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Bury St Edmunds Golf Club honours its founders’ ‘no swank’ promise as it marks centenary

No swank, and no bunkum. That was the pledge made on the opening day of Bury St Edmunds Golf Club 100 years ago.

And in its centenary year the club is still determined to honour the wishes of its founders - making golf as affordable as possible and open to everyone.

That was rarely the case in 1924 when it was usually a pursuit of the upper classes and most ordinary people would not even dream of stepping onto the hallowed turf of their local course.

Colin Gray, a member of Bury St Edmunds Golf Club since 1962, with the centenary wall
Colin Gray, a member of Bury St Edmunds Golf Club since 1962, with the centenary wall

Golf clubs then were mostly the preserve of well-to-do gentlemen in plus fours and ladies in pleated skirts, cloche hats, cardigans and elegant shoes.

British golf began in Scotland at least 600 years ago with players hitting pebbles over sand dunes with a bent stick.

It became so popular that in 1457 King James II banned the sport for interfering with military training, But later, Mary Queen of Scots was reputed to have been one of the first women golfers.

By the 19th century it was gaining popularity in England and by the mid-1890s had found its way to Suffolk. In 1922 local MP Colonel Walter Guinness donated land off Newmarket Road in Bury to provide a recreation ground for the town for all time, and the decision was made to build a golf course.

Col Guinness - later Lord Moyne - set conditions that there should be no cost to ratepayers, and if it was run by a private concern it should always be at the lowest possible price.

Colonel Walter Guinness (centre) who gave the land for the club, J S Austen (left) who financed the first clubhouse and Lt Col H E Hambro, the first captain
Colonel Walter Guinness (centre) who gave the land for the club, J S Austen (left) who financed the first clubhouse and Lt Col H E Hambro, the first captain

The first clubhouse was paid for by J S Austen of Whepstead. Lt Col H E Hambro of Stanningfied was a director and the first captain.

Photographs of all three now greet everyone just inside the front door of the current clubhouse, now sited at Tut Hill just outside the town,

The original course was designed by Ted Ray, the first British Ryder Cup captain. It opened on October 24, 1924. The membership fee was three guineas (£3.15) for men and two guineas (£2.10) for ladies.

Arthur Matthews, the club's first professional, teeing off
Arthur Matthews, the club's first professional, teeing off

The committee wanted “all sorts and conditions of men and women and boys and girls coming to play golf ” with “no swank and no bunkum!” The slogan, coined in a speech on opening day by founder member Mr Bankes Ashton, made headlines in the Bury Free Press.

By 1925 the membership was 228 - 131 men, 88 ladies and nine children. Work on the course continued through the 1930s, then in 1938, as war loomed, trees on the land had to be cut in height to 20 feet to allow for planes landing on a nearby airfield.

During the Second World War part of the course was taken over for military training which left its mark in bumpy ground that remains in the woodland between the 8th and 9th holes.

The old clubhouse which was sited off Newmarket Road in Bury
The old clubhouse which was sited off Newmarket Road in Bury

Graham Judge, chairman of the centenary committee, trawled through a history of the club written for its 75th anniversary by Michael Sibley and Roy Christie to create a centenary wall in the clubhouse, which also features photos through the ages.

“It took me a long time to pick out which facts from the book to use on the wall. Mike is still a member and was very helpful to me,” said Graham who joined the club 12 years ago.

Just after the war prices at the bar were two shillings (10p) for a sherry and eight old pence (less than 5p) for a bottle of IPA.

The clubhouse in 1969
The clubhouse in 1969

In the 1950s the club received £1,028 in war damage compensation - more than double the combined men’s and ladies’ subscriptions for the year. John Frew, the first full time professional, was employed.

A major change came in the 1960s when the route of the new A45 - now the A14 - was announced, cutting right through the course,

Land was bought, and sold, to enable the course to be reconfigured and a new clubhouse built. It was formally opened in 1969.

Officials and past captains at the opening of the reconstructed course in 1969
Officials and past captains at the opening of the reconstructed course in 1969

In the 1980s the nine hole course was built, funded by the sale of Heath Farm, bought in 1972 for £2,897 for around £200,000. It also financed improvements to the clubhouse.

Colin Gray joined in 1962 and four years later became the youngest ever club champion aged only 15, after professional John Frew suggested he should compete.

“I had to have an interview with the secretary Mr Patterson, who was tall and thin, and always wore brogues and tweeds, to check I knew the rules,” said Colin.

The opening of the nine hole course in 1991
The opening of the nine hole course in 1991

But a teenage whippersnapper winning the prize was not universally appreciated by older players. “It wasn’t a very popular win,” says the retired plumber. “I walked home down Newmarket Road with my friend, the greenkeeper’s son, holding the cups.

“I said to my parents, can we put them on top of the television, because my friends used to come round and watch it. Not everyone had a TV in those days.”

Colin, who joined the club because his father Robert played there, did a variety of jobs for pocket money. “Aged 13 or 14 I used to work in the professional’s shop.

“The big thing in those days was caddying. You got 2/6d (12 and a half pence) for that in the mid 1960s. A golf ball cost 2/6d which was quite expensive then, and another thing was looking for lost balls. There was a big market for secondhand balls.

“The old gentlemen in the club were great characters. One lovely character was Tommy Manning, a local scrap merchant.

“As a young lad you would call everyone Mister. Manners and etiquette were important. In the ‘60s I also had the job of cleaning their clubs twice a week.

“I remember at night they used to get the cars around the 18th green which was near the clubhouse and use the headlights for a one-hole shoot out on the 18th.

“At the old club the first tee was on the other side of the railway line. You had to listen out for trains before crossing. We had an army field telephone and you would ring up the first tee to see if it was clear to send more people down.

“The big time was Thursday afternoons because that was half day closing in Bury. Ladies weren’t allowed to play then or at weekends.

“When I was 16 I bought a motor scooter, became a Mod and discovered girls, so I gave up golf. After 1970 I settled down a bit and came back.

“I won the championship once more, but also a lot of other cups. Now I’m retired I play at least two or three times a week. It’s a five and a half mile walk round the 18 holes, so it’s good exercise.”

Colin is far from the only one who caught the golf bug as a junior in the 1950s and ‘60s and still plays today. Jeremy Lee, the longest-serving playing member, joined in 1951.

John Cullum, an ex-president of the club and member of the centenary committee, joined in 1959. He said the really important thing about the centenary is remembering the people who started the club.

“All our competitions have been named after a particular founder for this year. They all gave their time, energy and to some extent their professional expertise for no gain.

“The directors were going to make absolutely sure the club was open to everybody. Bury was determined elitism wasn’t going to be the case and that’s the real ethos today.

“When I joined, no-one in my family had ever played golf but I was friendly with a boy at school whose father was club captain.

“I went to the club with him and was hooked. I saved up my pocket money and bought some hickory-shafted clubs that were in a neighbour's shed and spent every spare moment at the club.

“I’d go after church on a Sunday. As a junior the last thing you wanted to do was get in the way of members and sometimes I’d only get to play three holes before it was time to go home for lunch.”

Long grass close to the fairways was a prime hunting ground for lost balls. “You could find golf balls, and sell them to the professional,” said John, who like Colin also helped in the shop.”

Among the driving forces at the club were Dr O’Mara, head obstetrician at West Suffolk Hospital, and his wife Joan.

“Dr O’Mara had brought a lot of members into the world including me,” said John. “His wife was also a very good tennis player who had played for Great Britain in the Wightman Cup.”

He also recalls, as a young lad, being chosen by the formidable Mrs O’Mara to partner her in the Suffolk mixed foursomes three years running. No-one else had been asked more than twice. “The third time I didn’t play too well, and I wasn’t asked again,” he said.

John was club captain in 1982, and president from 2002 to 2005, “I’m a firm believer that you should make way for the new guard. We are going into our new century with a comparatively new committee,” he said.

“Golf has been my main relaxation most of my life. At one time I was known as the midnight golfer, because I used to come here after work at about 9.30pm and fit in nine holes in an hour.”

Club president Judy Hamshere is only the second woman in 100 years to have held the role. The first was Anne Crack in 2008.

“Being president is an honorary position, it’s as much as you want it to be,” she says. “I play about three times a week, and have always enjoyed talking to people and being part of the organisation.”

In 40 years of membership, Judy has seen the role of women at the club evolve from a time when men might ask “why are you playing golf” to more equal status.

But with only just over 10 percent of the 1,056 members being women there is a drive to encourage more to join.

Judy has taken golf very seriously since learning to play in Borneo, where her husband Dick worked for Shell.

“I can’t imagine not playing sport,” says the ex-Suffolk County golf president who came from a sporting family and has been ladies’ captain for both Bury and Suffolk.

When they returned to the UK she was struck by the lack of equality that still existed between men and women golfers.

“At Bury the ladies ran their own section with their own budget. We paid less than the men and couldn’t play on Saturday mornings. Then it came in that we paid the same and could play any time.

“When I first joined there was a bit of talk from some of the men about ‘why are you playing golf?’ At one time the club captain was always a man.

“We have a lot of ladies on the main committee now. And there is a joint captaincy of the club with the men’s and women’s captains. That’s still unheard of at a lot of clubs - they assume it always has been male, so why change it.

“We are trying to encourage more women to join. We have a buddy system where one lady looks after a new member, makes sure she gets to know people; and plays golf with her.”

Judy has always taken a keen interest in the junior section. “Encouraging young talent is very important. It’s lovely to see young people progress - but also to make them enjoy it,” she says.

Today, as the club looks to the future, chairman Jeremy Tattersall hopes it will still be flourishing in another 100 years.

He was elected last November and says: “We have a really big year coming up. It truly was a baptism of fire for me with all the centenary events coming up, and getting to grips with the role.”

Jeremy was a junior member at Stoke by Nayland Golf Club, and spent time at other clubs before joining Bury in 2009.

He combines the chairman’s role with working full time as co-owner and sales director of D & D International Valves in Bury.

He says golf was in the doldrums a few years ago. “Nationwide up to 2019 golf was struggling, Then Covid came along and one of the things you could still do was play golf.

“As a result a lot of people who might have had a passing interest thought yes we can do that.”

The club has a waiting list, but exceptions would be made for women to boost their numbers. There are vacancies for juniors, and to play on just the nine hole course, where pay per round and club hire is also available.

But Jeremy is aware the bounce could be transient. “We need to renovate but in a way that’s true to the traditions and values of the club,” he says.

Next year will see big improvements to practise facilities, including a short game area and a driving range with sophisticated technology that will mimic playing on the actual course.

He is concerned the future could bring financial pressures if potential members need to tighten their purse strings.

But for now, the biggest challenge is leatherjackets. A ban on pesticides once used to control the burrowing grubs means they are thriving and attracting hungry crows who leave holes by digging them out.

A strong team of staff supports members and officials. Day to day running of the club is led by general manager Mike Verhelst. Head professional Matt Alderton is assisted by Simon Byford and Sarah Attwood.

Jeremy wants members involved in planning the way forward. “One of the things I have done is ask for feedback. The business committee will look at that and produce a strategic plan.

“Members of Bury St Edmunds Golf Club are very passionate about it. The future of the club is with them and the people who come in the future.

“‘Aim to leave it better than you found it’ is something my mother taught me and that is what we should do.”

Centenary celebrations launch over Easter and will include numerous special competitions, a founders’ dinner, a family day, and a Hickory Golf Competition when players will be invited to dress in period attire. A grand finale event will be held on October 24, exactly 100 years after the opening.

To see more about the club go to burystedmundsgolfclub.co.uk