On the bank of Lake Wakatipu and in the shadow of Cecil Peak and the Remarkables, Queenstown Golf Club has undergone a quantum leap in its golf experience.
It’s been 22 years since inspecting Queenstown Golf Club for the first time. Back then it was known as Kelvin Heights as a point of distinction from the club’s sister course at Frankton.
With a breathtaking location on the Kelvin Heights peninsula, it could even be the best piece of real estate in New Zealand. However, on that last visit, the conditioning left a lot to be desired. And the tired ‘horrible brown’ clubhouse looked like an antiquated Austrian abbey from The Sound of Music. It seemed like a lost opportunity to create something really spectacular.
How times change.
A return visit this past summer offered a healthy dose of optimism. The club has got its act together, spending $750,000 on renovations to add a modern façade to the clubhouse and refurbish the golf shop.
Gone is the horrible brown of the Austrian abbey. The clubhouse exterior is a subtle ‘iron sand’ in colour and the façade incorporates New Zealand schist from a local stone quarry. An undercover walkway has been added to the front entrance. And the golf shop was extended from 40m2 to 120m2 and given a contemporary makeover.
The renovations have been a resounding success, leading one visitor to enquire: “Is this a private club or can anyone play here?”
The whole place was buzzing during the recent New Zealand Open when Millbrook and The Hills were out of action due to hosting duties. About 140 golfers teed off each day at Queenstown, netting the club an extra $15,000 to $20,000 in revenue for the week.
“It’s been a big change here at Queenstown,” concedes general manager John Stephens, a former greenkeeper at the club who sought a desk job after breaking his femur on Valentine’s Day.
The Queenstown Golf Club membership has driven the need for change. But it needed to adapt given the regional spotlight has been grasped by Jack’s Point, Millbrook, The Hills and the under-rated Arrowtown layout.
It’s worth noting a story behind the refurbishment. Because of its location on crown land, the club couldn’t borrow money from a bank. Instead, it raised $550,000 from member unsecured debentures. Such is the pride in their club that some members took on loans of up to $25,000.
Queenstown’s improvements weren’t limited to the clubhouse. The course conditioning has improved markedly following the arrival of veteran superintendent Ian Douglas who previously oversaw Millbrook Resort and The Hills. Regarded as one of the most respected turf gurus in the country, Douglas is credited with preparing better playing surfaces with a staff of just five greenkeepers.
Today, the greens are firmer and faster. The aprons and surrounds have much better definition. New tees have been added and existing tee boxes flattened. The club has also removed 82 Oregon pines, which affected sightlines, playability and turf maintenance. (Incidentally, due to the climate the Oregon pines grow about one metre per year – faster than those planted in North America.)
If there is a criticism, it’s the unevenness and discolouration in some parts of the fairways. That’s rather unfair given the solid rock foundation underneath. Nevertheless, the ‘brown top’ fairways are a beautiful surface to play off.
Kelvin Heights is the most playable of the big five courses in the Queenstown/Arrowtown region. Rough is maintained at 35mm and there’s no long fescue grass to swallow up golf balls. Unlike some of its competitors, Queenstown Golf Club was closed for just half a day in 2017. (Apparently, the snow melts more quickly at Kelvin Heights because the water temperature of Lake Wakatipu is constantly between 7-9°C.)
Just 22 bunkers occupy the 6,103-metre layout. The parkland-style course features some dramatic elevation changes that make for exciting golf. In particular, three tee shots stand out:
The fifth is a par 4 of 362m that doglegs left around water. A ‘Goddess of the Lake’ sculpture by Mark Hill sits beside the tee, a constant chaperone for golfers as they contemplate how much water to bite off; the downhill 10th is a delightful pitch of just 109m with Cecil Peak as a majestic backdrop; while the drive on the par-5 11th plays through a chute of Oregon pines from a tee embellished by a resplendence of rhododendrons.
On the bank of Lake Wakatipu and in the shadow of Cecil Peak and the Remarkables, Queenstown Golf Club has undergone a quantum leap in its golf experience. As Stephens says, “It’s just such a raw beautiful place.”
Queenstown Golf Club
759 Peninsula Road, Kelvin Heights, Queenstown, Otago
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of New Zealand Golf Digest.