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Ringa Ringa in rosy good health 25 years on

Last updated 05:00 13/02/2013

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The cynics said it would last only two years but a quarter of a century later, Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Club is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary and members couldn't be happier.

The original designs for Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Course are drawn carefully on two faded, worn and aged pieces of paper that, when lined up side by side, reveal one of New Zealand's - perhaps the world's - most unique courses.

With sweeping views over Stewart Island's Ringa Ringa Bay and Paterson Inlet, the half dozen holes that make up the world's southern-most six-hole golf course - three par-threes and three par-fours - are only part of what draws members and visitors back year after year.

The club has a membership of "about 40" but attracts more than 500 visitors every year and that, says course mastermind and designer Lorna Hitchcock, is exactly why it was started.

"I'm a mad golfer and a friend of mine, Ian Sinclair, lived on Stewart Island," she said.

"We just thought there were a lot of people coming over and we really wanted to give them something else to do, so we had a look at a few different places for somewhere to start and ran into Roger Hicks.

"He had a paddock - it was filled with sheep - and I thought that will be fine, I can make a golf course there.

"Bill Thornbury, who had a crib on Stewart Island, helped us out a lot, flattening the greens with his tractor, and Roger and his wife Brenda, along with Ian and Sue Munro, were also tremendous help."

And so Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Club was born.

"They reckoned it wouldn't last two years," Hitchcock says.

"I should have taken a bet on it because it's been 25 and it's still going. It's amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it."

A competition was run in The Southland Times to name the course and, in January 1988, Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Course - named by competition winners Kerri and Charlie Grindell - was officially opened, with the likes of Southland professional golfer Bruce Soulsby in attendance.

Over time the course had has its fair share of changes.

In the late 1990s the six holes were renumbered. The original clubhouse - a caravan - was upgraded to a tractor shed in 2001, minus the tractor, and then, in 2007-2008 an actual clubhouse was built.

A colourful course description, written by Hitchcock in the course's early years, paints a comical picture of the club and its beginnings:

"Of the two shelter sheds (there is) only one left - the other got caught in a wind and ended up at the back of the caravan and nearly knocked out the toilet (long drop).

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"Most of the mowers (the sheep) have gone now to the family roasts! A rotor cut is now used to define fairways etc, tractor driven.

"Great views from all holes; my friends from England were ecstatic about, but called going from No 5 to No 6 Coronary Corner - a very steep little pinch!"

It is that humour, those stories and the amusing, intriguing and so very typically Southland history that has seen the club through 25 years.

Club president Ian Munro, who has lived on Stewart Island "longer than the golf course" and been club president for the past 15 years, primarily because he "can't get out of the job", says the club's colourful history is certain to be matched by a bright future.

"It has really gone ahead in leaps and bounds," he says.

"It was incredibly rough when it was first set up but, over the years, so much work has gone into it. We've purchased a lot of gear to sort it all out, done a lot of work with the drainage and levelled it all up.

"There are some quite good holes on it - they're all fairly short but they are fairly good ones and a couple, probably one and three, are particularly challenging.

"It's the sort of course that, if you get in the rough, you've lost your ball but then it's also the sort of course that even if you've never played golf you can still get out there and have a great time."

The views and the challenge of the course are the drawcards. If played three times to make up 18 holes, it is 1110m in length and has a par of 63.

"It is a real asset. The views are amazing, it's pretty special sort of scenery. A lot of visitors will come over, hire clubs and go out and have a great time - many of them would never have played before," he says.

"We have been very lucky in that some cunning land dealing has really secured the future of the club forever. It's an incredibly valuable bit of land now. It was originally 20 acres but the sale of four or five acres really set us up financially and now we are able to offer particularly low green fees for visitors ($5) and subs for members.

"We get a good few groups come over to make it their Christmas outing and things like that too."

Hugely supportive backing from a dedicated group of volunteers also helps the club.

Golf Southland chairwoman Robyn Boniface says it is a credit to the club's members and volunteers that it is in such a strong position.

"The members and people that put the time and effort into the club, to look after the fairways and the greens and to make sure the course continues to attract visitors, is fantastic," she says.

"It's very pleasing to see the club in such strong stead. It really goes from strength to strength and we look forward to the next 25 years."

Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Club will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dinner at the Stewart Island pub on Friday, February 15 and a four-person ambrose on February 16, with both open to all golfers.

The four-person ambrose must include one registered golfer. It will be three times over the six-hole course to make up 18 holes and will be followed by a barbecue.

All inquiries can be made via email to ismunro@xtra.co.nz.

THE PAST 25 YEARS

January 1988: Course opened

Early 1990s: Original green shared between holes one and six, split into two greens

Late 1990s: Caravan (aka clubhouse) moved and course layout renumbered

2000: Club bought land from Hicks family

2001: Clubhouse upgraded to a tractor shed

2007-2008: New clubhouse built and furnished

2009-2010: BBQ and toilet extension

2013: Celebrates 25-year anniversary

- The Southland Times

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