This is the creme de la creme of the golf-course world, created by Jack Nicklaus for those with golf on the brain, or just money to burn. Members are an assorted bunch, bringing together Denis Thatcher and Sean Connery, Gianfranco Zola and Kelvin MacKenzie. Some members are less active than others. The Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer paid thousands of pounds in membership fees, though he has never played here except on the day he signed on the dotted line. One of the selling-points of the club is its hermetic exclusivity. Members are allowed to bring guests. But, unlike the situation at most clubs, outsiders cannot sign on for a day's play, nor can they even get through the gates. Membership applications are strictly vetted. The celebrities like to know that it is a place where they can be sheltered from prying lenses and inquisitive strangers. In short, that it is a place to relax.
At least, until now. Suddenly, there's trouble in paradise - "our nice little Shangri-La", as one member of staff describes it - such as would provide suitable material for a seriously dodgy thriller. Just one problem: even allowing for the traditional suspension of disbelief, the plot lines are almost too bizarre to be believable. Events have mystified club owners and police alike.
It all began on a quiet night in July. (In the TV dramatisation, cue creepy music. Scene: golf course at night, with the shadowy curves of the manicured landscape barely visible. Flitting figures and huddled whisperers in the darkness. Confused sounds, including water apparently being poured on to the ground, and repeated dull thuds. Then, silence. The sun comes up over the horizon to reveal the grim and ghastly aftermath.)
When Steve Jones, head greenkeeper, arrived at work at 4.40am on 7 July, he was confronted by an extraordinary spectacle. On Nicklaus's beloved Heritage course, it was as though somebody had played a particularly anarchic game of sandcastles. Deep trenches had been dug through several of the main greens, leaving clumps of turf-topped sand scattered about. The damage had been done by a spade and a golfing-iron.
This was bad enough, especially in combination with the fact that the sprinkling system had been sabotaged so that water gushed 40ft into the air, giving the greens the consistency of rice paddies. "We were devastated," says John Kearney, a club official. "One of our greenkeepers burst into tears, a young lad - that's how affected he was."
Over the next 24 hours it became clear that the criminals had also been equipped with weedkiller. The grass began to turn brown where the culprits, apparently equipped with a knapsack sprayer and watering-can, had wandered around, leaving figures of eight of grassy death behind them. On one hole, an unmistakable letter D had been burnt into the middle of the green.
"But why a D?" muses the detective-hero in our unwritten thriller. Answer (or, at least, the best that anyone has yet come up with): D for Daniel, the first name of the general manager of the club, Daniel Loh. Some club members, possibly suffering from a surfeit of conspiracy thrillers, also point to the fact that the damage was done to the 12th green, and that the 12th letter of the alphabet is L - thus matching up with Mr Loh's surname.
All of this was bad enough. Still, however, the attackers were not satisfied. The forces of destruction returned on the night of 23 August, damaging areas that they had left untouched before. Once again, they played havoc with the weedkiller can, wending their malevolent way across the course. And again the question was asked: why?
Part of the problem is that none of the explanations quite makes sense. Common-or-garden vandals do not fit the bill. Mr Loh and others at the club are confident that evidence that appeared to incriminate travellers living near the course had been planted. The travellers used to occupy the fields where the golf course now lies. When the course was first opened, there was some trouble with minor vandalism. But those difficulties have now been sorted out; in fact the head of the travellers himself likes to play an occasional game on the course.
"Whoever did it tried to implicate them. But it's not them," says Mr Loh. Above all, detailed knowledge was necessary to achieve so much damage, to "cripple the course". Mr Loh argues: "Whoever did it knows the club inside out. It must be a member, or an ex-member, or a member of staff."
Which brings us on to real dime-thriller territory: a possible connection with the club members themselves. One theory concerns disgruntled former members, seeking to get their own back on the club that blackballed them after they became the subject of police investigation.
The club, which is owned by three Japanese businessmen, oozes respectability from every pore. Alongside the former government ministers Lord Prior and Lord Young, honoured "special members" include a clutch of foreign ambassadors. None the less, in addition to the Establishment figures, the club has its share of those who are famous for other reasons. Kenneth Noye was briefly a member. The membership of one Nick Leeson was suspended while he was unavoidably detained in Singapore. When Mr Leeson returned to Britain at the end of his jail sentence, however, he begged (successfully) to be readmitted. (So he wasn't that impoverished.)
Things are now a little cheaper than they were. The original membership fees required a down payment of pounds 20,000 debenture, followed by an annual payment of pounds 1,800. Now, if you merely cough up your pounds 1,800, that will get you in, if you pass the strict vetting procedures. (You may still find it to your advantage to pay the pounds 20,000 up front, which entitles you to be a Premier member. These members are able to park in a specially labelled Premier car park, so it's worth a thought. For pounds 20,000, you are allocated a parking space 20 metres closer to the front door.)
Not all members were happy about the return to the club of Mr Leeson. Some did not like the presence of a member with a criminal record. Others are unhappy about the flexible application of the rules. Those who had been blackballed, despite eventually being cleared of criminal charges against them, reckoned they had been short-changed; why should they get less sympathetic treatment than the convicted Nick Leeson?
And yet, as staff at the club point out, it would make little sense for these people to destroy parts of the club that they are still eager to rejoin.
Another possibility is a disgruntled former employee. But police reckon that at least three people were involved in the incidents, which makes the theory more difficult to sustain. This was more than just a quick venting of spleen. Another theory put forward by some members is that some group is trying to force the price of the club down, in order then to be able to buy it for a song. Daniel Loh dismisses this particular conspiracy theory as "ridiculous"; apart from anything else, the chances of rebuilding the club's exclusive image would be slim after such a collapse. "Anyway what guarantee would these people have that they would manage to buy the club?" asks Mr Loh.
Staff repeatedly stress the danger of the members of the club "losing faith". Whoever is responsible, the implications amount to more than just small change. The club reckons that the cost of repairing the damage already comes to pounds 100,000. The club can hardly go and buy a new roll of turf from the local garden centre to cover the damaged areas; the turf here is so astonishingly dense that it sometimes feels like walking on Astroturf (wash your mouth out for using the word). At a golf course like this, the grass is, understandably, taken Very Seriously Indeed; you have to know your bentgrass (variety Providence 1019, since you ask) from your fescue. Greens have been reseeded and re-reseeded and re-re-reseeded. But greenkeepers still doubt whether they will recover before next year.
Kentish police say only that they have "an open mind" on the crimes. In a desperate bid to get things moving, the club has offered a reward of pounds 10,000 for evidence leading to the conviction of the Green Destroyers. Members are clubbing together to provide an additional reward of their own. And still the mystery remains. "It's mental torture," says Daniel Loh. "Everybody's under suspicion, including myself. But life must go on."Reuse content