In the rough: members of prestigious Wentworth golf club come out swinging against new Chinese owners

Uproar at the birthplace of Ryder Cup as Beijing developer culls membership and jacks up fees

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 1:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 4:57pm

Treachery, a clash of civilisations and civil disobedience might be the last things you'd expect to encounter at a prestigious English golf club.

But all three are happening at Wentworth - the birthplace of the Ryder Cup - where members are in open revolt over the "immoral changes" proposed by the club's new Chinese owners.

Beijing-based land-development behemoth Reignwood Investment is slashing membership from 4,000 to 800, charging a one-off joining fee of £100,000 (HK$1.175 million) and more than doubling annual membership rates to £16,000.

The changes were announced to members via an email, sparking angry protests that "threaten UK-Sino relations" - and which have even seen the intervention of British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

"The Chinese owners want to rip the heart from our community by kicking out most of the members and turning a national institution into an enclave for the mega-rich," said Nigel Moss, a member for 28 years.

"They have shown a lack of understanding of golfing and British cultures, and are acting immorally, if not illegally."

Existing members - many of whom live on the exclusive leafy estate near London - have also been warned that even if they accept the changes and can afford the new fees, they will still have to pass a selection process to make the cut.

"We have been told we must reapply for membership and then be interviewed to assess our suitability," club captain Michael Fleming said.

"Not only does their blatant disregard for our community and culture offend us, the Chinese owners are adding insult to injury with their plans to interview long-standing members to see if we fit the profile of their desired new membership.

Some members described the changes as "a community cleansing exercise" by Reignwood to weed out traditional clientele and replace them with foreign ultra-high-net-worth individuals, including Chinese and Russian oligarchs.

Reignwood purchased Wentworth last year from British restaurant mogul Richard Caring for £135 million, promising to keep "the unique culture of club" and spend £20 million upgrading the three courses and facilities at the tennis and health club.

"At first we were elated because Wentworth needed money to modernise, and Reignwood assured us they would preserve our unique culture. But they are breaking that promise," Fleming said.

Wentworth allows thousands to play the courses every year as guests of members and in invitational tournaments.

"Chop it down to a few hundred ultra-high-net-worth foreign members and it will disappear from view and turn the club and community into a ghost town," Moss said.

"Wentworth will be lost to the nation, only ever seen through glimpses on TV if and when the PGA Tour goes there."

Members have been demanding a meeting with Reignwood's billionaire founder and chairman, Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang, a keen golfer of Chinese-Thai heritage who is also known as Yan Bin.

So far he has refused. Last Sunday, members called an emergency general meeting - but the owners put notices up around the club saying it had been postponed.

Instead, the president of Reignwood's UK operation, Ni Songhua, and club CEO Stephen Gibson, acting under immense internal and external pressure, last week met a three-strong group of members for the first time since the changes were introduced over six weeks ago.

Responding to queries by the Sunday Morning Post, Reignwood said in an emailed statement that it wanted the club to "remain as part of the community" and had now invited members to put forward their own proposals for a new membership scheme for "consideration".

But such is the level of mistrust, Moss and Fleming said any concessions were treated with deep scepticism by members.

"Whilst we welcome their invite to offer an alternative membership scheme, they have not postponed their marketing campaign and recruitment drive for ultra-rich members, so we remain deeply suspicious," Moss said.

"If Reignwood wanted to be an integrated part of the community, why didn't they consult thoroughly with us before deciding to evict all 4,000 members, including families, and ask them to reapply to and be judged by undisclosed criteria and undisclosed people?" he said.

Tensions escalated further last month when the Chinese owners were accused of showing a lack of respect after the St George's flag was lowered to half-mast for victims of the Paris terrorist atrocity while the Chinese flag, which also now stands outside the clubhouse, was not.

In another twist last week, members claimed they had been betrayed by one of their own. It was revealed that honorary member Anthony Grabiner, one of Britain's most respected barristers, was hired by Reignwood to give advice on the legality of its plans to drive up fees while drastically cutting membership.

"I feel stabbed in the back by Lord Grabiner," Fleming said.

"You don't expect an honorary member to draw up legal advice to evict all the members who have provided everything for him," he said.

Moss said Grabiner, who sits in the House of Lords, "had given the legal underpinning to evict all 4,000 members".

But Grabiner, whose special membership allows him to play for free at the club, which normally charges £360 per 18-hole round, denied any act of treachery, telling a British newspaper: "I was just giving professional advice. My personal views are not relevant. They [the members] just don't like the advice and I understand that."

Conspiracy theories are also festering. Many members are linking the recent decision by President Xi Jinping to ban Communist Party members from playing golf in China with Reignwood's plan for a "cultural genocide" at Wentworth.

Some members fear if the plans go ahead, Wentworth will "become a club infrequently visited by [Yan Bin's] preferred ultra-high-net-worth individuals, many of whom we believe might be his friends in the Chinese Communist Party who can no longer play the game at home".

"The changes smack of a property-development grab. Not only do we fear the loss off our golf club and community, we fear Reignwood wants to build more residence complexes for overseas buyers once we're out of the way, many of which will be bought for investment and not lived in, laying the community to waste."

An action group called "Wet Feet", after the Chinese proverb "It never rains on your neighbours without getting your feet wet", has been formed.

"We hope this resonates with the Chinese. It's raining very hard on us at the present moment," Moss said.

Last week, Wentworth's residents contacted Foreign Secretary Hammond, their local MP.

He told members in a letter that he agreed the proposed changes were "very disappointing" and that he would seek a meeting with Reignwood.

He said the Chinese owners "may wish to bear in mind the need to engage and to maintain good relations with the local community if they wish to seek planning permissions in the future".

Moss said: "We hope having their plans for redevelopment threatened by a member of the British government will make them think again."

A petition signed by members is to be handed this week to Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming , urging him to ask Reignwood to scrap its radical membership scheme, because it is "a misguided step [that] will impact negatively on thousands of people and can only damage China-UK relations".

"Save Wentworth for the Nation" posters have been hung on many of the gated mansions, the owners of which include club members, cricketer Kevin Pietersen, pro golfer Ernie Els, and famous British TV personalities Michael Parkinson, Bruce Forsyth and comedian Russ Abbot.

Chat-show host and long-standing member Parkinson has hit out publicly at Reignwood, telling the media the decision was "barmy". He said: "It's a cull, and it saddens and angers me to see an iconic golf club treated in this way. Wentworth is a byword for golf."

Reignwood told the Post it was intent on keeping tradition alive and would now listen to members' concerns.

But that has failed to appease the club's members.

"Since taking over, Reignwood have said one thing and then done another," Moss said.

"Words and deeds [have] a distant relationship in their business dealings. We have advised them on many things and nothing has been done. And continuing with the new recruitment process does not fill us with much confidence until they will listen to us," he said.

Now members are being asked to donate funds to launch a legal challenge and have hired lawyers.

And some say they will embark on direct action and disrupt the PGA BMW Championship at Wentworth next year if Reignwood fails to back down.

"They seem to forget 300 homes are located around the fairways of the three courses, and as a golfer you have to pass along many roads and over many bridges to play the greens," one member said.

Another commented: "It's a clash of civilisations, but we intend to win to save the club."

Reignwood owns Pine Valley Golf and Country Club in Beijing, and is also owner of the failed Wonderland Amusement Park near the Chinese capital. It recently bought the old London Port Authority Building, which it is turning into a luxury residential complex.

Wentworth's purchase is the latest deal in what has been dubbed the "Great Chinese Takeaway" as more than 500 Chinese state and private entities snap up well-known British brands and landmarks with the full backing of the UK government, which is keen to do trade with China.

The European Tour, which runs all professional golf tournaments in Europe from its headquarters on the Wentworth estate, said there were no immediate plans to relocate.

"We are aware of the situation but the membership dispute is a private matter," a spokesman told the Post.

Fellow golfers around the world should be ready to protect their clubs should they ever fall into Chinese ownership, Moss warned.

"All clubs should be very suspicious of rich Chinese showing a keen interest in their golfing communities and making big promises," he said.

Another meeting of some members, residents and Reignwood is scheduled for Thursday, Reignwood confirmed.