While touring the grounds of Wentworth Golf Club I was intrigued to discover a portrait of Winston Churchill hanging in pride of place by the main entrance. As far as I was aware the only connection between the former PM and golf was that he is said (probably apocryphally) to have described it as ‘a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.’
I was, therefore, both confused and intrigued when I asked a member of staff about the painting and she replied: ‘Because of the bunkers.’
The clubhouse, better known as the ‘19th Hole’, actually has a bunker of its own – but not one of the sandy variety. Hidden beneath a members’ car park you will find a WW2 bomb shelter, designed in case Hitler’s bombardment of the capital forced the government to leave Westminster. Although the army of MPs never arrived, the bunker is a lasting reminder that resistance is quite literally built into the foundations of Wentworth Club.
So, when the bastion of British golf was bought for £135 million by Reignwood, a Thai-Chinese company in 2014, the members were typically stoic. However, over the next two years, the reputation of Wentworth Club was dealt a significant blow after a bitter row erupted between the members and new owners over the announcement of a new debenture-based membership model that would cost members over £100,000.
Tempers became so fraught in what was dubbed the ‘Battle of Wentworth’ that the local MP and then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, stepped in to mediate between the new owners, members and the local community, and ensure the annual BMW PGA tournament wasn’t affected and relations remained cordial.
Today, the war is over, and Wentworth Club is embracing upon its post-war boom. New owners have committed to making huge improvements to the course, clubhouse, and health facilities – supplying over £20 million worth of investment – more than the club has experienced in the past two decades combined.
Gentleman’s Journal has been given an exclusive access to the club to see where this money is being spent, and to meet some of the key members of staff who are responsible for delivering the new owner’s dream of making Wentworth into the world’s premier private golf and country club.
Kenny Mackay, Director of Golf Courses & Grounds
Being the director of golf courses and grounds at the home of the BMW PGA European Championships is a job where even perfection won’t necessarily make the cut. Along with his 68 staff, Kenny protects the club’s key asset – its courses.
It is here that the new owners’ money has been directed most urgently. He has already spent over £165k per bunker and £1 million on new SubAir systems (a giant vacuum below the greens that can suck moisture away or blow air through the grass), the first of their kind in England. And more is imminent. ‘You have to have longevity,’ says Kenny, ‘so we have a five-year plan, knowing that we have year-on-year changes.’
Devid Isabella, Restaurant Manager
Far from just a golf club restaurant, Wentworth Club’s bar and grill has more in common with a luxury grand hotel. And Devid Isabella’s background running Europe’s nest five-star hotels and restaurants, including the Ritz, has prepared him to put Wentworth’s restaurant on the culinary map.
Chasing the prestigious Living Quality Assurance standard, he is training his staff to the highest level possible. As Devid explains, ‘no phone must ring more than three times,’ and ‘breakfast must be served in 10 minutes from the order’. He wants to be able to predict whatever his guests needs are, ‘even strange ones like having lemon in your coffee.’ Ultimately, he explains, ‘it’s hospitality, and that’s ultimately about giving people whatever they want.’
Stephen Gibson, Chief Executive
‘If we aren’t in the top 25,’ Stephen Gibson says to me with a wry smile, ‘then we aren’t where we want to be.’ As the Chief Executive, Stephen is hands-on, overseeing every penny of the £20 million improvements from the ‘front door of the clubhouse to the back’ to every grain of sand in every bunker.
‘We are looking at what the club was at its absolute peak in the Twenties,’ he explains. As the man responsible for reviving the club’s history, he explains that he thinks ‘The Battle of Wentworth’ was ‘totally misconstrued.’ We speak to members on a regular basis and many like Michael [Parkinson] think they were misquoted or taken out of context.’ Many are still here and they are going nowhere. They love the place and its a big part of their lives still.
Judy Maycock, Tennis and Health Club Director
When Judy arrived here back in 2001 to run Wentworth Club’s Tennis and Health clubs, the facilities were all state-of-the- art. Now, nearly 17 years later, they are in desperate need of improvement. Work will begin on the gym next year, and £100,000 has already been spent on the Tennis alone.
A period of travelling around learning from similarly historic institutions, such as the Hurlingham and Wimbledon, has resulted in some of the best technology available, including a version of Hawkeye, PlaySight, that even amateur players can use. But Judy’s primary aim is to ensure that ‘all the family is looked after’ and the health club is the centre of the new owners’ family focus.
Future building is on the mind of everybody who works and plays at Wentworth Club. The signs of rebirth are everywhere you look, with new grass literally sprouting up around you.
In fact, while it might seem insignificant to those of us unacquainted with the demands and expectations of top-level golfers and connoisseurs of the game, the director of golf and courses, Kenny Mackay took an entire year labouring over the decision to change the grass on the greens. With the help of the Sports Turf Research Institute, 10 different species of grass were tested in conditions to replicate Wentworth’s shady heathland, and in the end one was chosen: the superbly named 007 bent creeping grass.
All of the smallest details are being considered like this, and it is indicative of the fact that Wentworth Club is not just making superficial changes, it is improving the fabric of the entire club. When Kenny shows me the fifth hole, one of the first stages of the prestigious BMW PGA Championship course to receive much needed improvements, he tells me that work began just 10 weeks ago. ‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ he laughs as I slowly realise that the perfectly formed carpet of grass and pristine bunkers around me are the on the hole he is proudly describing.
During last years PGA Championship at Wentworth, the quality of the course was called into question. Patchy greens, impossibly tall bunkers, and wet conditions were all points of criticism. Together with the owners, it is this long-term vision that is driving the club forwards, led from the front by the golf courses.
Thankfully, worries that the PGA Championship might be moved elsewhere when its contract with the club comes to an end in 2018 are unfounded. And thanks to the money already spent improving the courses, Kenny confidently tells me that it will be ‘enough to get a new 10-year deal’.
One of the highest profile members to publicly come out in support of ‘the Reignwood vision’ is ex-England Cricketer Kevin Pietersen. When I asked him about the ‘Battle of Wentworth’ fallout, he took a much more optimistic tone. ‘What is happening here at Wentworth is amazing – wanting to get better and the will to become the best are all things that we are singing from the same hymn sheet on.’ Of course, tempers were flared, but in his own words ‘I just don’t get involved in that sort of stuff,’ he says ‘with my profile, I just don’t think its my place to make big calls.’
Nevertheless, he did argue ‘the transformation of the club Reignwood want is about wanting to be the best – and it’s very exciting. I love people striving for perfection because that’s what I have always done, and the best news is that the golfing world is embracing the change too.’ From the perspective of Pietersen, a member, the traffic that once meant a round took six hours has gone, meaning he can play through in three instead. Of course this in turn means that greens are running smoother, thanks, in part, to the fact that they are getting less wear from overuse.
While chatting about the Ryder Cup with Kevin after our interview, he tells me that he is ‘already bored of people on social media complaining about the American fans’ and their heckling of the European players. In much the same way, Wentworth has been at the centre of a media hurricane that has made a lot of noise and caused a lot of anger.
But, as Kevin explains, ‘the only way you shut them up is to win. You win by winning the golf.’ That is precisely what Wentworth has done – they have bunkered down and weathered the storm, and at the end of the day they have stayed their course.