As Britain courts Beijing, golf club rues Chinese takeover

Sun Jan 10, 2016 3:15am EST
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By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) - London has been cozying up to Beijing in recent years in the hope of attracting Chinese investment, but in one leafy corner of England the love-in has turned to acrimony.

Long-time members of Wentworth, a hallowed golf club in the affluent county of Surrey just west of London, accuse the new Chinese owners of using an eye-watering fee hike to get rid of them and turn the club into a preserve of the global ultra-rich.

The dispute has caused diplomatic ripples, with interventions from Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who represents the local area in parliament, and from the Chinese embassy in London.

At issue is a plan by Beijing-based property and investment firm Reign wood Group, which bought Wentworth in 2014, that would require members to pay 100,000 pounds ($146,000) to remain part of the club and double maximum annual fees to 16,000 pounds.

"My own personal feeling is that they don't want us," said Michael Fleming, a local dental surgeon and Wentworth member for 28 years who has just ended a term as club captain. As for many members, the club has been central to his family's social life.

The club says it plans to invest an initial 20 million pounds to improve facilities, with 10 million being spent in the next two years, as it pursues its vision to make Wentworth "the world's premier private golf and country club".

"We are absolutely clear on the important role the club plays within the community and we know that it has generated multiple friendships over the years. We very much want this to continue," it told Reuters in an emailed response to questions.

Home to three 18-hole courses and to a striking crenellated clubhouse, Wentworth is famed throughout the golfing world for an old association with the Ryder Cup and as the venue for the annual BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour.   Continued...

The clubhouse of the Wentworth Club overlooks the course in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Peter Nicholls