The closure of the Redcar steelworks in 2015 was a tragedy for the seaside town and the region but, out of that misery, Cleveland Golf Club was reborn
On the bad days, you would be covered. Legs, ankles, clothes – they would all be black. “The grass was black,” remembers Frank Spenceley. “I’ll never forget the day we had a mid-amateur here. People came in looking like pandas. I remember their eyes. They were coming off like they’d been down a coal mine. All you could see were the whites of their eyes.”
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. That was called ‘ponding’.
“It was the biggest blast furnace in Europe,” Spenceley says of the former Redcar steelworks that still dominate the skyline at Cleveland Golf Club – even though the plant has been shut for more than four years.
“It pumped out about 10,000 tonnes of molten iron a day. When things were bad at the steelmaking and they couldn’t take it, there were these ponds at the front of the furnace – between it and the end of the course.
“They used to go and turn the torpedo over and pond the iron. That was using a 300 tonne ladle into what’s normally an area that’s dry and dusty. When they half turned it over, it blew in and the muck … We’ve got pictures of when it was blowing out of there at 40 miles-per-hour. You couldn’t breathe and it was red hot – a cloud of orange material that just deposited itself on the golf course.”
It was a brave player that wore white in the face of all that. You’d have struggled to find at hint of it at Cleveland anyway. They didn’t sell it in the pro shop.
Spenceley finds himself conflicted when talking about the monument to industry that remains as a ghostly, but atmospheric, presence when you walk round the Old Tom Morris and Harry Colt-designed links.
They made iron and steel in Redcar for just under a century and its legacy was immense. The metal made here helped build the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Spenceley was part of that for 34 years. When he started, in 1976, 13,000 lads toiled in the temperatures.
When the official receiver bolted the gates for the final time in October 2015, the works blighted by price slumps, 3,000 workers were pitched into unemployment.
The closure had a catastrophic effect on the seaside town. Torchlight vigils were held to try and relight the fires. All to no avail.
But while the tragedy rocked residents, it brought a paradoxical – if slightly uncomfortable – effect for the club where Spenceley has been secretary for a decade.
“You can’t have everything,” he explains. “You can have the works and dirt, and fewer members and people coming to play the golf course. It has never looked back since the place closed.
“It was straight away. People started to come and play. If you’re not involved with that work, why should you get dirty?
“I was earning a living out of it. They paid me. I couldn’t be screaming and crying about it. It’s only when you live in this area that you understand.”
He’s right. I grew up in nearby Billingham in the shadow of ICI, amid mile after mile of pipes, cooling towers, near constant plumes of smoke, and jets of flame that would occasionally shoot into the air.
People called us Smoggies but the insult was turned on its head – deployed as a term of endearment by a population that was, and remains, fiercely proud of its industrial heritage.
Its absence in Redcar, though, has transformed Cleveland Golf Club as a proposition. If you want a tee time here in winter, book early. It’s jammed full from dawn until dusk.
Visitor fees are massively up and membership is full. It’s something Spenceley and the committee never dreamed they’d see when the furnace was in full flow.
“Did we ever think getting full would cause an issue? Never in this world,” he insists. “I never contemplated what the difference was.
“I try and juggle all the balls – visitors, members – and keep everyone happy. It’s about getting the right amount of visitors, because you need turnover, and members. I just thought ‘we’re sorted, we’ve got enough money’.
“It was something you never thought about. You wanted to grow but you don’t realise it can get to the extent we have.
“It’s a good position and our reputation now is growing. In this area, I don’t think anyone can touch us for the golf course and the whole package – clubhouse, bar and catering.”
That’s because when the dust cleared what it revealed to those never before tempted to beat a path to its door was a course of quality.
It’s a layout of strong par 3s, minimal but consistent bunkering, and a stiff enough challenge from the tips that it caused everyone bar Alex Fitzpatrick a headache in the 2017 Yorkshire Amateur.
But now the orange clouds have parted, and the glorious linksland has been revealed, Cleveland ambitions are soaring ever higher.
“In my 10 years, I’ve got to somewhere I didn’t believe we could get to. Now we’re here, I know what we’d like to see. We’d like Open regional qualifying but you need everything to be right.
“You’ve got to get your foot in the door and be banging your drum. That would be the pinnacle, to see professionals trying to qualify for the Open coming to play here.
“We’re on the top of the wave and long may it continue but we can’t sit back now. We’ve got to keep pushing.
“I don’t want it to stay a ‘hidden gem’. I want a wider audience and, when people come, it brings money.”