A once-bunkered club is rising from a perilous lie as the new owners sink the right investment into the right provision, indoors and out. Greg Rhodes talks to Course Manager Sam Bethell and new owners, Raman and Suba Sandhu, to find out more.
Surrounded by Surrey affluence, Chipstead Golf Club should have enjoyed a secure financial footing. Yet this traditional members club, boasting a picturesque 18-hole downland course, had reportedly stagnated, whilst market forces drained it of membership income.
As the 2018 golf season dawned, selling up seemed the sole option open to the owners, until a chance remark led to a miracle.
The hard facts about golf in England are that too many courses sprung up in the 1980s and '90s, anticipating huge take-up in the sport - but participation levels plateaued and rise of the nomad golfer killed diehard loyalty to one club.
The density of courses around the capital and other cities is such that only the fittest will survive and, to do that, demands a new approach to the game - the business of golf.
Transforming the condition and playability of the course to create year-round provision is a given now, whilst also developing clubhouse facilities to attract the family and wider community for functions, ceremonies and celebrations.
Spring was looking bleak for Chipstead. Over the last decade, member levels had fallen from a healthy 500+ to fewer than 300. With that number in the locker, there's little wriggle room to turn things around.
Current course manager Sam Bethell had arrived in June 2015 as Mike Oram's deputy, taking over in November after Mike's departure the month before with thirty years' service at the club under his belt, fifteen of them heading the greens team.
"From the start, I tried to bring in new ideas but, unfortunately, 'no funding' was the usual response," Sam recalls.
"With membership not as strong as it once was, money was not available to be spent on the course. Standards of greenkeeping had fallen it seemed. Without regular aeration, the greens were soggy and members didn't like playing off temporaries all winter.
In truth, with the club thinking of selling up, our hands were tied, and poor communication going from the previous greens team to the clubhouse didn't help."
The green belt boroughs are crammed with courses; "Some twelve to fifteen private members clubs within a 10-mile radius of Chipstead, so we have plenty of competition," Sam explains.
"The clubhouse, built in 1994, was not future-proofed for the way golf would develop. The bar and dining room are upstairs, but toilets and changing rooms were downstairs." The comparison with thriving clubs such as Bletchingley and Kingswood was clear, adds Sam. "Their clubhouses were built to hold functions - ours was built primarily for golf."
That was then, this is now. Just six months after the Dosanjh Foundation bought Chipstead, a once-bunkered club is rising from a perilous lie as the new owners sink the right investment into the right provision, indoors and out.
"We're already nudging 400 members with a target of 500 in our sights," Sam records. "Members are returning and we've witnessed a big uptake in clubhouse activity since the six-figure investment the new owners made in it."
The open-plan layout upstairs and extended balcony gives far more sense of space and comfort, as well as light, bolstered by new windows.
Sam with Raman and Suba Sandhu
The way back began when local residents Raman and Suba Sandhu heard something on the grapevine whilst their sons were taking golf lessons at the club.
"Someone mentioned that Chipstead was for sale," Raman explains, "but when that fell through I thought 'that sounds terrible, can we do anything to help?'' It would be a massive loss locally, so I mentioned it to my father, Peter Dosanjh, who runs several business ventures and was seeking a new investment opportunity."
"I knew that golf clubs generally struggle, but good ones can thrive, so we researched some in the region to see what they were doing right that Chipstead wasn't."
"We know little about golf, but we have plenty of experience in business and we thought we could bring our management skills into the club to turn it round," Raman adds.
"It's a massive challenge of course, especially as golf is a new sphere for us, but our understanding of business means we can bring a more commercial approach to running the club and bring it up to speed."
Because the previous owners had been looking to sell, precious little upgrading had been done over the years. "Things had been allowed to deteriorate," Raman notes.
In contrast, Chipstead's new owners have acted fast. "Our task was to look at ways to make the club more attractive for people," says Raman, not only for members but also the local community generally by offering a leisure destination that makes them want to spend more time here."
The marketing skills they have applied to their other businesses are now finding force at Chipstead and the recovery is underway.
"Members had been looking elsewhere because of the club's uncertain future," she continues. "All membership options are under review now and we are seeking a licence to hold civil ceremonies."
A major upgrade to the clubhouse has boosted function capacity by up to forty covers, she adds, enabling Chipstead to stage larger, more diverse, events.
Meanwhile, investment in the course is already reaping benefits, Sam reports.
"The state of the club and the course was a constant worry. We were behind on everything and we knew a big job was needed to turn things around."
A downland course in a mature landscape, Chipstead suffered issues common to semi-rural settings. "We have pines, oaks, conifers, poplars and beech here, but no tree management plan was in place and some holes were suffering significant shading."
Since the purchase, communications have strengthened and been streamlined. "I link with Suba by email twice a week and daily with director of golf Gary Torbett, who's been here since 1990, keeping him up to speed, then sit down with the captains every two months to update them on developments."
Members are in the loop too via Sam's column in the monthly newsletter, where any likely maintenance disruption to the course is noted.
"There's minimal red tape now and we're moving forward quickly on the improvements needed on the course."
The marks of history pepper Chipstead's acres. Pillboxes trace the line of the London mainline railway and Croydon Airport was close by too. "Germany targeted main transport routes and hubs, so it's little wonder that large grassed craters litter the course, recording the impacts of wayward bombs.
Decades later, they form part and parcel of Chipstead's character. "No unexploded shells have been unearthed yet," Sam confirms, "but you never know."
Sam returns to the days before the purchase. "Fair to say, the club was in financial difficulties, so outlay on the course was always limited. The greens were in a bad state. I play golf, so appreciated the issues we faced."
Sam's always been in greenkeeping and went into it straight from school at eighteen, spending a year at Cuddington in 2002. "My father-in-law, Stuart Sheppard, was course manager there, so that helped," he says.
He moved four years later to prestigious St George's Hill, Weybridge, for a year before "taking a step back in my career" by moving to Chelsea training ground in 2007.
"I was part of a massive team," he recalls. "Ten people looked after the first team pitches alone. I learnt plenty about machinery, and lots of practical but little theory, which I was keen to pursue."
Sam's next move, to Richmond, proved seminal to his progress. "Course manager Les Howkins pushed me on the education and theory side, as well as involving me in a two-year renovation project for the fifty-seven bunkers there. I'd taken Level 2 at Cuddington and started Level 3 whilst at Chelsea."
"CPD was massive at Richmond and, whilst on the team, I joined BIGGA."
Still active within the Association, Sam sits on the Surrey board and is vice-chairman of the South East region as well as education officer.
Leaving Richmond in a senior role - senior greenkeeper - Sam spent just three months at Wimbledon Park under course manager Dave Langheim, before Chipstead beckoned.
He soon resumed the education trail, completing a three-year foundation degree in Sports Turf Management from Myerscough College in May 2018.
Tellingly, he states: "I'm a course manager not a head greenkeeper. I'm a manager who handles budgeting, health and safety strategy and my title reflects that role. I take the team through training files, set targets every year and agree everything with Suba and the director of golf."
Greens were the major focus for Sam when he came on board. "With nothing to lose, I introduced a programme of Symbio compost teas and Thatcheater into the profile. Two years later, the thatch layer had shrunk from two and half inches to just half an inch."
"I was bitten by the soil biology bug at Richmond as Les was big into it there," says Sam. "I'm still using compost teas, but we don't use Thatcheater as soil condition is stable and the sward and rootzone are healthy, so we've been able to reduce the five or six fungicides we were applying in winter to just a couple, and we only core in spring and September. It's a case of letting the turf work for itself."
"The STRI recommended 2ltr Banner Maxx broad spectrum foliar fungicide and 1ltr Medallion fungicide - which we applied in the last week of September - and we have no sign of disease to date."
Overseeding with Barenbrug Allbent is preferred "as it establishes quicker on soil pushup greens and is drought and disease resistant."
Seed strategy across the course is to encourage fescues and deter rye. "We let the fescue grow thick in summer, cutting and collecting with the Amazone," says Sam, "and, next year, we'll be spraying with Laser to thin out rye in the long rough by preventing it reseeding and allowing the fescue to thrive."
The team limits Poa coverage by cutting off seed heads when growth is most vigorous in May. "It's not much of a problem though," Sam confirms.
On top of the two granular fertilisers applied across the course, Sam also opts for liquid seaweed, sprayed as part of a cocktail every fortnight at half rate until concentration steadies.
"When we applied it full rate, the concentration would fall off in the third week, whereas applying it at half rate maintains a constant level in the plant." Humic and fulvic acid boosters and CMS Shoot add essential nutrients for a vibrant, healthy summer sward.
All the good work is in danger as Chipstead's golf rounds tally rises - one reason why Sam's tightened up on traffic management. "Posts and roping off around banks help prevent apron wear and trolley lines," he says, "whilst buggies aren't allowed around the greens anymore."
Since the acquisition, the maintenance regime has shifted dramatically.
"The strategy is to work around the golf. Every other Monday between April and October we undertake greens maintenance and don't now need the rolling temporary greens. We've agreed a maintenance week in May as well. It was April, but we stay colder longer because the course is higher up."
And the good news just keeps coming. "Members tell us the greens are the finest in thirty years. The more golf we attract the better and Chipstead is a tight, entertaining course with a few hills."
"We have our own Amen Corner - the 11th, 12th and 13th long par 3s, with trees, bunkers and thick rough. With six par 3s in total, golfers think they can rip the course to pieces, but they get a shock."
"Green fees have risen markedly, players are signing up as members after their experience here and society days are rising."
The club has much to offer, Sam maintains. "Chipstead is an affluent area, but that isn't reflected in the membership profile. We were once a feeder club for clubs like Walton Heath, but not any longer. There's no social divide. Everyone sits together and chats. Our priority is to increase the numbers playing here and attending functions."
Soon after acquiring Chipstead, Suba asked Sam for his wish list. "The dream and the reality were not too far apart," Sam says. "They have an understanding of how the club can be run sustainably and how the course management function fits within the overall plan."
"We were very happy with what we've agreed and Suba and his team are showing trust in us to help them run Chipstead as a business."
As a major element of the budget, machinery is high on the list. "The shed holds plenty of Toro, on a five-year lease until 2021. "The electric-drive mowers we have tried from another brand didn't quite suit the course topography. Hydraulic drive machines are a better option, I find. We'll be working hard to strike the keenest deal for sure."
His call for a turf iron greens roller, utility vehicle and an extra cut brush for the Toro tees and aprons mower have been answered, as has his request for an apprentice.
Irrigation issues loom large too. "Summer 2018 saw plenty of hand watering of greens and tees, so replacing the irrigation system, installed in 1984, is on our hit list. We're looking at the cost of one that supplies tees, greens and aprons."
Water extraction is possible but limited, Sam adds. "Only 10m3 a day can be abstracted from our borehole because of the size of the pump, and we need to pipe plenty of water if we are going to experience summers like the last one more often."
Long overdue under the previous owners, the maintenance area is undergoing a transformation as new sheds, complete with water recycling facility and better welfare for the team, rise from the planning stage.
"Our current shed is a 1950s modified Anderson shelter," Sam reveals. "We have to keep security extra tight because of its age and condition, and golf clubs have been targeted heavily in recent years. Plenty of deterrents are in place and the shed has been strengthened."
That's key for another reason. "Golf clubs are having to pay through the nose for insurance and, after any theft, insurers want to see an improvement in security before they will cover you."
Resource management is critical in these first months under new ownership and Sam's already put in place measures to maintain efficiency. "Early Start dew suppressant keep the grass plant dry on the greens and it's healthier without that moisture. Using it also avoids me losing a man for a couple hours brushing dew off the greens. We are focusing more on resources now."
Wildlife impacts the daily routine in an unusual way because in this quiet corner of Surrey lurks an unusual lifeform - Roman white snails. "They are big, the size of your palm, and like chalkland, congregating in bunkers on the 17th hole and by the putting green, where they lay their eggs," Sam reveals.
"We cannot spray for a couple of months in summer and keep placing them back in the undergrowth. Flymoing around bunkers is done with care as we want to avoid hearing that sickening crunch."
Woodland between the course and the railway line is home to roe deer, which stray on to the course, and to red kites, now proliferating in the south. A large family of "talkative" tawny owls are resident too.
"Foxes can cause an issue," Sam says, "but the Resist repellent we knapsack spray deters them from soiling the bunkers."
The team are active in other areas of wildlife management, setting up hedgehog homes, whilst also working with Reigate Beekeepers Association, who tend four beehives.
Encouraging favourable environments for moths and butterflies is also a priority, Sam adds. "Ragwort thrives in the long rough - a natural haven for the cinnabar moth caterpillar with its striking black and deep orange markings. Meadow flowers are abundant, particularly species like the common spotted orchid."
Building the team
The five-man, multi-skilled greens team presents firm prospects for further building up the standard of course presentation, Sam maintains. "This is a young team and it's important everyone fits into that structure and culture. I believe we can look forward to exciting and productive times at Chipstead."
Deputy course manager Jack Percival, 24, joined a year ago after a spell as head greenkeeper at Aquarius Golf Club, following Purley Downs and Addington Palace before that.
"He's keen and ambitious," notes Sam, "a fast learner and popular with members and the clubhouse." With his Level 2, spray and chainsaw certificates, Jack starts his Level 3 this January."
"As a trained machine greenkeeper, Jack's a big benefit, doing servicing and grinding in house. He is great at diagnosing faults, buys the parts and ensures machine downtime is low."
Arriving from university four years ago as a winter temporary after graduating in ecological science, greenkeeper Simon Torkington, 26, is now a permanent fixture - sort of.
"He is still undecided as to whether he wants a career in greenkeeping, which is frustrating as he is good and reliable," Sam explains. "He doesn't go sick and is never late. I try to tell him he could have a fantastic career in the sector."
Sam adds, "Simon undertakes everything that doesn't require a licence. Money isn't the issue with the club as, if he became qualified, we would pay the wage. Every week I wonder if he has handed in his notice."
L-r: Chris Shepherd, Sam Bethell, Jack Percival, Javahn Herod, Simon Torkington and Bomber the squirrel/crow scarer
"When the inevitable happens though, we'll have to replace him with a Level 2 at least, as a I can't afford to lose that skills base."
Chris Shepherd, 29, "clicked on contact" when Sam interviewed him in June 2017 for a greenkeeper's post. "Another team member who is keen and popular, Chris plays golf at Horton Park, Epsom but has no real industry experience as such."
The potential was evident though. "I fast-tracked him and he's started his Level 2 at Hadlow College in November - where Jack also attends.
"Chris asks lots of questions, loves riding mowers in shorts and T-shirt and swears this is the career for him, so I have high hopes for him."
Newest recruit to Chipstead's green team is apprentice Jovahn Herod, 19. "A young lad from Croydon, Addington, he's related to Jack through Jack's fiancée. We were searching for a summer casual and he hit the mark straightaway."
"First tasks like trimming the pop-ups "didn't sway him", says Sam. "He's certainly keen and has graduated to machinery. By the end of next year, he'll be a regular greenkeeper and says he's found his career here."
Working closely with Gary and Sam, and the kitchen and bar staff, is enabling the club's new owners to power forward to improve course presentation and the clubhouse offering.
"We are extremely fortunate in having inherited a strong, passionate team that is in tune with our vision for Chipstead - working in unison with the golf side," says Raman.
"Members have told us how dedicated Sam and the greens team are. It's just a shame that the required investment hadn't been made before now, but we are making every pound invested work as hard as it can to move the club forward, like looking to align contracts across the board, including course machinery, and win better deals with suppliers."
Decisions had been made "short term", she adds. "Now we are working with Sam to plan for the next five to ten years, whilst meeting his immediate needs."
"This is such a lovely club with a great friendly face and community spirit, but few who live even half a mile away know that it exists. We all aim to change that."
What's in the shed?
John Deere 2500E
Toro 3250 Greensmaster with extracut brush
Toro 5410 Reelmaster
Toro 3100 Reelmaster
Toro 3500 Groundmaster
Toro 4000 Groundmaster
John Deere ProGator 2030A
John Deere XPX Gator
Toro MDX Workman
Tym 503 tractor
Toro GM1000 pedestrian mowers x 2
Smithco Ultra Lite roller
Dakota 410 topdresser
John Deere HD200 sprayer
Wessex STC 180 sweeper
Toro Procore 648
Sweep n Fill brush
Greentek Aeroquick slitter
Redexim Verti Drain 7215
Agrimetal TB 280 blower
Greentek verti-cut units
Toro Hoverpro hover mowers x 2
Various Stihl blowers, strimmers and chainsaws