THEY don’t take prisoners at Chester-le-Street Golf Club as Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills quickly found out in their courting days.
Staying at Lumley Castle, they took a quiet stroll down a road leading towards the River Wear, discovered a public footpath behind the first and third greens of the golf course and took a wrong turn on to the fourth hole.
They were near the tee box when a member requested they leave the course. On being asked by McCartney “do you know who I am?”, the member responded with words conveying the clear message he was concerned not with identity but with the timing of departure. Cue the exit of famous couple and the club’s biggest brush with fame in its 100-year history.
Most golfers will forgive McCartney his trespasses, although Mills remains the most uncompromising person to tread the club’s fairways. Until now.
The biggest tournament of their centenary season, the Durham County Championships, will be staged this weekend with head greenkeeper, Barrie Lee, hoping to shake up the county’s finest with greens he will try to make “as near to the speed of Augusta as possible”.
Chester-le-Street is a club with a lot going for it. Its mature 6,479-yard parkland course is a beautiful sight and it is no surprise the celebrity couple were drawn to it.
The club professional for 14 years, David Fletcher, makes two or three trips a year all over the country – and to Spain and America – to keep up to date with coaching developments, and has even picked the brains of top men in the field such as Tiger Woods’ old coach, Butch Harmon. Bill Routledge, the hugely efficient secretary, is one of the genuinely nice guys of the sport and the club has a bit of influence in that one of its members, Peter Durno, is the president of the county – who are also celebrating their centenary year.
All in all, it is unsurprising Chester-le-Street is among the 7% of clubs in County Durham with a full membership, especially bearing in mind the town has a population of 53,500. The centenary year history book and calendar are both still selling fast and reciprocal invitation events for men, ladies and juniors are being staged with four other clubs celebrating their 100th year – Darlington, Houghton-le-Spring, Middlesbrough and Ripon.
As if things could not get any better, the hottest prospect in the county, 17-year-old Callum Tarren, from the Darlington club Dinsdale Spa, has recovered from a fractured ankle in time to take his place in the first and second rounds on Saturday and his tee-off times are 10.10am and 2.55pm.
Last year Tarren was described by then county captain John Kennedy as “a Seve Ballesteros style of golfer” and Kennedy added: “I have never seen such a unbelievable natural striker of the ball in all the time I have been involved in county golf.”
But like the rest of the field, Tarren will need to bring a gentle touch to the greens this weekend. Sitting in the head greenkeeper’s office, Lee is surrounded by a large collection of books about his trade which might as well all be titled ‘How To Torture Golfers’ in view of what the information he imparts.
Wearing a wicked grin, Lee raps his desk loudly with his knuckles as he says: “Barring rain, our greens will be as hard as that because I have not been using our water system. The greens will be double cut each morning of the tournament and I want the weather to be right. No rain. Our greenkeeping is traditional and we don’t use lots of fertiliser. I keep our greens pale, definitely not green, oh dear me no.
“I like them very pale because then you’ve got a good speed. If you’ve got a lot of fertiliser on greens then they’re all lushed up and they’re slow and they’re horrible. Putting should be about just touching the ball. I’ll never get them as fast as Augusta, but I shall l have a darn good try.”
For two days, Chester-le-Street will be a no-go area for hackers and the club’s usual large quota of visiting golf parties. After consultations with the county secretary, Graham Hope, Lee and the other five greenkeepers got to work. It’s a labour of love as all six of the award- winning team play golf – three of them, including club champion Jonathan Egglestone, off single-figure handicaps.
The rough will be two inches longer than usual at five inches, the odd fairway will be narrowed and each tee will be brought forward by five yards on the first day. On both days there will be six trickier pin positions than normal, adding more intrigue to a course where six older greens – from four to nine – are inevitably always firmer.
“I’ve got a cracker for the last green on the last day,” said Lee. “The pin will be on the back at the right near a bunker on a green that slopes from right to left. It will be near impossible to get close with your second shot on that one.
“That’s what it is all about – no ‘mickey mouse’ pin positions, but fair shots into greens especially dried out for the occasion.”