Built on little more than barren farmland, a shoestring budget and one man's unfulfilled hopes of owning an M5 service station, Gaudet Luce Golf Club in Worcestershire has been open for only twenty-two years. But, with all these speedbumps, how can it be that the junior complex has risen to be a fixture on a prestigious amateur golf tour, and ranked in the top three of golfshake.com's 'Top 100 Golf Courses in the West Midlands'? Jake Barrow went to find out.
The Trilby Tour is enjoying its 10th anniversary as one of the biggest and broadest churches in British amateur golf, and Gaudet Luce is the Worcestershire county regional course of choice for 2017. A day made up of equal parts light-heartedness and fieriness whittled the contenders down to ten.
After this, the winners of that event will join those from ten other regional events around the country to compete in the national final at Hull Golf Club on 31st August. The best of those 110 golfers will then be crowned the International Trilby Tour Champion. If you feel as though you've missed something salient, you haven't - it's a mystery to us why it's labelled as 'international' too.
Also impressive is their customer-based popularity ranking on Google's number one golf satisfaction comparator. Number three, and even number two as recently as June, is shockingly high in the overall rankings for West Midlands golf clubs. To put this into context, the BBC's best estimate once held that nearly 3% of the surface area of the West Midlands is set aside for golfing.
This course alone contains three courses of varying types. One is a 9-hole course known as 'The Hadzor', which hugs a parallel footgolf course hole-by-hole. These are in addition to the pristine parkland 18-hole, 'The Phoenix', for which the club is considered so successful.
The baby Hadzor course, as well as The Phoenix naturally, has been kitted out with greens finished to USGA specifications and, from there, the club runs its golf academy and programmes to encourage young people to become interested in the sport.
The history of the facility is tied to the nearby National Trust centre at Croome Court, and is fascinating. There is an engraving in the apex of the farmhouse above the front door which contains the words 'Gaudet Luce', and the club named itself after this engraving.
They discovered that the phrase, meaning 'rejoice in the light', alongside a phoenix insignia. Both have ties to Croome Court, which is a little over ten miles away on the other side of Worcester. The phrase appears also in the writings on Croome.
According to theories on the mystery, the phrase could be a vestigial family motto and crest. It's possible that the farmhouse, which is around 600 years old and has been aggressively extended by each consecutive owner, was once a shooting lodge outpost within the sprawling grounds run by this family. The full extent of research is yet to be undertaken, but it may prove more interesting still.
But, at this club, that tradition is melded with modernity in a way that somehow isn't jarring. The clubhouse is a modern, part-wooden clad building, in the style of an IT company's corporate office. It's got Swedish-looking furniture, and a lot of glass on the exterior. Surprisingly, it's the second clubhouse they've used in the club's short history.
This highlights one of the club's key features in terms of its revenue stream. The owners run the site, and the area surrounding the car park works as a multi-business centre like a mall.
They rent other buildings out to around a dozen other businesses, as diversified as a chiropractor, a gym, a therapeutic centre and a hairdressers' salon, a financial planner, a garden machinery repair workshop and the Worcestershire division of St John's Ambulance, with some vacant lots remaining to be let. These were made possible by the conversion of the agricultural buildings already available to the owners.
It also includes a childcare centre owned and operated by the club, known as 'Phoenix Childcare' in the vein of the rest of the club's image, which caters for up to eighty children per day.
All of this, of course, aids profits. And this is all evidence of the creativity that goes into the running of the club. As Course Manager, Andrew Laing is a driver behind this creativity and works closely with the club's owners and directors.
He said: "The club has always been known for its forward-thinking nature. The revenues, as with any golf club, are at their best in summer, then these extra sub-lets help keep that stream up during the winter months."
The club is owned by Martin and Gill Fernihough, whose son Alec and his wife Jenny run the business on a day-to-day basis, making it a family enterprise.
And family was crucial to the foundation of the club too. Alec's great uncle, Peter Fernihough, bought the land hoping to build a motorway service station attached to a new slip-road to the M5 - the course runs directly alongside the M5, and access to it requires driving under the motorway immediately before turning into the clubhouse drive.
The reason why planning permission for the services was refused is because the area is only accessible Southbound, so anyone using the M5 North wouldn't have been able to use the facilities.
And the Fernihoughs were not the only family involved in the formative days of the club. Andrew's father Mark Laing, a PGA Golf Professional, was the man tasked with designing and overseeing the construction of the course.
That design sprawls across 150 acres, which, unlike some courses, is mostly managed land. From tee to green, the men's lengths add up to 5,869 yards at par-69. This is manned by a team of seven, plus a part-timer who oversees the driving range and undertakes odd jobs. This includes Andrew.
It's not a bad figure. But there's probably not a greenkeeper in the country who wouldn't like extra manpower. Seven sounds like a lot, but we are a big site, and we do manage most of it, so I probably could do with more were it available. You have to work within the confines of reality
He said: "It's not a bad figure. But there's probably not a greenkeeper in the country who wouldn't like extra manpower. Seven sounds like a lot, but we are a big site, and we do manage most of it, so I probably could do with more were it available. You have to work within the confines of reality."
"We have a workshop technician, so all our maintenance and servicing work gets done in-house. But not just that, because we have him and our own cylinder grinder, we also contract out the service to other facilities, and that's one of our many extra ways of producing income."
"We use contractors for other things infrequently. If we come up against something at a time when there's a big job we don't have the labour and resources for, we have a couple of regulars that come in to help us out. Beyond that, it's just things like hedge-cutting, that you might not expect to come within our remit anyway."
"Almost all the jobs that can be done, however, are done by us seven guys. In recent years, we have constructed, tees, greens, bunkers, carried out pond clearance work and irrigation installations."
Asked why they favour using their own staff to complete such varied and unexpected tasks, he continued: "I think the guys tend to really take ownership of whatever they have to do if they're asked to do it themselves and stay where the work's been done afterwards."
"When you get a contractor in, it can be good work, but then afterwards it's got to come back in-house anyway to be maintained. And the guys will surely maintain something better if it's something they've produced themselves and can be proud of. It also means they get to learn a broad range of skill sets, because they all are involved in as many types of work as we can manage."
This was the case last autumn, when the club decided to rectify a long-standing problem. Five of the course's fairways form a dip in the landscape, and due to the sub-par (pun intended) nature of the base profile, these stretches have historically been extremely prone to flooding.
The winter of 2015 was a very wet one, as many of us will remember. One day in early December was cited by ITV as the heaviest day of rain ever recorded in the UK. A similar front then continued for several weeks in many parts, leading to disabling flooding across much of the country. It came shortly after the British and Irish meteorological offices decided to start personifying storms.
Throughout this period, parts of the course were closed; usually this stretch of low-lying holes. This resulted in reduced income for the club, as they could still charge membership fees to their loyal membership base, but could not charge green fees for an incomplete course.
Management started planning a reaction to this heavy hit in the following spring. They agreed they couldn't allow themselves to be caught in the same situation again, and made the decision that ensuring the continued functionality of the course would result in net profit over the long-term.
When the club retrieved a quote for the project to be undertaken by external contractors, they calculated that it was likely they could achieve the result themselves for around a third of the cost. Andrew told us this was a 'no-brainer'.
Greens staff themselves designed and installed 3000 metres of fairway drainage, specialist equipment was hired, including a tractor mounted trencher, fitted with a laser guidance system for accuracy, and a gravel trailer used for back filling the trenches with drainage aggregate. A drainage project of this scale had never been undertaken by any of the staff and they learnt, in Andrews words, "on the hop." This gave them the chance to gain extra skills that they could then carry with them whatever they ended up doing, potentially opening new career avenues.
They knew they'd lost out. They'd seen what had happened. To an extent, they agreed it wasn't our fault. When the rectification was done the following autumn, they could see that pretty much every penny that comes into the place gets reinvested in whatever the course needs
The results are reported to have been superb, and the staff took great pride in producing something of which they didn't know they were capable. After rain, the drains can be seen running at full flow, proof that the project was a success.
It was done over a period of roughly ten days. It took nearly 300 tonnes of drainage aggregate to top the piping.
Andrew said: "The whole thing, from a PR point of view, was great. I think the members acknowledge that we tend to be reactive, as well as proactive, to issues that arise."
"They knew they'd lost out. They'd seen what had happened. To an extent, they agreed it wasn't our fault. When the rectification was done the following autumn, they could see that pretty much every penny that comes into the place gets reinvested in whatever the course needs."
"It is a labour of love for the owners, the directors, and for me too. I remember this site as farmers' fields, and I've worked my whole career on it really."
"That's right from the early days when it was rough. When I say rough, I mean it was really bad. When it opened, it was just really, really bad. And, just like the drainage last year, a decision had to be made about the club's future, either invest and turn it around, or accept the way that it was."
"The soil profile is made up of extremely stony red marl clay. Why they chose this land upon which to build a golf course, I'll never quite know. It's a challenge here at best."
"The greens and tees here were originally constructed using a D8 bulldozer and a JCB. With little exception, this is all the equipment that was available for the construction of the entire course; that, and a good amount of borrowed manpower!"
"The rootzone - and I'm not entirely sure I could actually call it a rootzone - was imported from a local source, and it was very cheap. I think originally it was around £1.50 per tonne we paid for it, to have it act as a rootzone. It just turned out to be a sort of poorly-screened topsoil."
"And we all just started off that way. For example, we dug some holes in the ground and they were the bunkers. They had sand in them, to be fair. But if you dig a hole in clay and it rains, what you have is a pond, not a bunker."
"I can remember cracks in the fairway you could literally lose a ball down. You could play a drive down the fairway: bounce; bounce; bounce; gone. We're not talking shallow cracks. These went right down to the dig site."
"Why anybody turned up on that opening day, the 1st of July 1995, and paid real money to become a member, I'll never know. I was here on that first day. I was looking out over the site wondering who would hand over money to do anything here."
"Meanwhile, strangely, there's always been something special about the place."
"When Peter passed away in 1997, his nephew, Martin came into the business as managing director and began to learn the golf business; he could see that the site required extensive investment, and that investment, along with his vision, has created what we see today."
Their aim is to increase this par 69 course to a standard scratch par 70, which is likely to require the extension of an existing par 4 to make it a par 5. This can be difficult due the the additional space required to achieve a sufficiently challenging hole length, but the club is confident that it can be achieved.
This team is responsible for around 1,000 members, including a strong share of junior and lady members - again adding to their credibility as a forward-thinking enterprise. About 200 are female, approximately 36 of those being aged under 18 at the time of writing.
Whether it's that people are suddenly just finding more value in the traditional membership for whatever reason, I don't know. Or perhaps they're just generally feeling more positive about the economy. Whichever applies though, it's nice to see that interest continue
Another example of this ingenuity is the way they structure their memberships. They have introduced a flexible membership package to their suite, which has been taken up so quickly that it now represents half of the club's membership figures across both courses.
The new membership mode is based on a pre-pay system, like buying strings of tickets for use in arcade machines. Customers load their membership with credits, which become cheaper when bought in greater bulk, and credits can be traded against the value of a round.
How many credits are used up varies as determined by certain value factors. 18 Phoenix holes close to peak time results in many credits being used up, whereas 9 Hadzor holes on a winter evening consume very few.
Alec Fernihough spoke to us about the memberships. He said: "June was a strange month for us mostly; a bad month for business in almost every way."
"July though, has been loads better. And now, overall, memberships are continuing a pretty consistent upward trend on both fronts. The flexible memberships have been on the rise for a while, but the traditional type have seen a nett increase of fifteen just this month already, which is very good."
"Whether it's that people are suddenly just finding more value in the traditional membership for whatever reason, I don't know. Or perhaps they're just generally feeling more positive about the economy. Whichever applies though, it's nice to see that interest continue."
The facilities also include a floodlit driving range nearby the Hadzor course, a short-game area, floodlit putting green and a true rarity close to the first tee: a petanque piste which is used regularly by the U3A group (who presently have 75 petanque members) who play up to twice a week, followed by lunch in the clubhouse.
Pétanque is a French form of boules, which is often played on a hard court made of gravel or hard ground, and of similar size to a bowling green. The playable balls are made of hollow steel, and the jack (sometimes called the 'piglet') is wooden.
The balls can then either be rolled, as in other forms of boules, or simply thrown at other balls to displace them, or get as close to the jack as possible. As in the other forms, points are awarded for the number of unbeaten boules surrounding the jack at the end of the leg.
Their foray into two relatively obscure sports, the pétanque and footgolf on-site, is the result of teamwork and team planning. That said, the experimentation comes alongside the youth of the club.
Just before its opening, the club was given a grant by the Forestry Commission to plant 50,000 tree whips. Whilst they haven't been an issue so far, Andrew predicts that it is within the coming years that the extra shade from their growth will start to affect his work.
Because of the density of the soil, these whips took a while to form complex root systems, and their energy went into this instead of top-growth. Now though, this top-growth may flourish at a new rate. In anticipation of this, the club has just begun to thin them out across some areas.
Height of cut on the greens averages 3.75mm during the summer and 4.5mm when it's coldest. Tees and aprons are at 10mm in summer, 12mm in winter. Fairways are 15mm when warm, increasing to 17mm, and semi-rough is always at 50mm.
These greens are finished with their new Jacobsen Eclipse Greens mower, and everyone on the staff take turns completing such daily activities. And this teamwork that the club hold as perhaps its key value, one gets the feeling, is the real root cause of all this modern thinking. "When this idea came up for the Trilby Tour, we got together and asked each other whether we all felt it's an interesting idea. I mean, we simply met up at the clubhouse [the senior management team] and asked whether we're capable of it, and whether it would be beneficial."
"That's the way we do things. Everyone is involved so, although I'm part of the grounds team in one way, all of the managers have sway in the big meetings too."
"Thankfully, through my connections with clubs in the local area, and also through my role in BIGGA, I've got friends that are prepared to help out."
"That helped us recently with the preparations for our Trilby Tour event, when course managers and greenkeepers from other clubs spent time with us preparing the course in the lead up to the event. It's things like this that make our industry truly unique and I'm very much looking forward to having the opportunity to repay the favours in the future."
"The club has recently changed their bunker sand due to the increase in haulage costs from the south coast, our old sand was very high quality, but it was proving just too expensive due to the distance it had to travel, so we have recently selected a bunker sand from a much closer quarry in the Midlands. Our topdressing sand still come from a little further afield; it's a Rufford CH28 from a quarry in Cheshire."
"But it isn't just about all that. I'm involved in the meeting, because the rest of the management care what we think, and find it useful."
"We met that day, at the bar in the clubhouse, and I remember saying to the guys that we've never shied away from a challenge in the past, so there's no reason that we should start doing so now. I said: 'Let's do it', and they listened."
What's in the shed?
Jacobsen Eclipse 322 15-blade cylinders
Jacobsen 3800 fairway mower
Jacobsen Gplex 3
John Deere 500
John Deere X748 & 580H Collector
John Deere F1145
John Deere 2653a
Lastec Articulator 3682 zero turn
Smithco superstar bunker rake
Toro 3000D c/w Thatchaway verticut units
Toro 3100 C/W Huxley topdressing brush
Ransomes 300 used for ball collection on driving range
John Deere 4320 tractor
Massey Ferguson 240 tractor
Cushman utility vehicles x 4
John Deere 6x4 Gator
Hardi 600l 8m tractor mounted sprayer
Hardi Boss 600l Truckster mounted sprayer
Martin Lishman 1m mini spray 70l
Battery powered walkover sprayer 25l
Cooper Pegler knapsacks x 3
Stihl FS 240 strimmer
Stihl FS 490 Strimmer
Stihl KM94 Kombi System
Stihl HT101 Pole Saw
Stihl 026 Chainsaw
Husqvarna 350 chainsaw
Echo backpack blower
Kawasaki backpack blower
Hitachi EX15-2 360 digger
Graden GS04 Scarifier
Clarke 22 water pump
Brower turf cutter
Generac 4kw generator
Honda HRH 536
Honda HRH 537
John Deere JX85
Jacobsen Greens 22
Ransomes Auto Certes
Charterhouse tractor mounted slitter
Cushman mounted slitter
Tractor mounted drill auger
Tractor mounted Howard Rotovator
Kubota Mole plough
Progressive Proflex - semi rough
Trimax 282 roller mower
Vicon 402 fertiliser spreader
Wiedenmann Gxi 6 Terra Spike (greens_ vertidrain
Wiedenmann XF6 Terra Spike (fairways)
Ransomes core harvester
Greentec vibrating greens rollers (one set)
4 tonne tipping trailer
Hazlewood beaver tail road trailer
Bernhard Anglemaster 4000 bottom blade grinder
Bernhard Express Dual 4000 cylinder grinder
Bernhard Rotamaster rotary blade grinder
Clarke air compressor 150l
Clarke diesel space heater
Clarke workshop lift table
Weldability 200amp mig welder
Oxy propane heating and cutting torches
Selection of hand tools including angle grinders, drills, saws, cement mixer etc.
The tournament support fleet supplied by TH White and Ransomes Jacobsen included:
Jacobsen Eclipse 322 x 2
Jacobsen HR 500 semi rough mower
Jacobsen HR600 Semi Rough Mower
Jacobsen TR3 Trim mowers
Jacobsen GP400 c/w 7blade tees units
Smithco Tournament Ultra greens rollers x 2
Cushman Hauler Pro-X
Jacobsen LF570 fairway mower