utterly different cloth. Some may prefer the raw seaside links of Chisholm Park, others will favour the fantastic views (and cracking back nine) on the clifftops at St Clair, but lovers of tricky, undulating, and traditional parkland courses will surely be happiest at Otago.
Really enjoyed most of the elements of Otago GC and the Balmacewen course when I played in late May. It helped that it was a warmer than average autumn day (Dunedin is chilly at the best of times!), with the course bathed in sunshine and virtually no breeze, so really glorious golfing conditions for a parkland course.
The most striking element early is the towering trees bordering many of the holes, a pretty solid indicator that this course has plenty of history on its site (Otago is one of the oldest clubs in the southern hemisphere I believe). And it is an interesting site, set in the hinterland hills behind the centre of Dunedin city, meaning regular elevation changes and these are a feature of the course: many shots are up or downhill. Dogleg shaping also features regularly and it meant the course routing seemed to flow nicely. There was definitely no feeling of repetitiveness or marching back and forth on parallel holes. Conditioning was excellent and when combined with the solid design and pretty aesthetics, creates a strong overall impression.
The minor elements I didn't like relate to the club rather than the course: the round was overly expensive compared to NZ norms and on two occasions, groups pushed in ahead of the group in front of me making the round slow, especially the back nine.
Yes I expected more, played in spring and with the greens just being cored. Ended up really struggling with the cold grey weather and average condition ...first time I've ever used a petrol cart >>not planning on heading back next time I'm around Dunedin looking for a round
The par 3’s are decent enough, and the par 5’s intriguing (if not a little similar), but it is the par 4’s that grab the attention, for both good and bad reasons. The strongest moments here are very strong, some of the better holes you’ll find on any Kiwi club layout. The 11th seems to get the plaudits – it’s a great hole with an exhilarating tee-shot, but for me it is wasted as a risk-reward hole as it is too much of a gamble to pull driver, especially when the fairway wood / pitching wedge alternative affords so much leeway. I actually feel that the 6th and 14th stand up well by comparison. Both are dogleg par 4’s, and both require either a pinpoint or well-shaped tee-shot, or you can forget about attacking the pin. I’m also a fan of the 15th, a substantial one-shotter from the tips. There’s some beautiful green complexes scattered here and there (although some others need work), and some great shaping on the bunkers, somewhat reminiscent of the traps of the Melbourne sand-belt perhaps.
But there is a fatal flaw – far too many short par 4’s. There are five below 325yds / 295m, and two of them are steeply downhill. I’m a slightly-longer-than-average 8 handicapper, and I could at a stretch drive 3 or 4 of these greens, even off the back tees (although I’d never back myself to do it all in the same round). More to the point, two of these four shorties are the 16th and the 17th, and that makes for a weak closing stretch. I’m not really critical of these holes – they are decent enough in their own right. There’s just too many of them. The one I can’t abide is the 2nd hole. 295m of bland climbing, it’s an absolute dog of a hole, and is in serious need of a bulldozer.
It was interesting to spot on the club’s website that they had commissioned Greg Turner and Scott McPherson to produce a masterplan to help guide future renovations. Turner and McPherson’s document very much highlights the surplus of short par 4’s, but it seems that they were left scratching their head about how to manufacture the extensive changes that would be needed to return this course to the top flight. There just simply is not enough room to swing the proverbial feline. Having said that, I really liked their ideas for 16 and 17 – if completed, I think that both holes would be extended enough to put them out of reach for all us mere mortals, and the finishing stretch would no longer be the anticlimax it currently is. It would make a huge difference – I’m always finishing my round here feeling somewhat frustrated – so close to being one of THE iconic Kiwi tracks, yet so far away at the same time. Matt Richardson