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Course Review: Killara Golf Club, Sydney - Australian Golf Digest Course Review: Killara Golf Club, Sydney - Australian Golf Digest

In its 125th year, a new-look Killara Golf Club is making good on its promise to remain a focal point for sport, congregation and community on Sydney’s Upper North Shore.

The year is 1899 and there’s a little bit happening. The Australian Premiers’ Conference decides to locate Australia’s capital (Canberra) between Sydney and Melbourne, Victor Trumper bludgeons his first Test century (135*) against England at the fabled Lord’s, and a Boston dentist by the name of George Bryant introduces the very first wooden golf tee. Game-changer. But a year of landmark events wasn’t over yet. Tucked away on Sydney’s Upper North Shore, a sprawling property would be developed that would fundamentally change the life and times of thousands of residents. Starting out as a nine-hole golf course carved out of dusty land known as Archbold’s Paddock, Killara Golf Club was born. Some 150 locals managed its upkeep, aided by 175 sheep penned to its greens at night to keep the vegetation under control. Further land purchases over the ensuring three decades and Killara would eventually be transformed into an impressive 18-hole offering that came with an impressive slice of history: it was the first golf club in Australia to own its own land. But from the very outset, the vision here was never just about golf. As glorious as its art-deco style clubhouse would become, it had a greater purpose than merely housing weary golfers. It was a meeting point for all forms of community congregation – and congregate they did. Expanded in 1937, 1954 and 1966 with the addition of a billiard room, card room, squash courts, buggy shed and lower bar, the club would construct its own bowling greens and add two tennis courts. It was a tell-tale sign that this was a club not afraid to pivot and move with the times, all in the name of its people.

Killara’s historic clubhouse is set for a makeover. 

Fast-forward to 2024 and the transformation of Killara continues. To mark its 125th anniversary, the club is in the process of signing off on a major redevelopment of that storied clubhouse and aging off-course facilities. 

Already reaping the benefits of a multi-million-dollar makeover of its course in 2018/19 by renowned designer Harley Kruse, the club is now ready to initiate Stage 2 of its masterplan: lifting all those tired, old, dark nooks and crannies with more light and ambience, and finding more practical ways of utilising the abundance of space that was designed very much with the early 1900s in mind.

Led by new general manager Josh Madden, along with incoming president Stephen Healy and vice-president Karen Wood, Killara is on a mission to once again “move with the times” without forgetting its past, and what better time than in another milestone year.

“To get to 125, we’ve proven you’ve got to be adaptable and move with the times,” says Madden, who knows a thing or two about adaptability, having managed the country’s largest public golf facility – Wembley Golf Course in Perth – prior to arriving at Killara.

“We want to have another 100-year birthday so we’ll continue to look internally at what we can do to evolve, innovate and adapt. Our members are incredibly proud of the club’s rich history and incredible journey, as they should be, but we can’t rest on our laurels. The best clubs we see are the ones that are robust, adaptable and embrace change. Like everyone, I’m excited by that challenge.”

Thanks to upgraded irrigation and drainage, Killara’s turf continues to hold up well during unseasonable Sydney weather. 

Bringing in the big guns

Madden was a shrewd appointment by the Killara board, who had big shoes to fill when David Gazzoli vacated the top chair. A pro golfer by trade, Madden spent eight years at the PGA of Australia overseeing its International Golf Institute and WA/SA Division and remains a member director of the PGA of Australia’s board. Madden also spent 18 months as the general manager of Toowoomba Golf Club in Queensland before opportunity came knocking in WA. While in the west, Madden took on a management role with Town of Cambridge, gaining valuable insight into the inner-sanctum and workings of local government. It’s experience he will surely lean on when it comes to overseeing Killara’s redevelopment plans.

“We had a terrific general manager in David Gazzoli, who the members just loved,” says Healy, who joined Killara in 1994. “He was a very personable guy and did a great job at the club. We wanted to replace that sort of personality and warmth, which I believe we got with Josh. But we also got a full range of skills. He’s been a golf pro, he’s been a teaching pro, he’s been a GM of a private club, a GM of a public facility. He’s young and energetic and excited to be with the club. The quality of the candidates we got was incredible and there were a number that we’d have been very happy with. But Josh stood out from the rest and the committee was unanimous in saying ‘he’s our man’.”

Healy’s appointment as club president wasn’t the worst decision, either. A property development lawyer in a large firm, Healy was president of Tennis Australia for seven years, overseeing the Australian Open and other significant administrative duties. 

“I’ve had a lot of involvement in sports administration and a lot to do with property development, so that’s really why I joined the board, to assist with things like the clubhouse project,” Healy says. “It’s old and it desperately needs some money spent on it. The reality is we would have to spend some money just on upgrading compliance because it’s so old. With that reality looming, our thinking was: Aren’t we better to do that work as part of an upgrade that increases the amenity of the clubhouse and improves it and actually modernises it?”

Part of the club’s vision will include providing more expansive views of the course and a complete overhaul of its spacious but very outdated locker room facilities. Gone are the days of members coming off the course, showering and getting changed into their jacket and tie for a drink at the bar. A health and wellbeing facility is among the many concepts being put forward to the membership.

Elsewhere, a new state-of-the-art driving range facility on the property’s northern perimeter remains a top priority. No more hitting warm-up shots off worn rubber matting into deteriorating wire nets. Think more of a closed-in facility like Swing Factory or Swing City, fully equipped with bays, lighting, TV screens and ball-tracing technology, even additional food and beverage options for members, who can arrive in style straight from the carpark. 

“We’re going to do some really smart upgrades to complement the golf course,” Madden adds. “We’re coming into a time when we’re going to steer some big change. The members are so proud of their golf course, and they want to be proud of the overall experience when they bring guests to the club. When we’re done, that overall experience will have everyone talking.”

Pure Distinction greens and Zoysia surrounds have Killara Golf Club looking an absolute treat all year round. 

Justifying the expense

As far as identity changes go, altering the playability and maintenance of the golf course was a big one. 

Prior to the club’s course renovations, the consensus was Killara had begun to resemble a botanical garden more than a golf course. Fairway widths on some holes had crept in to as little as 12 metres. Not only did tree canopies affect lines of play, they also reduced sunlight, absorbed moisture and made turf maintenance problematical. It led to a full overhaul of the putting surfaces and fringes by Kruse and his team, who took a punt on Pure Distinction greens and Zoysia surrounds in a bid to eradicate many of the issues.

“The choice of Zoysia for the green surrounds meant tight surfaces could be achieved in full sun and partial shade of this treed course,” Kruse says. “Short, fine-turfed green surrounds have added defence of par and brought fun short-game shot-making back to Killara that couldn’t be achieved with the Kikuyu fairways grass. I’m looking forward to getting the Zoysia even firmer and faster.”

That combination of Pure Distinction and Zoysia – a first for a Sydney golf club – won over Australian Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses ranking panellists. In May, Killara came in at No.73 on the list, a significant rise of 10 spots from its 2022 ranking, putting an exclamation mark on those many years prior when it failed to make the cut at all. It’s also a doff of the cap to the $1.2 million the club recently spent on upgrading its irrigation and drainage system that has seen it fare much better than many other Sydney courses during what can only be described as an unseasonal deluge of rain over the past 12 months.

“[Our latest ranking] is a huge coup for the club and something extra to celebrate in what is a year dedicated to commemorating our rich history,” says Madden. “It further justifies what we’re doing as a club and the people we’re bringing in to do it.”

Looking up the 18th fairway in 1905. 

Something that can never be replaced

Golf clubs around the world are benefitting from the sport’s post-covid surge in popularity. Participation rates are at an all-time high, member waiting lists are overflowing and getting a tee-time when you want it can be an impossible task. Yet Killara didn’t need a global pandemic to change its fortunes. Member retention has never been a problem for one simple fact: its members never want to leave.

“Our head professional, Greg Hohnen, has been with us for 51 years,” says a gobsmacked Madden. “Why? Because of the culture we have here, from the moment you enter the front gates. Our membership is full but when we get approached by those interested in joining, it’s never about me putting forward a sales pitch to them. I simply get them to play a round of golf with our members and take in the whole Killara experience… the camaraderie and true sense of community – that’s what sells this place.”  

Having a great course and state-of-the-art facilities is costly. Having a great culture and camaraderie is priceless. It’s a bond Killara shares with fellow 125-year club Concord and Newcastle Golf Club up the M1 motorway. First played in 1907, the annual Killara versus Newcastle showdown – the Rankin Cup – is the oldest continuously held golf interclub event in the world. The world! 

While there are too many planned celebratory activities to mention, it’s the little things that matter when you’re commemorating 125 years. Killara offers many ways for members to enjoy the club. They have been running women’s introductory golf clinics since 2008, resulting in a large intake of enthusiastic women golfers, many of whom now play in pennants teams and are leaders in the club. Junior scholarship and cadet programs have a long history and are well supported. The children’s Christmas party and the Easter egg hunt as well as the family sports day are important dates on the calendar. The bowlers and bridge playing groups offer extra alternatives to mix with friends in the club. For season 125, the creation of specially labelled Killara Golf Club beverages will add a personalised touch for those out on course or at the bar. The process to select these commemorative tipples involved recruiting a conga line of members to form the ‘beer selection committee’ – tough gig! Such measures go a long way to explain why, when you join Killara, you really do join for life.

“The best clubs have a really strong identity of what they are,” Madden says. “We don’t pretend we’re going to host the Australian Open anytime soon, but what you get when you drive through those gates is a really enjoyable members club.”

Adds Healy: “It’s an extraordinary thing, 125 years. We’re here because it’s just a great club full of great people that create a terrific culture based around having fun. That alone is something that should be celebrated and we’ve got a fantastic committee working on that with some great events planned for later in the year. 

“It’s truly a privilege to be the new president in the middle of the club’s 125-year celebrations.” 


Killara Golf Club
556 Pacific Hwy, Killara NSW
Josh Madden (general manager)
Phone: (
02) 9498 2700