Established in 1905, St Clair Golf Club sits high on the cliffs on the southern edge of Dunedin, towering over the Pacific Ocean, and the stretch of St Clair and St Kilda beaches. Approximately speaking, ten of those original holes survive, although arguably the best stretch of holes on the current course (11 to 15) only came into being in the course’s third and remaining incarnation, in 1962. In the club’s history book, there is no mention of any individual taking credit for the design at any stage in its evolution, although it's documented elsewhere that Charles Redhead was involved in shaping the layout that's in play today.
The 1970s was St Clair Golf Club’s golden era, as it hosted the televised Otago Charity Classic for nine years from 1970. Many of the greats of golf played in the event – including Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Billy Casper and Johnny Miller, and a certain Severiano Ballesteros set the 72-hole record in 1977. The 1979 New Zealand Open was also held here, won by Stewart Ginn.
The course itself cuts a rolling path through some huge pine trees, many of them over 100 feet tall. Several of the holes come close to the Pacific, and although the ocean never comes into play, some of the views down the coastline (particularly from the 14th green and 15th tee) are breathtaking. St Clair is a little on the short side by modern standards, and the front nine can be a little defenseless on a calm day. However, the back nine is a different story – it features some cracking holes, is much stronger from an architectural standpoint, and cannot be bullied, particularly from the tips.
Throughout the course, the greens are a constant challenge – there is scarcely a flat putt to be found. Contours are heavily in evidence, with numerous opportunities for devilish pin placements. Without much in the way of deep rough, these surfaces are the course’s primary defence, and understanding them is the key to a low score.
Played a couple of rounds just in the last week in cooler summer temps 15-18degs (than I'm used to in Central Otago this time of year)
Very enjoyable course and my favourite in Dunedin to date so much elevation a real workout add in the NW-NE wind which I had on both days esp. the second which ended maxing me out on the 17th hole(par4) where a pretty good drive ended up dragged into the forest of monster Oldman pines never to be found again..and the second behind another huge pine with several meter overhanging branches that put me in big trouble yet again .... St Clair needs plenty of respect when winds up.(which from its cliff top location would be often)
Yes the 15th brilliant hole, views spectacular most locations you stop be it the Vast Pacific Ocean or overlooking Dunedin and beaches you really feel you have been perched on top of a viewing platform.
Does have many similarities to Queenstowns "Kelvin Heights" where I was a member for many years, the age,style of Oldman pines breaking up many of the holes, elevation fairways, many fairway angles to deal with(many Dog legs -no see pin locations) etc.. but where I did walk and enjoy playing 18 at KH's week in week out(over 100 rounds played), I just don't think I would with "St Clair" well not without using a cart, but even then I just didn't go away with a great passion to play again and again like I did with say KH, or Invercargill's Oreti sands I do put that feeling down to carrying my bag and seeming like at time to be constantly walking up a hill or coming down and really becoming energy deplented in the wind.
A stunning windless day using a cart would certainly have been a better feeling at rest at the19th.
It’s been over five years since I reviewed my home club, and it’s funny how my tastes have changed, the more I think about architecture and the more I consider the question of what separates a good golf course from an average one. I picked out 9 and 16 back then as favourites - ball strikers' holes, but little artistry needed. Now I favour 7, 8, 14 and 15 - half-par holes, and contour around the greens to make you think about where your target should actually be, rather than thoughtlessly aiming at the pin.
To the changes made to the course in the last 5 years – a bunker filled in left of the green on six, to accentuate the long tightly mown run off. A tick from me. The tree down the right of the short par 4 8th was lost, and three new bunkers have been added to make driving the green all the more of a ‘thread the needle’ affair. Personally, I think it’s a far better hole now. Reshaping of the green surrounds on the 15th, particularly making a more pronounced step up to the front of the putting surface – a small change making a big difference to how the hole plays – tick. It’s the 18th that has had the biggest redesign, with a completely new three tiered green – the old one had some great revetted bunkers, but the tilt of the green was probably too severe. I love the new hole when the pin is on the back tier, but it’s a little unchallenging when it’s anywhere else. Still, the hole is at least as good as its predecessor.
Nothing's changed about the scenery though - I still haven't got tired of standing on the 15th tee, the South Otago coastline stretching out before me. Whatever your tastes in golf courses, this is just a stirring place to be, full stop.
I’m sure most would agree that it’s a tale of two nines – the first nine is generally more open, especially to the influence of the relatively common north-easterly wind, and there are plenty of holes that will not require a full-tilt approach shot from the low-handicappers. The second nine carves its way through huge pine trees, the vertical shifts are more pronounced, and the challenges more focused. Like many NZ courses, fairways are pretty narrow, maybe 20-25 metres in most places, but there’s no real rough to speak of, just acres of fairly benign semi. This can be just enough to take the control off your ball when you’re trying to stop it sharply over a bunker, or find the right green tier, which can be crucial on these surfaces. It makes lost balls a rarity, which is great for the members’ wallets, and takes the tedium of regular ball searching out of a round – golf’s meant to be fun, right? As noted above, the green contours and pin placements provide the challenges, and avoiding the dreaded triple all day takes some concentration and feel – especially in the summer, when they can run pretty fast.
It’s hard to pick out some favourite holes here – the quality is pretty consistent. From a ball-striker’s perspective, perhaps it’s the sweeping arc of the par-5 9th, demanding the right shape off the tee, or the classical lines of the one-shotter at 16. Many of the intervening holes could be favoured by those more keen on simply playing golf in a beautiful place. I can’t pretend it’s world class, or some sort of golfing mecca, but it’s a superb members’ track, with some astounding views. I’ll be perfectly content for them to take my hard-earned wedge for many years to come … Matt Richardson