The devastating 2011 earthquake caused widespread damage in Christchurch. But as our writer discovered, a number of the city’s golf courses have used the disaster as a catalyst to improve their facilities.
Christchurch holds a special place in my golf memory – it was there that I came back to the game after briefly losing touch with it while at university. The university hiatus lasted a while – I was in danger of becoming a perpetual student between the ages of 18 and 26 as I swapped degrees, veered briefly into post-graduate territory and then added a journalism diploma to my PhysEd degree.
My first fulltime job was at The Press in Christchurch where our sports and racing team (huge in those golden days of pre-internet newspaper success) ventured out to a new course most weeks for various match-play events and eventually “majors”.
From the dinky public course at Rawhiti near New Brighton Beach to what I regarded as proper courses such as ‘Shirley’, to day-long ventures to Charteris Bay, Weedons or Waimakariri Gorge – we played all over wider Christchurch.
Returning a quarter-century later I needed Google Maps to help find routes I once knew like the back of my putter. I discovered, with a little imagination, that a Google map of Christchurch’s golf courses looks like a spoke-less wheel – at the hub is Hagley Golf Club, smack bang in the middle, and radiating out in all directions is the densest collection of courses in New Zealand.
The Canterbury region has almost 40 golf courses – that’s more than 10 per cent of New Zealand’s entire golf course population. And they range from simple nine-hole parkland-style recreational tracks, to demanding resort layouts and classic championship courses.
Wherever based in Christchurch you can be guaranteed a good selection of courses nearby. And, if you’re like me and hadn’t played in the Garden City for a while, there’s no escaping the impact of the deadly February 2011 earthquake on many of the city’s layouts.
But with any journey it pays to start at the beginning. That’s a segue to Hagley Golf Club – the most centrally located golf course in New Zealand, if not the world. Hagley is the ideal place to play if you’ve only got a day or two to spare on a business trip or family holiday. It’s walking distance from the CBD and you don’t need to worry about clubs, balls, tees or even booking a tee-time. For a generous $35 you can get all that on the club’s visitor special – just rock up and play.
Hagley has a certain charm, although it feels quite small with fairways jammed between pedestrian paths and cycleways. It has just 12 holes (you play 1-6 twice to complete 18), however off the white tees it’s a decent 5,814m with a 123 slope rating. And – like many a Christchurch course – there’s plenty of trees.
The Core Four
Putting on a purist’s hat, the first of the big four courses in the Garden City is Christchurch Golf Club (otherwise known as Shirley). I first set foot on Shirley’s prestigious fairways as a reporter at the 1990 Eisenhower Trophy amateur tournament where New Zealand finished a creditable equal second behind Sweden. The joint runner-up was a US team featuring Phil Mickelson and David Duval.
Shirley suffered extensive damage in the 2011 earthquake but one of the positives to come out of it was a new clubhouse replete with floor-to-ceiling glass where you can look out on the demanding course you’ve just conquered. Consistently rated in New Zealand’s top-20 layouts, Christchurch can best be described – oxymoronically – as a parkland course without too many trees! The mature trees help frame the layout but they don’t get in the way – instead the hazards come in the form of strategically placed bunkers with steep faces. It makes the course inviting rather than foreboding.
Harewood Golf Club is another course that changed dramatically after the earthquake – but for other reasons. When I first played there it was a sprawling 36-hole facility so close to the planes you felt like a wedge might hit an incoming jet. As the expanding airport needed more runway space it acquired land on the adjacent golf course. That allowed Harewood to turn two so-so courses into one clever track of 18 always-interesting holes. The redesigned Woodlands Course (Greg Turner and Scott MacPherson) is deeply tree-lined and features entertainingly tricky green complexes. Along with the redesign came a super-impressive 23-bay covered driving range. It’s now a premium destination.
Russley Golf Club is close enough to the airport that you could walk there after getting off your flight. Until a few years ago it was your typical club track – up and back with tight tree-lined fairways. But when Transit NZ pinched some land for an overpass Russley used the proceeds to redo the back nine and alter some other holes with Turner and MacPherson again called into action. The homeward stretch is now much more open and the greens have more going on, although they’re not as wild as Harewood’s. The redo also provided three vastly improved – now superb – par 3s, particularly the standout 17th.
Clearwater Golf Club didn’t exist when I lived in Christchurch. The area was known as the Groynes – a collection of recreational lakes and waterways. It’s a testament to its quality that Clearwater has hosted multiple versions of both the New Zealand men’s and women’s opens within a few years of opening.
I first visited the course to cover the New Zealand Open in 2012 and returned to watch Lydia Ko win an emotional New Zealand Women’s Open in 2016. A daunting layout, Clearwater makes the most of the trout-filled waterways and offers a unique feel of links-meets-parkland-meets-resort. While not long off the white tees (5,700m) with a slope rating of 130, there’s no doubting it’s a tough, championship-style test of patience and skill. And you can rent a place right on the course.
When I return to Christchurch, reminiscing always leads me to a couple of hidden gems. I once fell out of a kayak paddling through the steep-walled Waimakariri Gorge when trying to follow the Coast to Coast route. The Waimakariri Gorge Golf Club is a much safer place to be – seated above the mighty Waimakariri River with open views to the Southern Alps. The club counts Sir Bob Charles among its members and is playable year-round thanks to the free-draining stony soil. The best view is on the 12th, Sir Bob reckons. And he once told me he’d hardly ever broken par there – which shows you what a test it can be.
The cute little nine-holer at Charteris Bay Golf Club is nestled on Lyttelton Harbour and is a fun, wee course that’s worth the scenic drive. The opening holes aren’t recommended for those with breathing difficulties – we always used to joke about the first as being like Mount Everest. The greens at Charteris Bay are considerably better and fairer than they used to be, though reading putts is still a poser. The eighth/17th is a driveable par 4 of 265m for the big hitters. And remember to stop at the gorgeous Governor’s Bay Hotel on the way home.
Amberley Golf Club, while not rated a true links, is a wonderful little coastal course with very good greens. You can hear the sea roaring on several of the holes. At only $20 for a round, it’s well worth the jaunt north. And you can pick up some Brew Moon beer at North Canterbury’s only craft brewery.
Head to the Mountains
If you’re heading to the ski fields in winter, or just want a decent road trip, Hororata Golf Club should be on your map. With the Southern Alps in their snow-capped glory as a backdrop, this sweet country course has some delicately sloping greens, many of which are guarded by a meandering creek that rapidly spirits away balls. Set on the terraces of the Selwyn River, it’s about 40 minutes west of Christchurch.
Just another 20 minutes up the road, Terrace Downs is a spectacular setting, particularly in winter looking up at Mount Hutt. The course is reasonably wide, which is sensible given the strong prevailing winds, and it has some cracking driving holes. The postcard-pretty par-3 16th gets most of the attention but I prefer the split fairway 17th that offers either a risky shorter route or a sensible play down the right. Terrace Downs has a good restaurant, bar and accommodation, all with exceptional views, for weekend escapes from the city.
Not far from there, Methven Golf Club is another all about the views. It’s not the longest, nor the most challenging golf course you’ll play, but the greens are great, prices low, welcome warm and there’s enough variation between holes to keep you happy. If you’re skiing Mt Hutt and want a change of pace on a rest day, it’s perfect.
For some reason East Christchurch isn’t to everybody’s liking, but all the beaches along the coastline from Spencer Park to Sumner are excellent. I’ve always found it an under-rated part of the city, perhaps because I was always out at Aranui playing – or watching – basketball and had a dog that loved to run on the beach. And the golf courses out east are among my favourites.
Rawhiti Golf Club, while a council course, holds fond memories as that was probably where I played most of my Christchurch golf back in the 1990s. All around are some real hidden gems.
Waimairi Beach Golf Club was badly affected by the earthquake, however that’s turned out to be a boon for the seaside club. The once claustrophobic course has been opened up thanks to the loss of most of the pines and it’s been cleverly redesigned to make it more links-like. The club has sensibly kept most of the front nine and redone the back, which now has a number of wetlands to add interest. The course always had the best greens in the city, thanks to the sand base, and they’re just as quick as I remember. The earthquake also took its clubhouse, however the club has again won on the deal with a clever, low-key building now in the centre of the course. A lovely spot for a post-game beer. And a real bargain at $30 a round.
Bottle Lake Golf Club – formerly Windsor Golf Club – sits side-by-side with the upmarket Waitikiri Golf Club. They are so close you can jump over a fence from one to the other. Waitikiri is the tougher of the two but Windsor, short and sweet and rating just 111 off the white tees, is a quirky layout right from the tough opening hole – a longish par 3 with out of bounds on the left. Bottle Lake has a rather unusual configuration with only seven par 4s. There are six par 3s and five par 5s on this tight par-71 track that works its way around the unseen lake. It’s a fun course and easy on the wallet. With six chances each round, this is the place to try for that elusive hole-in-one.
North of the River
Post-quake, a lot of Christchurch residents headed north to Rangiora, transforming the once quiet rural town into a bustling dormitory suburb. If you’re staying on the north side of the Waimakariri River there’s a terrific collection of courses.
Rangiora Golf Club and Kaiapoi Golf Club are both worth a visit in their own right but the jewel in the crown northside is the relatively new Pegasus Golf & Sports Club. Built by Kura Design who also redid Waimairi, Pegasus circles around a series of small lakes. On first glance it looks similar to Clearwater but is more open and expansive, and therefore fun to play. It drains superbly so is a good winter option. Regularly rated in New Zealand’s top-20 layouts, it’s hosted the New Zealand Women’s Open three times.
While talking points north, if headed out of Christchurch towards Nelson, then try to stop at Hanmer Springs. The greens are perfect, the setting dramatic. It’s fairly short at just more than 5,000m as well as being 385m above sea level, which can flatter your game with the extra distance. In summer it can get hard and baked but it’s a great winter getaway and there’s plenty of hot pools to soak in afterwards.
A Beer Lover’s Paradise
Because I love my beer I’m always on the lookout for great bars and Christchurch is developing a range of excellent offerings. Pomeroys – very close to Christchurch Golf Club for a post-round meal – has the best craft beer selection in the city and is a must in my books. It also has excellent accommodation.
Volstead in Riccarton Road is probably the second best option for craft beer while OGB is another top spot – located in an old heritage building in Cathedral Square with plenty of decent beers and top-class food. Check out the relatively new Moon Under Water for some real cask ale while Smash Palace is a tribute to post-quake innovation – doing fantastic burgers and beer out of an old bus.
My old work place – the original Press building is gone – but the new establishment on Gloucester Street looks out on to New Regent Street where there’s a series of top bars and cafes. The Last Word and The Institution are two of my favourites.
And if you’re inclined to take a drive to Lincoln, I can’t recommend The Laboratory highly enough. It has the best offering of genuine cask ale in the city and is a friendly communal hub of a growing area.
However we’re talking golf here and so the dream stop is X-Golf, which is connected to the Avonhead Tavern. You can play a variety of Major championship courses on the simulator with up to six players at a time. And you can do it all while having a beer and food.
*-This travel feature appeared in the May 2018 edition of New Zealand Golf Digest