Cherish your golf club – one day it might not be there

The Scoop

Mark Townsend reminisces about his salad days at Wimbledon Park, a club that is preparing to be sold off to make way for tennis courts

I first stepped foot into Wimbledon Park Golf Club in March 1983 to have an interview with a gentleman called Ted Smith who was as normal as his name suggests. I was hoping to become a junior member which, despite my low-lying anxiety and pristine appearance, simply entailed a friendly 20-minute chat while my dad waited in the car.

Two days later I received a letter to say I could join if I was still interested, we sent off a cheque for £28 and, six months later, my dad followed suit. It was the best golfing decision either of us ever made.

For the next decade we spent the best part of that time doing laps of the place, always on a Friday night after school finished – he was the headmaster of the local primary – before stopping off at Hartfield Road for fish and chips.

Even when pubs, parties and failed attempts to chat to girls came along there was always time for 18 holes. We would be back at least once, more often than not twice, over the weekend.

Wimbledon tennis

I can still remember the names of 20 fellow junior members and convincing myself that at least a handful of them would go on to play on the European Tour. At the last count none of them have.

I can still remember losing 6&5 in the Stanway Cup to Warren Flynn when I got very pissed the night before but then winning the following year when my opponent fell apart in spectacular fashion over the last four holes. Something for which I will be eternally grateful.

I can still remember double-bogeying the 36th hole from 90 yards to miss out on the Junior Cup in 1988 when a bogey would have got the job done. It remains, sadly, the closest I’ve ever got to getting my name on any club board.

I can still remember my first and, most likely, only time that I will go round in a level-par 66 – they never did manage to shoehorn a par 5 in – which very quickly paled into insignificance when my playing partner and my nap for European Tour greatness, Jon Vardy, birdied the last to be round in 59.

I can still remember watching every junior’s anti-hero Dean Wingrove, now the club pro, dispatch 50 yellow and 50 white balls over the second oak tree which lined the 1st fairway into separate circles no more than 10 yards wide. This remains the second coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.

I can still remember playing the day after my dad won one leg of the Spring Meeting to get his name on the board which resulted in tens of veterans coming from every angle throughout the round to congratulate him and give him a hug. This remains the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.

The big dream was always to win the annual Father & Sons competition which, despite three second places, we never managed.

I can still remember Tony Meo making three consecutive century breaks on the next snooker table to my dad and I and, a bit like The Crucible, we stopped our shambolic game of faux safety to watch him complete each one.

I can still remember my different locker numbers, the old scorecard with pictures and yardages for each hole, watching the lady captain run and trip halfway across the putting green, doing at least 10 laps of this putting green after every round, never once holing one from the top end to the bottom of this 80-foot-long masterpiece, someone putting a ball through Colin Montgomerie’s car window two days after he won on tour and, in the latter years, getting very into the on-tap Lowenbrau.

And I can barely remember my sister’s wedding reception there given my new-found love of the strong lager.

These days things are very different with the news last week that Wimbledon Park, in its current 18-hole guise, may be no more as soon as 2021. What will be left will be a nine-holer.

In a plan to treble its space the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club – Wimbledon to you and me – have offered the golf club £63.75 million offer for their 73 acres. The club already closes for several weeks over the summer to accommodate ‘The Queue’.

Now the members have agreed to consider an offer of £85,000 per member, after tax, and the club will decide for definite in December whether or not to accept the All England Club’s final bid for a lease that runs out in 2041.

Three years ago they turned down an offer of £25m. They always were a canny bunch. Now the expected pay-out will be split by all 750 members, which include Ant & Dec and Piers Morgan, rather than just those who have been there more than 10 years.

Ant & Dec

Ever since I can remember this has always been the whisper, stay on as a member and wait for the big pay-out. I, given my astute head for business, left the club in 1999.

The last time I stepped foot in the club was December 16, 2005. This was the day of my dad’s funeral and the natural place to have a drink and a few sandwiches afterwards was the golf club.

To date, despite a number of very kind offers from Dean, I haven’t been able to bring myself to go back and have a game.

While the chance to get my name up there in gold-leaf lettering eluded me it did give me more than 20 years of some of the funniest, satisfying and most memorable moments I’ve ever had anywhere, let alone a golf course. Particularly as a spotty junior throughout never-ending summer holidays but also among the members whose results I still look out for from time to time.

On the flip side it was the stage for my first proper air shot as a grown adult where I lay sod over the ball with a simple greenside chip at the 11th which signalled the onset of 15 years of chipping yips along with a variety of gut-wrenching chokes, both as a junior and beyond.

But, best of all, it gave me the chance to spend more time with my dad than other teenagers might do – something that becomes more and more precious as time ticks on and other memories fade.

We saw each other at our lowest ebbs. His first year at the club coincided with some transition issues which resulted in a year of tops off the tee while my last year there was an unhappy medley of whiffs and involuntary lunges at a static object ball.

But we went through it all together.

Which is why I will now take up Dean’s offer and make every effort to get back there next year, to see for certain how technology has changed a course, to most likely steer one away from the car park at the 1st, to pick the wrong line off the 6th tee, to overshoot the 7th, to not have to chip at 11 and kid myself that I’ll play the last five holes in 3-under.

But more to pay my respects to what I always considered a very special club and an even more special dad.

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