Nick Bayly returns to Moor Park Golf Club in Hertfordshire, scene of his wedding 16 years ago, and finds the historic 36-hole venue more majestic than he remembered, and meets the new chief executive, Amy Yeates, who is charged with taking the club firmly into the 21st century and beyond
As they wind their way up the lengthy driveway, first-time visitors to Moor Park often think that they’ve taken a wrong turning off the A412 and have stumbled on a National Trust property, rather than arriving at a golf and tennis club. That was certainly the view of a number of the guests at my wedding back in 2002, when, despite following the directions correctly, many thought that their sat navs had gone awry.
Despite the fluttering of flags, and clear evidence of golfing activity, it’s still hard to believe that the building that is technically the ‘clubhouse’ serves such an everyday purpose. It’s safe to say that it wouldn’t look out of place in a Jane Austen novel, but for the lucky members of Moor Park Golf Club, it is simply home. In the world of clubhouse design, the Grade I-listed Palladian mansion sits alongside Stoke Park as a beacon of architectural splendour in an otherwise drab world of single-storey carbuncles.
Set within several hundred acres of Capability Brown-designed parkland near Rickmansworth, and just 19 miles away from Big Ben, the mansion at Moor Park was built in 1678 for the Duke of Monmouth, although its connection with golf can be traced back only as far as 1893, when the first Lord Ebury commissioned a rudimentary course to be built in the grounds for his personal use.
Improved further by his son, the whole estate was sold to Lord Leverhulme in 1920, and things began to change. Land on the edge of the property was sold to raise money that funded the conversion of the mansion into a country club, and leading golf course architect Harry Colt was engaged to construct three courses – the East, West and High, with Moor Park Golf Club officially opened in 1923.
Fast-forward to 2018 – with my marriage still thankfully intact – and, on the surface of it, very little seems to have changed at Moor Park since that happy day. Dig a little deeper though, and I soon discover that a whole lot has changed, most noticeably on the High Course, which has benefitted from significant renovations in the intervening years.
The bulk of the most recent work has focused on renovating the bunkers on the High Course, which is regarded as the senior of the two layouts thanks to its greater length. The new-look bunkers are not only visually appealing, with finely sculptured edges, but they reintroduce the punishment that Colt’s bunkers were originally intended to inflict.
Changes were also made to a number of holes on both courses to bring the layout up-to-date in relation to modern equipment, and consequently now offer a more challenging test for all golfers. Several bunkers have been shunted forward up the fairways, while a number of new back tees have been introduced that can stretch the High Course to just over 7,000 yards for high level competition, of which Moor Park is a regular host at club, county and national level. These include the Hertfordshire Bowl, the Carris Trophy (which returns in 2019) and numerous county championships, while the club has been chosen as a Regional Open Qualifying venue from 2020 to 2024. At 6,717 yards off the white tees, the High is still a searching test, and it will come as no surprise to learn that a higher-than-average percentage of the membership are Category One golfers.
The West Course’s shorter length – 5,833 yards off whites, 5,547 off the yellows – makes it more of a test of course management skills than brute force. Presented in the same immaculate condition as the High, the West is by no means a poor relation and not only makes for a fun round in itself, but also gives members a very different challenge.
Besides playing the golf courses, full members can enjoy the use of 13 tennis courts, including grass courts. There is a separate tennis-only membership for budding Andy Murrays, while a social membership is a popular choice for those that simply want to use the clubhouse for entertaining and enjoy the numerous unique social events options that the club lays on for its members.
The mansion itself is very much an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ affair, with the changing rooms hidden neatly below ground, while the bar, lounge and restaurant, and the impressive public rooms used for member events and functions, are on the ground floor.
Tasked with keeping all the plates spinning at this multi-faceted venue is recently-appointed chief executive Amy Yeates. Winner of the Golf Club Manager Association’s Manager of the Year award in 2017, Yeates boasts an impressive pedigree in golf club management, having served as director of golf, spa and leisure at Fairmont St Andrews for the past three years, before which she was assistant manager at Golf At Goodwood.
Yeates has spent the last six months getting to grips with the club’s complex structure, and alongside the team and board has formulated a five-year strategic plan detailing the direction the club propose to take in order to thrive at a time where many UK golf venues are struggling to make the numbers add up.
One of the main topics under discussion during her interview, and one that the team and the board have tackled, is clearly answering the questions – what type of club is Moor Park and why does it exist?
“There’s no doubt that Moor Park is one of the finest 36-hole golf venues in the country, but, for one reason or another, it has not quite been delivering on its full potential as a members club,” says Yeates. “Over the past six months we have defined our vision which simply put is to ‘enrich our members’ lives through an exceptional club experience’.Visitors will, of course, still receive a warm and friendly welcome but it is our members and their guests who will receive the five-star service. Our vision is underpinned by four key pillars of focus which are, delivering exceptional golf courses, heightened levels of service, exceptional food quality and an innovative social calendar.”
As part of the push towards delivering a more upmarket experience, the club is planning a raft of new initiatives and investments. These include further expenditure on the golf courses, increased levels of greenkeeping staff and investment in course machinery.
Yeates added: “We are proud to have 36 holes of championship golf set within this idyllic and historic estate. We are fully committed to delivering top class golfing facilities and can show this commitment with the opening of our world-class short-game area in April.”
Away from golf, the Thornhill Room, a stunning room which overlooks the West Course, will be converted into a new member’s lounge, giving more of the mansion back to the membership. The terrace will also be given a makeover, with new furniture and patio heaters to create a more relaxed feel to the outside space.
The food and beverage offering will also be upgraded, with the focus moving away from the kind of mass catering provided for large banquets and weddings, and replaced with much more refined dining experience for golfers.
The move upmarket will no doubt have its detractors within the club, and Yeates is no doubt that they will lose some members along the way, especially those who don’t play as much golf as others, but she is also confident that once members can see the improvements, the majority will support the new vision and be proud to be a member of this stunning club.
“As with all new ideas, there will be those who want things left just the way they are,” says Yeates. “But golf is entering a new phase in its place in the world, not just with the way it needs to embrace families and youngsters, but also in the levels of service and the quality of experience that people have come to expect from every aspect of their lives. Golf clubs are no different, in fact in the face of so many competing elements on our leisure time, golf is having to work much harder just to keep itself relevant and attractive.”
Yeates’ enthusiasm for the project, and her affection for the club, even after being in the job for a short period of time, is readily apparent. And if she can pass on just a small percentage of that positivity to the staff around her, and, of course, the membership, she is already a good way down the road towards ensuring that Moor Park will be around for future generations of golfers – and maybe the odd bride and groom – to enjoy for many years to come.
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