Sir Graham Wylie has some fascinating tales about his 10 years at the Newcastle venue. Steve Carroll sat down to hear them
In the honesty box you’d find everything. Well, everything except cash. “I opened it up and there were Tesco vouchers, train tickets, there were IOUs,” remembers Sir Graham Wylie after buying the Close House estate.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to sort this out, make it commercially viable.’”
May 10 marks the 10th anniversary of the Newcastle club’s rebirth. It’s been quite a decade. Two British Masters have visited, along with Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter to boot.
Lee Westwood has made the venue – and the city – his permanent home. It’s been the site of his stunning European Tour renaissance.
But rewind and things were once quite different. And were it not for a series of unlikely coincidences, we might still be hitting balls from the football and rugby pitches that used to criss-cross the fairways of what is now the Filly course.
If you didn’t know Sir Graham for being the owner of Close House, you will know him for Sage – the financial software company he founded as a student at Newcastle University.
He programmed the initial package himself and the firm grew into a FTSE 100 monolith.
Wylie says he bought Close House in 2004 as a favour to the University, which had possessed the Grade 2 mansion and estate since 1960. He was looking to give something back to the place where it all began. It was meant to be a thank you.
“But when I got the key to the house I thought, ‘What have I done?’, he remembers. “The golf course was OK but not great. The clubhouse was a changing facility.
“There’s agricultural experiments going on in the walled garden. I thought, ‘How do I turn this into a commercial venture that actually pays its way?’
“The only way of doing that was to improve the golf course. I tried that. It didn’t work. I turned the mansion house into a hotel to do weddings and dining. That didn’t work – because we couldn’t get the revenue to cover the costs. What do you do next? Build a better golf course.”
Fate played its part. A farmer, who owned 200 acres next door, just happened to want to sell the land. And John Glendinning, who was running the golf club at that time, just happened to have a friend who designed golf courses.
That was Scott Macpherson.
“Sometimes, in business, that’s what happens. Fate takes a hand and you just run with it. So I ended up buying the 200 acres and ended up asking Scott to come and design the golf course.”
Macpherson’s creation was the Colt, a design that sweeps through the swathes, hills, and vales of the Tyne Valley.
It’s a layout that taxes your mind, as well as your fitness, but new ventures need profile. Enter Lee Westwood.
“That’s a great story,” says Wylie. “At Sage, whenever we had a new building to move into we always brought in a celebrity, or somebody famous, to open it because it brings you publicity.
“So I’m sitting there, with the guys that run the golf course, and I say, ‘When it’s about to be opened let’s get someone famous to open it for us and generate that PR.’
“We actually talked about Nick Faldo, and at the time the Prime Minister was David Cameron, and then a friend of mine said, ‘Next week on Radio Two in the morning, Chris Evans is going to auction off a round of golf with the World No 1 Lee Westwood for Children in Need.’
“I thought ‘That’s it!’ I’ll bid for that and I’ll get him to open the golf course. It’s a win-win. Charity gets a lot of money and I get him to come here and open the golf course.
“I woke up that morning at six. Turned the radio on at seven. Chris came on and said, ‘Great, great, auction prize this morning. We’ve got the world’s No 1 golfer, Mr Lee Westwood, and you can bid to play a round of golf with him at Sunningdale on December 12.’ I thought that was no good so I didn’t bid. I think it went for £90,000.
“After that, we were a bit disappointed but Alan Shearer (a Close House member) said ‘I know Chubby (Chandler, Westwood’s then agent), shall I ring him and ask if he’ll do it anyway?’”
Westwood agreed, on the proviso he could play with Newcastle United’s No 9, and opening day was set for May 10.
“We opened on Monday. The day before, Martin Kaymer was playing an event,” says Close House managing director Jonathan Lupton.
“He had about an eight-footer on the last and if he holed the putt, he was World No 1. If he missed, Lee was No 1. We had two plaques ready and were going, ‘Please miss the putt!’ He did and Lee was No 1 when we opened.”
The club was designed to be different to anything else in the area – modelled on the experiences Wylie had playing golf in America – and that ethos was stencilled into the brains of the new members on the very first day the clubhouse swung back its doors in 2011.
Sir Graham laughs at the memory. “On the Monday morning we got our first complaint. A member had said, ‘There’s somebody in the clubhouse wearing a pair of jeans. That shouldn’t be allowed and I want you go and hunt out this person and ban them.’
“John Glendinning went round and found out who was wearing a pair of jeans. It was me.”
“We started selling jeans in the shop,” adds Lupton. “And then no one could say anything because we had jeans on sale.”
“Most golfers are dressed quite well anyway so there’s no reason to have a dress code because most people are quite sensible,” Wylie goes on. “It’s quite relaxed, and the staff are very relaxed, and we just try to create a very relaxed atmosphere where people will say ‘let’s go and visit the clubhouse and have a drink’ because it’s just a nice place to go.”
Close House has come through a recession, austerity, and now Covid. The business is, in Wylie’s words, “cashflow positive and making money”.
The future’s looking very bright, and you can probably bank on that involving another European Tour stop. Would the club like a more regular event?
“Yes, I’d like to keep the brand high,” Wylie states. “If we stopped doing high profile events, then I’m not sure where the brand would go.
“But as long as I keep Lee here, and we’ve signed a new five-year deal with him, if we’re talking to the European Tour about if we can hold other events in the future, I’ll always be receptive because I want to keep Close House in the conversation – in both golf magazines and television – for golfers around the country.”
Lupton adds: “I think we’ve built up a really strong relationship with the Tour over the two events we’ve had, and for very different reasons.
“The field was incredible for 2017 at the British Masters and it tipped its hat at the respect Lee Westwood had on the European Tour as the host of the event. He’s a legend of the game. A lot of the players came to support his event.
“Last year, it would have been a lot easier to not have that event. We were the first sporting event back in the UK and it would have been easier at that point to say ‘look, it doesn’t work’ but we worked with the European Tour and we made it happen.
“It was Graham’s belief and the team behind him saying ‘yes, we can do this Nothing’s too much of an issue’. The golf course stood up fantastically well, we had an incredible event, and I think that got the European Tour going again post lockdown.”
Close House is a project Wylie is determined to keep tinkering with and improving – but it’s also more than that. After more than a decade of hoping, planning, building, maintaining and pushing, he sees the estate as a significant part of what he will eventually leave to the region.
“It’s great just to wander around and keep suggesting what we could do to improve the golf course or improve the whole business.
“I’m hoping that this will become my legacy to the North East. That when I’m dead and buried, Close House continues to be a well-respected high profile golf course.”
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