Adam Lawrence visits one of the UK’s most exclusive golf clubs and finds that value for money remains important, even at the top end of the market.
In much of the world, golf is a ‘top down’ business. Outside Scotland, Ireland and a few other spots, golf remains largely a game played by affluent people at facilities that are relatively exclusive. And around the world, it’s those exclusive, aspirational facilities that set the perceptions of golfers as to what courses should look like.
Although the UK is not short of upmarket golf clubs, exclusivity has a slightly different meaning when compared to the rest of the world. For many years, British clubs, even the most famous and revered, have mostly welcomed green fee visitors with, at most, a phone call or letter in advance and the presentation of a letter of introduction to prove they are a member of a golf club. The exclusivity of Sunningdale or St George’s Hill lies in the difficulty of becoming a member, not of playing there as a casual guest.
Elsewhere, and especially in America, private clubs are mostly just that, reserved wholly for the use of members and their guests. And, in another contrast to traditional British clubs, whose joining fees and annual subscriptions are generally relatively low, becoming a member of a top American club often requires a hefty one-off payment as well as fairly large dues. For this increased cost, though, members get privacy. It’s a trade-off.
The American private club model has made sporadic appearances in the UK. For course developers, it is an appealing way of doing business, as, if all goes to plan, the joining fees pay back the cost of building the course, while subscription revenues produce an ongoing profit. Clubs such as Loch Lomond and Queenwood have proved there is a demand for this kind of golf in Britain.
The first of these American-style clubs is a few miles round the M25 from Queenwood. The Wisley, opened in 1991, was designed by the Robert Trent Jones II firm (Kyle Phillips, then Jones’s main associate in Europe, led the project). Located just across the River Wey from the famous Wisley gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, the 27-hole complex has a membership including many high-profile professional golfers and other well-known public figures.
Wisley is within a few miles of some of southern England’s best-known golf courses: St George’s Hill, Woking and New Zealand in particular are close neighbours. Unlike those courses, though, it’s not built on the sandy soil that made the Surrey heath famous; being on the Wey’s floodplain, the soil is rich, fertile silt.
This silt was, indirectly and partly at least, responsible for the club’s decision to conduct a major renovation. The poor drainage characteristics of the soil, and some less than ideal maintenance choices over the years meant the fairways, originally creeping bentgrass, had become dominated by poa, and with a four inch thatch layer, were always soft.
The new-look Garden nine is very different. It has been grassed with pure fescue – mostly turf, grown specially to Wisley’s specifications by supplier Inturf – and course manager Steve Byrne and his team are committed to keeping it that way. This will be helped by the new five year agreement they have made with turf maintenance products supplier Toro.
The difference between the new turf and the old is startling and can be felt by the feet alone. Step onto the tees or fairways of the Church nine, and one is immediately aware of a high level of sponginess. This is evidently the result either of a great deal of irrigation, or a major thatch problem. One look at the irrigation heads, which appear to be sunk into the surrounding grass and the thatch diagnosis is easy.
This choice of fescue is very significant. In a climate such as the UK, it’s hard to argue that fescue is the most environmentally sound, sustainable grass available, but it hasn’t always been the favourite of upmarket clubs like Wisley. It seems the golf business is really getting the environmental message. The firm surface that fescue provides will also make good use of the design changes, led by RTJ2 president Bruce Charlton, which emphasise short grass around the greens.
Bunker reconstruction also played a major role in the project. The new bunkers, which have been lined with the spray-on Sportcrete porous base product, are generally fairly small, deep and grass-faced. They are real hazards, made all the more so since some are well concealed, which may annoy some of the touring professionals in the club, but struck me as entirely appropriate on a course designed entirely for member play.
No main contractor was employed to run the project. Club general manager Wayne Sheffield, along with Byrne, acted as project manager, dealing directly with the subcontractors, including Contour Golf, who handled the build. Much of the work was done in-house by members of the club’s own greenkeeping crew, and Sheffield says he’s convinced this helped them keep the cost down.
Some of the typical features of the era in which The Wisley was built – now rather unfashionable – have been changed. An example is the RTJ-style ‘runway’ tees, which have been replaced by smaller ones. Teeing grounds are vital at Wisley; all the club’s competitions are mixed sex, so the women’s and men’s tees must align to create a comparable challenge. This is noticeable on several holes, where tees have been positioned at different angles to ask tougher questions of players: the ladies’ tees are not the afterthought they are on many course.
This article was initially featured in the October 2009 issue of Golf Course Architecture