It was a ‘golf for all’ attitude with which, 17 years ago, golf Pro Mark Wright started Westridge Golf Centre. Not that he could have demanded the sort of exclusivity commonly associated with the sport, given that it all started in a Portacabin. “Looking back I can’t help but be grateful to those who were there at the beginning. We didn’t have a lot to offer. There were not even any toilet facilities or hot water.”
However, today, with gleaming club house, well-equipped shop and permission to expand to 18 holes, that egalitarian approach still holds. You can be a member – or you can pay as you play.
Mark, a PGA professional, had seen an opportunity when the land became available back in 1992 to develop a golf facility – but the timing was hardly perfect for starting a new business. “It was in a similar recession to where we are now,” he smiles ruefully. Nonetheless, thanks to the assistance of family and friends he managed to build up a loyal clientele until, in 1995, he was able to construct the clubhouse.
The range has come a long way since then. The Golf Centre, which is near Ryde, has just received planning consent to expand to an 18-hole course, expanding from 50 to around 90 acres. The extra acreage will transform the course to a par 65, stretching over 5,000 yards. This is likely to attract golfers who enjoy more of a challenge.
The Portacabin is now, of course, a distant memory. The facilities at Westridge today are state-of-the-art. The driving range was completely rebuilt four years ago, offering 16 floodlit bays to allow wintertime practice. However, the development has not been without hiccoughs on the way. When he came to renew the licence for floodlights, which had been used for 15 years, Mark came across objections at the planning level. “That’s all been ironed out now,” he says.
As well as its well appointed clubhouse and a shop which is golfer’s heaven, golfers on the range will find nice little touches like the Powertees gadget, which saves you the tedious task of placing the ball in front of you. Or you can try the Explanar system, which forces you to make your swing correctly. The system relies on the concept of muscle memory: by repeating the action over and over again your swing action will approximate something far more professional.
Then again there is the Swingcam. As you might expect, this is a camera which records your swing and enables you to study your posture at your leisure, by enabling you to watch yourself at home. There is even the facility to compare your swing with that of Tiger Woods, which will inspire some but may make others feel they’ve got far to far to go for that sort of perfection.
As well as the pay as you play system, Westridge has a membership, currently of 200 and growing rapidly. However, more importantly than signing up members, Mark believes, is offering facilities for everyone so that golf is not a sport confined to those who can afford fancy rates.
‘Everyone’ includes children as young as four. Anyone who thinks golf wouldn’t appeal to children that young should see the way they are enthused when they are taught in groups. “We make it fun for them with all sorts of games,” says Mark. “We have a Young Masters competition that youngsters between the ages of four and 16 can get involved with.”
If you weren’t lucky enough to have been introduced to golf that young, and are new to the game, you might prefer, like the children, to go for group lessons. They can be fun and help you to make friends with other people who are interested but a long way from being expert. The lessons cover things like the correct grip and swing, and the best posture.
Mark says he and his colleagues are ready and willing to be approached for advice when it comes to buying equipment – after all, everyone is a different height so will need advice on the correct length of his club. Do you need golf shoes? The huge shop, the largest golf equipment shop on the Island, stocks every desirable brand of gear and clothing – Adidas, Ping, Taylor Made – it’s easier to say which brands are not stocked. There is also a clever loyalty card scheme, which is one of the more generous ones. Vouchers of £10 or £20 when sufficient points have been accumulated can be spent in the shop. The shop is open until late every night.
“If people are daunted by the range of equipment available we’ll get them started. If someone has a budget of £200 to spend, I’d rather they spent £100 of it on gear and £100 on lessons. After all, there’s no point having the equipment if you don’t know what to do with it, and however smart it is, it’s not going to make you a better player. We’re looking to build up a long term relationship with clients, not sell them stuff they don’t know how to use.”
Tempting though it might be to buy up the shop, it’s better to borrow things in the beginning. “You may not take to the sport,” says Mark.
Westridge Golf Centre, Brading Road, Isle of Wight PO33 1QS. Tel: 01983 613131.