From guitars to golf - NCG meets Judas Priest's KK Downing

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NCG Exclusive Interview: KK Downing of heavy metal rockers Judas Priest

Sat on the patio at the front of The Astbury, Ken Downing is looking out over his course, bathed in an unexpected early April heatwave. 

On the 18th tee some young golfers are practicing trick shots, while waiting patiently in the vegetable garden are some property developers who have made a long journey south to discuss the construction of a new holiday village on the site.

He’s supping a cup of tea, but I can’t miss the opportunity to drink a pint beside a rock metal legend, so I order a Stella. After the baking heat of the day, it’s a welcome relief, and we turn our attentions to the matter of how a guitarist once accused of playing music so shocking it led to protests outside concerts, retired to a laid-back existence where he finds his back garden transformed into a championship course supported by Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke.

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Don’t worry, the rock god is hidden behind the subdued demeanor – he has the stereotypical slight rockstar frame, his hair is longer than a 62-year-old’s has any right to be, and there’s the matter of his 26-year-old Sicilian girlfriend, hiding away from the sun inside.

Life has been good to the West Bromwich boy who shot to fame as part of the heavy metal band Judas Priest. In the early 1970s, Downing was a leading feature of the heavy metal generation that included Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath.

‘They kicked our arses at golf, but we kicked theirs at tennis’
Leather jumpsuits, demonic idols and liberal use of eyeliner were all the rage, and with more than 45 million records sold, Judas Priest were one of the leading groups in this movement, so passionately embraced by the fans who took their music to heart.

Yet away from the stage, many of the rock idols chose to pursue a much more slow-paced lifestyle – one they feared would shatter the illusion if their fans ever found out.

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“We did keep it a bit of a secret back then,” said Downing, reflecting on how those die-hard fans would react it they knew their idols preferred a bacon sandwich and a quick 18 holes at the weekend, instead of the usual sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

“Golf was good for me, because instead of propping up the bar on days off, I was appreciating where I was in the world.”

It’s a baffling image. Judas Priest albums include ‘Killing Machine’, ‘Sin After Sin’ and ‘Screaming for Vengeance’. 

How can Downing go from heavy metal to the peaceful Shropshire countryside, where the only offending noises are the whistle of an engine on the Severn Valley heritage railway, or the cluck of an angry pheasant?

A tennis player in his youth, Downing first played golf when challenged to a ‘battle of the bands’ between Judas Priest and Def Leppard.

“They kicked our arses at golf, but we kicked theirs at tennis,” said Ken, forever shattering the established image of these rock legends. And it’s worth noting that this wasn’t in their dotage – this was the ‘70s, when they were supposed to be smashing up guitars or throwing televisions out of windows.

Rumour has it that the Godfather of Shock Rock himself, Alice Cooper, is the most accomplished golfer on the scene. The leather pants are left in the changing room, replaced with collared shirts and cleats.

Downing also took the game to heart, even posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the 1980s. He then went about transforming his country estate into a championship-standard course.

Waving to the awaiting property developers, stood beside a greenhouse and discussing their tactics, and indicating that I’ll only keep him a few moments more, Downing said how like any good rock album, early attempts to build the course were fiery affairs. He explained: “It didn’t go well and we had different contractors and architects, so I eventually took the baton up myself. I re-did everything and although it’s a cliché, I think it’s fair to say if you want something done, do it yourself.”

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Over the ensuing decade Downing became an expert on course design. He reads course planning books in bed, attends trade conferences and researches bunker construction online. He talks at length about how the bunkers are constructed to ensure they drain as quickly as possible.

“I wouldn’t say this course is finished by any means, but it’s a damn good start.”

Course developments will continue, such as the improvement of the rough to provide better drainage and a fairer lie. But things are kicking off on the estate, and Downing has suddenly found his days are getting busier.

“Everything is just about to start here,” he added, telling me about the plans for a new clubhouse, an Irish pub named after Clarke, and proposals for two holiday villages and even a cinema.

The PGA has sanctioned the course and the next step is hosting a EuroPro event. Looking out over his course, sipping on the last of his tea, Downing finished: “I just did as good as I could and  I’m pleased with what’s out there. We can have a tour event here, there’s no doubt in my mind. Everything can be improved with time, manpower and money, but I think I’m happy.”

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