Another jewel in Wellington's golfing crown

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 19/11/2013
Royal Wellington
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
ON COURSE: Royal Wellington Golf Club's club captain Robert Bryden, left, and Peter Cutfield who chaired the development committee for a $6.5 million redevelopment.

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Royal Wellington has long held a lofty position in they city's golfing landscape, but the grand old lady is now among the best and toughest in the country. Fairfax Media reports on a project steeped in both the wealth and deep affection of the club's members.

It's not often a grown man tells you his handicap has blown out a couple of shots and does it with a broad grin on his face.

But Peter Cutfield is smiling a lot these days regardless of his scorecard.

It's Wednesday afternoon and you can't get a park in the Royal Wellington Golf Club's carpark.

The grand old lady has had a $6.5 million makeover and she's not short of attention as the first rays of summer shine on the pride of Heretaunga.

"Royal Wellington has always been lucky enough to be one of the senior clubs in New Zealand due to its history and position," Cutfield offers from the upstairs room of a clubhouse that conjures images of men in smoking jackets and old money. "Sadly, the course was becoming the old lady that time was passing by."

Cutfield chaired the development committee for a project that cost $6.5 million and has been 12 years in the making.

The dollar-figure reflects the wealth of those who play Heretaunga most regularly - the cars in the lot are Audi rather than Escort.

But the story of Royal Wellington's facelift isn't reflected in the polish of a pricey car as much as the nature of its funding.

It started with one family buying into the vision, their "significant" donation encouraging three others to respond in kind.

The snowball effect surprised everyone involved.

"Those four families provided nearly half the equity portion, but from there 200 other families matched that again," Cutfield said. "We raised nearly $4 million from members. The balance has come from other asset sales from the ballot sheet and fundraisers.

"Other clubs around the world are amazed this could happen. Every donation was given voluntarily with no quid pro-quo, no debentures and every gift was anonymous.

"There are no plaques with names of who gave and didn't give - it was done out of a deep affection for our old club."

And it is old, founded in 1895 in Miramar before being relocated to the Hutt Valley in 1906. The sprawling property that skirts the Hutt River is a gem in the city's golfing and environmental crowns.

Over more than 100 years members built the course and planted the trees, working bees still at the heart of the most recent development.

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The club won an Encore landowners conservation award last year and is home to some of the oldest trees in the country - majestic redwoods, cottonwood poplars and oak trees. The trees themselves are a source of pride among members.

Thanks to its wealthy members it is now the second truly international class course in Wellington alongside Paraparaumu Beach.

Which leads to the inevitable question about whether the New Zealand Open could return for an eighth visit, but first since 1995?

Course designer and former PGA professional Greg Turner believes the venue could credibly host just about any tournament in the world.

"They would like to think it's now the best club course in the country. It's a tough question, but it would certainly be among those, if not one of the best," he said. "Put it this way, it's capable of hosting anything it wants to host."

However, Cutfield said the Open was never part of the plan. Not only is it too expensive, but it's locked in at The Hills in Queenstown.

That's a shame for those who feel the Open should be shared around, but Royal Wellington hopes leading amateur events will now gravitate to its fairways.

In terms of testing and punishing club hacks it's up there and Turner reckons the black tees are as tough as any.

Which brings us back to Cutfield's cards. His handicap has ballooned out from a 10 to a 12 on a course that's long, especially in a northerly, and not a lot of fun on the greens.

"I asked Greg Turner if they presented him with a level when he'd finished because he didn't know what flat was," Wellington Golf's general manager Peter Brinsdon said.

Brinsdon's represented Wellington in recent years and was a pro for a decade from 1998 before turning to administration.

He's a Shandon Golf Club man, but doesn't hesitate to rate Royal Wellington in a different bracket to most others.

"It's good to have a course like that, that's like no other course around. It's unique to the North Island," he said. "It's not just a matter of hitting a green, it's a matter of putting it in the right part of it for a makeable putt.

"You need to play it off a tee appropriate to your handicap. It's not a case of hopping on the back blocks and having a go on a 20 handicap because you'd really struggle.

"I know guys on single-figure handicaps who have only just broken 100 on it, so it's very challenging off the back tees and that's not something we have a lot of in New Zealand."

It's comments like those that are sure to see curious club golfers from around the city treat themselves to a taste of golfing royalty.

And it is a treat. Green fees are $110 without a member, a tad more than the $35 to $40 you might pay at Wainuiomata or Karori.

Brinsdon believes Royal Wellington will be a major drawcard for tourists and said its green fees were no higher than Australia's top resort courses.

Heretaunga's club captain Robert "Joe" Bryden says casuals are welcome, but it's clear there's no desire for hoards of hackers lining up down Golf Road for their once-a-year hit.

It's not a case of rock up and have a whack for a club with about 1700 members, about 940 being regulars, and a waiting list to join.

"The reality is when do they come? We have our own members over the weekend so it's basically full. Midweek there are spaces, but not a huge number," Bryden said. "Obviously if they wish to come we don't push them away, but over the weekends we expect most of our locals to play, so there are limited spaces."

In truth overseas players and corporates are a better prospect for revenue. Cashed up travellers are happy to pay the $195 green fees for non-New Zealanders, while there is room now for corporate bookings.

The redevelopment has left the club with 27 quality holes with the old back nine intact as a standalone course for the younger, older and busier to try their luck.

Whatever the case, plenty of Wellington golfers will be curious about a course that looks very much like a PGA venue.

The scale of the Turner-Macpherson Golf Design project hits as you turn off the green on the par-3 third hole of a course that now stretches 6601 metres from the clubhouse.

It's long, in part to keep up with technology and "future proof" the course for the next 50 years.

And in part because Turner cleverly wanted to cater for members and elite players alike.

"The only way to increase the difficulty on the course was to narrow the fairways and that's a pretty harsh penalty for the average player," he said. "What we looked to do was make the journey a bit more interesting and then add some strategy."

And so the tees were stretched back, a long way back, and waterways that used to be redundant brought into play.

"It's not only length that can make it more difficult off the championship tees. If you offset them then you can narrow the target area from the back tee without having to narrow the fairway."

But perhaps the true worth of this development isn't about the golf.

Turner reckons a walk up the Hutt River is worth whittling away a few hours and whether you turn north or south the view is spectacular.

"The main goal was really to utilise the main assets of the property to create variety while enjoying the property," he said. "We managed to open up a lot of back drops that were always there, but if the golf didn't point you in that direction you didn't notice it.

"It's such an iconic location that travelling around it and enjoying the flora and streams and trees a bit more with a greater variety of golf was the real desire."

People will say what they may about Royal Wellington's new course, but it is most certainly not a good walk spoiled.

- Fairfax Media

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