Wentworth Golf Club loyalists to sue Chinese owners over plans to reduce membership

They claim Reignwood Group is riding roughshod over members’ legal rights as they try to make the club a haven for the mega-rich

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 4:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 5:06pm

Rebellious golfers in the UK are to mount a legal challenge against their club’s Chinese owners.

Members of the famous Wentworth course have employed a top London law firm to challenge Beijing-based property development conglomerate, Reignwood Group, over its plans to slash membership numbers and dramatically hike joining fees.

A month-long consultation ended in acrimonious stalemate at the weekend, the SCMP can reveal. “Reignwood hasn’t listened and is simply trying to ride roughshod over the Wentworth community,” said Nigel Moss, a long-term Wentwoeth golfer and resident of the exclusive leafy estate in a London stock market belt.

“Every key principle for a more inclusive membership scheme that we proposed was ignored,” added Moss, who participated in the negotiations.

Reignwood hasn’t listened and is simply trying to ride roughshod over the Wentworth community. Every key principle for a more inclusive membership scheme that we proposed was ignored
Nigel Moss, Wentworth golfer

The club, which is the birthplace of the Ryder Cup, was bought by Reignwood founder, Chinese-Thai entrepreneur Chanchai Ruayrungruang, for £135m (HK$1.5 billion) in 2014.

Last year it told members it would, from April 2017, reduce membership from 4,000 to 800, and said those invited to rejoin the club would be charged a one-off “debenture” of £100,000.

Annual fees would rise from £8,000 to £16,000 and new members will also be asked to pay £125,000. Members and residents claim Reignwood want to turn the club into an exclusive enclave for the mega-rich, “many of whom won’t live full-time on the estate or in the UK”.

Chanchai sent representatives to discuss the new scheme with existing members after the dispute made international headlines just before Christmas – including intervention by the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammod, who is also the local MP.

But the members and residents claim the Chinese side offered only token concessions – and said a legal challenge was now their only option “to save Wentworth for the nation”.

“Any concessions proposed by the Club over the consultation period appeared more like fiddling around the edges rather than addressing the fundamental – and reasonable – concerns of members,” said Wentworth Residents Association chairman, Eric Leon.

He added: “It is an absolute tragedy that the situation remains so antagonistic whereas a fair and reasonable solution could easily have been found.”

Wentworth Club has undertaken an extensive legal review of the proposed membership structure together with various legal and professional advisers and including seeking the opinion of Queen’s Counsel, which has confirmed that based on the available evidence it is able to proceed with the revised structure
Reignwood statement

The residents, many of whom work for top financial and law firms in London, are now pooling resources and contacts to mount their legal challenge.

The SCMP has seen the legal letter sent to Reginwood by law firm Quinn Emanuel on Monday, in which lawyers allege Reignwood’s membership changes would breach the deeds of a 1966 trust that protects the “nature and character of the club”.

Reignwood said in response: “Wentworth Club has undertaken an extensive legal review of the proposed membership structure together with various legal and professional advisers and including seeking the opinion of Queen’s Counsel, which has confirmed that based on the available evidence it is able to proceed with the revised structure.”

Undeterred, the Wentworth Residents Association said they elect the committee that controls the use of the roads running across the estate, and would seek to block the thoroughfares during the club’s prestigious annual PGA Championship, which takes place in late May.

“We don’t want to go down that route. But are willing to use our legal rights to prevent the use of the roads during the tournament if Reignwood refuse to properly listen and engage us,and uphold our rights,” a spokesman for members, told the SCMP.

A European Tour spokesperson said: “It would be extremely unfortunate if the current dispute between Reignwood and the Wentworth Residents Association had any negative effect on the BMW PGA Championship, which aside from showcasing Wentworth to golf fans around the world, has also raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for local charities over many years.”

It would be extremely unfortunate if the current dispute between Reignwood and the Wentworth Residents Association had any negative effect on the BMW PGA Championship
European Tour

Reignwood executive president, Ni Songhua said the group was committed to a long-term investment plan to “return Wentworth to its position as one of the world’s premier private golf and country clubs”.

He added: “While we have been giving assurances to those who have concerns about the investment plans, we have been heartened to be supported by so many existing members and residents of the Wentworth estate.

“We are confident that this collaboration between China and Britain will be a successful example of how the two nations can partner together and achieve great things through cultural exchange.”

However, a recent survey among the 4000 existing members indicated fewer than 10 per cent plan to accept the changes and apply to rejoin.