Beckenham Place Park golf: A user’s reflections.

Introduction

This post was written by Jenny Kay, a long-standing member, and ex-ladies captain, of Braeside Golf Club.


I want to understand why it all went so wrong. Why does the wonderful Braeside Golf Club have to disperse, why does the most beautiful and accessible golf course in London have to close?

I thought it may help to go back to when I first joined the club and look at the relationships between golf operators, Lewisham Council, and the golfers. So, here is my golfing story. Some dates are vague – but the recollections and perceptions are mine and mine alone.

Early beginnings – late 1990s.

For several years in the late 1990s I played at Beckenham occasionally on Sunday afternoons with a friend – she had small kids and it suited us both. I was only a ‘hacker’, I’d had a few lessons but the scoring was always in treble figures!  But I felt comfortable and not intimidated.

The course was run at the time by a family firm; the Denhams. I asked once at the clubhouse whether there was a ladies club at BPP that I could join and the bloke in the pro-shop said ‘oh you don’t want to join here, you want to join a proper club like Langley Park or Sundridge‘. Little did he know that I would have found a private club incredibly intimidating, and really wasn’t ready for it. Why didn’t he encourage me to join his own local ladies section?

Mr Denham has now told us on Facebook that at this stage, the contract was set up so that the Denhams transferred all the cash take from the tills to Lewisham (£400,000 income figure quoted in Facebook) and were paid a fixed sum to operate the pro shop etc. Staff were employed by Lewisham (all agree a likely cost of £200-250,000) so it is likely it was profitable at this stage for Lewisham, even given the fee paid to Mr Denham.

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Fairway trees in early spring

2000-2010: First ten years with Braeside Ladies Golf Club

Braeside Golf Club has been a fixture at Beckenham Place Park since 1948 and has an active membership with weekly competitions, away events and leagues. It coexists with the casual golfers who turn up and play (many as regulars), visiting golf societies, and Beckenham Golf Club – another club based at the park. Luckily one of the Braeside Ladies noticed me on the golf course and talked me into joining the club. It was the perfect introduction to club golf for me, I started with a 45 handicap and it quickly came down. A few years later I became Ladies Captain, joining the committee – at which point my contact with the people who ran the club started.

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50th Birthday Fancy Dress Golf

During this time the course had been taken over by Glendale Golf and the pro shop was staffed by a young pro (John) who was keen to make a fresh start and work with the golfers to improve the place. I remember once asking him how I could get some improvements to the Ladies tees (they were rough, bumpy and in poor condition) and he explained that he would have to work with the council staff as they did all the work on the course. I asked, and asked, but nothing happened. I asked who I should speak to at the council and was told: ‘Jenny, do you realise that if you complain, it will just give them a weapon to ensure the course closes, because they see it as a millstone round their neck and they will use any excuse to get rid of it’. I complained anyway (in writing to John Thompson, Head of Greenscene at the Council) but it made no difference.

I have found out since this time that the normal situation in any club would be to have a greens committee which brings golfers and green staff and course management together to resolve issues like this on all sides. This never existing at BPP and we NEVER had effective channels of communication with the greens staff. If we spoke to one of them we were told we needed to speak to the pro shop and when we spoke to the pro we were told he would raise it with the council but often the word came back that he was powerless to fix it.

During this time two quiet, pleasant young men, Mark and Alex, managed the pro shop, also there was John the pro, who took adult lessons, and David, the American assistant pro who led fantastic junior coaching on Saturday mornings. You couldn’t miss him as he shouted instructions to his young charges on the putting green and on the practice range. Young boys and girls learning golf, what could be better? One of our ladies, Margaret Elwood, also ran a really popular juniors’ section who played every day in the summer in competitions, and played with the seniors on Captain’s Day etc. Happy times.

The Ladies played in a local league, the Penfold league, against other public golf course clubs in Kent. We did well and even won on occasion. The men also played, and also won. This just shows that Braeside Golf Club members played serious competitive golf, there were low handicappers who could hold their own in any golfing company. My own golf was also improving during this time, despite working full time. Most of us were working women (teachers, nurses, IT, secretaries etc). The men came from mixed backgrounds and ethnicities: taxi drivers, heating engineers, teachers, surveyors etc. Our club did not have any regular mid-week golf during this time – most unusual even for public courses. The fact that we were working women who could play at 8am on a Saturday with an open ‘roll up’ was a real benefit of playing at BPP.

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My 2 years as Ladies Captain – Prize Giving on Captains’ Day on the terrace

From a personal perspective, I met Alan, my current partner. A Scot – amazingly who had never played golf. He soon realised if he wanted to be with me it would be worth his while learning and Beckenham was just the right kind of place for a beginner to learn. To his credit he is now an excellent, solid golfer and we love playing together.

However, the pro shop staff appeared to lack any commercial nous. The staff never checked my loyalty cards (I pay £70 every month) and when I asked how they would know how many rounds were played they just shrugged their shoulders and said it wasn’t necessary. It was common knowledge that golfers would walk down to the 1st and 10th tees without paying in the pro shop and no one came out on the course to check up on them. Why not? No incentive!

What we now know (see minutes of Lewisham Council meeting in February 2016) is that the way the contract was set up was that Glendale were passing the cash takings direct to Lewisham, and in return received a fixed fee from Lewisham (£121K). It appears there was no profit incentive built into the contract for them to collect the money. So guess what – they made no effort to maximise income or even count the golfers that turned up. The Council therefore thought takings were down, activity was declining and it gave them a greater argument to close the golf course. It is absolutely apparent to me then, and now, that no one counted the golfers or collected the money properly during this time and the quoted takings did not represent the actual usage of the golf course.

The Mansion House cafe and toilets.

Mary had run the cafe with Mickey for many years, both were employed by the council. She had run a tight ship and produced great bacon and egg sandwiches and countless cups of tea, she was a great lady. But the cafe was thinly staffed – as an example they sometimes closed at 1pm in the winter just when a queue was building of morning golfers coming in from their round. Playing in Penfold competitions came with the tradition of providing a cheap £5-a-head tea afterwards, but sometimes Mary said it wasn’t possible to do this. It didn’t feel like it was run on a commercial customer friendly basis.

During all this time we had to use the outdoor toilets which were absolutely HORRID. Quite often vandalised, sometimes covered in faeces, needles and litter. Freezing cold in winter. They leaked when it rained. At some stage around 2008 Mary allowed us to use the newly installed toilets on the upper floor of the Mansion House which felt like a real luxury!

Around 2010, Mary retired, and Glendale took over the cafe and it introduced a ‘proper’ menu and posh coffee. John took a real interest in the place. And then, John discovered two toilets for ladies near the cafe! Wow – hot water and soap!!  So why had these toilets not been made available for all that time by the council?

New arrangements – 2011 to now

Around 2011 this all ended. John left to work at a private club, and then one Saturday we were told that David, Alex and Mark had left suddenly – no explanation – and a new Glendale manager was (eventually) appointed; Mick. The first thing he did was promise us a more responsive service. He merged the cafe and pro shop (to save staff costs). And lo and behold, the staff started counting the golfers in properly and collecting cash, including ensuring that all loyalty members clocked in when they started and they even went round in buggies to check everyone paid!!

What we now know is that at this time the contract had changed in Glendale’s favour, there was now an incentive for them to maximise income because the contract had been turned on its head…all the cash takings now went to Glendale, who paid the Council a fixed fee of £70,000. Boy, did it change attitudes! All of a sudden they were keen to collect as much money as possible from golf, quite understandably! But of course it didn’t solve the ongoing problem as it created a loss for the council who still employed the grounds staff. A very “strange” arrangement indeed.

The cafe staff were great and Mickey, Kate, Lynn and Jill and the others offered a fantastic service both to the golfers and cafe users. It felt like a very much more responsive and user friendly place. There were improvements in the park generally also as the Glendale staff were visible and present around and about the course, there was less vandalism and fewer problems with aggressive dogs etc.

During this time I retired from full time work, but work part time which means I am around and about much more, able to see what goes on. My golf has improved as well!

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Winter Golf at Beckenham Place Park

Course management and green keeping

But, the problem of the course management still persisted. Despite Mick’s best endeavours he never created a relationship with the council staff that meant golfers were any better looked after than before. What we now know is that there are 6 grounds staff, who apparently work 35 hour 5 day weeks, they start early in the morning, with some overtime at weekends. As a golfer over 15 years, including time in the club committee, I have never had a chance to develop a working relationship with them where we can ask them directly for work to be done. The conditions of the course are just about acceptable some of the time, in the summer when everything dries out, but much of the time the fairways are poorly mown, the word ‘semi-rough’ is unheard of, and the rough unplayable because it grows faster than it is mown. Greens can be poor quality and slow. Bunker sand gets packed down, (it should be soft and fluffy) bunker rakes have been absent for as long as I can remember. Paths became muddy and impassable, some of the wooden bridges over the ditches are worn, and distance, ‘out of bounds’ and water hazard markers became things of the very distant past. And as for the ladies’ tees – they’re still in the same state or worse.

No one has EVER asked us to complete customer surveys or seek our views as to how the place is run. I should add that all golfers pay for the privilege so really we should expect more. On reflection, it really is the worst old style public sector management I can think of – it reminds me of my youthful travels many year ago in unreformed communist China as a youngster, staying in state run hotels, where it seemed I was doing the hotel a favour, rather than the other way around.

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Autumn: Jo, and our lovely Jilly Moon – RIP 2015

So why don’t I complain? Why have I played there for so many years and not moved to a private club?

I have been challenged on Twitter recently – what did I do about it? Why don’t I go elsewhere? Well – I didn’t complain because I was warned a long time ago that it would only add further jeopardy to the future of the golf course, which the Mayor wanted to close (this was common knowledge even in the early 2000s!). I had complained once or twice and nothing happened. I didn’t want to get the staff into trouble. All those reasons why people tolerate poor standards of service and accept second best. I should know better – I am a senior manager in the NHS and I know how things can be done well. But I didn’t have the energy or the appetite for conflict.

Many players do leave – it is quite common for women and men golfers to start their golfing journey at Beckenham and then move on to better managed courses when their golf has improved. If the conditions were better they would undoubtedly stay. Yet I – and many others – still play there – and I would love to continue to play there, because it is the most beautiful, accessible golf course I know. I know and love every corner and nook and cranny of the course. It has a great unstuffy atmosphere that means anyone and everyone can play. We have a great friendly club, both men and women, with friends made over years of weekly play, banter and competition. This is what golf should be! We cope with poor conditions because the course is so beautiful and our friendship within the club means so much to us.

But, this isn’t just about us. We recognise we are a small group. This is about the history of golf, about the thousands of golfers who have played here over the years, the countless people we meet when playing on other courses who started playing golf at Beckenham. It’s about those older guys who turn up midweek and play 9 holes to keep fit and active. It is about the juniors who used to play day in day out over the summer holidays and will remain golfers for the rest of their lives, and have learnt good manners, good etiquette and gained in confidence and personal skills in the process. It is a great ‘feeder’ course and it is where so many golfers start their journey. There is not a single golfer or golf pro I have met on neighbouring courses who is not sad and angry at its closure, (despite the fact they may benefit from golfers moving to their courses when it closes) because of its place in South East London and Kent’s golfing heritage.

Conclusion

This piece has allowed me to reflect on my experiences, perception and memories. I have not included all of the other developments over the years because I was not so involved in them – for example, long standing secretary of Braeside David Hansom’s community development plan for the park, which seems to me now to have been a great solution. If I have got any facts wrong, that is because I have had to puzzle together the history using what is public, and my own memories and observations to create a narrative.

I am so saddened that the Mayor cannot see what an amazing, historic, wonderful asset he is closing. It would take so little to make it work: a unified golfing operation where ground staff and pro shop were managed together, hence income and costs were directly linked; where the operating company were incentivised to develop the business and generate more activity (demand for golf is high in inner London, especially with the boost of Justin Rose winning the Olympics); where a long term contract could be let so that the operating company also invested their profits in the Mansion House and Homesteads and ran them with and for other park users as community assets; where users were respected as customers.

And yes, I am bitter and angry that the Council are so short sighted not to see the solution staring them in the face.

Jenny Kay
Braeside Ladies Golf Club
Save the Beckenham 18 campaign group