CURIOSER AND CURIOSER. At a time when the likes of England Golf is trying to spread the word about golf becoming more inclusive, encouraging youngsters and women into the game, a number of course owners seem to be moving in a totally different direction and producing products that only the truly mega-rich can afford.
Reignwood Group, a Chinese investment company that describes itself as a ’multi-industrial conglomerate’, bought Wentworth Golf Club for £140m in 2014. The company has notified its members that they will have to pay a £100,000 debenture fee as well as an annual subscription of £16,000. The previous rate was a £15,000 joining fee and £7,000 a year membership, an additional outlay of £104,000 per person. Unless this is paid by 2017 memberships will be cancelled.
Unsurprisingly members are outraged with Sir Michael Parkinson, hardly a pauper, saying of Reignwood, ‘They came in without any regard for the traditions or feelings of members of the club and tried to assume everybody would just go away quietly. They have misunderstood the nature of the club.’ Members and residents of the Wentworth Estate have fired off a 15-page letter threatening court action if the massive hike in charges goes ahead. Parkinson added, ‘A lot of members will go elsewhere. Maybe that is what Reignwood want. Maybe they will get their car park full of Lamborghinis.’
Whilst golf should always appeal to a wide spectrum the advent of the designer golf club is becoming increasingly common although even the most expensive have not avoided financial difficulties.
In 2008, Loch Lomond Golf Club, which at the time charged £70,000 joining fee and £5,000 a year to its members, including Sean Connery and Robbie Williams, was £132m in debt. This was reduced to £37m by 2013 with the club granting Royal Bank of Scotland the right to 20% of profits arising from property development or any gains from the sale of the club until 2020. Annual subscription dropped to £1,900 with a joining fee of £55,000.
Queenwood in Surrey opened in 2001 and is one of the most secretive of courses and, unless you happen to be a personal friend of a member, the list of which includes Hugh Grant and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Douglas, you will not get a game there. Even the joining fee is uncertain, although reckoned to be in the region of £145,000. It is meant to be a wonderful parkland course, yet what does it bring to the game apart from a venue for the extremely wealthy to play golf in privacy?
Queenwood architect, David McLay Kidd, is hard at work on another Surrey venue for financial oligarchs, a £30m project at Cherkley Court, and former residence of press baron, Lord Beaverbrook. Due to open this year the Beaverbrook Golf Club, will include a luxury hotel, health club and spa and has overcome fierce resistance from local residents who did not want to see green belt land lost to an exclusive members’ club.
Ian Todd, a director at developer Longshot that is undertaking the project, said after planning consent was finally granted, ‘’Our opposition said we are only supplying a golf course for the super rich, this could not be further from the truth. The Cherkley Court building, the hotel and other facilities will be open to the public. We want to open Cherkley Court to the public, to give it back to Mole Valley.’ Significantly the golf will be exclusively for members and their guests. A joining fee of over, £100,000 will be charged.
Geoff Shackelford, a golf course architect and author of the book The Future of Golf points out, ‘We’ve had clubs like this in America for years and the most important thing you have to remember about them is that, ultimately, for a golf club to succeed it has to have a community aspect to it. You go to these places and there is no buzz, no atmosphere, and you end up feeling uncomfortable. Developers might spend $100m on their golf club but what they don’t understand is you can’t buy greatness. That has to be earned over time.’
Michael Parkinson is more outspoken, ‘It seems to me the super-rich golf clubs I have visited are soulless places used by oligarchs. They don’t feel like a club. They don’t understand the meaning of the word “club”.’
And while clubs for the super rich continue to be built a number of smaller, cheaper clubs that have traditionally provided the professional golfing stars of tomorrow are struggling to make ends meet.
Only this month, in a drive to slash their budget, councilors at Perth and Kinross council are considering closing North Inch municipal course, where golf has been played since the 1500s, making it the oldest golf course in the world. Facing a budget reduced by £5m the council reckons closure of the course would save £100,000, less than the joining fee at Cherkley for one member.