Nelson Golf Club and the links course

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A links course for the top of the South

The Nelson Golf Club (NGC) is one of the finest provincial golf courses in New Zealand. It has been in existence for 116 years and its facilities have been enjoyed by members, and visitors, from all over the world.   Despite the success of its well established parkland layout, the NGC is completing a course redevelopment to revert to a links style course. This has been a controversial conversion and the reasons for undertaking it are discussed below.

First though, what is a ‘links' golf course? Such courses were originally built on waste land which ‘linked' (the origin of the word ‘links') the seaside and the farming areas located a little inland.   Nowadays a links course is one that must meet a range of criteria:

Views towards Kahurangi Ranges before and after tree removal.  Note how course has opened up (lower photo). Images supplied by author
Click image to enlarge
  • It is built on land immediately adjacent to the sea
  • Its soil is sandy and free draining
  • the natural landscape is retained as far as possible
  • there are few if any trees
  • there are generally a large number of bunkers

NGC's seaside location, sandy soils and undulating layout means that it meets the most important of the above conditions. By developing a links layout NGC will be associating itself with golf courses whose names are revered within the worldwide golfing community. St. Andrews and Carnoustie in Scotland, Pebble Beach in the USA,  the NSW Golf Club, Australia, and Paraparaumu Beach here in New Zealand are all iconic links courses.

NGC's 1997 Centenary Book noted that ‘in the early days of the course, except for two substantial blocks of manuka and some gorse, there were very few if any trees.  The course would more correctly be called a seaside links'. However NGC developed some of the characteristics of a parkland course from the late 1950's, when a number of pines and other species were planted as nursery trees and then allowed to grow to maturity. Trees are a feature of parkland courses, along with manicured fairways, water features and shallow bunkers.  The Augusta course (venue for The Masters Tournament) in Georgia USA is probably the best known example.

So what prompted the NGC to change the course back to its original layout? The presence and condition of the aforementioned trees constituted the primary reason.   They required constant (and expensive) pruning and maintenance to comply with Nelson Airport's height restrictions. They drew off large amounts of water from their surrounds and many were rotten and dangerous. The benefits of removal were confirmed when a number of trees situated on three holes were cut down. The playability of those holes improved greatly as a result. 

Sir Bob Charles, New Zealand's most famous golfer, had also been very critical of the condition of the trees and their detrimental effect on the course.   He encouraged the club to recapture its links heritage.

The Club established a Strategic Planning Sub Committee in late 2007 to address the above issues. They also commissioned course architect Jeff Asche (Perspective Design) to develop a Master Plan for the course.  His design made provision for the removal of most of the old trees. However, an act of God in mid 2008 spurred the removal process.  A storm blew over a number of weaker trees, thus underlining the need to take action.

Work commenced in late 2008.  A five year plan was established covering each of the 18 holes on the course. The most important element involved the removal of the remainder of the trees, except for those of particular merit. The plan also provided for an increase in the number of bunkers, the regrassing of substandard fairways, and mounding to cover old tree stumps. Many teeing grounds were targeted for renovation, and fairways and rough for realignment and redefinition to add interest and challenge.

Nelson Golf Club, championship tee.
Click image to enlarge

The Head Green keeper was given responsibility for execution of the plan. He and his team faced a number of challenges in bringing it to fruition.  In particular, he was required to keep the course in play while changes were made.  He did so through on-going communication with members and with the assistance of a great team of volunteers.  He also had to quickly get rid of a huge pile of mulch after the trees were cut down.  Burning proved not to be feasible, so at the eleventh hour a large stump grinder was fortuitously located and put to use.  It was a bonus for the club that firewood sales covered the cost of the removal of the trees!  Thousands of pine cones were also collected and sold.  After an intensive five year effort, by the green keeping team, work on the course is now largely complete. 

It is fair to say that member reaction to the changes was mixed.  To be a challenging test a links course must have deep bunkers and long heavy rough. Fairways must be narrow, so that a premium is placed on accurate shot making and good course management. Older members, and those on high handicaps, contend that in this state the course is too difficult and unfair.  Wayward golf shots are harshly punished by loss of balls and deep bunkers are difficult to negotiate. Links courses are exposed to the elements (wind in particular) and such days pose real problems for older golfers. So NGC's green keeper is frequently encouraged to ‘cut back the rough' and ‘fill in the bunkers'. He has to walk a fine line between maintaining a course that attracts and challenges good golfers, yet satisfying the needs of members who are not so favoured.'   

NGC's Vision is for ‘the club to be considered the finest golf course and club in the top half of the South Island,  one of the finest provincial golf clubs and courses and be recognised as a leading example of a links golf course in New Zealand'.  This vision has in a large part been achieved and the course, with its panoramic outlook across Tasman Bay, will undoubtedly attract golfers from far and wide. As a testimony to its status as a course, NGC will be hosting the New Zealand Men's Amateur Championships in April 2014.  Other major events will surely follow.

This article was submitted as part of a Nelson Marlborough Insititute of Technology Creative Writing assignment, 2013

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Further sources - Nelson Golf Club and the links course

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Other

  • Interview with Brendan O'Hara NGC Head Green keeper, 15 April 2013
  • Nelson Golf Club Minutes of Strategic Planning Sub Committee, 2008 - 2012

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