Close House will herald the start of the European Tour's UK swing, but it's been quite a journey. NCG went to get the inside story
There’s been quite a lot to think about. Sorting out cash flows, balancing that with staffing – “bringing in the thing no one had ever heard of before: furlough” – while hoping that carefully constructed business plan doesn’t come crashing down.
Imagine amid a whirlwind of coronavirus confusion, a crisis that needed negotiating largely from the confines of a kitchen table during lockdown, that there’s the backdrop of a rather sizeable European Tour event looming too.
It’s enough to give you a headache. But Jonathan Lupton isn’t someone who gets easily perturbed.
“I’ve got a great and supportive team at Close House,” he says as I try in vain to probe perceived woes. “I am the managing director but there is a board of us who make decisions and have been in contact throughout. We’ve come through it together.
“[Coronavirus] has made everyone think differently. Our whole business model was turned upside down in a couple of days – certainly for this year.
“We had lots of corporate members and corporate golf days, guests in the hotel, and food and beverage revenue.
“So far, we’ve returned and have quite quickly been able to give a lovely environment to our members, who are our bread and butter.”
Next week, the eyes of the continent will be on the club as the British Masters heralds the start of the UK swing.
Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter were among those paying homage to the club’s attached tour professional, Lee Westwood, when the tournament was last here three years ago.
It was a celebration of golf, and it had the numbers to match. The packed tees and greens were full of faces. There was nothing to say this year would be different.
Then the virus took hold. Life in the immediate aftermath of such a generation-altering event means compromise. Sport is now without fans.
“We had 68,000 on site in 2017 and we were hoping we would have more [this time]. Early indications were that ticket sales were fantastic – they were amazing,” Lupton adds.
“A lot of the best images we got in 2017 were when they had the background of a crowd.
“When you are a junior, and you want to be a professional, you want to hole putts and imagine there’s a crowd there watching you.
“Those elements might be strange but it also goes back to the purist form of golf where it’s you, a golf club, and a golf ball against the golf course.
“It should be intriguing.”
What the watching public, now confined to television, should see is a golf course at the top of its game.
While the will it won’t it drama of whether the tournament could be staged played out during the darkest days of shutdown, Close House kept a strong team of greenkeepers on site to ensure they’d come out of the other side ready to get going.
Westwood’s input on the evolving nature of the course over the years has also been key and will be noted when everything gets under way on July 22 – most significantly in the new back tee that switches the 7th hole from a par 4 to 5.
The tour legend’s involvement with Close House doesn’t begin and end with the logo on his hat.
He’s an ambassador, a consultant, a Newcastle resident, and soon to be family when he becomes club owner Sir Graham Wylie’s brother-in-law later this year.
“He’s perceived as one of our own,” Lupton says of the relationship Westwood has with the club’s wider membership.
“He is a member of the club, and someone that a lot of people at the club now consider to be a friend.
“Every time we are making a significant change to the estate or the golf courses, we are using Lee as a consultant and it’s great to have him on site to use his knowledge and his eye out there.
“We generally come up with the ideas and propose them to Lee. Some of the ideas have gone no further. The 7th tee was one I particularly believed in and Lee was all for it – thought it was a really good idea.
“What we have done over the last nine years since we have been open is that we’ve not stood still. As an estate, we’ve moved forward and the whole estate tries to develop and evolve.
“Lee is now part of that and it’s great to have somebody like that. It just makes you feel a bit more secure when you’re making that decision and you’re discussing it with someone who has the knowledge he does.”
Wet weather, and no wind, made the first tournament a real treat for scoring. McIlroy raced round the weekend in only 127 shots and Paul Dunne hit a course record 61 in the final round as he grabbed the trophy.
It was out of character for the course, which is often grabbed by the breeze and can run fast when the barometer gets going.
It’s a mantra at some tournaments to keep the score down but Lupton finds himself unconcerned about what the best players shoot.
For him, the Colt course is as much about what happens during the rest of the year as it is about one week.
“It was fairly still for the four days last time. For that week, the greens were in great condition but I’ve very rarely seen them that soft. These players are very good as well and what we try to have at Close House is the best members’ golf club in the region.
“Yes, it’s nice it has strengths as a championship golf course but if the players come here and make birdies I think that makes good viewing.
“I’m not one who thinks we need to get to a certain target in terms of scoring. If the guys come here and someone happens to have their week and are in great form, fair play to them.
“We will try and produce the golf course in the best possible condition and hopefully it creates enough of a challenge to create separation in the field.”
What Lupton really hopes, ultimately, is that the tournament will project Close House to a global audience and shine a light on what’s developing at the club.
That will make the challenges that have so dramatically marked the first half of the year worthwhile.
“The easy thing for us to do would have been to postpone or cancel the event. But the passion of Lee, the belief of Sir Graham, and the support of the European Tour – those three elements have been why we’ve still got the event.”
Watch the British Masters from Close House on Sky Sports from July 22-25. Learn more about Close House on the club’s website.