A Cautionary Tale for all Golf Club Members
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
This is a cautionary tale that every single golf club member should read. Think your golf club is safe? Believe it will never be bulldozed or shut down to make way for housing? Think again, and read on....
GOLF is part of my DNA. It defines who I am. I play the game, I write about the game and I love talking about it to like-minded people. Through golf I have made many long-lasting friendships and have had some of the best days of my life. There have been times when the antics of my playing partners has had me doubled up with laughter
I have played the best courses in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, and have been fortunate enough to play around Europe and in California and Florida. My work has taken me from Scotland to many different parts of England and, as a result, I have been a member of rather more golf clubs than I would have wanted to.
And then I arrived in Suffolk. Somebody took me to what was then a nine-hole course called Waldringfield Heath. It was the brainchild of a man who owned a demolition company but who wanted to create something special. He bought some farmland, planted some gorse and a few trees and had a course built. It was nothing special, but the atmosphere around the place was.
The "clubhouse" was little more than a portable building, but it always rang out with laughter. The beer was good and the bacon sandwiches were legendary. I was a member elsewhere but played at Waldringfield regularly because I loved "the craic".
Then the owner, under pressure from his membership, decided to extend the course to 18 holes. The first time I played the extended layout I was horrified - there were crossover holes here, there and everywhere and, worse than that, hundreds of stones just below the grass. I had a metal three-wood that had to be consigned to the dustbin after striking a boulder buried a fraction of an inch under the surface of one fairway.
"As long as the grass grows, this will never make a golf course I would ever want to play again," I said. And I didn't return for many, many months. But then I started to hear good things about Waldringfield and decided to give it another chance. I was astonished. The layout had been tweaked, the stones were gone, the greens were some of the best I have ever played on and there was talk of a new clubhouse.
The saplings that had been planted had begun to mature, humps and hollows had been added and although it measured only a shade over 6,000 yards, it was a proper test of golf. So I decided to join. That was about 18 years ago.
During that time, the course changed hands and the new owner was a local businessman who also happened to be a keen and passionate golfer. New bunkers began to appear, equipment was bought for the greenkeepers and the course kept getting better and better. And, sure enough, we got our new clubhouse.
To sit in front of the clubhouse and look out on Waldringfield on a summer evening as the sun begins to sink lower in the sky is to look out on a work of art. The trees are now fully mature, the greens are magnificent and the course and its fairways are defined by gorse - lots of it. If you don't hit the ball straight then you immediately reach into your bag and reload.
But through it all, one thing has remained constant - the atmosphere, the spirit of comradeship and the laughs. I have never experienced anything like it at any other golf club.
Last year the club changed hands again and within weeks of the latest owner arriving a flurry of new equipment was delivered for the greenkeepers. The head greenkeeper retired and his deputy took over. Some of us had doubts about this appointment because the new man had had run-ins with several members over the years. Let's just say that we felt he was somewhat surly and unco-operative. But then something happened to him. It turned out that this was the job he was born to do. The course is now in magnificent condition, the best it has ever been. And our head greenkeeper's chest swells with pride when he is told what an incredible job he is doing - and he is told that a lot.
So all was well in our world. Then came the bombshell. The owner called a meeting of the members, at which he revealed that he intended to build more than 70 properties on the eighth and ninth holes, together with a swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling green, pitch-and-putt course and, wait for it, the largest practice putting green in England.
He told us that the club, now called Waldringfield Golf and Leisure (Yuk!), had lost £100,000 in his first full year at the helm and that such losses could not be sustained. Our membership had fallen from 720 to 450 and the place was no longer sustainable operating purely and simply as a golf club.
And what was to become of our much-loved 18-hole golf course? It will close on April 1, 2017, and will be completely redesigned. In effect, what we will end up with is another nine-hole course, but this one will have 18 greens - there will be shared fairways but separate tees and greens. In effect, no more than nine fourballs will be allowed on the course at any one time. Trees will be chopped down, gorse will be removed. They tell us it will still be an 18-hole course, but it won't.
Since that meeting, when we were all left utterly shellshocked, the owner has steadfastly refused to speak to us again. He says that membership next year will be free and that he will try to keep "a few" holes open while the work begins, and that in 2018 we will be offered half-price membership.
And, in an instant, that spirit and atmosphere I spoke of has been destroyed. Utterly and completely. Suddenly, the enjoyment, the fun and the camaraderie is no more. A handful of members will remain in order to "wait and see what happens", but most of us are going elsewhere.
On January 1, 2017, I will be teeing up the ball at a new course. Hintlesham Golf Club is a special place with a great 18-hole layout, and I know that I will be happy there. But will it be the same? Of course it won't. My heart is broken.
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