A report from The Press about York Golf Club's 125th Anniversary

 

Here's to the next 125 years: York Golf Club celebrates a landmark birthday

 

THE oldest golf club in the city celebrates a landmark birthday today. But, as STEVE CARROLL finds out, York Golf Club are not merely basking in a glorious past

IT is called York Golf Club for a reason.

It was a trailblazer. The first of its type in the city. Older than Fulford, older than Pike Hills, older than Heworth - a sign of golf's rapid expansion from Scotland into the south.

Fifty or so members and a 12-hole course signalled its birth on Knavesmire in 1890. These were modest beginnings. But these pioneers of the game soon had much loftier ambitions.

The heather and moor at Strensall Common were viewed with awed eyes and drawing on a design from JH Taylor - one of golf's most celebrated figures - the course was constructed in 1904 with frightening speed.

Tonight, as members gather at the Common Road clubhouse for a special dinner to celebrate the 125th anniversary, the club can look forward to the milestone with confidence.

Nationally, club membership and participation have been in steady decline as the worst recession since the 1930s and increasing demands on leisure time take their toll.

Not at York. Here there is a waiting list. There's even a small joining fee. Juniors can sign up for just £52 and the club has doubled the number of lady members over the past few years.

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And centre stage at this evening's gathering will be the 2015 men's captain Ralph Magee. The 65-year-old, who celebrates his birthday today, says he couldn't ask for a better present as he commemorates a landmark at the club where he has been a member since 1977.

"I was lucky," he reveals. "It's a great honour. I didn't expect to be chosen as captain, especially as my handicap has nearly doubled in the last 15 years but it is not always the very low handicap golfers that make the best captains.

"We are celebrating something really special. We are the oldest golf club in York. We have a full membership. It's a thriving business. The first job we have had to take on board is to look to the future and hope that the next 125 years will be as good."

Mike Wells can't yet boast Magee's time of service. The club secretary is in his 11th year in the post but, while the century and a quarter before has seen many changes, his time at the helm of the members-owned establishment has seen significant innovations - from a new professional shop, to a driving range built by the members themselves, to the membership drive that sees the club in such a good state.

But, while York is making every effort to modernise and shed the "stuffy and starchy" reputation which Magee feels may have held it back in the past (ditching jackets and ties for club matches being a start), history and tradition still plays an important part.

"We were certainly the first, original, York Golf Club," he said. "When we were set up on the Knavesmire in 1890, that made us the first club in York. It is something that, as a club, we can be proud of.

"We were at the start of golf in York. We have been there throughout all the changes that have gone on over many, many years in the way golf has developed and is moving forward and we can offer the traditions of a golf club while also looking to modernise ourselves and take ourselves forward.

"We put together a marketing plan of our membership five or six years ago when we realised the waiting lists had gone. We weren't in decline as a club but member numbers were in decline - as they were everywhere. We had to take a view on how we bucked the trend.

"The committee took some steps to bring in the memberships we knew could keep people as members and give them the opportunity to develop into full-time members and otherwise. We have driven that forward from there.

"We have also done a lot of work on the club and the course. The quality of the course has been constantly upgraded. That's our biggest selling asset - that nice big green area on the other side of the road from the clubhouse.

"That's what has helped us do what we want to do. People are not just joining in the newer categories. Our full membership category is full. There are people wanting to come here and pay the full monty to join this golf club."

Imagine Tiger Woods designing a new club in York. In historical terms, that's how the course at Strensall came into existence. It was a heather heaven conceived by JH Taylor - renowned in the early 20th Century as one of golf's great triumvirate.

That trio of Harry Vardon, James Braid and Taylor won The Open Championship 16 times between 1894 and 1914. Taylor took five Claret Jugs during a golfing career that would also see him renovate Royal Birkdale in the 1930s.

In British golf, this was as big as it got.

"Does it still honour the traditions of JH Taylor who designed it? Yes it does," added Wells. "I was told by one of the members that JH Taylor was a very religious man and, when he laid out courses, he believed in one thing - stick to the straight and narrow and you will be fine. If you stray off that, you will be struck down.

"He designed the course on that basis. It has not changed significantly from that point of view except that the trees that weren't there are now 111 years old and dwarf things.

"Going back to that time, these were the top three guys in golf. They put their own stamp on golf courses. 111 years on, you can play it the same way. The design aspects are still there. We may be tweaking things at the moment with our course development, which is making improvements, but those are all in keeping with the tradition of the way it is laid out.

"I have got members of 30 and 40 years standing who say the course is the best they have ever seen it. Our green-keeping team do a fabulous job. The greens have got better and better over the past two or three years or so. They are among the truest and nicest out there."

Mark Rogers is just the sixth professional in the history of the club, following a tradition which began with Jack White, who would later finish second to Vardon in the 1899 Open Championship at Sandwich. It is the club's focus on the future which keeps him rooted to the Minster city.

"I am working at a club that is a great place to be," he said. "I have been here seven years but we have still got lots of things going on. A lot of golf clubs don't want to move forward but that's not the case here and that's what keeps the excitement going.

"We have got a great bunch of members, great facilities for me to do my job and I need to be at a golf club that shares in my dream."

York Golf Club has a history of which it can be proud. A past that has brought regional and national attention and which adorns nearly every wall in the clubhouse.

But time waits for no-one.

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And, judging by the popularity of the course today, that is something of which the committee at York are only too well aware.

Magee said: "Everything evolves at a golf club, obviously. But so far, so good. It's a very rosy picture at York. We have got to look forward, not back. We love the history of the club. We will celebrate that history tonight. As the caretakers of the club, we will always make sure it is in good shape for the next 125 years."

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