Two superb contrasting golf courses in picturesque surroundings and a second clubhouse in the West End. That's just part of what the Royal Automobile Club membership offers.
When your neighbour holds a party, it's best all round if you're invited or even part of what's going on. If yours is Epsom Racecourse, once a year at the beginning of June you can expect quite a noisy one.
The Royal Automobile Club has a race on the Derby meeting card named after its adjacent Woodcote Park estate, many of its members 'hop over the fence' to go racing, and it turns one of its golf course holes into a temporary car park. We went to this century old club the day before racegoers massive descent onto this part of Surrey downland to learn more about the golfing side of its prestigious and delightful facilities.
If you thought the Royal Automobile Club was to do with the long established roadside services business, you'd be wrong. That was sold off years ago and runs quite separately. The Club is one of the world's foremost private member clubs with two HQs, this one in Surrey: the other in London's Pall Mall. There are about 17,500 members all told. Among wide ranging social and sporting facilities available to them are two impressive and contrasting downland golf courses.
Golf at the Woodcote Park estate began in March 1915 with the opening of three nine-hole courses, designed by the renowned William Herbert Fowler. These were imaginatively labelled A,B and C, the first two a few years later forming the front and back nines of what became and still is Woodcote Park's 18-hole Old Course. The C course, though then still nine holes, soon after effectively offered eighteen by having two sets of tees. This was ploughed up and utilised for crop growing during the Second World War, but re-designed as a proper 18-hole course and opened in 1953. This second course was appropriately named the Coronation Course to mark the crowning of Elizabeth II.
The Club's Golf Course Manager, Iain Dye, tells us more about the courses in his care and how this Coronation year kicks off significant changes to the so-named course.
"In the past, the Old Course was always the 'senior', but now in terms of play and popularity they are neck and neck, though they are quite different in character and managed in quite different ways."
"The Coronation course is more condensed than the Old Course and, in truth, hasn't had the same level of investment over the last 20 years or so. It is more up and down the Surrey Downs landscape than the Old Course which is meandering and naturally tree-lined by contrast."
"The Old Course is much more traditional. There's a lot more rough fringing the holes. Big greens, big landscape. The Coronation Course has no tall, wispy rough at all. It is also much shorter and the greens are half the size of those on the Old Course. Golfers are offered contrasting playing experiences. We aim to preserve that choice."
If you belong to the Club, you are entitled to play golf on either of these courses. You just either pay a green fee per round or become a Golf Pass Holder.
At one of its regular strategic review meetings, the Club's Management Committee, which covers golf development and operation, felt the time was right to modernise parts of the Coronation Course layout, bringing it more in line with current golf expectations. The bunkers, the pathways and course irrigation in particular were due serious attention and the decision was made to have an overall project aimed for completion by January 2026. It gets started this autumn with the first of the bunker upgrades, though pathway improvement is already well under way.
Architect Tom McKenzie, who back in 2015 designed an upgrade to the Old Course which included a new irrigation system, has now created changes to the Coronation Course, principally to bunkering and fairway lines to bring it in line with modern thinking.
"You might say that architecturally the course has evolved rather than having a distinct style like the Old Course. Currently, the bunkers are laid in a variety of styles and do not flow particularly well. In truth, it could be described as a bit of a mishmash," said Iain.
Contractor Profusion Environmental was selected from an initial tendering list of five or six to carry out all of the complex bunker work. The company is well known for its bunker liner expertise and had successfully worked on the Royal Automobile Club courses in the past. It had already been engaged to undertake the pathway renovation. Specialist firm Green Irrigation will handle all of the irrigation installation work.
Some closure is inevitable, but will be minimal, Iain assures. A schedule is in place to see that 14 or 15 holes of the course will always be open for play. Bunker reconstruction will have the biggest effect on play, and the plan is to divide this aspect of the project into two distinctive phases, each covering nine of the holes; the first commencing this autumn, the second in autumn 2024.
Tom McKenzie has reduced the number of Coronation Course bunkers from 50 to 36. The scheduling is designed to see that areas of the course affected in the first phase are not disrupted a second time in phase two of re-bunkering. Detailed logistics are also in place covering pathways and irrigation, and in particular seeing that one follows the other smoothly and with minimal disruption.
When Iain first came to the Club three years ago, there were separate greenkeeping teams for each of the courses. Now, only the first assistants and senior greenkeepers concentrate on one or other course: the team generally covers both. He believes this helps broaden the skill set of team members from straight line cutting on the Coronation to more traditional requirements on the Old Course.
"Being a Downland setting, when it rains it's plentiful, but in the summer months when you most need moisture, anything you get drains away too readily," said Iain.
There is no fairway irrigation on either of the Club's courses and wetting agents are part of the routine. Generally, Iain can let nature takes its course and when fairway grass gets under stress cutting is moderated.
The whole of May, and right up to the beginning of the June Derby Festival 'next door', had been characterised by a cool and very drying north easterly wind, so there had been more hand watering than usual. Irrigation for greens, tees and approaches on both course is served by a new reservoir built two years ago for the Club.
"The courses have always been great, but there was work to do to lift the level of excellence still higher," he said.
"It was a big change in working environment with a different kind of pressure, much of it off course. There can't be many clubs with two clubhouses, one of them in London's West End. More 'management' is required, though I make sure I'm still a hands on greenkeeper. It's more than a golf club here. Resources and expectations are on a different level and it never really closes because of the wider club activities."
When Iain was at St Andrews, the motto he vividly remembers was 'This is always a championship course. Make sure it is every single day'.
Iain began his greenkeeping career at St Andrews, where he worked on two Open Championships. After seven years as Course Manager at Tandridge Golf Club, he took the top job at the Royal Automobile Club in 2020. He recalls going through a stringent selection process, which included a psychometric test and making a detailed presentation. When he was offered the post, he felt he was taking a journey rather than seeing a destination.
At the Royal Automobile Club, he has a team of 22 full-time greenkeepers, plus five seasonal staff. Seven or eight of the regulars live on site in single room accommodation with the benefit of a staff canteen for all meals. The Club's employment package is an attractive one with a number of benefits, not least of which are the flexible hours, which means Iain can have greenkeepers on the courses over a longer working day.
It's a pretty diverse team, and an international one, with a range of special skills, which it has to be for what is a very high-end golf venue. High standards are rightly expected. Iain believes his team deliver them on a daily basis. He will always do what it takes to see that play is consistent from tee to green, the St Andrews way his abiding mantra. When the war in Ukraine kicked off last year, the Club held a recruitment day specifically aimed at offering employment to refugees from the country.
"Stets, who was a banker in his home country and had virtually no English, came along to it and joined us right away," said Iain.
"We started him off on basic tasks like bunker raking, but he was a quick learner and a year on now plays a valuable part in what we do, cutting fairways and greens, and his English is amazing. A few weeks ago, he asked if there was any chance we could give his 18-year old brother, still in Ukraine, a greenkeeping job. His mum was worried he'd be called up to fight."
"After speaking to the Ukraine Embassy, I offered him a contract and he's about to start work here. He joins Igor, who came here with Stets last year, and Uri, a former air-conditioning engineer, who fled the country with his family. They are valued members of the team here. It certainly works for us and we believe it's a good thing to do in difficult times."
As we left the Woodcote Park Estate on this opening day of June, Iain was steeling himself for closure of the Old Course's 7th hole for its Derby meeting 'duties'. Only heavy rain would prevent this from happening. A big couple of days were ahead for the Club and racegoers, but for the golf side of things, it would be business as usual.