Meet the golf club manager: Stuart Finlay

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick May 18, 2023 15:32

The recently-appointed general manager of Prestbury Golf Club in Cheshire talks about a major course redevelopment project at the club, previously being a regional development officer for Wales Golf, managing a prestigious club during a cost-of-living crisis and how the venue is marketed.

Can you tell us about Prestbury Golf Club?

The club is situated in the beautiful Cheshire countryside just 15 miles south of Manchester on the outskirts of Macclesfield and was founded in 1920. We boast a Harry Colt designed course ranked by Golf World and National Club Golfer as one of the top 100 in England. We have recently been voted number 83 in the top 100 of English Courses which is something we are hoping to build on in the coming years.

The course makes the most of the dramatic changes in elevation afforded by the hilly terrain and although set on only 97 acres, is a fantastic test of golf. The nature of the site coupled with the sandy subsoil means that the course drains exceptionally well. We have recently undertaken a course redevelopment project which included work to every bunker on the course whether this meant repositioning or reshaping which we can’t wait to share with golfers.

We take great pride in describing ourselves as a true, traditional private members’ club. Our focus is on golf and delivering the best possible service to our members or those that join us as guests.
Prestbury has invested a significant amount in a course redevelopment programme – can you tell us about that?

I guess you could say that the project started 12 years ago with the club conducting a membership survey. Of the circa 700 replies and many anomalies, the one consistent was the poor quality and inconsistent nature of the bunkers.

In the early part of 2015, the club decided to commission renowned course architect, Mackenzie and Ebert. This was somewhat contentious in itself as the club had enjoyed a long standing association with Hawtree.

Stuart Finlay

In March 2016, we first met Tom Mackenzie to discuss the club’s objectives. Mackenzie and Ebert were partly chosen as Prestbury shares many of the same members as Royal Lytham, who had waxed lyrically about the work carried out there. We briefed Tom on what our goals were, improvement in the aesthetics and consistency of the bunkers. Mackenzie and Ebert produced a historic research study of the course, a design audit with general recommendations and finally a hole-by-hole survey.

We communicated these studies to the members and requested their feedback. Once this had been correlated, we asked Tom for a final report.

Tom Mackenzie then put forward four contractors and after extensive discussions (along with previous experiences) M.J. Abbott were chosen. During four years of planning including the club’s centenary (not to mention a worldwide pandemic), many meetings and hard negotiations, we finally started work on August 1, 2022. Originally given a 32 week deadline, we completed the project within 20 weeks.

The work has involved full refurbishment of all on-course bunkers including repositioning, reshaping and lining with rubber crumb in the greenside bunkers and Capillary Concrete in the fairway bunkers, the removal of over 100 trees to open up playing lines, irrigation upgrade to all greens and approaches including new pipework, cable, software and over 100 sprinklers fitted and the levelling of one green and extensions of two more.

Then we used 320 tonnes of our chosen bunker sand to have the bunkers back in play for the start of the competition season.

We did not close the course to the members at any point during the contract, instead ensuring that daily and weekly communications were emailed, notifying the members of any temporary greens or forward tees.

You only took over the management of the club this year, how have you found it so far?

The club has been very welcoming since my arrival in January. It has been a huge transition for both me and my family as we relocated from South Wales but the board, staff and members have really helped this process in welcoming us all to the area. The key focus at the start was to prepare the course for the season ahead and we are fortunate to have an excellent team led by course manager, Mark Crossley. My focus in the initial stages of the role is to understand the club, its staff and members. It is clear that the club has a group of staff that are motivated to further improve the club’s operation and we have already discussed changes for the coming months.

It is clear that Prestbury is seen as one of the most respected clubs in the region and we are excited to welcome back our members and guests after a prolonged period of disruption which included Covid-19 and the recent course changes. An exciting time for everyone involved.

You came from Radyr Golf Club, another leading golf club. Why did you make the move and what differences have you found between running the two venues?

Radyr is a fantastic club but the opportunity to manage somewhere outside of Wales was always an ambition of mine. The two venues are very similar in that they both have a Harry Colt designed golf course and a similar membership size / structure. As already mentioned, Prestbury made a significant investment in the course and this will provide a stunning course for the members to play.

We have also started to showcase the qualities of Prestbury as a private members’ club. We are very fortunate to have an excellent chef at the club and I am excited to work with him in the development of new ideas for both members and guests who visit us.

The club is structured slightly differently at Prestbury in that the club has a board of management and is a limited company. The board are very open to new ideas and discussing how the club can be improved. We have already started to focus on the communication to the members to ensure they are aware of what is happening at their club.

Radyr gave me the opportunity to start my career in club management which I will always be grateful for. Prestbury is a fantastic opportunity to manage one of the best clubs in the north west of England.

You’ve worked for Wales Golf, are a member of the Golf Club Managers’ Association (GCMA) and have been on a training course with the Club Managers’ Association of Europe (CMAE). How have you found these three organisations?  

Wales Golf was where my career started and where I was introduced to the CMAE and the GCMA. My role within Wales Golf provided me with a broad overview of golf club management as I worked with over 50 clubs in my role as regional development officer and was the key reason I became a club manager due to the experiences I gained in that role.

I have been heavily involved in the CMAE Management Development Program for the last decade which has taken me all over the world in terms of education and being able to network with some of the industry’s leading managers. I have also attended world and European conferences meaning that I can ensure I am aware of the trends within the industry. The GCMA in Wales was an active region and the advice and support managers provided one another was excellent. Any manager not involved in one of these organisations should look to do so as soon as they can.

Is the cost-of-living crisis having an impact on the running of the club?

The club is very conscious of the current cost-of-living crisis in the UK. Prior to my arrival, the club was undertaking an analysis of cost savings across the business and working with organisations such as Golf Management Group. The club’s board, along with the management of the club have shared with members the challenges it faces in terms of rising costs, many of which are out of the club’s control. These have included rises in course materials, utility prices and staff wages which all have to be considered so that the club is managed in the most prudent way. These have been presented using graphs and infographics that have been emailed to individual members and placed on club notice boards and so on.

As a club, we also have to be conscious of the members’ cost of living rise and improving the overall experience for our members. In recent weeks, we have introduced the bi-weekly newsletter as well as working on the expected standards with all staff.

Does Prestbury try to attract women and juniors to golf?

The club is fortunate to have two professionals in head professional, Nick Summerfield and teaching professional, Mark Piling, along with fantastic practice facilities including a 20-acre practice area and indoor simulator. Mark has delivered a number of ladies’ beginner schemes which have had a positive impact on the membership with a number of beginners making the transition into membership. The aim is to continue this in the coming years and I will be speaking with the ladies’ section of the club along with the board to look at how ladies’ golf can be developed.

We are also lucky to have Jae Bowers as part of the coaching team. Jae currently plays on the LET Access Tour and has helped, alongside Mark, to deliver coaching to young people. Mark also delivers coaching to some of the local schools and this combination along with members’ referrals means that the club has a healthy junior section.

How has Prestbury responded to the last three years? Has it seen a participation boom as a result of the pandemic?

As with many clubs in the UK, the pandemic provided a welcome boost to the membership numbers at the club. Due to the ongoing course redevelopment, we have not had as much member or guest play so we have been hugely excited for this season.

We are currently operating a waiting list at Prestbury but it is important that this is not taken for granted. As already mentioned, the club is focused on adding value but also trying to understand the needs of the members so that we can be sure we are providing members with the experience they expect from their club.

How do you market the venue?

As I am new to the club this is difficult to answer but our focus in the coming months is being planned at the moment. The aim will be to grow the club’s databases through data capture of guests that visit us throughout the season. This will provide us with the opportunity to market directly to those guests that have previously visited us. We have also been focussed on increasing the club’s social media presence with our course team purchasing a drone so that we are able to film hole-by-hole flyovers, course projects and even clubhouse shots so that we can show members and guests the qualities of the club. We are fortunate to have a number of repeat bookings from previous years so the focus with the staff is to enhance the customer service and ensure that people want to return to Prestbury in the future.

The promotion is not just about the golf course as golfers are increasingly interested in what is being offered off the course. With that in mind, we have been working with our head chef to develop new menus for members and guests to enjoy. These are in the form of an everyday menu but also bespoke menus that can offer a special experience for people.

We were proud to feature as number 83 in the Golf World top 100 courses in England. We are looking to build on this in the coming year to cement our place as one of the best courses in Cheshire both on and off the course.

Mark Crossley

What are your predictions for the next few years for the golf industry?

The golf Industry is in a very good place and I think the major change in the last 10 years is the professional nature of the industry. General managers, course managers and so on are all trained to an industry standard which can only benefit the game and clubs in my opinion. Golf is in a very good position with regards to the number of people playing and becoming members but clubs must not take this for granted. It has been well documented recently that the golf industry brings a huge amount to the UK economy and with clubs more focused on the service element of the business this will undoubtedly grow even further.

The professional side of the game is currently changing significantly with the emergence of LIV Golf but this has also meant that the PGA and European Tour have been forced to adapt their product. This places golf in an exciting position in the future with some of the best young players in the world showcasing the sport.

Let’s all hope the challenges of Covid are behind us. We are still seeing some of the aftereffects of this with increased pricing but clubs are doing the best they can to ensure the future sustainability of their club so that the generations ahead can enjoy our sport.


Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick May 18, 2023 15:32
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