New Chinese owners rile UK golf club members

Long-time Wentworth member, Dr Michael Fleming, says he expects 90 per cent of the members to leave the club when fee hikes come into force.
Long-time Wentworth member, Dr Michael Fleming, says he expects 90 per cent of the members to leave the club when fee hikes come into force.PHOTO: REUTERS

Beijing developer accused of jacking up fees to turn club into preserve of global ultra-rich

LONDON • London has been cosying up to Beijing in recent years in the hope of drawing Chinese investment, but in one corner of England, the love-in has turned to acrimony.

Long-time members of Wentworth, a hallowed golf club in Surrey county, just west of London, accuse the new Chinese owners of using an eye-watering fee hike to get rid of them and turn the club into a preserve of the global ultra-rich.

The dispute has caused diplomatic ripples, with interventions from Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who represents the local area in Parliament, and from the Chinese Embassy in London.

At issue is a plan by Beijing-based property and investment firm Reignwood Group, which bought Wentworth last year, that would require members to pay £100,000 (S$209,500) to remain part of the club and double maximum annual fees to £16,000.

"My own personal feeling is that they don't want us," said Dr Michael Fleming, a local dental surgeon and Wentworth member for 28 years.

PUSHED OUT

My own personal feeling is that they don't want us.

DR MICHAEL FLEMING, a dental surgeon and Wentworth member for 28 years.

The club says it plans to invest an initial £20 million to improve facilities, with £10 million being spent in the next two years, as it pursues its vision to make Wentworth "the world's premier private golf and country club". "We are absolutely clear on the important role the club plays within the community... We very much want this to continue," it e-mailed in response to queries.

Home to three 18-hole courses and to a striking crenellated clubhouse, the club is famed throughout the golfing world for an old association with the Ryder Cup and as the venue for the annual BMW PGA Championship. It has about 4,500 members, mostly wealthy locals.

Dr Fleming said he expected about 90 per cent of members to leave the club if Reignwood's changes come into force in April next year, and many have already left.

One member of 18 years, who did not wish to give his name, said Wentworth was already exclusive by most people's standards. "If they do have this exclusive membership, the club is going to be like a morgue. There will be nobody there."

Last month, Dr Fleming delivered a petition signed by over 500 members to the Chinese Embassy in London. Embassy official Jin Xu responded by writing that Reignwood had "assured me that their plans for Wentworth Club will serve the long-term interest of its members and local community".

But Mr Hammond, writing in his capacity as the area's MP, described Reignwood's plans as "very disappointing" in a letter to a club members. "It is clear to me that a solution needs to be found... which preserves the great history of the club," he said in a statement.

The conflict feeds into a wider debate in Britain over perceptions that prime assets are being sold to foreigners who may not always have local interests at heart. At Wentworth, it has fuelled strong anti-Chinese sentiment.

"Is this what the British people are to expect when the Chinese 'invest' in our country?," wrote a club member to the embassy.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'New Chinese owners rile UK golf club members'. Print Edition | Subscribe