Peter James Huia Howden, who celebrated his 90th birthday last month, has had a love affair with the game of golf, which goes back well over 70 years. Mind you this is not surprising when we examine his family background.
As might be expected the birthplace of golf in New Zealand was the Scottish settlement of Otago.
While there were a few sporadic attempts at starting the sport in the 1860s, it didn't really get under way until Charles Ritchie Howden, the elder brother of Peter's grandfather, inspired the establishment of golf on a regular basis, thus earning the title of the "Father of NZ Golf".
In 1871, under C.R. Howden's chairmanship the Dunedin Golf Club was set up with an initial membership of 28, a list that contains names of men who were to figure highly in the development of Otago and New Zealand.
A nine-hole course was laid out close by the Mornington Hotel, an essential base for the new club, with the limited supply of golf clubs held for safe keeping there. Unfortunately when Charles Howden went back to Scotland on business, the pub changed hands, and the new publican, not knowing anything about golf, used the precious clubs as kindling wood.
However, despite this setback the seeds had been sown, although it was not until the early 1880s that organised golf really began to flourish in Dunedin. Incidentally C.R. Howden can also claim to be the first to establish another true Scottish activity in this country ? whisky distilling. Using a recipe from his native land, he began a flourishing industry in Dunedin in the 1870s. Unfortunately, Julius Vogel's great railway expansion programme of the 1870s, was heavily backed by The Bank of Scotland, who did not look kindly on the growing popularity of a colonial competitor for their own Scottish whisky. The bank brought pressure to bear on the NZ Government and the Ritchie Distillery was forced to close ? a pity, as it was described as a very flavourable product.
Although his story is not quite so romantic as that of his older brother, David Brown Howden, Peter's grandfather, had a large part in the establishment of the Hutt Golf Club. D.B. Howden, who had played in Dunedin in the 1870s, convened a meeting in his house in June 1892, from which sprang the new club. Howden was elected the first Captain, membership was closed at 31 and subscriptions were set at 10/6 ($1.05). Incidentally 15 ladies were accepted soon after, when subscriptions were increased to a guinea ($2.10).
Peter Howden was born in Wellington on March 23, 1917, but he never saw his father, who was killed in October 1917, in the carnage of the Battle of Passchendaele. Fortunately, letters from the Western Front, from her husband, were retained by Peter's mother. They have recently been included as part of a book, The Great Adventure, edited by historian Jock Phillips about World War I, and paint a poignant picture of a family separated forever by a senseless war.
Peter spent his early years in Karori with his mother's family, but when his mother remarried in the early 1920s, he moved with her to Wanganui, where his step-father had a medical practice. Peter describes his stepfather as fair and kind but firm, as could be expected in those days.
He went to primary school in the Wanganui area, but then spent four years, 1931 to 1935, at Christs College in Christchurch, where he took part in the usual sports of tennis and cricket.
Leaving secondary school he started his working career as a junior in the BNZ, Wanganui. His yearly salary was ?60 ($120) which was quickly reduced to ?55 by the bank, who claimed at that stage, to be "broke".
It was in Wanganui that Peter experienced his first real taste of the game that was to dominate his sporting life. He began playing at the Wanganui Golf Club at Belmont, but it was his decision to receive lessons from the resident professional, that was to have a profound influence over his ability in the sport. The ?2 he spent on 10 lessons was nearly two weeks wages, but under the professional's expert tuition, Peter developed a smooth swing, which was to stand him in good stead, for the next 70 years.
In June, 1939, Peter was transferred to the bank in Masterton, where he continued his interest in the game. Fortunately a mate at the bank, was not only a keen golfer, but also owned a car, so the two were out of the bank many days, about 3.15pm, and up to Lansdowne. (Banks used to close at 3pm.)
When war broke out he soon joined up, becoming a sergeant in the pay corps, before heading overseas on the Strathaird in January 1940. He established a close friendship with John Broom, former secretary of the Masterton Hospital Board, and both were part of the New Zealand Division, which took part in the ill-fated Greek Campaign.
Captured in April 1941, Peter spent the rest of the war in prison camp. For the first three years Peter and John lived in relatively pleasant condition in southern Austria, where they were employed out of camp working on railways, building sites and the like. As the war turned against the Axis Powers, they were shifted to far less salubrious conditions in Central Austria.
Peter spent some months in the BNZ in London, after discharge in 1945, trying to fit back into "Civvy Street." Back in New Zealand, he was posted to the Hunterville branch, but soon realised he wasn't cut out to be a banker, so when the chance of a farming position at Lagoon Hill Station, in Martinborough, came up he jumped at it.
Describing himself as the oldest farm cadet in the business, Peter relished the new life. His rehabilitation was complete when he moved to Tinui, where he worked for the Maunsell family.
In 1949, Peter was granted a "Rehab" farm at Rocky Hills, where for a brief period he lived as a single man. Earlier, however, he had met his future wife, the delightful Sylvia Birch. A keen horsewoman, Sylvia and her sister had stopped off at the old Taueru Hotel, after horse sports. It was here that romance began which has lasted to this day.
The couple were married at St Albans Church Taueru on August 3, 1949, soon after moving to Rocky Hills, and their first home, a Nissan hut. Sylvia has a strong golfing background, with her mother being a very good golfer, while her aunt Lucy Brandon, won the NZ Women's Championship in 1911. Sylvia is no mean golfer either, numbering the Masterton Senior Championship among her victories.
Peter has been a member at Masterton Golf Club since 1952, while he was also a Country Member at Heretaunga for many years. At the latter he won the Intermediate Championship on two occasions, but success has generally eluded him at Lansdowne, where he describes himself as "always the bridesmaid, but never the bride".
His best round was a 71, while for a time he was on a six handicap.
A real feature of Peter's golfing career, has been his ability to stay at a very reasonable level for so many years. The big power hitters have their moments or even years of glory, but golfers like Peter keep their beautiful, grooved swings for much longer.
As an example, about 10 years ago when he was 79 to 81 years of age, Peter struck gold. In a short space of time he hit a veritable "purple patch" by achieving most golfer's dreams of playing a round under his age, on no fewer than six occasions. Regarding this feat, Peter reckons that the two quid he spent on 10 golf lessons, all those years ago, has paid him back, many times over.
Peter, I'm sure your many friends and admirers will join with me in congratulating you on reaching this milestone. Particularly, I admire your continuing enthusiasm for the grand old game, for your puckish sense of humour and for your attention to golf detail (even if it means counting the number of clubs in my bag.)
Well played, old son.