The late, great David Mercer cherished all 69 of his years at his beloved Killara Golf Club. The proud PGA of Australia life member, who passed away last September, aged 89, seldom wasted an opportunity to praise the leafy layout he called home on Sydney’s Upper North Shore. One of my favourite compliments of his came in 2009 while filming a special ‘retro replay’ tip for the PGA of Australia. In a nod to Killara’s demand for shot variety, he said: “When I first came to Killara in 1951 as a brash, young professional, I thought I had all the shots. But I soon realised I had to learn more.” Mercer then proceeded to show viewers the art of playing off difficult lies – bare turf and damp spots among them. It’s ironic looking back at it now, if not for the fact the 1973 Open Championship qualifier rarely missed the middle of a fairway, for the fact those bad lies he was hitting off are now very much a thing of the past at Killara. This parcel of land has received the Midas touch from a man who knows a thing or two about building premium golf courses.

Harley Kruse, the principal designer on projects like the Norman course at Mission Hills in China, Jade Palace in South Korea and Settlers Run in Melbourne, was also involved in the creation of the highly rated Dunes course at Danang Golf Club in Vietnam.

This project, however, was to be far less intrusive of his time and certainly a lot closer to home – just 15 minutes from his doorstep, in fact. The mission was simple: replace all of Killara’s green complexes, bunkers and surrounds in order to spruce up a place in desperate need of some TLC. That mission quickly morphed into the reversal of two holes, rebuilding some fairway bunkers and the elimination of a par 3, all while bringing a spare hole into the normal rotation at the request of members.

The first Pure Distinction greens in Sydney combined with Zoysia grass surrounds have Killara Golf Club looking absolutely mint.

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.

To help solve the problem, Kruse had a lot of trees removed, which in turn allowed him to open up landing zones off the tee and increase green sizes significantly, bumping them up from an average of 370 square metres to about 550m2.

But the most important change was the choice of turf used for the putting surfaces and green surrounds. Thanks largely to course agronomist John Neylan, Killara now boasts Sydney’s first Pure Distinction bentgrass greens, as used by the revered Victoria Golf Club, Royal Canberra and Peninsula Kingswood. What’s more, at Killara, they have been bordered with the incredibly durable Sir Grange Zoysia grass. Together, it’s a killer combination that’s providing flawless lies and shot options aplenty, not to mention receiving rave reviews from visiting turf experts.

“Zoysia is virtually the same colour as Pure Distinction, so by the eye it’s just different mowing lines,” Kruse says. “It’s a combination I think is going to take off but people need to see it more and, importantly, experience playing off it.”

The club’s superintendent, Ryan Fury, agrees that the expense of 48,000 square metres of Zoysia grass, along with the Pure Distinction greens, was money well spent.

“The changes have made it more efficient for us to get the surfaces exactly where we want them, and that’s despite the size of our greens increasing significantly,” Fury says. “The combination of Pure Distinction and Zoysia just handles the conditions so much better, not just with weather and disease, but with the record levels of foot traffic since COVID-19.”

With upwards of 220 golfers a day trampling the new-look layout, the pandemic – and some unseasonal wet weather – has indeed provided the ultimate litmus test for Killara’s newfound ground. It’s a test it has passed with flying colours.

Kruse paid credit to the Killara members for having the audacity to green-light such significant changes, which came after a series of presentations he made to the club. 

“Golf clubs are, by nature, pretty conservative, so for the Killara faithful to jump in and choose a new grass for their greens was a bold move,” he says. “To have the conviction to step into the territory others (in Sydney) hadn’t, I thought was very impressive.

“Then, when I hit them with the hole reversal idea, I thought to myself, How on earth am I going to get them to OK this? But, as I said to them, ‘You’re only as good as your worst green’ and the fifth green was in a horrible position with no sun – it just would never work. They agreed, and so the fifth hole was reversed and became the fourth.”

More width, bigger greens and some innovative ecobunker technology has given Killara a Sandbelt feel on clay terrain.

‘You’re not on the sandbelt now, Harley!’

Killara general manager David Gazzoli still jokes about his attempts to rein in Kruse during the redesign process. “I’d tell him, ‘This isn’t Melbourne. You’re not on the Sandbelt now, Harley!’” Gazzoli recalls. 

A man with so much experience and knowledge of Alister MacKenzie’s golden-age design principles, it was inevitable Kruse would want to pick out areas where he could apply the good doctor’s advice. And he did.

Wider landing zones: tick. Firm, fast undulating greens (Fury confirms they can run at “Masters 15” on the Stimpmeter if they ever wanted to be cruel to members!): tick. Sharply cut bunkers with high walls and positioned with strategy, not aesthetics, in mind (“Every bunker serves a purpose. No eye candy here,” says Kruse): big tick. 

“We always wanted to introduce a similar bunkering style to the great courses, but the clay base here always made that difficult,” Gazzoli says. 

Enter the Ecobunker, an advanced bunker edging system that uses recycled synthetic turf – think old tennis courts – to provide a stable revetted look to its walls without the ongoing maintenance nightmares associated with traditional sod materials. The sand is held in place with capillary concrete and the drainage capability is unparalleled to anything out there. 

“I think one of the signature looks of Killara is, on the majority of holes, there are no bunkers in play off the tee,” Kruse says. “Off the tee it’s much easier and around the greens the challenge has been increased. We can’t make it any longer than what it is, we had to make it harder to score with tight surrounds and allow members to get off the tee without too much trouble. We’ve very much designed this for the people playing it – a membership with an average age of 60 and a handicap of about 25. There’s also a phenomenal amount of women’s golf played around here. I made sure I consulted the club’s female contingent about the proposed changes and they really bought into it, too.”

Your open invitation to experience one of Sydney’s great clubs

With so many modern touches outdoors, it’s easy to overlook the grand history of Killara. This was, after all, the first golf club in Australia to own its own land. The Killara Cup and Shield, donated for an interclub match in 1929, remains the oldest event on the Golf NSW calendar. And the Killara versus Newcastle golf match, known as The Rankin Cup and first played in 1907, is the oldest continuously held golf interclub event in the world.

Its clubhouse is a thing of ageless wonder, too, and could be set for a makeover of its own in the not too distant future, which is a good thing because demand for its use has skyrocketed on the back of Sydney’s handling of the pandemic. With business returning to some form of normality, corporate events are all the rage again. And Killara does it better than most, according to Gazzoli.

“We’re back in business and hosting events on a large scale,” he says. “We pride ourselves on our hospitality and off-course offerings. Our members meet here for dinner regularly. We do upwards of 100 guests for dinner on a Friday night, and our supplementary dinner nights on Wednesday and Sunday are proving popular too. We also take great pride in hosting weddings, wakes and other corporate events.”

But if it’s those lightning greens that really take your fancy, don’t worry, you’re catered for too.

“We’ve just started opening up to visitors now and corporate days. Membership is very important to us and we’re encouraging our membership to bring more of their friends along to experience what we’re all about,” Gazzoli says.

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t grow your club unless you let the people outside in. We want our members to help spread the word and show people just how special Killara is.”

With a new state-of-the-art practice facility due to open in the middle of the year, there may never be a better time to join the Killara family. And who knows, the course might be in for more of Kruse’s magic touch.

“I’m very happy with the work we’ve done,” Kruse says. “But there’s always tinkering to be done. Peter Thomson used to talk about golf courses like they were your children – you nurture them along as you go. We’ll carefully manage everything moving forward. A few more new tees, a few new bunkers and some added landscaping will keep the people coming back.”

This writer included.