Wentworth Golf Club Members Revolt Against China-Based Owner
By Nazia Parveen
Reignwood, which bought famous Surrey golf venue in 2014, accused of trying to turn it into a club for the super-rich. A row between one of Britain’s most prestigious golf clubs and its members has escalated with the owners being threatened with legal action over plans to dramatically increase annual fees. Members of Wentworth golf club have accused the Chinese-based owners of using an eye-watering rise in membership rates to get rid of them and turn the club into a preserve of the ultra-rich.
The dispute at the Surrey club has caused diplomatic ripples, with interventions from the foreign secretary, who represents the local area in parliament, and even from the Chinese embassy in London.
Now Reignwood, the Chinese conglomerate that bought the club for £135m in 2014, has been sent a 15-page letter by some members threatening legal action.
After acquisition of the club from fashion industry entrepreneur and restaurateur Richard Caring, the new owners mooted a number of changes. They proposed to reduce the number of members from 4,000 to 800 and those invited to rejoin the club would be charged a one-off payment of £100,000 while annual fees would rise from £8,000 to £16,000.
In the legal letter sent last week, Wentworth’s new owners were given an ultimatum to back down or face court action. The letter claims the planned changes to the club’s membership would breach a legal trust agreement in place for 50 years, contravene consumer and equality laws, and possibly even break Chinese laws on joining golf clubs.
“The proposed membership structure will fundamentally change the nature and character of the club and the Wentworth estate and is unacceptable. It must cease,” states the members’ letter.
The golf club, one of the most famous in the world, is at the heart of a private estate in Virginia Water surrounded by multi-million-pound houses built in the 1920s. Club members reportedly include Sir Bruce Forsyth and Sir Michael Parkinson.
Nigel Moss, who is leading the campaign against the changes, said: “Reignwood hasn’t listened and is simply trying to ride roughshod over the Wentworth community.”
Hostilities broke out after Caring sold the club to Reignwood – which is owned by Chanchai Ruayrungruang, a Thai billionaire based in Beijing – in 2014.
Members have clubbed together to form a legal fighting fund and employed a specialist litigation practice to resist the changes. The law firm claims the reforms breach a 50-year-old trust document, said to guarantee the character of the club. It also argues that estate residents’ rights of access and membership of the club would be threatened by the “prohibitively expensive joining fee”. The £100,000 sum is described as “a patently unfair charge, whose purpose and effect appears to be to exclude the majority of the current members”.
The letter continues: “The club will, if the proposed membership structure is implemented, become the preserve of a small number of extremely high net worth individuals and lose its role at the heart of the vibrant community of the Wentworth estate.”
Lawyers also argue that the proposed “exclusive membership” could be in breach of Chinese law. Campaigners have claimed that such practices are forbidden in China. The Chinese Communist party banned its 88 million members from joining golf clubs in October last year.
Eric Leon, chairman of the Wentworth residents’ association, said: “It is an absolute tragedy that the situation remains so antagonistic when a fair and reasonable solution could easily have been found. Reignwood appears intent on clearing out the membership, restricting accessibility to the club and thereby changing the character of a great golfing institution.”
A club spokesman said: “Wentworth Club has undertaken an extensive legal review of the proposed membership structure, together with various legal and professional advisers, including seeking the opinion of Queen’s Counsel, which has confirmed that based on the available evidence it is able to proceed with the revised structure.”
Earlier this month, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, writing in his capacity as the area’s MP, described Reignwood’s plans as ”very disappointing” in a letter to a club member. Hammond has met Wentworth members and representatives of Reignwood in an attempt to resolve the dispute.
Home to three 18-hole courses and a striking crenellated clubhouse, and with about 4,500 members, Wentworth is famed throughout the golfing world for an old association with the Ryder Cup and as the venue for the annual BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour.