We live in interesting times. The new Chinese owners of Wentworth Club announced at the Annual Meeting on Tuesday a restructuring of fees which sent shockwaves through its 3,000 members. When a golf story appears on the BBC News it usually means there’s trouble at mill.
Reignwood Group are asking for a six figure membership fee from April 2017. So in addition to the annual fee, which doubles from £8,000 to £16,000 there is also a one off debenture fee of £100,000 to be paid with new joiners – by invitation only – having to pay £125,000. This will make Wentworth Club the most expensive golf club in the UK. At present the joining fee is £15,000.
This kind of membership structuring is almost unheard of in Europe though it has been tried in exclusive clubs in the United States. The bold move is an apparent step to forge a stronger relationship between the club and the residents living on the Wentworth Estate. Also to rebrand the club as an family oriented country club. Investment in upgrading the three championship courses had to be found and it has been asked of the club members themselves.
Only two members spoke directly to the press. Broadcaster Sir Michael Parkinson who said it angered him that such an iconic club could be treated in such a way, and James Wyatt who said these actions amounted to a cull of the membership. Mr Wyatt said he thought it was a way for the owners to reduce the membership from 3,000 to 800 exclusive people.
“They are looking for a certain type of person, wealthy people… it is a way of making the club private. Some corporate days are already not being allowed to go ahead any more. They dont want outsiders coming in and they dont want non members using the facilities”.
New Chief Executive Stephen Gibson talked about the need to upgrade facilities with a major renovation of the West Course supported by the European Tour. There was a vision that the club should be based around families with membership passed on through generations. So this would this would make it a golfing equivalent of the Hurlingham Club in London.
This is all sad for the majority of the existing Wentworth members who will not or cannot continue their membership in 18 months time. Wentworth does have a special place in the hearts of many British golfers for its long association with the World Matchplay Championship and the PGA Championship. I wonder how long it will be before the PGA European Tour Headquarters remain there if the club is to acquire the exclusivity of Queenwood just down the road. It would send out the wrong message to be associated geographically with elitism.
However, at the end of the day this is a private matter for the owners. It is their club and their property to do with as they wish. I have been reading this book, The Forbidden Game, Golf and the Chinese Dream by Dan Washburn about golf in China. It comes as no real surprise to me that the week that the Chinese premier visits the UK and the month that golf was officially banned by the Communist Party in China, this has happened at Wentworth.
I would imagine that Wentworth will become a tourist destination for hundreds of wealthy Chinese visitors who want to enjoy their golf, without offending the party. So the change of focus. They will want the club to be upgraded to give these visitors a special experience, so the current corporate business will change. It will be a transformation of culture.
We have been here before in British golf during the 1980s and 1990s when Japanese investors had a yen for our golf and began investing in properties such as Old Thorns, London Club and what is now the Trump Turnberry. That era passed with the fall in their economy and Japanese golf is now in a completely different place. Once the most golf mad nation on earth, participation in the sport has dropped 40% and abandoned golf courses there are now being used to house solar panels as a source of renewable energy.
Which makes me wonder if this too will pass.