Wentworth golf club members in revolt against £100,000 annual fees

The Wentworth Resistance are sabotaging plans from the new proprietors who want to make the club even more expensive

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The Independent Online

The Union Flag still fluttered over the battlements of Wentworth golf club. Immaculate greens swept down to the lake – with its ornamental fountains through which water still flowed.

On the Wentworth Estate – built around the club that was conceived as its centre, its social hub and beating heart – the “Residents and Wentworth Club only” signs still proliferated.

You could snap up a five-bed new build here for just £11m, and if you could survive without the triple garage and separate staff apartment, there was something more basic for £3.75m. 

The portrait of Sir Winston Churchill still glowered in club reception, as a manager glowered at the reporter who showed up without an appointment. “You are not allowed on the premises,” she said. “This is a private members’ club.”

And no we couldn’t just pop into the bar to see who was around now we were here. “Certainly not.”

Yet despite such reassuring signs, God was not in His heaven. All was not right with the world, or at least with this once idyllic corner of Surrey.

Because Wentworth’s new Thai-Chinese owner, the Reignwood Group, chaired by Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang, one of China’s richest men, has decided to take the club – which some had naively assumed was already fairly exclusive – to a whole new level.

From April 2017 all current members, bar the over-75s, will have to stump up a £100,000 debenture if they want to remain at the club.

And the annual family membership fee is almost doubling from £8,388 to £16,000. There will also be only 900 available debentures, thus reducing membership numbers from 4,000 to nearer 2,000.

Reader, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now: Parky is upset. Sir Michael Parkinson, the most luminous of chat show royalty, fears his beloved Wentworth will be turned into a soulless enclave for a few of the super-rich.

“It is very sad,” he said, conveying his displeasure to The Daily Telegraph

On the Wentworth estate, where 300 once-happy club members live, one gained the impression of a (private security patrolled) community of 1,100 homes – (total value: £5.5bn) – suffering under the yoke of the foreign invader. 

“The club is the heart of the estate,” said one resident, “Our church, our pub, our canteen. There is no evidence they want to embrace English culture. It is a drive to destroy a community.”

Yet even in the darkness there is hope.

From the residents’ side of the high, entryphone-controlled gates, came mutterings about the upper class, insurrectionary talk suggesting a glorious struggle against the oppressor.

The flame of resistance had been lit. 

We met in one of the estate’s humbler dwellings: the 4,500 square foot, four-bedroom home of company director Nigel Moss, 54. 

It was from here that Mr Moss issued the clarion call.

“Save our Wentworth for the nation,” Mr Moss of The Resistance/newly formed Wet Feet action group, had written.

Because they weren’t just doing this for themselves.

View of the the par 4, 1st hole with the clubhouse complex in the foreground on the recently renovated West Course at the Wentworth Club venue

“Wentworth is a huge heritage asset for Britain,” said Mr Moss, “The club where the Ryder Cup was founded. Thousands of British people play there every year, as guests of members and in invitational tournaments. Chop it down to a few hundred ultra-high net worth foreign members and Wentworth will be lost to the nation.”

In a way, said Michael Fleming, club captain in 2015, Resistance stalwart in 2016, they were rather like Liverpool football fans protesting at high ticket prices.

“The mega-wealthy seem to want to reinvent the aristocracy,” he said. “Is the ordinary man going to be priced out?”

Because, you see, Wentworth has been accessible. Yes, the current £15,000 joining fee for full membership is more than 16 times what England Golf figures suggest is the national average.

Yes, the £8,388 full-membership fees were among the most expensive in England. But you could be a social member for £468 a year and no joining fee.

“The mix is fantastic,” said Mr Fleming, 58, a dental surgeon. “From all walks of life, couldn’t care less how you made the money.”

“I would hate,” said Andrea Tenconi, an associate partner in an asset management firm, “For this to be perceived as a fight between the well-off and the more well-off, the rich versus the super-rich.”

It would indeed be most unfair to describe this as the haves manning the barricades against the have-mores.

After all, you don’t need barricades when you own the roads.

Which, thanks to the highly unusual Wentworth Estate Act 1964, the residents do.

So, said Mr Moss, they were perfectly placed to break with custom and veto the usual road closures for this May’s PGA Championship at Wentworth, the flagship event of golf’s European tour.

They might also deploy the Surrey commuter belt version of work to rule: rigorously enforcing estate rules banning publicity banners, even those of tournament sponsors BMW.

“Absolutely,” said Mr Moss. “It’s non-collaboration.” And in such struggles, comrade, there can be no collaborators.

Although Wentworth chief executive Stephen Gibson seemed to disagree. He issued a statement: “I don’t think the estate residents are the type who would be prepared to obstruct such a celebrated event.”

There was also a club statement: “It is extremely important for us to be an integrated part of the community, [so] we have been liaising closely with our members and the Wentworth Residents’ Association.

“We [deny] that changes would turn the club into a ‘ghost town’. Our ambition is to become a family club where memberships are passed down through generations.”

A £20m revamp of the golf courses was, apparently, just the start: “Our vision is to make Wentworth the world’s premier private golf and country club. The club has listened to member feedback.”

The Wentworth Resistance remained unappeased. Even if people thought they were privileged, said Mr Fleming, “Does privilege rule out the right to fair play?”