The rich vs the very, very rich: the Wentworth golf club rebellion
L ike all exiles, Michael Fleming remembers when his separation from home soil began: 20 October 2015, a Tuesday. That year, Fleming was captain of Wentworth, an old, prestigious golf club in north-west Surrey. The club had recently been bought by a Chinese firm, Reignwood Consulting Ltd, and an annual general meeting was scheduled for the 20th. On that morning, having already drafted his speech, Fleming was in his dentistry clinic when he received the email.
Brace for change, Wentworth wrote to Fleming and his colleagues, outlining its planned announcements at the AGM: a wild increase in membership fees and the number of members drained from about 4,000 to just a few hundred. A “barmy” decision, Michael Parkinson, the chatshow host and a longtime member, had told the Mail on Sunday, which had scooped the details two days earlier. Peter Alliss, the BBC golf commentator, complained that Reignwood was “bringing an Asian philosophy to Britain”. Fleming, whose manner is so mild it’s hard to ever imagine him yelling “Fore”, was shocked. He began rewriting his speech.
The AGM that evening was standing room only: a couple of hundred fretful people packed into the club’s ballroom. Stephen Gibson, Wentworth’s new CEO, laid out the coming transformation. Wentworth ought to be “the Augusta of Europe”, Gibson said – as coveted and rarefied as the club that hosts the US Masters, and presumably as moneyed. To this end, members would have to reapply to join, paying £100,000 for a “debenture” – in essence loaning the money to Reignwood and its owner, a Chinese billionaire named Yan Bin, for a term of 50 years. Members would also have to fork out higher annual dues: £10,000 for an individual or £16,000 for a family, where previously a family had paid about £8,000.
Even if all the members could afford this – a remote possibility, since the club was home not just to multimillionaires and CEOs, but also estate agents and dentists – not everyone would get back in. To make things exclusive, Yan Bin wanted to issue just 888 debentures. The number is lucky in China, although not so much at Wentworth, since three-quarters of the members stood to lose their memberships altogether. “There were ructions,” one attender told me. “People were very upset.” One member, Sir Stanley Simmons, now in his 80s and once the Queen’s physician, protested. He’d been at Wentworth for more than 50 years, he said, and he recognised that he didn’t have many rounds left to play. Why would he spend a fresh £100,000? Gibson’s response, another member recalled, was: “Don’t worry, Sir Stanley, you can bequeath it.”
When Fleming rose to speak, he struck a defiant note. “Some of you will need to fasten your seatbelts.” Yan Bin really needed to improve the greens, he said, instead of launching doomed ideas like the debenture. The cull of members would destroy Wentworth’s traditions, Fleming warned. “It would be a shame for our new owners not to be considered honourable.” As he wound down, though, he sounded doleful, as if already lamenting a bygone era. “At least we will be able to say we were here in the good times.”
Since its founding in 1922, the golf club has been the nucleus of Wentworth Estate, a private community of villas, which occupies 700 hectares. About 500 of its houses sit on public roads. The other 300-odd, bigger and more expensive still, are located on the private roads that snake through the golf club and wrap tightly around it. These residents call their part of the estate “The Island”. If you’re a newcomer, it isn’t always easy to know when you’re on a golf course and when you aren’t. The lands of the Island and the club run in and out of each other, like a zip’s interlocking teeth. Wayward balls come to earth in the gardens of houses. A few of the roads intersect fairways, and their verges are putting-green grassy. Some of the homes are so luxurious that they might be mistaken for small clubhouses. This is Virginia Water, after all – the first British town outside London where the average sale price of a house hit £1m back in 2013.
There’s no mistaking the actual clubhouse once you come upon it: a long, low structure with crenellated walls and turrets over the door. It looks well-prepared for a lengthy siege against insurrectionist caddies. To golfers everywhere, Wentworth is the birthplace of the Ryder Cup, the home of the BMW PGA Championship and one of the world’s most prestigious courses. To those on the Island who golf, the club is why they live where they live. Nigel Moss, a management consultant who is a member and a resident of the Island, told me: “It’s our hub, it’s our pub, it’s our church, it’s our community centre.”
The reforms threatened to evict most of the occupants from this hallowed space, pushing the club past the reach of the merely rich and towards the outrageously wealthy – the kind of people who can whip out a spare hundred-K for a golf membership. A coalition of members, including Fleming and Moss, embarked on an energetic PR campaign, saying that Wentworth would be destroyed, and that neither Yan Bin nor Gibson understood its culture or history. The press ate it up, spotting in this rift between what one headline called the “well-to-do” and the “stinking rich” an opportunity for the mocking weep of tiny violins. Several reports quoted Parkinson, a man not short of money, grumbling that Yan Bin just wanted “a car park full of Lamborghinis”. One Times report on the argument sat next to a piece headlined: “Billionaire wins legal fight over £15m yacht that was too small.”
The ongoing clash between Yan Bin and his club’s members has witnessed several dramatic phases: threats, lawsuits, duplicity, negotiations, truces, even death. But the tale isn’t just about the preposterousness of the wealthy. Rather, it’s impossible to learn about all this turmoil – in a place called “the Island”, for crying out loud – and not see it as an allegory. With its groves of pine and rhododendrons, its houses named Heatherbrook or Bluebell Wood or Silver Birches, and the gentle hillocks of its club’s fairways, Wentworth Estate holds dear a vision of pastoral Englishness. But since the 1980s, Wentworth has been reshaped – just like England itself – by money: first the wealth of the homegrown 1%, which considered itself immune to the turmoil of change, but which then found itself subject to the whims of the globalised capital held by the 0.001% like Yan Bin. The saga is familiar: a small locality unsettled by the arrival of an outsider. Except that the outsider is a transnational holding corporation, and the locality is Wentworth Estate, a slice of England overtaken by the world.
M ichael Fleming joined the club so long ago that he can’t remember the exact year: 1984 or 1985, he thinks. Unable to afford a house on Wentworth Estate, he and his wife found one in the village of Sunningdale – still pretty affluent, all things considered, and a close enough drive that Fleming could start lacing his shoes up in his kitchen and be on the first tee seven minutes later.
Wentworth is a magnet for devoted golfers. It was in the Burma Bar here, after a friendly between American and British golfers in 1926, that the garden-seed magnate Samuel Ryder proposed repeating the fixture regularly – the germination of the Ryder Cup. The club hosts the European Tour’s PGA Championship every May. Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Nick Faldo have played here. Ernie Els, once the world’s top-ranked golfer, told me he still remembers “the sound of the shots echoing in among the trees” from his first game at the club; he loved Wentworth so much he eventually bought a house nearby. When Fleming joined, Wentworth had two 18-hole courses, the East and the West. A third, the Edinburgh, was added in 1990. These are difficult courses, Fleming said – courses for serious golf. “You’d hate the game if you started learning here. It’d be like getting into a Formula One car before ever driving anything else.”George Duncan of Great Britain during a friendly against the United States at Wentworth, 1926. Photograph: Getty Images
A round of golf requires such a luxurious surplus of space and time that it can never have been called an ordinary person’s game. And by the 80s, golf clubs had long gained their reputation as being sanctuaries for the corporate wealthy – as places where these executives not only spent their money but colluded to make more of it. Still, Fleming insists that Wentworth in those days wasn’t just for rich people. “No one asked what you did for a living. I couldn’t even say how many of the people I played with had been to university.” Back then, he paid close to £1,000 a year in fees – in today’s money, less than £3,000. No one cared how good the food was, or even ate dinner there. It was golf and little else.
By and by, that changed. More golf courses opened up in the green belt around London, as farmers sold their land and as new retirees and the Thatcherite wealthy took up hobbies. Chelsfield, the property development firm that owned the biggest stake in Wentworth, spruced the club up. Tennis courts. An indoor pool. A new driving range. When Chelsfield sold Wentworth in 2005, the clothing tycoon Richard Caring paid £130m for it. Caring had outbid, among others, the Savoy Hotels group, and although he loved golf, he itched with mild buyer’s remorse. He wasn’t very good at auctions, he told the Financial Times. He suspected he’d ended up paying 50% more than the club was worth.
Caring invested heavily. He improved the club’s food and service. He hired Ernie Els to lead a £6.5m renovation of the West Course – to design new bunkers, to tonsure the putting greens and plant them with a different kind of grass. The project took 13 years. “It needed to be done,” Els told me. “I mean, the course had barely been touched in 80-something years.”Get the Guardian's award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning
But the members always felt that Caring had one eye cocked for buyers, so that he could earn his money back quickly. The fees rose beyond “the average person’s comfort zone”, Fleming said. (Although, of course, most golf club fees have never fallen within the average person’s comfort zone.) The membership increasingly comprised young bankers and lawyers who drove in from London for the rare game. Caring even wanted to build a hotel around the club, to drive up its value, another member said, but his move to get planning permission was stymied by Wentworth Estate’s homeowners. Finally, in 2014, Caring sold the club to Reignwood for £135m – a slender profit. Which was how Wentworth Estate came to be home to Yan Bin, who blew into the club’s snug, staid world and turned it upside down.
A Chinese conglomerate’s entry into Wentworth Estate was novel, but it wasn’t like Wentworth hadn’t seen money before. Yan Bin is only the latest, and among the very richest, of a long line of well-heeled arrivals. Beginning in the 80s, in particular, the Island attracted people with a high order of wealth – all of whom have found, over the past decade or so, that they, in turn, are being inconveniently supplanted by people with an altogether more stratospheric order of wealth.
The club and estate were both founded by WG Tarrant, a bearded, boulder-headed developer. In the 20s, Tarrant bought the grounds of Wentworth from its last noble owner, turned the mansion into the clubhouse, and arranged golf courses around it. The club brought golfers, and golfers were wealthy, so Tarrant sold them homes, each set on at least half a hectare of land, and some on five or 10. The houses had porches, gabled roofs and half-timbered frames, the kind of rustic quality that Londoners longed for after their weekly dose of Country Life. The cartoonist Osbert Lancaster named this style of architecture Wimbledon Transitional and once sketched an exemplar. A woman stands in the balcony of a Tarrant-type house, waving to her husband as he strides out in plus-fours, a pipe in his mouth and a dog at his heels. On his shoulder, he has slung a bag of golf clubs.
Few people know Wentworth better than James Wyatt. He grew up in Virginia Water in the 70s and is a partner at Barton Wyatt, an estate agency run out of Tarrant’s old office. His grandfather bought the agency in 1965 – well after Tarrant ran up debt and sold his company; well after the second world war, when the army requisitioned the club. (Underground, soldiers built a set of bomb-proof war rooms, for Churchill to use if London proved too dangerous; on the links, a home guard unit practised lobbing grenades across sand traps. Bunkers below, bunkers above.) When Wyatt was a boy, the Island drew celebrities such as Cliff Richard and Elton John. “Two of the Bee Gees rode around in their open-top Rolls. A guy who lived up the road from my parents was the bass guitarist for Yes.”
In the 80s, financiers and entrepreneurs settled here, pleased to be well-situated for Heathrow and a brief train-ride away from the City. (The kind of people, the writer Iain Sinclair found when he stalked the capital’s outskirts for his book London Orbital, who “promise to quit Britain if another Labour government is voted in. And they honour that promise. Wentworth is another country.”) The vanguard of overseas buyers arrived soon after, Wyatt said: “Swedes, running away from their enormous taxes.” Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, lived here from 1998 to 2000, under house arrest in a bungalow called Everglades. His supporters rented it for £10,000 a month.A policeman guarding the entrance to the Wentworth Estate, where Augusto Pinochet was staying, 1999. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA
More foreign buyers in the 00s: Middle Eastern royals; Russians like Pyotr Aven, who heads one of his country’s largest banks; the kings of three Malaysian provinces. These homeowners are rarely seen, using these residences only for a month or two each year. The houses got bigger and plusher, until they resembled hotels. Wyatt looks after at least three houses that spend close to £500,000 yearly on maintenance alone. Owners install massage rooms, cinemas and hairdressing salons. “One house I saw had a present-wrapping room in the basement,” Wyatt said. “There were racks of gifts, wrapping paper, and a big table in the middle to wrap things.” The British Islanders aren’t always happy about their new neighbours; Nigel Moss told me, ruefully, that his road might as well be called “Russia Row”, there were so many Russian-owned homes on it.
After Yan Bin bought the club in 2014, he also bought a Wentworth house through a holding company: a 900-square-metre mansion named Robinswood. Its previous owner, a Russian gas tycoon, had put it on the market for £18m. It wasn’t a stretch for Yan Bin to think that, to be maximally profitable, his club should forget about the dentists on its rolls and target the exorbitantly wealthy like himself. After all, there were enough of them right here on the Island. Justifying the debenture, Gibson, the club’s CEO, asked one reporter: “Did you get a look at any of the houses when you drove in this morning?”
The Island changed, in other words, just as Britain did. The country, too, became a domicile for people who had made fortunes elsewhere. They found that Britain called to them with open arms and lax tax regimes, even as its politicians were erecting barriers for immigrants of more modest means. The plutocratic few arrived to buy property in central London, Scottish estates, football clubs or newspapers. This influx of money drove up property prices, deadened neighbourhoods by stocking them with the silent mansions of absentee landlords and influenced politics. It fed a fixation among some Britons about who Britain is really for, about the rich as well as the not-at-all-rich who wished to move here, about the world outside, and about Britain’s dwindling station in it.
Versions of these anxieties exist even within the cocoon of Wentworth. Moss, who sits on the Wentworth Residents Association’s executive committee, told me that, for 15 or 20 years now, homeowners have worried about the ease with which interlopers enter the Island. In 2018, a police squad had to track down 15 people – “suspected illegal immigrants”, according to one police tweet – who’d been hanging off the back of a lorry before running into Wentworth Estate. There are already police cameras at each of the estate’s 19 entrances, capturing the number plates of cars driving through. Now the residents are installing boom barriers at these entrances, trying to secure the Island more effectively from the outside world.
Yan Bin’s takeover of the club provoked a similar agitation. In escalating the fees, he was looking for a new kind of member, which left the old kind of member out in the cold. Moss described it to me as a “culture clash. He made no attempt to understand the club. He thought he could do what he wanted, basically.” He had the right to think this, Moss said: it was his club.
But the golfers could still resist, so Moss and some others formed their coalition, calling it “Wet Feet” after a Chinese proverb: “It never rains on your neighbours without you getting your feet wet.” Then they set about learning more about Yan Bin and parleying with his representatives. “It makes me question,” Moss said, “what would have happened if we hadn’t stepped up.”
F or a group of jilted golfers in Surrey, Yan Bin was a remote, formidable adversary. Reignwood, his Hong Kong-based holding company, has numerous interests – golf, aviation, finance, petrochemicals – but he made most of his money selling energy drinks. This he did, in the style of most billionaires, through a combination of political muscle and scrappy street-fighting – and, his critics claim, a hazy sense of ethics. I tried contacting him, but a Reignwood executive refused all interviews. Stephen Gibson, the former CEO, said he’d been unwell and declined to comment, as did Neil Coulson, the club’s current general manager.
None of Wet Feet’s members have properly met Yan Bin. He flies in for the awards ceremony of Wentworth’s annual PGA tournament but remains unapproachable. One club member told me that the most he’d seen of Yan Bin was in 2017, when Reignwood launched a new Four Seasons Hotel in London. “Some of us were invited to the opening, where there was a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra.” Plácido Domingo sang an aria; then an ensemble of Chinese musicians played for a while. Finally, Yan Bin himself – a short man with a square face – took the stage to sing a Chinese song, backed by the orchestra. “He doesn’t have a great voice, but he belted it out. I can best describe it as karaoke,” the member said. “There was a big screen behind him with a translation of the lyrics. It was clearly a Communist party anthem of some kind, about Chinese flags flying high.”
Born in 1954, in the coastal province of Shandong, Yan Bin emigrated to Thailand in the 80s and, after fighting through a few years of poverty, set up the company that became Reignwood; six years later, he returned home with money, an alternate Thai name – Chanchai Ruayrungruang – and contacts. In 1995, he set up a joint venture with a Thai firm called the TCP Group to manufacture and sell the energy drink Red Bull in China.
The recipe for Red Bull is the property of the TCP Group, which licenses others to make and market the drink outside Thailand, earning royalties and dividends from the sales. The drink is calibrated to local tastes: fizzier in some countries, flatter and more medicinal elsewhere. In most parts of the world, the licensee is Red Bull GmbH, an Austrian company, which designed the drink’s distinctive blue-and-silver can. In China, Yan Bin’s genius lay in positioning Red Bull as a premium product, selling it in a heavy, gold-coloured can and pricing it at 6-8 yuan (roughly 60-90p), twice the cost of a can of Coke.
His success was spectacular. “In China, pregnant women at hospitals are sometimes given Red Bull to stimulate labour,” a well-placed source in the energy drinks industry told me. “Children drink Red Bull before exams.” In 2019, Red Bull earned Reignwood $3.1bn in revenue. Estimates of Yan Bin’s wealth vary wildly: the Bloomberg Billionaires Index pegged it at $2.9bn in 2019, while the Hurun Report’s annual China Rich List put it last year at $16.2bn. He takes meetings in his smoking jacket, a pipe in hand, and often helicopters around Beijing. “In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was unbridled in its development,” one person familiar with Reignwood’s business said. “Yan Bin is considered a hero of that economic success.”
Around the turn of the century, Yan Bin built his first golf club, Pine Valley: 54 holes designed by Jack Nicklaus, set within a 2,500-hectare resort near Beijing, a property so lavish that it’s as if its owner had demanded something like Versailles, only grander. Its membership once cost as much as $300,000, a former Reignwood manager told me. He said that Yan Bin sees golf as a networking opportunity: “He likes to make friends with government officials and celebrities.” On Facebook, Yan Bin’s daughter once posted a strange, recursive image of herself with Donald Trump, from a meeting well before he became president. They seem to be in Trump’s office, because the wall behind them is jammed with framed magazine covers featuring Trump. He flashes his customary rictus and thumbs up; she holds a photo of a previous instance when she and her father met Trump in the very same room.Yan Bin at Wentworth with BMW PGA Championship winner Danny Willett in 2019. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Along the way, Yan Bin cultivated a close relationship to the Communist party. Reignwood promotes Chinese foreign policy by hosting forums on the belt and road initiative, China’s domineering infrastructure plan. He belongs to the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a body that advises the party. These connections have often insulated him from political interference. Even as the government cracked down on golf over the past decade, calling it a corrupt and decadent game and shutting down courses all over the country, Pine Valley has thrived.
But Yan Bin’s party ties proved futile in a legal snarl over his main money-spinner: Red Bull. In 2013, Red Bull GmbH secured a China licence as well, to sell its version of the drink in its blue-and-silver can. Soon after, the energy drinks industry source said, the TCP Group found it was being shortchanged. Its joint venture with Reignwood was highly profitable, but the TCP Group wasn’t being paid all the dividends it was owed. And Yan Bin had set up other companies to make Red Bull products. In the figures it provided to the TCP Group, Reignwood claimed to manufacture 1-1.5bn cans a year. But in total, it was suspected to be selling at least three times as many.
The TCP Group refused to renew its licence and, when the joint venture continued to market Red Bull, sued the company. Perhaps unnerved by these complications, the TCP Group also began operating directly in China, launching yet another Red Bull – in a golden can, identical to that sold by Yan Bin. “We’re in a surreal situation where there are three companies selling Red Bull here,” the source in the energy drinks industry said with a laugh when we spoke in November. A month later, China’s highest court ruled against Yan Bin, saying he’d been using the Red Bull trademark illegally. In all likelihood, he may no longer be able to sell the brand that made him his fortune.
In its entirety, the episode reminded me of something Ni Songhua, a former Reignwood vice-president, once told the Financial Times. Yan Bin, he said, “is very good at getting people to trust him and do projects for him. But when the time comes to pay up, then he goes cool on you, and you find the deal is not what you thought you had.”
W entworth popped up on Yan Bin’s shopping list when he began roving overseas, looking for things to buy. At one point, close to 90% of Reignwood’s cashflow came from Red Bull, so diversification seemed essential. One of Reignwood’s first major purchases overseas was of a luxury apartment complex in Singapore in 2013, for an estimated $400m. (Each flat above the ground floor has a “sky garage,” so that residents can turntable their cars up and park them next to their living rooms.) The same year, Reignwood bought the Corn Exchange building in London, an 18th-century grain market now occupied by offices. Next, in addition to Wentworth, Reignwood snapped up the Port of London authority’s old headquarters and spent nearly £500m to turn it into a luxury hotel.
Until about a decade ago, “it was largely Chinese state-owned enterprises doing the investing abroad,” said Sarah Hall, a professor at the University of Nottingham, who studies the flows of financial globalisation. Mostly, these funds poured into sectors like energy or mining. Then Chinese magnates started to spend. In the UK, they followed the groove traversed first by Middle Eastern investors and then Russian ones, buying into commercial real estate, technology and financial services. They paid special attention to brands that came with prestige or popular renown: the Greene King pub chain, Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, Loch Lomond Distillers. In 2018, in the most emphatic such example, China’s government bought the Royal Mint Court, opposite the Tower of London, and announced that it would move its embassy into these premises. Yan Bin’s interest in the historic sites of the Corn Exchange and the Port of London authority fit this pattern neatly – as did his purchase of Wentworth.
It’s tempting to read into these acquisitions China’s desire to stamp its new primacy upon the old bastions of western power. Certainly there is some symbolism in China situating its new embassy within the very building that once received the shipments of silver that China was forced to pay the UK at the end of the opium wars. Or, for that matter, in Yan Bin’s reported desire to clone Wentworth back east. And certainly these developments often send some sections of the polity and media into a froth. In the Mail on Sunday, referring to the purchase of several British schools by Chinese companies, Nigel Farage called this a prong of a “neo-colonial project”, and fretted that these schools would teach “a sanitised version of Chinese history and politics” – rather than, presumably, a similar version of British history and politics. But China and the Chinese super-wealthy are merely implementing with particular alacrity the beliefs of other great powers of the recent past: that capital must be unimpeded, that it cares little for history or sentiment. It just so happens that, in this century, there’s money to be made not just from oil or ore, but also from the very institutions set up by those making the money in a time gone by.
A fter Wentworth announced its fee rise, in 2015, Wet Feet hired lawyers to draft a letter to the club. The letter argued that the club was breaking the contractual rights of members and its covenant with Wentworth Estate, whose residents were always entitled to be members if they wished. “I’m not saying these issues weren’t absolutely valid,” Moss said. “But we knew we would never win. It might have taken years and hundreds of thousands of pounds to take it all the way through the courts, by which time there would have been an exodus of members from the club and Yan Bin would have outspent us.”
Better to protest, they reasoned, by loudly occupying the moral high ground. With the help of a PR firm – not a resource usually available to agitators – Wet Feet fed newspapers with details of their protest. Michael Fleming, wearing his club blazer, went to the Chinese embassy to deliver a petition against Reignwood. (“We nearly got arrested going in. But we delivered it OK. The door opened just this much – between a thumb and a finger – and they took the letter.” There was no response.)
Wet Feet roped in Philip Hammond, their local MP and Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, who promised to seek a meeting with Yan Bin and intervene. (Hammond did meet Ni Songhua a couple of times, Moss said.) A spot of Gandhian civil disobedience was also threatened. “We can, in practice, make it very difficult to hold an event like the PGA,” a resident told the BBC. “There are obviously a lot of people who are prepared to block the road if required.”The clubhouse at Wentworth. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
Wet Feet’s members think the press campaign – and particularly a large, embarrassing story in the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong – forced Yan Bin to soften. But he may simply have had too much on his plate at the time: the Red Bull litigation, a £146m slab of debt that financed his purchase of Wentworth, cost escalations at his Four Seasons-to-be, and a plan to buy part of New York’s Standard High Line hotel.
The truce came in March 2016. Through Ni Songhua, one of its vice-presidents, Reignwood accepted some compromises. Existing members could continue on an annual fee, although higher than the one they’d been paying. Or they could put down a £20,000 advance on an £85,000 debenture, hand over the remainder after three years, and pay a lower annual fee. New members, though, had to buy a fresh debenture for £125,000 – a figure that has since ballooned to £150,000.
Fleming decided he couldn’t afford Wentworth any more and joined West Hill Golf Club nearby, paying around £2,400 annually. “I couldn’t see Wentworth being the same as it was,” he said. “You felt as if the heart of the club was being destroyed. I didn’t want to be around to see that happening.”
One of Wet Feet’s most vociferous members, though, opted for the debenture, and Wet Feet itself was dissolved. Why? I asked. After all the energies they’d expended, why did he decide to pay up?
He shrugged. They were conscious, he said, that if they dragged out their campaign, they’d eventually lose any public sympathy they had – that they’d be seen as a chorus of privileged grumblers. And he lived on the estate, after all, he said. Where else was he going to golf? “I look at it as a lifestyle choice … It would be like cutting my nose to spite my face to not accept the concessions.”
We were talking in his house, and I wondered if there were many others like him – members who actually could afford the debenture but who’d really just balked at being asked abruptly to pay it by a faceless Chinese corporation. But I didn’t have time to complete that thought; he’d promised to show me the club, so we drove there in his car. It was December and pouring, and although a lockdown had just ended, several Covid-19 rules were still in force – the worst way to explore Wentworth. (During the pandemic, the club took hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer funds to furlough its staff.)
We ambled, masked, through the clubhouse. I saw the Burma Bar, which Reignwood had renovated, turning it from an old-school 19th hole into an anodyne place that belonged, as members joked, “in a premiere Premier Inn”. Reignwood had also done away with the ancient wooden honours’ boards lining the walls and corridors; after an outcry, it commissioned replacements, which look new and – there’s no other way to say this – cheap. Ironic, given the price of the debenture, I remarked. My guide smiled grimly.
After the truce, the turbulence at Wentworth subsided, but only slightly. Reignwood made some improvements to the club, the Wet Feet-ers granted – chief among them the installation of a vast underground ventilation system that dries out the fairways. It also seemed, for a while, as if Reignwood was preoccupied with other matters – not just the Red Bull litigation in China, but even problems in the UK. In 2017, Reignwood dismissed Ni Songhua, who promptly sued, claiming he’d been denied his promised share in Yan Bin’s European ventures. Reignwood sued Ni in turn, alleging, among other things, that he had “refused to provide an account of his stewardship” of 32,000 bottles of wine, worth around £4.8m. Before any of this could be resolved, Ni died.How Britain let Russia hide its dirty money Read more
Then, two years ago, Gibson was forced out of his position. After he found out that he’d been replaced by Yan Bin’s daughter, Gibson, a white man, sued Wentworth for racial discrimination, claiming £750,000 in damages. Last November, Gibson confirmed to me that he had “an important legal hearing” coming up but refused to say any more. On LinkedIn, puzzlingly, he still calls himself “CEO at Reignwood Investments UK Ltd and Wentworth Club Ltd”.
Despite these hiccups, it’s hard to not conclude that Yan Bin, in striking his deal with Wet Feet, has outfoxed them. For one, he killed the barrage of bad press. His debenture is still in place, and people have purchased it – the kind who can afford to pay £150,000. With the older members, he can keep raising the yearly fee – as he has done, from £10,000 for an individual in 2017 to £13,000 now – according to his needs.
And he will have good reason to do that. He has a loan to finance, and Wentworth is leaking money: a loss on ordinary activities after tax of £16m in 2018, and of £9m in 2019. A recent circular warned those without debentures of a fee rise around the corner, in 2022. As long as he can hold on to the club, and is interested in it, Yan Bin can make it what he wants it to be. He is still, when all is said and done, enormously wealthy. His wealth affords him patience, so he has merely deferred his win. But the win will come, the member of the erstwhile Wet Feet said. “There’s no question about it. The writing is on the wall.”
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