A new dawn down at the Suffolk
If a golf course could speak The Suffolk Golf and County Club would likely be keen to quote Mark Twain right now: ‘the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’.
Rumours had been circulating that it was set to close down after the Fornham St Genevieve site fell into disrepair in recent years and the golf course was struggling with regular flooding.
But as I found out over 18 holes with the man now charged with accelerating its rise to prominence again, long-time professional Steve Hall, it has been quite a transformation since I last played the ever challenging layout — and he tells me they are only just getting started.
Since businessman David Harrison — owner of Hengrave Hall — took over the whole site in October, the golf club has been allowed to cut free from its previous hotel tie-in to run on a non-profit basis to serve its members, with the re-vamped greens, ahead of the May Bank Holiday open weekend, already showing things are beginning to bear fruit.
The jokes about taking your wellies to play The Suffolk will soon be a thing of the past with expert analysis leading to dredging on the whole course’s iconic waterways, to clear out vegetation and improve water flow, before inserting new drains on troubled areas, set to commence at the beginning of next month.
The bunkers are being taken out, moved to more appropriate places and redone, while building work is set to start in July on a brand new separate clubhouse — having previously shared a bar with the hotel — at the beginning of July.
The changing rooms will be completely refurbished, all as part of a no-expense spared approach to making the golf club befitting of its name as one of the county’s standout sites for a game that has been enjoying its own renaissance.
A new financial model also means that things are only set to keep improving, as Hall explained.
“What happens now is that if you are a member of the golf course, all your money gets spent on the golf course,” he said, “and that is transparent, any member can come and see me anytime and see the balance sheet.
“The theory is that as more members come in, more money gets spent on the golf course. We will very much now have a members’ golf club ethic.”
And the increase in membership fees has not had a negative impact, with only two from the now 250 deciding to leave.
Ladies captain Angie Lewis, who is approaching her 15th year as a member, said: “I have had not heard anybody say anything negative about the increase because it has not gone up in the whole time I have been a member.
“The course was lovely when we first joined, but over the years it has really gone down hill,” she said.
“But it is a massive change here in such a short space of time, since October.”
Club president Peter Plumb, who joined in 1992, said: “Our greens have never been as good as this at this time of year and the scores are reflecting that.
“We are delighted at the changes and what has happened in the last six months is more than we have seen in the last 10 years. It is a complete transformation.”
Hall, who is now aided by former Bury Golf Range professional Adam Trett as his number two, added: “The whole mentality of the place has completely changed and it is lovely to come in now.
“The feedback from other members playing here in matches has been great; they can’t believe it is the same place and to have done that in such a short space of time just gives people an idea of how much we it is going to change. The vision is definitely to make it one of the best around.
“Everything we are doing is to the best it can be done, there is no cutting corners.
“The whole thing is that people need to come and play it, so we are hoping they will utilise the open weekend and see the improvements first-hand, rather than listen to the rumours that have been spread over goodness knows how long.”
But with a target of recruiting 100 new members by next spring, Hall promises they will not let their prize asset get lost.
“The key thing is the one thing we will never lose is the club atmosphere; that is what sets this place away from everywhere else.”
The Suffolk’s comitment to developing the younger generation is still a top priority as well with junior membership for under-18s set to remain free, aside from an obligatroy golf union fee, while they have just agreed a new junior programme with Culford School.
There are no airs and graces at the club either, with Hall and his team more concerned with people’s behaviour than their dress code.
If it were akin to a sick patient, the golf club is now in rude health again, and with a bright future lying ahead.