History

On Saturday 24 June, 1899, the local paper, the Daily Times, noted:
“Golfing in the Masterton District will open at Lansdowne this afternoon.”

Early Days

Even before this now-accepted genesis there was golf played at Lansdowne: beginning in 1897, between six and eight women played golf on the land that was to become the Lansdowne golf course. In those days it was just farmland; having only the services of four-legged mowers — sheep — it is hard to imagine what the state of the “greens” were back then!

Just getting to the course was an expedition: there was no suburb of Lansdowne; there were no roads; and Masterton was confined to south of the Waipoua River, which would have meant a journey of two to three kilometres uphill over pure countryside. It was no wonder the match starting time was set to be two o’clock in the afternoon.

From those rough beginnings, golf rapidly became more popular. In 1903 the membership was known to be 24 men and 8 or 9 women; by 1904 that had almost tripled to 52 men and 30 women. In 1906, the role only slightly increased for the men, but women’s golf continued to surge: 59 men and 55 women.

Handicaps in those days were calculated locally — there was no national handicapping system — and men’s handicaps ranged from scratch to 30. As the par (or bogey, as it was known then) of the course was 79, scratch is roughly equivalent to a handicap of 10 in today’s parlance.

Early members of the golf club indulge in some morning tea

The Course

The course, such as it was, was a nine hole one on about 32 acres of land and was endured by the enthusiastic golfers for almost twenty years. In 1916 there began a seven-year quest to purchase more land with a view to having a fully-fledged 18 hole course. Finally, in 1923, the club was able to boast of 97 acres — the current size of the course (not counting the extra 25 acres to the north of the existing course earmarked for future development). Building 18 holes, however, continued to be an ongoing irritant: it seems that conflict and personal differences meant coming up with an agreed plan was a long time coming.

In the end, Wellington golf professional Arthur Ham produced a plan for £25, a tidy sum in those days, probably in the region of $1–5,000 in today’s money. The course measured 5550m and kept the par/bogey of 79.

As ongoing technology in both playing and greens-keeping equipment advanced, so the course underwent changes. In the 1930s, the men’s par was dropped to 75. In 1951 it continued its downward slide to 73; 72 was the value from 1966; and the current value of 71 has been in existence since 2002.

The Clubhouse as it appeared in the early days

The Golfers

As those first changes to the course were being made from the 1920s and 30s onward, the club began to be called home by a growing number of notable golfers: golfers who represented New Zealand with honour as both amateurs and, in one very high profile case, a professional who won New Zealand’s first Major Championship.

Mrs Guy Williams
”TH “Bill” Horton
John Hornabrook
Sir Bob Charles

The first of these notables was Eileen Williams, probably better known (by the archaic notion of using her husband’s name) as Mrs Guy Williams. Williams was prominent from the 1910s onwards.

At the same time as Williams was tredding the fairways, a player noted as the finest iron player of his day, TH “Bill” Horton, joined Masterton. During the 1920s and 30s he held a monopoly on the club’s championships, winning ten in a row. He also showed his class on the national scene, winning representative honours for New Zealand.

Horton’s dominance at Masterton only came to an end in the mid-30s with the arrival of another great player, ADS Duncan. Duncan, who, by the time he arrive in Masterton, was past his best, still proved to be a formidable opponent.

Coming on the heals of Horton was John Hornabrook, a player who caught the eye of the great Gene Sarazen. Sarazen, out in New Zealand on an exhibition tour, invited Hornabrook back to the US. In what was probably one of life’s greatest “what ifs”, Hornabrook was unable to raise the $US2,000 (a vast sum in those days, equivalent to at least $US50,000 today!) to make the trip.

Hornabrook inspired many who followed, including Guy Horne, who was only a couple of years younger than Hornabrook. Horne won the New Zealand Amateur Championship in 1946, and represented New Zealand against Australia in 1947 and 1952. Geoff Falloon also no doubt came under the dual spell of  Horton and Hornabrook. The Second World War and service overseas meant that Falloon lost a number of his best years to King and Country, but he made an impression as a player, and probably more so as an inspirational administrator: in the late 1960s he was appointed Manager of the New Zealand team that played Australia for the Sloan Morpeth Trophy in Melbourne.

As good as all of these golfers were, however, overshadowing all who have come before him and since is Sir Bob Charles. For many, many years the only left-hander to win a Major Championship — the 1963 British Open — Charles has been Masterton’s, and New Zealand’s, foremost golfing ambassador for the best part of five decades.

Further Reading

All of the information given here has been gathered from two excellent histories of the Masterton Golf Club: Norman Cameron’s “Seventy Five Years of Golf: 1899–1975″ and Jim Wallace’s “The Course on the Hill: 100 Years at the Masterton Golf Club”.