For most of the planet, it would be an easy ques­tion – would you give up mem­ber­ship of a golf club for £85,000 ($108,000)?

The All Eng­landEngl Lawn Ten­nis Club, bet­ter known as Wim­ble­don,ble­don wants to­buy­to­buy the golf club next door to make room for more courts. Each golfer would stand tomake£tomake£8585,000 from the sale – but thathat doesn’t mean ev­ery­one’s on board …

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - WORDS Ru­pert Neate PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Amit Len­non

Things aren’t that sim­ple for the wealthy mem­bers of one south Lon­don club, whose next-door neigh­bour – the home of the Wim­ble­don Cham­pi­onships – has made a fi­nal, fi­nal of­fer to buy them out. Will they take it?

Afort­night be­fore Christ­mas, when most peo­ple are wor­ry­ing about find­ing the money for presents, Cather­ine Devons will turn down an £85,000 ($108,000) 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 will this week be put to a vote of 758 golf­ing mem­bers; 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 nearby Royal Wim­ble­don, the thir­dold­est 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

‘It’s like Brexit, you are ei­ther for it or against it. It has split mem­bers’

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.

If mem­bers back the deal, the sale will be for­mally ap­proved by the golf club’s gov­ern­ing com­mit­tee on 20 De­cem­ber; 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 14,061seat 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 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, 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. 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 will con­tinue his cam­paign.

“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.

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.

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. 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, 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. 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 clar­i­fies 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. 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. 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.” • RU­PERT NEATE IS THE GUARDIAN’S WEALTH CORRESPONDENT

AMIT LEN­NON

Pedi­gree Cather­ine Devons is a mem­ber of the Wim­ble­don Park Golf Club, which was laid out on park­land cre­ated by Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown in the 18th cen­tury

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