Chapter 14 -The past 25 years

Chapter 14 -The past 25 years

The past 25 years

Perhaps the most pervasive feature of the past 25 years at Royal Wellington has been change. For the first 100 years of its history, the club moved incrementally. Successful and highly regarded, the club frequently enjoyed long waiting lists and a prestige that comes from being a little bit exclusive. The club was very family-based, with new members encountering an opaque institution with unwritten rules and a strong esprit de corps. The club is now very different from the one that embarked on its century celebrations two and a half decades ago. Those changes have affected all aspects of club life – the course, the membership, the clubhouse, administration, the playing of golf, socialising and much more.

Some of that change was deliberate. Various administrations wanted to meet the challenges brought on by changing social norms. Their responses to that dictated the direction the club took. Increasingly, the club also wanted to be progressive, not reactive. On top of that, the plain fact was that fewer people of experience were willing to volunteer, so the club had to use paid staff to provide the level of service members expected.

The course
Arguably, and fittingly, the club’s greatest focus over the past 25 years has been the course. At the time of the centennial, the championship course had new sand-based greens. Although high hopes were held for them, they did not prove to be a game changer. The designs were relatively traditional and lack differentiation. The greens themselves were soon full of organic material that proved impossible to shift. This situation, and the lack of strategic interest in the course itself, led the club to embark on what became a lengthy and sometimes frustrating journey to design and build a new course.

The old 3rd hole from the tee. The green was located just before the stream. Today the 3rd green is on the other side of the stream on land that was once partly under pines. (Scott Macpherson)

Work began in the early 2000s and it came at a time when the opportunity to develop some additional land formerly planted in pine trees became realistic. There were various design iterations provided by David Harmon, Michael Clayton and others. Finally, in 2010, a design contract was awarded to Turner Macpherson. When the new course opened in 2013, the wait had been worth it. This was the first time the club had designed a course from tee to green since 1908 and the whole thing was funded from within the club. A driving range and short game practice facility (‘the dress circle’) were built for good measure.

While aspects of the new course’s conditioning have not always met members’ expectations, the signs are that the belated move away from poa annua grass is now paying off and that we will soon have a course with playing conditions that consistently match its enjoyable and stimulating design. 

Clubhouse and facilities
It wasn’t just the course that changed. The club’s facilities have had a significant makeover, courtesy of a series of major, staged projects. In 1997-98 the greenkeeper’s building was rebuilt, the practice green was moved, the entrance road reoriented and the fourth tennis court removed. The pro shop and storage facilities were upgraded and expanded, the car park extended and the manager’s house relocated away from the clubhouse. The clubhouse has been subject to various upgrades. The offices and men’s and women’s locker rooms were renovated in 1998. In 2002, the bar in the 19th was shifted to its present location. In 2003-04, the men’s ablutions were renovated and new foyers provided for the men’s and women’s changing rooms. In 2007, a lift was installed and in 2010, the kitchen was overhauled. In 2015, the roof was reclad in tiles.

Two pavilions were built out on the course and a practice facility was built alongside the driving range in 2015. Numerous stone bridges have been built over streams – mostly funded from donations by member groups.

Playing golf
At the time of the centennial celebrations, Saturday golf was remarkably quiet, as it had been for decades. Midweek golf and Sunday afternoons were significantly more important. This was a marked contrast to the region’s other golf courses, which were generally full to the brim on weekends. At Heretaunga there was no starting sheet and a four could turn up in the morning and walk onto the first tee. That soon changed. A raft of new members began making Saturday their focus and starting sheets were introduced in 1998. The popularity of Saturday golf reached a peak in the mid-2000s when bookings were full by the preceding Monday.

There were other changes. Soft spikes were made mandatory in 1998 and the following year, long socks were no longer required with shorts. Since then further changes to dress standards have been made to ensure the club keeps up with the times. From 2004, score cards could be automatically read and the following year, on-line bookings were introduced. (The club’s first website had been unveiled in 2002.) Phone calls to the pro-shop dropped off dramatically.

Mid-week golf continued to revolve around traditional women’s days (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and long-standing groups that carried on or emerged during the period. These groups, all with cultures of their own, continue to invigorate the club with camaraderie and spirit. 

External changes have come with the rapid advances in technology. The improvements to the performance of clubs and balls have had some negative and positive effects on the game. One of these is the need for championship tees that can challenge the best golfers. It is fortunate that we had the room at Royal Wellington to provide holes of a sufficient length. While the extraordinary distances that elite golfers hit the ball are a cause for concern, the reward for older golfers is the way that technology keeps them in the game. 

New events
The club initiated popular events during the period. The most notable of these are the Quaich and Heretaunga Classic. The former, a two round foursomes event on one day was initiated in 1996 after the R&A donated a quaich (Scottish drinking vessel) as a prize at the club’s centennial celebrations the previous year. This autumnal event is now considered one of the most important men’s events on the calendar.

Left. The Captain of the R&A, Harry McCaw, presents the Quaich to Wellington Golf Club Captain Charles Speight, 1995. Right.Two time winners of the Quaich, Guy Callender and John McLean, presented with their first Quaich by Captain Ian Lindsay in 2008.

The Heretaunga Classic replaced the historically prestigious Wellington Provincial. It began in 2001 and is nearly always played on the Monday and Tuesday before the Baffy. The Classic is a strongly supported event that brings players from all over New Zealand to play.  It is followed by a (largely) members-only bridge tournament on the Wednesday. The proceeds from the Classic have helped fund numerous special club projects.

Competitors in the Heretaunga Classic, 2008 – Vicki Kember, Auckland, Julie Anne Scott, Jenny Coventry, Auckland and Kath Foot.

Other popular events initiated during the past 25 years include the Brass Monkey, Town and Country, Par 3 event and others. The club’s numerous trophies, some dating back to the beginnings of the club, continue to be competed for in a packed annual calendar. 

The club has always been highly sociable but there have been some notable changes to how members have got together over the past 25 years. A gradual stiffening of the country’s drinking and driving rules has seen members abandon their cars in favour of using taxis or similar options at the end of a long evening. Lengthy post-golf sessions in the 19th are now mostly a thing of the past and so the club does not enjoy quite the same amount of revenue from the bar as it used to. On the other hand, members bringing their own bottles, a long-standing tradition, was ended in 2009. Smoking was outlawed inside licensed premises in 2004 and the clubrooms was no exception.

Despite the shift in social norms, the club is still regularly packed for special events, Sunday roasts and other functions. In addition, the club has been increasingly hired for private functions of various kinds – weddings, wakes, business meetings, corporate golf days and the like. All of these keep the club busy and bring in additional revenue. 

Governance and administration
The club’s administration has changed fundamentally. For a period, the Captain, together with his committee, continued to run the club, as they had done since inception, with a manager reporting to the committee and a disparate collection of staff reporting to him. Two initiatives up-ended that. To make reporting lines more coherent, a fundamental shift was inaugurated in 2004 during the tenure of then Captain Peter Cutfield. In short, the manager was to have three direct reports – a director of golf, a house manager and course manager, with staff in turn reporting to them. This structure has continued to this day. Two of those original appointees – house manager Melissa Coughlan and course manager John Spraggs – are still working for the club.

The other important change came in 2016 when the club appointed its first specialist golf club chief executive, Kurt Greve, with the expectation that the Captain would be able to divest more decision-making and administration. Although he did not stay as long as he and the club had hoped, Kurt’s influence on the professionalism and performance of the club was significant. It is hoped that the legacy of his appointment will be demonstrated in the way the club runs its affairs far into the future. It is also worth noting that the club’s present general manager, Dylan Lindstrom, was promoted to the top job in 2019 from within the club, having previously been director of golf.

There is surely still more change to come. The election of the first female president, Viv Callender, in 2019, is a critical and warmly-welcomed step in further integrating the operation and governance of the club. It does not seem unlikely that, sometime in the foreseeable future, we will have our first female Captain.

It would not be exaggerating matters to say that Royal Wellington was overwhelmingly white, professional and conservative for its first 100 years. Today the club looks much more like modern New Zealand, with its members drawn from a much wider range of backgrounds and professions and the club leading, not following, golfing trends. Shedding this hide-bound image has not always been easy, but the breadth and diversity of the club’s membership is a sign of where the club is heading. A major factor in that transformation has been the hugely successful amalgamation in June 2019 with Pauatahanui Golf Club. Their wholehearted embrace of the club and its long legacy has been warmly reciprocated by the club’s existing members.

Part of the transformation in the club membership can be put down simply to a reduction in the number of people who want to play golf. In 1995, there was a waiting list of up to a year. That is far from the case now. There have been times over the past 25 years when the club has struggled to maintain an optimum number of full-playing members. People increasingly find themselves time-poor and golf is competing against a much wider range of sports. The club is in the market with other clubs in the region to retain and attract members. It doesn’t get to keep a buoyant membership as of right.  
Major events – external
Starting with the New Zealand Open in 1995, the club has hosted many significant events over the past 25 years. There have been national amateur championships, international matches and regional events, but unquestionably the most prestigious of all was the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championships in October 2017.

A drone shot of the 18th green and clubhouse and practice facilities behind, just before the start of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, 2017. (John Matthews)

The opportunity to see how the new course would test Asia and the Pacific’s best amateur golfers, the media coverage and the presence of the top brass of the R&A and the Augusta National Golf Club were all a huge boost to the club. The golf was high quality, the weather extraordinary, and the sight of the green jackets of the Augusta National Golf Club, led by chairman Fred Ridley, moving around the course and chatting to members will live long in the memory for all those who attended.

Augusta National members with Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship winner Yuxin Lin of China, 2017. (John Matthews)

Getting to 125 years is a special and significant achievement. How many sporting clubs get to lay claim to such a venerable age? Golf clubs, with their attachment to their courses and investments in land and buildings are given to longevity. However, it’s just not the business of getting to 125 that is the club’s achievement, it’s how it’s done it that matters. Over that period Royal Wellington has built a strong and enduring culture, striving for quality in its course, its management and its facilities. It has established a strong relationship with overseas clubs, undoubtedly helped by becoming the first club in New Zealand to given Royal status, in 2004. It has held fast to its traditions while being open to innovation and new social norms. Arguably its greatest achievement was turning Barton’s farm into a beautiful and memorable parkland golf course, a place that has given joy to generations of golfers.