Wentworth forced to embrace Chinese-style golf club rules

Members will be kicked out if they criticise the club in the media

The  final day of this year’s  BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth golf club. Adult members have seen  their fees rise by  75%  to £13,500

The final day of this year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth golf club. Adult members have seen their fees rise by 75% to £13,500

 

After 18 months of ferocious and vocal opposition to its plans, the Chinese owner of Wentworth, one of Britain’s most famous golf clubs, have come up with a solution. Call it golf club membership with Chinese characteristics.

Reignwood, a leisure and soft drinks conglomerate headed by Chanchai Ruayrungruang, a Chinese-Thai businessman, has introduced sweeping changes to the club’s rules to prevent members criticising it in the media and to sideline them from having a say in club affairs.

A rule book brought in last month allows the company to kick out any member whose comments “on social media, the internet or in any newspaper or magazine article” are deemed by the board to be “injurious to the character or interest of the club”.

Reignwood has also changed Wentworth’s constitution to curtail the members’ say in activities at the headquarters of the PGA European Tour.

Members used to elect the majority of seats on the general committee, which takes decisions on matters such as club competitions, the appointment of officers and catering. The committee has been replaced by a “membership panel”, designated by the owner, which reduces the potential for internal dissent.

“The owners said they want a good relationship with us after last year’s fracas but their actions say something very different,” said one member, who declined to be named. “Having tried to kick us out and failed, they are now just trying to shut us up.”

Internal channels

Steve Gibson, Wentworth’s chief executive, said the new rules were not “materially dissimilar” to the ones previously in force. The restriction on media contact had been introduced because Reignwood wanted “member complaints to be handled through established internal channels, committees and consultative forums at the club, rather than through the media”.

The curbs are the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between the members and Reignwood, which bought the club for £135 million (€153m) from Richard Caring, a property tycoon, in 2014. Mr Caring had bought the club in 2004 after beating then-billionaire Seán Quinn in a protracted bidding process.

Fierce opposition forced the new owner to abandon initial plans to reduce the 4,000-strong membership by more than three-quarters and levy a one-off fee of £100,000.

However Reignwood has raised fees by 75 per cent for an adult member to £13,500 (€15,323). It defended the price increases, saying it had invested heavily in club facilities, refurbishing one of the three courses on the site at a cost of £5 million and was now planned to restore the “tired and crumbling” clubhouse.

Nonetheless, membership has declined by 40 per cent in the past two years at the club near Windsor.

A person familiar with the company said it was reasonable for Reignwood to protect itself from “vitriolic attacks” from some disaffected members.

Clubhouse flags

This individual cited an incident in late 2015, when dissident members had orchestrated negative media coverage that accused the company of disrespecting the victims of the Paris attacks by only lowering the St George’s flag at the clubhouse in respect and not the club’s own flag as well.

The move had caused Reignwood undeserved embarrassment, the source claimed. “It is a long-established protocol that the club only lowers the St George’s flag at these moments.”

Members passed a motion at last November’s annual meeting calling on Reignwood to cancel the rule changes and condemning the proposed suppression of free speech. The motion was subsequently dismissed by Reignwood

A person familiar with the company said a small minority of members attended the annual meeting, and they tended to go along with whatever was proposed “after a few drinks at the bar”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017