This article titled “The amateur golfers taking on the might of Wimbledon: ‘It’s like Brexit. It has split members’” was written by Rupert Neate, for The Guardian on Saturday 1st December 2018 09.00 UTC
A fortnight before Christmas, when most people are worrying about finding the money for presents, Catherine Devons will turn down an £85,000 windfall she didn’t ask for and certainly didn’t expect. Even in the mercenary world of London’s runaway property market, and in one of its wealthiest and leafiest corners, such huge jackpots are rare. But in Wimbledon, tennis is big business and money talks.
For the past nine months, a battle has been raging in SW19 – between the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which has been running the championships since 1877, and a small band of golfers who want to keep playing at their own club, which happens to fall in the shadow of Centre Court. International tennis is a brutal business, and Wimbledon now faces stiff competition from the US, Australian and French Opens – all investing hundreds of millions of pounds in state-of-the-art facilities for players and spectators. All England executives are proposing a huge expansion that would gobble up Wimbledon Park Golf Club, turning its tees, fairways and greens into yet more grass courts and tennis facilities. A £65m deal to take over the 120-year-old club was tabled earlier this year – and in two weeks’ time will be put to a vote of 758 golfing members, who include Piers Morgan, Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly, and former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell; if it gets the go-ahead, each player, who owns a share of the club just as in a co-operative, will collect an £85,000 payout.
Wimbledon Park Golf Club members are predominantly male, over 50 and, judging by the Mercedes-Benz, BMWs and Jaguars in the car park, people of means. Membership costs £1,500 a year, plus a £3,000 joining fee. In this affluent neck of the woods, though, the golf club is still very much the poor relation to the Royal Wimbledon, the third oldest golf club in England and so exclusive that, to even find out how much it costs to join, you have to be proposed and seconded by a member, and have a handicap below 21 for men or 36 for women.
Devons, 77, has played golf since her American grandfather gave her a set of clubs as a teenage birthday present. A mother of three daughters and a grandmother of seven, with a degree in chemistry from the University of Edinburgh, she says she gave the stuffy elitism of Royal Wimbledon a wide berth when she moved here 48 years ago. Instead, she got her handicap at a public course, before joining Wimbledon Park more than 20 years ago.
“It’s my favourite place to be,” Devons says. “This club has a much more eclectic mix of people.” She knows she is very much in the minority in choosing to vote against the windfall, but as a Liberal Democrat candidate in local council elections, she is used to being the underdog. In 2002, she got 394 votes, improving slightly to 438 in 2006 – but still less than 5% of votes cast.
“It’s a lot of money, a life-changing amount,” Devons says of the offer. “But it’s more important to me to have the wonderful beauty and nature of the course, and to keep the social aspect. I want to go on playing here until I can no longer pick up a club.”
The debate over the merits of a takeover has fractured the peace and tranquillity of the golf club’s fairways, laid out on parkland created by Capability Brown in the 18th century. “It’s like Brexit,” says Devons, who is part of a cabal of golfers fighting – ever so politely – against the plan. “You are either for it or against it. The offer has split members and put decades-long golf partnerships on the rocks.”
Already, the golf club is almost entirely commandeered by the All England for the duration of the tournament, its fairways turned into car parks and holding pens for thousands of people as they join the famous tickets queue every year. The new offer proposes to make this arrangement permanent. At least 75% of the membership are required to back the motion in order for the sale to go through. Morgan, McPartlin and Donnelly did not respond to my inquiries about how they intend to vote. O’Donnell tells me he will abstain, because he serves on the All England board alongside Tim Henman.
But if enough members back the deal, the sale will be formally approved by the golf club’s governing committee on the Thursday before Christmas; the last ball will roll into the 18th hole on 31 December 2021, bringing to an end 123 years of golfing history.
The All England tennis club collected £216m in revenue last year, mostly from ticket sales and TV rights, and has long had its sights on expanding on to the golf course. Growth and modernisation, its executives say, is the only way to keep the world’s oldest and most prestigious championship ahead of its grand slam rivals. The club plans to nearly triple the size of the estate, allowing it to build more grass courts and increase crowd capacity; the club can then build more money-spinning corporate hospitality facilities on its existing land.
Last year the US Open in New York, which has 60% more seats than Wimbledon, made £261m. It has spent £465m on its second show court, the Louis Armstrong – now a 14,061-seat venue, in addition to the championship’s main Arthur Ashe stadium (22,547 seats, 90 luxury corporate suites, five restaurants, a two-storey players’ lounge). The All England’s Centre Court, by comparison, has 14,979 seats and no corporate boxes.
A decade ago, Wimbledon Park’s golfers rejected an exploratory takeover offer without discussion. In 2015, the tennis executives tabled a £25m bid, which was rejected by 58% of members. This spring the All England upped the stakes to £50m – before making its “best and final” £65m bid. Its chief executive, Richard Lewis, hopes this offer – £170,000 for couples who both play at the club – will be too generous for even the most diehard golfers to reject.
But Lewis, a former professional tennis player who reached the semi-finals of the Davis Cup in 1981, turned down my offer to arrange a meeting with Devons over an unseasonal jug of Pimm’s and lemonade, to hear the concerns of the golf club’s remainers. The All England also refused my request to meet Lewis, as well as the All England’s chairman, Philip Brook, or any other of its executives. In a letter to golfers, Brook has sought to reassure members that the All England’s plans would be “carried out in a way designed to maintain and enhance the beauty of the park”. “The Wimbledon Championships are one of the leading sporting events in the world,” writes Brook, who has a seat in Centre Court’s royal box for the duration of the two-week tournament. “They are a matter of national and international importance – as well as contributing significantly to the local and national economy… Our mission is to maintain and enhance the position of The Championships as the world’s premier tennis tournament, and on grass.”
Wimbledon is currently the only one of the four grand slams unable to hold qualifying rounds at its main ground, due to a lack of courts. Instead, qualifying is held at the Bank of England sports ground, 10 minutes’ drive away in Roehampton. The All England argues that holding warm-up games at the main location is crucial to ensure new players get the “experience of Wimbledon”.
But Devons laughs at the suggestion that it is vital for unknown and unseeded players to play qualifying rounds in SW19 rather than SW15. “What difference does the location of the court mean to players?” she says.
Emma Baker, a Wimbledon Park Golf Club member for the past five years who plays off a handicap of 16 (and is also professor of pharmacology at the nearby St George’s hospital), tells me she won’t be voting yes. “I accept that it’s a very, very privileged position to be in, but to me being a member here is worth more than the money. Wimbledon Park Golf Club is a little treasure in the middle of London – it’s an utter joy to play here and a resource for the whole community. Wimbledon is the most famous and prestigious tennis tournament in the world, and they make millions and millions of pounds. There are some things money can’t buy, such as being a part of this club and the friendships that have built up here.”
When a preliminary vote was held last month among those who had been club members for at least 10 years, more than eight in 10 agreed the decision should be opened up to all club members. This change to the rules, which was suggested by the All England, means those who have been paying as little as one year’s membership will now get an equal share in the windfall.
Martin Sumpton, a chartered building engineer who has played golf at Wimbledon Park for more than 30 years, tells me the recent change makes it much more likely the sale will go ahead. “If you’ve only joined the club recently, you don’t have as much history or friendships to lose, and you have a lot of money to gain,” he says as he walks me around the course he has played on since 1987. He now plays off an 11.6 handicap (“It would be better if I could putt”). A font of knowledge on the club and the wider park, Sumpton knows the species of every tree on the course, bird on the lake and fish in the water.
Where Devons is diplomatic, in order to avoid confrontation with the club’s board, Sumpton is outspoken and unapologetic. He was the only member to speak out against the All England offer at the last golf club members’ vote in October, and has vowed to continue his campaign – even if his views are not generally shared in the clubhouse.
“I joined this club in the 80s,” he says, as we pass a lake near the 18th fairway. “I want to be playing golf here for the rest of my life. And I’m only 66 – there are other members who have been here much longer. There are veterans who joined as juniors. But they [the All England] want us to give up all of that history and all of this beauty, for a load of cash.”
He says he feels no ill will to other members who have decided to vote in favour. “This is a life-changing amount of money, which people are planning to use to help their children get on to the property ladder, or to pay their grandchildren’s university fees,” Sumpton says, as he stops to chat to most of the players we see. “It’s a very friendly club, even if there are different views about the sale.” Dissenters will still collect the payout; some are tentatively discussing good causes to which the money they didn’t ask for could go.
“My overriding fear,” Sumpton continues, “is what this expansion will mean for the environment, for these trees and this lake. There used to be lots of migratory wildfowl on the lake – now there are very few,” he says, as a crane behind him lifts huge panels for No 1 Court’s new retractable roof into the sky.
Sumpton is also vice-chairman of the Friends of Wimbledon Park – a community group set up to preserve the grade II-listed park’s landscape. “It breaks my heart to have witnessed the degradation of this fragile environment,” he says. In 2016, Historic England placed Wimbledon Park on its “at risk” register, warning that the park, which was the site of the 1st Earl Spencer’s manor house in the 16th century, is “highly vulnerable”. “This is still one of the most beautiful places in London, but it used to be so much more beautiful,” says Sumpton, a father of two daughters who grew up playing in the park most Saturday mornings. “To me, the All England is like a vulture, looking over Church Road at us as easy pickings.”
Sumpton argues that, if the All England does not intend to build any structures on the golf club’s land – just courts, paths, toilets – “Why can’t golf and tennis both be played here? A compromise is possible. We give over the whole course to them for a month every summer anyway. We golfers are turfed out in the last week of June, and the lorries and workmen come in and transform the course into whatever they need,” Sumpton says, as he points out where the famous queue annually snakes down the fourth, fifth and sixth fairways.
Hospitality suites are built between the green of the eighth and the tee of the ninth. Those who fork out £50,000 for “exclusive circle” debenture tickets, which give holders a Centre Court seat for all 13 days of the championships for five years, are given reserved parking on the 12th fairway. TV news crews build a platform between the 11th green and the fourth tee for presenters from across the world to stand on, from where they are beamed into millions of homes. Meanwhile the clubhouse, Sumpton says, is transformed into “the most opulent venue for the VVIPs, with champagne flowing”. Golf buggies are repurposed to ferry important guests across the course to their seats. “When I’m watching it on TV and I see all the empty seats, I know most of them are enjoying themselves in the hospitality marquees and clubhouses instead.”
Four months after Novak Djokovic and Angelique Kerber lifted the 2018 singles trophies, pocketing £2.25m each, the clubhouse is far more sedate, with mostly retirement-aged players relaxing on red leather sofas after completing 18 holes. Last month, I sat down with former TV newsreader Michael Archer and his foursome partners for a cappuccino, and asked how they felt about the forthcoming vote.
“First of all, I’m 84 and under the terms of the deal we will still be able to play some golf here for four years, by which time I’ll be 88,” Archer says, referring to the current plans, under which the club will continue as a nine-hole course for a while. “By that time, I’ll either be gone or won’t have many playing years left. It would be stupid not to vote for the sale and help younger members of my family.” The rest, also mostly octogenarians, agree.
But within minutes of sitting down with Archer and his friends, the club’s manager appears at our table. “You can’t ask members these questions,” he says, leading me to his office downstairs with my still-hot coffee in hand. Speaking on the phone downstairs, the club’s publicist eventually convinces him that it might be bad PR to stop members speaking to the press. The manager lets me out of his office, only to catch up with me again minutes later. “I’m afraid you’re not complying with the club dress code and I will have to ask you to leave.” Even after nipping into the loo to change into my work trousers and shirt, my outfit still didn’t meet the grade.
The club’s publicist is Mark Garraway, managing director of Instinctif Partners, a PR firm that also represents eBay, HSBC and France’s national railways. I email to ask him how he came to be representing the club and who pays his fees. “No comment.” Is the All England picking up the bill, as one former director tells me? “No comment.”
But Garraway later emails to clarify that the tennis club is indeed paying his fees, as well as those of the bank advising the golf club on the sale. This is not, he says, a conflict of interest.
Whichever way the vote goes on 13 December, the golf club will one day be remade as tennis courts: it is just a matter of time. The All England bought the freehold from Merton borough council for £5.2m in 1993; when the golf club’s lease expires, in 2041, the land will become the All England’s for ever.
As I walk away from the clubhouse, a Mercedes pulls up alongside and the driver winds down the window. “Would you be kind enough to walk 200 yards down the road so they can’t see me talking to you?” asks the driver, a former director of the club. I crouch by the passenger window and we talk for 15 minutes, on the condition that I don’t use his name.
“I’ve always thought we were an open and honest club,” he says. “But I had to step down as I think the board has sold out to the All England.” A lot of the golf club members, he says, are widows and rely on friends at the club for their social life. “There will be a lot of social dislocation if this deal goes ahead,” he says. “But the sand is slipping away – the All England is too rich and too powerful not to get its way in the end.
“Very privately”, he says, he is on the side of Devons, Baker and Sumpton, and will be casting his vote against the sale. “But I’m not looking forward to going home and telling my wife I voted to turn down £85,000,” he says. “That should tell you all you need – in the end, greed will win.”
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