It’s raining on the morning of my most recent visit to Wentworth Club. As I make my way up Wentworth Drive through a corridor of mansions and carefully trimmed pines to the clubhouse sat atop the high point of the estate, I’m unsure what to expect on such a gloomy day. It would be easy to assume at a place where golf reigns supreme that the overall visuals would dim under the blanket of grey cloud, but stepping out of the car to meet the valet and caddy master, Wentworth seems in as good a form as ever.
The 1st hole of the West Course, home to the flagship DP World Tour event, the BMW PGA Championship, stretches out before us, its manicured fairway sparkling in the early morning dew, punctuated by a smattering of gleaming white bunkers and golden wisps of fescue rough. From a distance, the terrain looks scissor-cut perfect – it’s enough to make the hands twitch in anticipation.
As for the clubhouse itself, it stands resplendent in its long turreted visage, the ivy slowly creeping across its crenellated walls towards the clock that has guarded the entrance way since the club’s inception just over a century ago in 1922.
It’s one of the great clubhouses of British golf, with a history worthy of its grandeur. After all, it was here in 1926 over a few pints in the Burma Bar that the garden-seed magnate Samuel Ryder (no, really, the bloke who first came up with selling garden seeds in ‘penny packets’) suggested to transform a recently completed friendly match between American and British golfers into a regular tradition, and in so doing paved the way for the greatest spectacle in golf: the Ryder Cup.
Since then, many of the game’s greatest players including Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, and Rory McIlroy have walked through Wentworth’s doors and up the winding staircase to the locker room. Adding to the gravitas, each champion of the BMW PGA Championship is encouraged to leave a golf club to be enshrined in its own glass case for posterity, meaning you don’t simply follow in the footsteps of champions as you walk these halls, but you are surrounded by the weapons that led them to victory. For those about to embark on their own battle on the West, East, or Edinburgh courses, it’s an inspiring or intimidating thought; dealer’s choice.
If you’re wondering whether your golfing inferiority complex would be going like the clappers at this stage, the warmth of the staff is quite disarming for such prestigious surroundings. There is a genuine smile on the face of everyone I meet, from the waitress who serves me eggs benedict in the restaurant to the junior professional Tim who will be a most charming chaperone for my round later that day. It doesn’t make the opening tee shots any easier, but it sure does leave you with a sense that you can disturb the odd blade of grass without being escorted off the premises. The stiff formality that continues to beleaguer some of Wentworth’s storied Surrey neighbours is long gone and in its place members, and indeed their families, are encouraged to make themselves at home – no jacket and tie required.
It’s been almost a decade since Hong Kong-based holding company Reignwood bought the club for £135m from clothing tycoon Richard Caring and set about making a vast swathe of changes that would disrupt the mollycoddled membership of yesterday. I get the distinct impression that Wentworth is much more sure of itself in 2023 than it was back in 2015 when it began its overhaul.
Led by its owner, the billionaire Yan Bin, Reignwood announced shock plans to slash the 4,000-strong membership down to just a few hundred and introduced a debenture programme that would see members have to rejoin and essentially pay £100,000 to Reignwood as a loan over the period of 50 years. Members were also informed that annual dues would also be increasing as Wentworth Club strived to become, “The Augusta National of Europe,” as former-CEO Stephen Gibson defined it at the time, referring to the ultra-exclusive Georgia club that hosts The Masters tournament each April.
The announcement went about as well as you might expect. Members were up in arms at the prospect of their club’s great traditions being destroyed by an ambitious foreign interloper, and even more incensed that they would have to pay for the privilege. But those hankering for ‘the good ol’ days’ perhaps neglected to notice that those days had already been and gone before Reignwood’s arrival.
As you walk these halls, you’re surrounded by the weapons that led champions to victory
Ten years ago, Wentworth was overrun by gaggles of corporate golf days and overzealous visitors keen to take on the West Course’s challenge, resulting in the jewel in the club’s crown being overcrowded, overtrodden and poorly conditioned. Despite a whole host of course improvements by Ernie Els Design over a 13-year period, the West continued to drop down the national golf rankings, while the rest of the club’s facilities, especially the East and Edinburgh courses, suffered from a distinct lack of attention. Change was needed and the country club model, so successful in the US and Asia, was seen by the club’s new leadership as the most effective means of achieving it.
Reignwood would pacify existing members in early 2016 with a favourable debenture agreement compared to new incoming members, but ultimately the Chinese corporation got their way and proved themselves right in the process: to my mind, the club has simply never looked better.
It has poured millions upon millions into improving every conceivable aspect of the club – £13m on the renovation of the clubhouse’s interiors, £7m on the West Course including the installation of the UK’s first SubAir system (an underground ventilation system that dries out the moisture on the greens to control their speed), and a further £5m across the site’s wellness, padel tennis, and dormie bedroom facilities. And that’s without mentioning the hard yards that have been undertaken to raise the quality of conditions across the other two golf courses.
In the pipeline, there’s planned work on the par-three course, a lesser mentioned gem if ever there was one, and talk of even more practice facilities for young and newer golfers.
There’s ambition where there was once complacency, but perhaps the greatest sign of success? A whopping 90% of new clientele joining now are between the ages of 30 and 45 with families, mums and dads looking for a space where everyone can have fun together.
I pop my head into the spa and wellness centre on the way to the 1st tee on the East Course and see a swarm of kiddies in the middle of a tennis lesson (god love the instructor in charge of the unruly sprogs). I’m told they’ll break for lunch before taking to the driving range for an afternoon golf lesson for what must represent the most upmarket crèche you could ever imagine.
Credit should rightly be given to John Blanch, Wentworth Club general manager, and Stuart Boyle, director of golf, who together have represented the club’s interests with great passion over the last few years. For Blanch, who rejoined the club in 2021 following a 30-year stint in senior positions around the world, it’s a homecoming of sorts having worked as an assistant pro at Wentworth in his youth.
“We are a family here at Wentworth, not just a team,” Blanch recently told Golf Business News. And while it would be easy to be cynical about such phrases attributed to a country club for the wealthy, Blanch and Boyle’s vision is working. Debentures are being issued at a rate of knots, so swiftly in fact, that Reignwood’s lofty plans to issue 988 debentures is within reach in the next 18 months.
But what good is your money if the club itself fails to live up to golfing standards? The West Course is indeed a spectacular course. After years of watching the pros play it from the sidelines, I’m happy to reveal that the layout is permissible for the mere mortal golfers among us. Yes, at times it is long off the tee, but at others it asks a tremendous set of questions about your game, endeavouring you to choose wisely on your route to an intricate set of 18 greens. It’s a robust challenge, that will slug you with a couple of hits in return for the odd moment where – with the ball fizzing through the air, reverberating off the pine trees around you – you’ll feel that tingle down your spine that maybe this blasted game is worth all the pain and consternation after all.
The owners have poured millions into improving every conceivable aspect
That the West should stand up to any level of critique is not surprising for one of the world’s most famous courses, but its elder brother, the East Course, is another Harry Colt classic that too often lurks in the shadows.
Born in 1924, just two years before the West, the East gives you all of the cunning of its famous kin and none of the cruelty. It’s a clever, tricksy course that offers a little more old-world charm than the modern West’s brutish elegance. Many of the holes require less than driver, but ask you to consult the yardage book before firing in the direction of the numerous sand traps that lurk around every corner. It’s a fabulous and fair test that makes for an excellent challenge one damp and dreary morning.
As we near the end of our round, we clamber up the hill and stand on the 14th hole, a teasing driveable par four framed by heather and pine, and are rewarded with the sun splitting the clouds and bask the swooping fairway below us in a balmy glow.
Many words have been written about Wentworth over its hundred-year history, but standing on that tee box on a quiet corner of the 700-hectare property, I’m reminded that Wentworth’s debenture holders are much more than the owners of one of the hottest memberships in British golf, but stewards of this special land for generations to come. Something tells me WG Tarrant, the original developer of Wentworth back in 1922, would be proud as punch.
Here’s to another hundred years.
For more information, wentworthclub.com