YOU knew it was a special day when you saw the BBC TV Sports Personality of the Year full of the joys of life after he was given an impromptu chipping lesson by a freelance golf coach based in Northumberland.
AP McCoy, champion jump jockey 16 years in a row, looked as if he could not buy a chip in a fish shop when he started practice before yesterday’s Celeb-Am to mark the official opening of the Colt Course and the new clubhouse at Close House, the £20m golf club and hotel owned by Graham Wylie.
Less than ten minutes later McCoy was striding purposely to the tee with a smile on his face as wide as the Tyne, and so was the professional who had stopped to offer the gratefully accepted advice, Martin Forster, a former captain of the North Region PGA.
“Just the job,” said McCoy later, after he had played. “A bit of advice on my chipping before I went out, a lovely course and lovely weather.”
Inevitably, the day had dawned with many golfers talking figures.
In the middle of a recession, here was Wylie asking the Colt members of Close House, who have already paid £2,400 for their annual membership, to stump up £675 per player to play their own course in this event.
Even though it meant they got to stride the same fairways at the same time as the world No 1 golfer, Lee Westwood, Alan Shearer plus Ant and Dec and a host of other celebrities, it was a big ask and there were doubters.
Yet in a year when most charity golf days, charging a fraction of that amount, are experiencing a drop in support, Close House sold out their 21-team shotgun field within three days.
“If we had played everybody who wanted to play, it would have been around 30 teams”, said the Close House golf manager John Glendinning, an old boy of Slaley Hall and St Andrews University and, like Wylie, brought up in his beloved Northumberland.
As any golf club treasurer will tell you, this means Close House are no longer the new boys on the block in terms of the UK’s Premier League golf venues, the Wentworths and The Groves of this world.
Close House, who have sold 220 of their maximum 300 memberships for the Colt, have arrived – to the extent the R and A have already sounded them out about staging a future Walker Cup. Glendinning said: “The R and A liked it when we told them we have an old fashioned members’ set-up here, in terms of us being a thinking man’s golf course, not too long, rather than one of those stuffy old clubs who make you wear a blazer and tie in the clubhouse. We are ultra modern in that respect.”
That Wylie, a man of understated personal charm who has built his estimated £250m fortune in the software industry, is one of the few multi-millionaires with barely an enemy in the world was a factor in extracting the extra cash for this tournament.
A more tangible incentive was that, when all the takings are added up from a golf day and dinner bearing all the trappings you would expect at such a sumptuous venue, more than £60,000 will go the Children’s Heart Unit Fund at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital. Wylie has a personal interest in the unit, which saved the life of his 16-month-old daughter Kiera, who was toddling around the clubhouse yesterday while holding on to her dad’s fingers, a thankfully living testament to the skill of the Freeman’s medical team.
Yesterday’s star turn, Westwood, has battled against adversity himself, although nothing like so daunting.
Eight years ago, when he had slumped to number 246 in the world, it was his status as a leading professional that was on the line rather than his life.
Now here he was arriving at Close House by helicopter – to be greeted by Shearer, Wylie and the Close House captain and non-executive director, David Fulton – as a seven-times Ryder Cup player, five of them as a winner.
Plus Westwood is the joint holder, with Arnold Palmer, of the Ryder Cup record of 12 consecutive singles and foursomes matches unbeaten. Who better to ask what the new Colt course is like than a man who has won 34 tournaments in 17 countries?
He said: “Very well set up indeed for a members’ club and with a lot of possibilities if they want to play big events, all the facilities were top-drawer.
“It was the first time I had played golf with Alan Shearer, we had good fun out there – from the sound of all the courses he has played he plays more golf than I do!”
Shearer smiled as he said: “You would not think so the way I played today, but we had good time out there.
“Lee was what you would call a proper bloke. He was great company on the course and he could not do enough for all spectators afterwards in terms of stopping to chat and sign autographs.”