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Golf goes for the high rollers

SURREY: There is more to golf than 18 holes, or at least there is at Queenwood Golf Club in Surrey. The difficulty is finding out what members get for a joining fee reputed to be in the six-figure range, not least because the club has an ex-directory phone number and journalistic inquiries are met the way inquiries to the headquarters of MI6 might be: tersely.

“We don’t like to talk about the club, or who our members are or how much,” says a spokesman. “The membership is now full and we don’t want to market ourselves in any way. Our members don’t want to be in the public eye. One of the things they like about the club is privacy.” Of course, secrecy is one of the great marketing tools. Since it opened three years ago to no fanfare, Queenwood’s reticence has not stopped it becoming one of the most talked about clubs in the country. Even in the rarefied world of golfing millionaires, it inspires much whispered speculation about its joining fees reported to be £145,000 and its membership list, which is said to be limited to 350 and includes Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Hugh Grant, as well as a handful of Ryder Cup players such as Darren Clarke, David Howell and Paul McGinley.

One Queenwood member who is willing to speak about the club is Ernie Els, who wrote on his website last year: “It is a really special place. The practice facilities are so good they wouldn’t be out of place at a professional tour event and generally there are not many people around so I can concentrate fully on my game.” Indeed, what is beyond speculation is that Queenwood is the most exclusive and certainly the most expensive golf club in Britain - a title previously held by Loch Lomond Golf Club in Scotland. There, the sumptuous setting on the shore of the loch is matched by the sumptuously restored 18th-century clubhouse, where the furnishings are plush, the dining is “five-star” and the staff quietly discreet as they serve drinks, valet park cars and polish shoes.

“We are not a golf club in the traditional manner,” says the club’s James Shaw, who describes himself as the vice-president of membership development. “Most people play at a golf club 20 minutes down the road from home and drive there every Saturday morning to play with their friends. We are not like that. This is a global club, for people who don’t see Loch Lomond as their local club. It is a place they travel to meet friends and relax. Think of us as a family of friends across the world.” Membership of the Loch Lomond family comes at a price: £55,000, with annual fees of £1,900. “Our members are accomplished people, some of whom view these sums as extraordinary value for money,” says Shaw, without a trace of irony.

Exclusive, special, private or otherwise, Queenwood and Loch Lomond are at the forefront of a new movement in golf in this country, a movement which has as its ethos the words uttered this week by someone intimately involved with a multimillion-pound course development: “The problem with golf in this country is that it’s too cheap.” It is this approach which has seen a phalanx of new high-end golf developments, from Brocket Hall Golf Club in Hertfordshire to Archerfield, a £50m development near Edinburgh which has two courses, a £10m clubhouse and 100 housing plots for sale at prices up to £2m. Such figures might sound outlandish in a British context, but they are not unusual in the United States. The property developer Donald Trump, who recently expressed a desire to build a course in Scotland, spent $3m (£1.6m) building a decorative waterfall at one of his courses in upstate New York and charges people upwards of $300,000 to join his clubs.

The joining fee for Archerfield is modest by such standards: £15,000. “It’s not giveaway golf, it is golf for people who deserve it,” says David Russell, a former European Tour player who designed Archerfield’s two courses. “Our members are successful people who like toys. They collect toys flash cars, boats. We have got members here who are also members of six or seven other golf clubs.” This breed of wealthy golfer even has its own new magazine, Executive Golf, which will publish its first edition this month with a distribution limited to the so-called 100 top golf clubs in the country. “The magazine is aimed at people who have a high disposable income, who have a desire to travel, to consume luxury goods like boats and nice cars,” says its editor Karen Kay.

The problem with more established clubs, according to Kay, is that they have become overcrowded as people live longer and the popularity of the sport grows. “The more expensive you make a golf club, the more exclusive it becomes. The people who join these places want exclusivity. The Hugh Grants of this world don’t want to wait for a tee-time behind the hoi polloi.” But whereas Kay seeks to ride the new trend, others are more cautious, hearing echoes of the 1980s when the so-called economic boom of the late Thatcher years gave birth to countless high-end golf clubs which struggled to survive and in many cases went bust in the subsequent economic downturn. Even if the likes of Queenwood and Loch Lomond continue to thrive, some critics argue they contribute little to the wider game of golf and, in any case, aren’t as “special” as they like to think they are. the guardian

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