Wincanton golf reprieve

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A grassroots revolt against The Jockey Club’s closure decision is breathing new life into Wincanton Golf Course – Steve Keenan reports

Two members of the ‘kitchen cabinet’ – Jonathan Howard (left) and Andrew Wilkinson

An organised revolt by a small army of veteran golfers has forced the mighty Jockey Club to retreat on plans to close the golf course in the middle of Wincanton racetrack.
The nine-hole course was losing money and The Jockey Club had alternative plans to build an equine “centre of excellence”, including jumps and straights for horse training, on the land.
But given just six months’ notice to quit, the golfers immediately rallied, presenting The Jockey Club with strong arguments for retaining the course and drawing up a plan for a path to profit. They have won a reprieve of at least 12 months.
It is a hugely important victory, particularly given that public sport facilities could lose grants as part of Somerset Council’s wider plans to bridge a £100m funding gap for 2024/25.
Dr Tamsin Graham, a GP at The Surgery in Silton, said the course benefits the health of many in the area. ‘Not only does it help improve physical strength but also mental health through the fellowship, friendly competition and a good laugh,’ she told the BV Magazine.
‘It’s the ideal medicine for over-50s, and with the NHS under considerable pressure and Somerset Council no longer able to fund such amenities, it is a sensible way to stay out of the clutches of the medical profession.’

A systemic decline
No one disputes that the golf club had been in decline for some years, broadly coinciding with the arrival of Jack Parkinson as manager of both Wincanton race and golf courses in November 2020 – while remaining manager at Exeter racecourse.
Ground staff were gradually switched from golf to racecourse duties. The quality of the greens suffered and members left. Then, 18 months ago, the machine used to maintain the greens was stolen and has not been replaced. Inclement weather didn’t help either.
By 2023, membership had declined to approximately 55, and the quality of greens was poor. It meant that income from golf operations is currently 30 per cent lower than five years ago.
The Jockey Club projected a £13k loss in 2024, and said it would close the course to save money.
A golfer on the Golfshake website summed it up last year: ‘I’ve played a few times over the years and it has always been just about OK. However, it really has fallen by the wayside … There seems to be no interest in golf from the owners. It is being run by the manager of Exeter racecourse, who, quite naturally, has absolutely no idea whatsoever on running a golf course.’
In November, Mr Parkinson returned to Exeter and Wincanton appointed a new manager: Blaithin Murphy, 25, fresh out of completing The Jockey Club’s general manager trainee programme.

An arcane system
What really irked members was that there had been no attempt to market the course or to appeal to new players. And it hadn’t put up membership fees enough. The club had a general committee who decided handicaps and arranged competitions, but they had no access to membership details, which were held by The Jockey Club. It transpired the Club had not implemented GDPR (General Data Production Regulations) in 2018, so were not able to release members’ information to the committee.
The golf club didn’t even have its own website – and tee-off times were booked through an “inefficient” third-party platform. The frequent lack of a phone signal in the clubhouse caused even more issues, as golfers couldn’t pay by card – staff had to write down card numbers and process payments when there was a signal.

Wincanton’s nine-hole golf course is located within the racetrack

The teed off members campaign
A three-man kitchen cabinet committee was formed, led by Andrew Wilkinson. Another member, John Wolstenhome, represented the senior players and Jonathan Howard the casual pay-and-play contingent.
‘I knew the people at The Jockey Club as I worked for them on live music events, and I understood the problems on the golf side,’ said Andrew.
He also knew The Jockey Club had apparently shelved plans for an equine centre of excellence, and there was no Plan B.
‘It became clear quite quickly that to form a golf club (30 years ago) was one thing – but to run it was a hurdle too far for The Jockey Club.’
He estimated that to simply close the course would cost The Jockey Club an additional £37k over and above the £13k current losses, due to loss of income and costs of simply maintaining the land. ‘To leave the course fallow in the coming years would be a huge waste of a valuable asset and a very real additional cost to The Jockey Club.’
But he believes that, with better marketing, there could be an income this year of £110k, enough to move golf operations into profit.
‘If The Jockey Club can achieve a well-maintained course, it will get to that point. The course is playing well and drains well. Now we have to sit down with them and work on marketing, find out what they are going to do.
‘Forming a Wincanton Golf Club (WGC) entity responsible for membership communication, marketing and setting membership and green fee rates is an essential change that should be made. Marketing alone, which to date has been non-existent, would benefit revenues substantially in future years.
‘Recent publicity in the BV Magazine regarding the closure of the course has resulted in a remarkable level of enquiries from prospective new members.’
The 55 members were surveyed and 52 (95 per cent) agreed to pay increased memberships of £600. It was also proposed to increase green fees for casual players to £18.
The committee also wants to overhaul the current ‘prehistoric’ booking systems and suggests turning the clubhouse (which has three bedrooms) into accommodation for a couple to clean and run the place. Andrew England, a pro with 40 years’ experience, previously ran the clubhouse, prepared the golf kit and gave lessons. He is no longer involved with the course.

The latest state of play
The Jockey Club has decided not to raise annual fees to £600 – membership fees for 2024 are £495 and it has pegged green fees to £15 for the casual pay-and-play users.
In a statement, Ms Murphy said: ‘Following a lengthy review process involving discussions with stakeholders and members of the local community, we are pleased to announce that Wincanton Golf Club will remain open for at least a further 12 months before we review its status once again.
‘This is a fresh start for the golf course. It will now be managed entirely by the racecourse, and we ask our members for patience and support as we transition into this new phase.
‘While the costs of running this venue are still high, we understand that the course is incredibly valued by our local community. We look forward to working closely with those who regularly use the facility and thank everyone for their support to ensure this course can thrive in the long term.
‘Memberships will be on sale from 1st February 2024, with pay-and-play also available.’

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