SITTING talking with Graham Wylie in the new No.19 clubhouse at Close House, a stylish glass creation stunningly simplistic in its elegance and with a 270-degree panoramic view of the Tyne Valley and of the equally new Colt Course, does not immediately bring to mind a crazy golf course in Whitley Bay.
This most unlikely of connections is made when you ask Close House owner Wylie the question on many golfers’ lips: What is a software tycoon with a passion for horse racing doing investing £20m and counting into a sport he plays only around half a dozen times a year?
“It’s very very simple,” he said. “I lived in Whitley Bay for the first 35 years of my life, and when I was 11, 12, and 13, my home was near the promenade.
“Just down from the Rex Hotel there was an Arnold Palmer nine-hole crazy golf course and during the summer holidays and the weekends, I would visit it every day, five or six hours a day.
“If you rang a bell on the last hole, you got a free round, and I kept ringing the bell. It was up a slope and it had five holes in it at different heights. If you got past the first four holes and putted the ball into the top hole you rang the bell.
“They had Saturday morning competitions for kids and you could win 25 rounds of golf or 50 rounds of golf and I used to win those. I held the record of going round the nine holes in 11 shots, seven holes in one and two par twos. I used to love playing that.
“At the age of 14 or 15, I was a junior member of Whitley Bay Golf Club. I used to enjoy playing there, but I was tiny, not big enough. I had the odd par and the odd birdie and at a young age I loved golf.
“When Sage started and it grew and my family started and I got married I did not have the time to go and play golf a lot. But I always enjoy it when I do and I have always loved the sport, I have just never got to play it as much as I would like to purely from family and business commitments.”
No.19 is the name attached in proud high letters to the clubhouse. No 29, Oxford Street was Wylie’s home near the crazy golf, where his parents, William and Margaret, ran a seaside boarding house. No silver spoon here for the boy who was to become a founder of Sage and is now the chairman of TSG, with a personal fortune estimated at £250m.
William used to work down the coal mine at Backworth Colliery and Margaret was a former seamstress. Young Graham helped to serve breakfast and the teas.
His mother wanted him to have a good education, which he achieved at Whitley Bay Grammar School and Newcastle University, where he gained a degree in statistics, all of which he put to good use when he found himself on the ground floor of the PC revolution.
Wylie’s explanation of part of the basic story of how he made his fortune leads on to a more likely connection with how he has delivered the golfing paradise that is Close House, set in glorious Northumberland countryside only 15 minutes from Newcastle City Centre. Now 51 and back living in Jesmond again after a move to Hexham, Wylie said: “I was a bit of a geek when I was a student. I would not go to rugby or football or games, I enjoyed computers and maths more than sport.
“I would not say I worked particularly hard, but was very thorough. Now I work after hours all the time in my office, which in effect is my iPhone and my ipad.
“I get my achievement and my fun from things such as people who enjoy everything we have at Close House. I have always believed that if you do anything to the best of your ability and the best you can, and you produce something that is really special, then people will enjoy it.”
Also a believer in delegation, Wylie says he leaves his golf manager, John Glendinning, and director Alan Graham to run the show at Close House.
“I just sit at the top and, I suppose do the visionary stuff and the strategic stuff and lend in my expertise when they need it. John is the expert in golf and I am not, so why would I run a golf club? I just let him do what he wants .
“He will come to me about certain decisions if he’s nervous about certain things and I’ll just say yes or no.
“Although I do not play a lot I have been to lots of golf clubs round the world and lots of courses. I am not a great golfer, but I know what I like and I wanted the clubhouse to be something like I would find at an American resort course.
“The ethos in the States is of a high-level of customer service and luxurious surroundings that just make you want to go back time and time again. That has already been happening at Close House.
“We have some very wealthy members who have moved from other clubs in Newcastle and the surrounding area because they are expecting a very high standard. A few weeks ago or so, when we opened the new course and clubhouse shortly before the official opening, that was our ultimate instant testing time.
“Golfers like this will vote with their feet. They could have said ‘we can afford it but we don’t like it, so we shall walk away’.
“Thankfully, we got the opposite reaction. The feedback we have had has been good and they are coming back and using the clubhouse a lot. This means that, so far, we have passed our first big test. Right from the first day, the reaction has been terrific.
“When we said we were going to build a big new clubhouse, we had three presentations from three architects.
“Two of them were a wooden structure that came under or within budget. The design we ended up choosing was completely different, totally state of the art and over budget.
“I just knew in my heart of hearts that this was what I wanted, that this was different, that this would draw people in and keep them in.
“So I was prepared to stick my neck out and go for the one that was outside the budget. That decision is paying off.”