Recalling history as Wollongong Golf Club celebrates 120 years as one of the oldest links courses in the world

On Friday December 17, 1897 when Sydney Golf Club members Leonard Dobbin, E.D. Hoben and Irving Kent cycled to Wollongong with the materials required to construct holes, flags and teeing grounds next to a beach, they would have been blown away by the scenic beauty of the seaside location.

On Friday, almost 120 years later, a group of Asian golfers were thinking the same as they prepared for a round in beautiful spring weather on the second oldest links course in Australia in its original site.

Wollongong Golf Club president Adam Giddings. Video: Greg Ellis.

A founding committee for what we now know as Wollongong Golf Club joined the group from Sydney and a nine hole links course was completed by the following afternoon in time for an exhibition round to be played marking the arrival of golf in Wollongong.

Today, a true links style 18 hole course stands alongside the beach.

The course layout has been changed a few times over the years to make way for developments such as a sewage treatment plant, a seniors living facility, sports ground and a new larger clubhouse. But today’s course largely sits on the same beachfront site.  

Original course layout

Original course layout

Being such an historic and iconic golf course the Wollongong club has attracted international golfing greats such as Carnegie Clark, Gene Sarazen, Jack Newton, Bobby Locke, Gary Player and Peter Thompson. And Steve Elkington was a member in the early 1980’s.

More recently NSW P.G.A. Championships were played on the course between 2009 and 2011 and the Jack Newton Subaru State Age Championships in 2014/2015.

Wollongong Golf Club general manager of five years Leigh Hingston. Video: Greg Ellis

Wollongong Golf Club general manager Leigh Hingston said the club had provided a wonderful nursery for young local talent who have gone on to win state and national honours.

So it was fitting a celebratory anniversary dinner in a marquee on the actual golf course last weekend included club greats such as Lynne Townsend and rising stars such as Thomas Heaton.

“The Illawarra is phenomenal for talent in sport. In golf we have guys like Travis Smythe and Jordan Zunic.

Spanning more than a century: Greg Kerr plays one of the oldest links courses in the world on its original site. Picture: Adam McLean.

Spanning more than a century: Greg Kerr plays one of the oldest links courses in the world on its original site. Picture: Adam McLean.

Mrs Townsend is listed more than 40 times on the club championship board.

And Mr Hingston said Thomas has the rare honour of being a dual club champion winner in the same year. “He won the Wollongong Golf Club Championship and the Australian Golf Club Championship at 15 against adults. It is a remarkable. He is an absolute talent”.

In fact Thomas is the youngest ever winner in the 135 year history of the Australian Golf Club event and has only been playing the game for five years after initially being interested in football.

Wollongong Golf Club life member Lynne Townsend. Video: Greg Ellis

Mr Hingston said Wollongong Golf Club is a great story of survival at a time when many golf clubs have struggled. Many have amalgamated with other large clubs.

“We are still run and owned by golfers. Obviously the ancillary products we have support the pursuit of golf. There is a real pride in that member ownership. Part of our vision is to be the strongest member owned golf club in regional Australia,” he said.

Mr Hingston said the dinner was about recognising the members part in ensuring the golf club has survived for 120 years as a stand alone club.

“They are fiercely proud of their club. They will tell you Wollongong Golf Club is the best in Australia if you don’t happen to know that,” he said.

Rising star: At 15 Wollongong's Thomas Heaton is the youngest ever winner of the Australian Golf Club Championship. Pic: Greg Ellis.

Rising star: At 15 Wollongong's Thomas Heaton is the youngest ever winner of the Australian Golf Club Championship. Pic: Greg Ellis.

Wollongong Golf Club has 50 full and part time staff and supports up to another 40 casual positions. “We spend about $5 million locally annually in the community in terms of trading and operating. And then there is the green space we are responsible for. We are custodians of that green space as well.”

Mr Hingston said people don’t need to be a member to use the club. It is a community facility where countless functions have been held for over a century. “We want people to come here because it is a good venue to come to with a great view and good food and coffee. We are a public asset for the city.”

Club president Adam Giddings said past vice president Lynne Townsend had the idea for the anniversary dinner at a board meeting.

“Wollongong Golf Club has been constantly evolving over the last 120 years,” he said.

That included the retraction of the course from Crown St to the south and change in design when Sydney Water was building the sewage treatment plant in the 80’s.

“The board has tried to be a change agent. We have been engaging in serious strategic management strategy making. This has led to our current financial position where we have no significant debt. All this is to ensure we remain a solid sustainable club in control of our own destiny”.

Mrs Townsend learned to play on the iconic links course and said most of the challenges that had set back the club’s financial performance over the decades were mostly unexpected external factors. But it faced them all and for it still be here as a stand alone member owned club is a major milestone in an industry experiencing significant challenges. She said the club could be proud of surviving as a stand alone autonomous entity and demonstrating itself to be outstanding custodians of such a unique and environmentally sensitive location. “And unlike other clubs with long histories we can boast that we still play on our original site.”

Wollongong Golf Club life member Ralph Stevenson. Video: Greg Ellis.

Mrs Townsend said during centenary celebrations in 1997 the club realised that unless it reinvented itself it would struggle to survive.

“But largely due to the vision and steady stewardship of Geoff Jones here we are with a modern comfortable clubhouse, a reliable source of non golf income and an iconic golf course running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and we get the whales for nothing,” she said.

Life member Ralph Stevenson recalled many stories and personalities from his time playing since the 1960’s and described it as an ideal location filled with unique experiences. “One day it is a pod of dolphins you can see here as the sun rises over the water or some whales. It is a great location and we should all enjoy golf on this lovely course”. 

Wollongong Golf Course just before the new club house was built.

Wollongong Golf Course just before the new club house was built.

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Wollongong Golf Club moves into the new clubhouse, Architect Nick Mandikos, Club President Paul Hogben and builder Fred Ferreira in 2005.

Wollongong Golf Club moves into the new clubhouse, Architect Nick Mandikos, Club President Paul Hogben and builder Fred Ferreira in 2005.

WIDEFORM Group managing director Fred Ferreira yesterday delivered a world-leading golf facility to one of Australia's oldest links courses.

And he did it with the help of his wife Estela Ferreira, the Australian franchisee of interior design company KA International, who was responsible for much of the fit-out of the new look Wollongong Golf Club.

Mr Ferreira described the clubhouse opening as a wonderful day for the city because it provided an important sporting facility with a future.

But it was only made possible by people such as Martin, Morris and Jones' Geoff Jones, club general manager Kevin Fagg, Heard McEwan's Malcolm Heard, Brendan Pearce, Terry Wetherall, Wollongong City Council general manager Rod Oxley, former MP Colin Markham, Lord Mayor Alex Darling and architect Nick Mandikos, whose design would herald a new era in golf club design.

Mr Ferreira said the relationship between Wideform and joint venture partners Ash Morgan Property Services would continue with other projects under the Horizon Living banner.

The interest in Horizon Living's resort-style Links Seaside senior living development was the catalyst for that.

Construction will start in March and pre-sales have already gone against industry trends.

More than 50 per cent of buyers come from outside Wollongong.

"Both projects, the Wollongong Golf Club and Links Seaside, will bring many people to Wollongong, and that means more local jobs and more money into our economy," Mr Ferreira said.

Golf club president Paul Hogben said the serviced apartments above the clubhouse would be completed next month.

They would trade as Best Western City Sands and the function and restaurant area would be called The Vue.

Mr Hogben said directors including Ted Tobin and the late Peter Bolt entered into the early negotiations to ensure the club's survival.

They helped secure a long-term tenure for the bottom nine holes.

The initial concept for the $100 million development was a new golf club below with senior living apartments in a tower above.

But the end result was a first class clubhouse with the capacity to generate non-golf related income.

Tourism Wollongong general manager Greg Binskin said the new function rooms, facilities and golf course apartments added another dimension to the city that would appeal to the business and leisure tourism market.

Minister for the Illawarra David Campbell acknowledged golf club members who were determined for the project to succeed.

Architect Nick Mandikos, of Brisbane, said the extensive kitchen was the heart of the modern facility, which was inspired by its unique setting.

Bill Robertson, member for 35 years:

Something we couldn't believe would happen years ago but it is now here and it is great to see.

Lorraine Buckley, member for 10 years:

I just love the view and the golf club now has the potential to make money, which we need to do to survive.

Carol Corser, mother of Superbike champ Troy Corser:

I am so impressed I am going to sign the forms to join the club. As a Christmas present I might organise membership for Troy.

Tom Gajic:

It is fantastic. Non-members should also come and have a look. Golf clubs aren't just for members. This is something everyone can enjoy.

Golf club revamp swinging success

WOLLONGONG Golf Club has hit a winner with its new clubhouse.

Within a month of opening, general manager Kevin Fagg said the club had already signed 600 new social members.

"There has been a big difference to the number of people who use our facilities," he said.

"We do a lot of stuff now we just couldn't do in the old club. We do three meals a day out of the kitchen. We do breakfast from Wednesday to Sunday, cafe-style lunch and silver service dinner each evening."

And beer sales had more than doubled.

Mr Fagg said it showed Wollongong was really screaming out for such a facility.

The old clubhouse has been demolished and work on the car park was under way and once finished would allow the golf club to open its 20 Best Western serviced apartments.

"We have bookings for the 23rd of December," Mr Fagg said, adding general membership at the club was also increasing.

"We haven't tried to sell that significantly at this stage. We are just a few weeks off starting some major reconstruction of the golf course."

And the club has continued to turn over a strong revenue during work on the course.

"We are also getting a lot of functions through. We are handling a fair few Christmas functions and have a lot of wedding inquiries for the new year," Mr Fagg said.

Tourism Wollongong general manager Greg Binskin said it was a case of if you build function, hospitality, recreation and accommodation facilities in the right locations people would come. He expected the apartments on the top two floors to be very popular in the new year.

He said Wideform Group managing director Fred Ferreira's objective to build something that would benefit the whole Wollongong community was already coming true, with the club increasing its workforce by about 30 people.

"It is all going well. It really is going to be a happy Christmas for the Wollongong Golf Club. And we are delighted to see city-wide benefits," Mr Fagg said.

Construction on Horizon Living's Links Seaside senior living development is scheduled to start in March.