Samanth Subramanian has emerged as one of the best young, non-fiction writers of our era. He can take any subject – from Jimmy Anderson to Covid-19 masks to golf clubs – and produce a riveting read. In this piece he explains how a Chinese takeover of a prestigious English golf club, Wentworth, exposed an affluent segment of the British society to the brute force of globalisation. The elite were thus forced to come to terms with what millions of workers have to contend with a daily basis. As Mr Subramanian says: “…since the 1980s, Wentworth has been reshaped – just like England itself – by money: first the wealth of the homegrown 1%, which considered itself immune to the turmoil of change, but which then found itself subject to the whims of the globalised capital held by the 0.001% like Yan Bin. The saga is familiar: a small locality unsettled by the arrival of an outsider. Except that the outsider is a transnational holding corporation, and the locality is Wentworth Estate, a slice of England overtaken by the world.”
To begin with, let’s understand the significance of Wentworth and what it means to avid golfers such as the local dentist, Michael Fleming: “Wentworth is a magnet for devoted golfers. It was in the Burma Bar here, after a friendly between American and British golfers in 1926, that the garden-seed magnate Samuel Ryder proposed repeating the fixture regularly – the germination of the Ryder Cup. The club hosts the European Tour’s PGA Championship every May. Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Nick Faldo have played here. Ernie Els, once the world’s top-ranked golfer, told me he still remembers “the sound of the shots echoing in among the trees” from his first game at the club; he loved Wentworth so much he eventually bought a house nearby. When Fleming joined, Wentworth had two 18-hole courses, the East and the West. A third, the Edinburgh, was added in 1990. These are difficult courses, Fleming said – courses for serious golf. “You’d hate the game if you started learning here. It’d be like getting into a Formula One car before ever driving anything else.””
So, bring in the “financialisation” of the world economy from the 1980s onwards: “…by the 80s, golf clubs had long gained their reputation as being sanctuaries for the corporate wealthy – as places where these executives not only spent their money but colluded to make more of it. Still, Fleming insists that Wentworth in those days wasn’t just for rich people. “No one asked what you did for a living. I couldn’t even say how many of the people I played with had been to university.” Back then, he paid close to £1,000 a year in fees – in today’s money, less than £3,000. No one cared how good the food was, or even ate dinner there. It was golf and little else.
By and by, that changed. More golf courses opened up in the green belt around London, as farmers sold their land and as new retirees and the Thatcherite wealthy took up hobbies. Chelsfield, the property development firm that owned the biggest stake in Wentworth, spruced the club up. Tennis courts. An indoor pool. A new driving range. When Chelsfield sold Wentworth in 2005, the clothing tycoon Richard Caring paid £130m for it. Caring had outbid, among others, the Savoy Hotels group…
Caring invested heavily. He improved the club’s food and service. He hired Ernie Els to lead a £6.5m renovation of the West Course – to design new bunkers, to tonsure the putting greens and plant them with a different kind of grass…
…Caring had one eye cocked for buyers, so that he could earn his money back quickly. The fees rose beyond “the average person’s comfort zone”….Finally, in 2014, Caring sold the club to Reignwood for £135m – a slender profit. Which was how Wentworth Estate came to be home to Yan Bin, who blew into the club’s snug, staid world and turned it upside down.”
Now, bring into the picture the aggressive super rich Asian billionaire, Yan Bin, and you have the perfect parable for the world disrupted: “After Yan Bin bought the club in 2014, he also bought a Wentworth house through a holding company: a 900-square-metre mansion named Robinswood. Its previous owner, a Russian gas tycoon, had put it on the market for £18m. It wasn’t a stretch for Yan Bin to think that, to be maximally profitable, his club should forget about the dentists on its rolls and target the exorbitantly wealthy like himself….”
And, to complete the story, a stirring English fightback and PR campaign against Yan Bin: “Yan Bin’s takeover of the club provoked a similar agitation. In escalating the fees, he was looking for a new kind of member, which left the old kind of member out in the cold. Moss described it to me as a “culture clash. He made no attempt to understand the club….
The truce came in March 2016. Through Ni Songhua, one of its vice-presidents, Reignwood accepted some compromises. Existing members could continue on an annual fee, although higher than the one they’d been paying. Or they could put down a £20,000 advance on an £85,000 debenture, hand over the remainder after three years, and pay a lower annual fee. New members, though, had to buy a fresh debenture for £125,000 – a figure that has since ballooned to £150,000.”
It is worth reading this piece carefully because we need to prepare for the day that Marcellus and/or its clients acquire a famous cricket ground in London.
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