Up until last year, when the pandemic rudely interrupted life, I had the pleasure of playing Woking on a yearly basis thanks to being a guest of a society group named “The Billies”. They usually played in May and I always made sure my diary was free just in case I got an invite.
When I looked at the list of courses I was given to review for the National Club Golfer, I was delighted to see I had been allocated Woking. I contacted Richard Pennell, the General Manager of the club, and we arranged to play on a late sunny September afternoon.
For those of you who are regular readers of my blog you will know that I have already reviewed the other two parts of the three W’s trilogy, Worplesdon and West Hill, Woking was going to have its work cut out to top the list.
Richard kindly offered me lunch and he told me that we had last met when I was running Club Inc. networking events at Wentworth some 10 years ago. Richard has been at Woking for just under 5 years but is now leaving to take a well-earned sabbatical. He was quick to take up the ‘Round with Niall Challenge “ and I knew I was in trouble when he told me he was off 11 and would waive the 2 shots so we could play off scratch.
The first is a short friendly par 4 that Tom Watson, the 5-time Open Champion, describes as “A warm handshake from an old friend!” Nothing warm about my introduction to this game when Richard holed from 30 feet for a birdie to go 1 up!
It became clear that Richard was a true lover of the traditions of golf. After leaving the University of Bristol and working in a book shop in London he would pass Mitcham Golf Club daily on the train. He quickly decided that the commuter life was not for him and asked if the club had any vacancies in the green staff and as luck would have it, they did.
Richard loved working there, describing the fact that as the club had little money his turf education benefited enormously. He was taught how to look after the machinery and controlling supplies so as to make ends meet. He gained his HNC qualification and after 5 years of learning his trade, he applied for a greenkeepers position at New Zealand Golf Club.
It turned out to be a “sliding doors” moment as the long-time Secretary Roger Marrett mentioned in the interview that he had just lost his long-term Assistant due to a fatal heart attack and was looking for help with administrative duties. Richard asked what was required and realised he could undertake most of the duties. He was hired on the spot as the Assistant Secretary where he stayed for nearly 8 years.
Richard developed his love of the more traditional side of golf at New Zealand but realised to run a top club he required some more commercial experience and took his next career step becoming Assistant Secretary at Royal Wimbledon under the tutelage of Robert Brewer -another course manager who had crossed over to become a General Manager.
Richard holed another long putt on the second and by the time we got to the 5th I was 3 down. The condition of the course had improved enormously since the last time I was there thanks to the installation of a state of the art irrigation system and the appointment of Andy Ewence as Course Manager.
In line with best practice and like the other 2 W’s there has been some very careful and calculated tree removal, opening up great vistas and showing the course as it was originally. More is being done with a budget in place to put more sand onto the fairways so as to make them firmer which seems to have become more common amongst the top heathland and parkland courses.
After 2 years at Royal Wimbledon Richard became Secretary of Woking which was a perfect fit. Woking is a club with a huge amount of history and tradition and through lockdown, Richard took it upon himself to reorganise the attic at the club finding some wonderful memorabilia. In order to keep members connected with the club during the uncertainty of the initial stages of the pandemic, he wrote to the entire membership every day highlighting his attic discoveries and generally ensuring the club remained part of their life. The response was amazing and if he was late sending out his daily note, he would get a nudge that they were waiting for the next instalment – there wasn’t much else to do!
Having been 2 down at the turn I tried hard to battle back but I ran out of holes. Despite making a birdie 2 on 16th it was only for a half and I eventually lost the match 4 down. As we sat on the terrace overlooking the 14th green – one of the nicest spots to watch golf I have come across, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be living in Surrey and have the tough job of reviewing the best courses.
With golf becoming more and more popular I am delighted to say that the boards of the top clubs are investing in their courses by improving the condition, revaluating the design with many going back to their origins and where necessary clearing trees and redesigning bunkers. This makes our job as a top 100 panellist even more challenging. Becoming a top 100 club and moving up the rankings is now very much on the agenda of all high-ranking clubs.
It was such a tough choice to choose between the 3 W’s but by a very, very short head, I think I do give my vote to Woking.
I really enjoyed listening to Richard, learning about his passion for the traditions of the game, his knowledge of agronomy, the business of running a modern-day golf club and how to relate to members. This will stand him in good stead in any club that has the foresight to employ him in the future.
Until next time