Meet the club secretary: Neil Statham

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 23, 2019 10:30

Neil is at Knole Park Golf Club in Kent. He talks about marketing the club, how managing a top club has changed in the last few years and the unique challenges involved in running a Site of Special Scientific Interest where the land is leased from a Lord’s estate and the country house is owned by the National Trust.

Knole Park Golf Club regularly appears in top 100 in England golf course lists – can you tell us a bit about the course and the history of the club?

Knole Park Golf Club was established in 1924 when members of neighbouring Wildernesse Club feared the course was going to be sold for development. Members of the Wildernesse approached Lord Sackville and were granted permission to build a golf course within the grounds of the 1,000 acre ancient deer park. James Braid was engaged to survey the land and identified approximately 200 acres of the park as being ideal for a golf course. In addition to Braid, J. F. Abercromby of Fowler, Abercromby, Simpson & Croome was also asked to design a course over the land and ultimately it was Abercromby’s design that was selected. Whilst both designs used the same parcel of land, Braid’s worked in a clockwise route whereas Abercromby’s worked anti-clockwise.

A few additional tees have been added over the years but in all other respects the course remains exactly as Abercromby designed. In The Golf Courses of Great Britain (1925), Darwin wrote, ‘few if any park courses will be better, certainly none will be prettier.’ He wasn’t wrong.

The term ‘park’ is somewhat misleading as the course is more like an inland links or heathland course with bracken rather than heather, its sandy soil drains brilliantly and the undulating landscape enabled Abercromby to design a course of tremendous variety and interest; no two holes are remotely alike and you’ll use most clubs in the bag regularly.

A few years ago, I made contact with ‘Top 100’ raters and asked them to come and play Knole as most had never been here. Once the ball was rolling it seemed that each one enthused more about the course than the last one. I felt the course design and setting clearly deserved a rating in the top 100 but recognised that the ‘rustic’ nature of the course could be presented better. Having recently completed the creation of a number of new championship tees in preparation for the Tillman Trophy and future major events (the course from the new black tees stands at 6,659 yards, par 70, SSS 73), the focus for our new head greenkeeper has been to improve the presentation of the course. Early signs are very encouraging and we look forward to return visits from the raters with great interest.

You’ve been Secretary at Knole Park for several years now, how have you found the running of the club, and generally the role of a UK golf club manager, has changed in that time? What has your career path been?

After 27 years working in the City, I decided I wanted get involved in the golf industry as golf has always been my passion. I approached the club and offered my services to assist the then Secretary, Robert Brewer. When Robert resigned a year later to take the position at Royal Wimbledon, I was offered the opportunity to become Secretary of Knole Park. Having been a member since 1989 and having played here prior to that for many years in the Kent Cob Scratch Open and Kent Youths Championships, I was delighted to accept the position. My only condition was that I did not have to give up my membership; my enjoyment of playing Knole Park being greater than my desire to run the club. Fortunately, the chairman agreed and just over nine years later I am still here!

Robert suggested I attend an induction course at the Golf Club Managers’ Association’s headquarters in Weston-Super-Mare, I recall sitting in a conference room as the first speaker opened proceedings with the crushing words: ‘Gone are the days where the Secretary spends his days sitting at the bar supping gin and tonics with the great and the good of the club! This is now a job for ‘seriously professional’ people.’ At the end of the week it was clear that the management and financial skills I had learned in the City would be of more use than my ability to hold a drink.

Over the last nine years the demands on ‘The Office’ have increased considerably year on year. Software development in the industry has enabled a steady delivery of new features and services to the membership, who lap them up greedily. However, much of the increase in workload is unseen and of no interest to the membership. The endless stream of legislative changes continues to add to the wide range of subjects a modern club manager needs to have a sound appreciation of.

The golf industry has become tougher to succeed in, with membership levels generally lower than in the past and visitors always looking for a deal. Careful marketing is important for most clubs and getting the balance right between members and visitors is a particular challenge for clubs like Knole Park, which, being a real golfer’s golf club, is very busy with competition golf and inter-club matches, yet, like most, needing to secure a good level of green fee income. The various sections within the club have grown their portfolio of competitions and matches over the last 20 years or so and it is fair to say the diary is pretty rammed. With more golfers today wanting to play a friendly fourball and less a twoball medal, there is an increasing demand to clear space in the diary. Fun shotgun start events with a casual dress code lunch after are proving increasingly popular. Responding to what the majority of your members want inevitably generates the need for diplomatic management of the old guard.

What do you find are the biggest challenges managing the club today?

In no particular order I would say: managing members expectations, I am sure most Secretaries will have experienced offering an additional service for the first time and the members saying: ‘that’s great, thank you’; the second time they ask ahead of time: ‘will you be doing that again?’ then it’s: ‘where is it!’

Communication: email may be relatively old tech but it’s still widely used, which is fine for distributing information but clearing down 100 emails from my inbox every day is a challenge in its own right – members assume that because they sent an email it has been read and actioned, and yet it’s amazing how often they didn’t get the one you sent them! It is increasingly important to feed members information about what is happening at the club, be it development on the course or the latest social event the Captain wants supported. Providing the members with an efficient and effective means to raise issues and have them responded to quickly is something members now expect. The instant nature of messaging apps and social media generally has altered members’ expectations considerably.

Finance: at Knole we lease the land from Knole Estate; the annual lease payment is significant and something many clubs don’t have to accommodate. Luckily, we have had excellent treasurers during my time and have managed to carry out some wonderful improvements to the course, practice facilities and clubhouse, and remain debt free. Members’ golf clubs are still businesses that need to be well-managed to survive and thrive and this sometimes means unpopular decisions have to be taken and it is important not to be swayed by the vocal minority.

What are the pros and cons of having a golf course on National Trust land?

The National Trust owns the majority of Knole House but not the land, which is retained by his Lordship and Knole Estate, so we have a tri-party relationship just to add to the complexity. The biggest challenge for the club is getting the National Trust to manage their public away from the golf course. To be fair they have done a great deal in recent years working with the club and the Knole Estate, such as creating recommended walks around the 800 acres that the course does not use. We also have around 60 signs in the park designed to educate the public, but it is amazing how some people lose the ability to read on a sunny day, so more work is required by the National Trust before we can say we have cracked it. The challenge is trying to get a huge organisation like the National Trust to move away from its standard approach and implement bespoke measures for a unique site.

The park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest – it short, this means it is protected. Natural England are involved and we have many more restrictions and obligations than most clubs regarding our maintenance of the course.

Having said that, you could not wish to find a more naturally beautiful place to play golf, the scenery is stunning and the deer are a magnificent addition, even if they do manage to run through the majority of the bunkers most nights.

Fortunately, our greenstaff have strong backs and rake every bunker every morning.

The club is a member of Golf Tourism England. How did this come about?

We were approached by Golf Tourism England together with The Wildernesse and Hever to create a small tour. To be honest, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this. We have seen more tangible benefits from our top 100 listings.

The 8th at Knole Park

How do you communicate with existing members?

Email and the website still form core communications with members, although other means are used. Our junior organiser manages a Facebook account for our 60-plus junior section.

We have just started using Golf Hubber, a live scoring app with both internal club and external marketing capabilities. We have generally stayed away from the plethora of other communication means as there are now so many of them and every member you talk to prefers something different. There are risks associated with some of these that I know many clubs have been burnt with.

How does Knole Park Golf Club fit in with the local community? Is it also trying to attract more women and juniors to the facility?

Knole Park GC is a great supporter of the local community, from offering fourball vouchers to local schools and good causes to hosting large charity golf days. Our professionals run coaching for kids of all ages and actively work with a number of local schools. The Stoodley Trust helps fund a number of junior activities at the club and several local businesses have also sponsored various junior events. Knole has one of the strongest juniors sections in the county and the club fully supports the extensive range of junior competitions and matches including an annual match against the Stockholm Club that alternates home and away.

We are fortunate to have a very enthusiastic ladies’ section. Last year we completed a full review of the ladies’ tees as it was felt that, like many clubs, the ladies’ tees were simply placed at the front of an old men’s tee. We engaged Jonathan Gaunt, a renowned course architect, to assist us with a re-design that has transformed the scoring and hopefully the enjoyment for our ladies’ section and encourage more ladies to join.

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

Fundamentally, we remember that golf for the majority is something they do to relax and enjoy themselves. The atmosphere in the clubhouse is designed to reflect that. Knole Park has always been a friendly and welcoming club. We have standards, of course, but we try to ensure they are sensible and reasonable. We have dispensed with the need for jackets and ties other than on special occasions and formal dinners. The majority of the time a members’ shotgun start competition will, for example, be followed by a two-course lunch with a smart-casual dress code. Much to the distress of some of our older members we now allow jeans to be worn if you are coming to the club for social reasons. Members have respected the spirit in which this was done and I have yet to see a pair with mud on or holes in – and bar takings are increasing.

In terms of food and beverage, what does the club offer?

Our bar is well stocked and tended by our friendly and attentive staff who are always willing to listen to tales of missed putts and bad luck. Our head chef Adam is excellent and our members will regularly praise his efforts. In addition to our bar menu we have a wide ranging menu available for more formal dinners. We have recently introduced some fine dining evenings that are also proving popular.

The 18th at Knole Park

Knole Park tends to appoint its managers to its board of directors for the term of their employment with the club. Why has it pursued this model?

Being a private members’ club, owned by the members, the management board is clearly responsible to the membership for the strategic direction of the club and its financial performance.

Having the Secretary attend the management committee meetings is integral to their ability to do that. I am fortunate that my experience as a golfer has also enabled me to have a fair degree of input to the development of the course, which I hope members have appreciated. The course is our greatest asset and as such will always be our primary concern.

I also sit on the finance, golf and house committees with my assistant Tim sitting on the events committee. The club is effectively run by the Chairman, Treasurer, Chairs of Golf and House, the Lady Chairman and four elected members, who are assigned to the various committees. The Captain, Lady Captain, Vice-Captain and Lady Vice-Captain together with some willing volunteers run the events committee. Captains have a great deal to do during their year and at Knole we have taken the approach that they have enough to do without getting involved in the running of the club.

Knole Park offers squash facilities. How popular are these and how do they fit in with the club’s overall health provision?

All golf members are automatically squash members, but we do also have around 90 squash members who are non-golfers. The squash side of the club has proven very popular and the club competes in matches as well as members and their guests simply enjoying a game.

Membership is free to junior players as is the coaching they receive. We consider the squash facilities a useful addition as many members are far more fitness conscious than they used to be. Sadly that means they don’t often come into the bar for a couple of pints, but you can’t have everything.

Kent has a number of world famous golf clubs and is one of the top counties in England for its number of leading venues. Do you find yourself in competition with fellow Kent managers?

Clearly, all clubs compete to some degree for members and visitors. We set our stall out to offer a top quality course for people who are passionate about golf. Others might focus more on the social side and the game of golf is perhaps secondary to that. There is no right or wrong here and each club hopefully finds the right mix that works for it.

On the whole, I have a very good relationship with other Club Secretaries in Kent.

Our regional Golf Club Managers’ Association organises a number of events throughout the year to keep us in touch with one another and provide opportunities to discuss issues relevant to us all.

There is usually a lot more that unites us than divides us, as the saying goes, and in my experience Club Managers have always been willing to offer advice and help to one another wherever they can, be it a few courtesy rounds when your course is shut to members because you are hosting a large tournament or which cleaning company is worth talking to.

Many of the clubs have friendly and competitive matches which add to a friendly rivalry between them.

Kent is blessed with some magnificent courses and arguably the best course in England in Royal St Georges, so personally I am delighted we are so strong as a county.

And finally 

The power of the brand: Case study Of Knole Park

When Knole Park took the decision to review the branding of the club and how this could enhance the overall customer journey, the club selected Eagle.

What followed was a structured, professional and methodical approach to understanding, first of all, what the club needed and then, in turn, how best to achieve it, represent it and position it. Eagle believes that the power of the branding can propel a club to greater heights and has been helping a large number of clubs throughout the UK achieve a variety of goals, such as:

  • Improve their position on National and International course rankings.
  • Increase and retain membership numbers.
  • Increase green fee revenue.
  • Overall, drive the revenue performance of the business.

Club secretary, Neil Statham, explains why the decision was taken to review the branding in the last 12 months and why Eagle was chosen as the company to work with:

We had an existing relationship with Eagle through our scorecards, so when we decided to upgraded our signage throughout they were an obvious contender, given the quality of their products. We looked at a couple of alternatives but on balance felt Eagle covered all the bases well and could give us the uniform branding we were looking for. New course furniture has now also been purchased, so the finishing touches are just being completed.

A warm welcome and strong sense of arrival – club secretary Neil Statham and Eagle sales manager for the south of England, Liam Burns, stand proudly next to an example of one of the brand new signs installed at Knole Park Golf Club

What has been the feedback from members?

Members have loved it; there is a general feeling that we are giving the club the love it deserves and the attention to detail is noticeable. There will inevitably be a few that think it’s all a waste of money, it is usually the same minority that thought the old tin lockers were better than the new wooden ones and the bitter we sold 30 years ago was better value than the one we have now.

What benefits have you seen?

Members have always been proud to bring guests to the course but now they stroll around to the first tee rather than rushing their guest there! The effect of all this is hopefully a greater desire for members to bring guests to the club and enjoy the facilities.



Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir April 23, 2019 10:30
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