Why it's rough times for the Jewish golf club

They are an important part of the community’s cultural heritage, but now many of them are facing a battle for survival

By Angela Epstein, August 12, 2010
Clubs have no future  — that’s the bleak view of Martin Caller, former president of the Association of Jewish Golf Clubs and Societies

Clubs have no future — that’s the bleak view of Martin Caller, former president of the Association of Jewish Golf Clubs and Societies

Stand on the club house terrace overlooking 100 undulating acres of tree-lined greenery and the view is, quite simply, breath-taking. Even the non-players who visit Manchester's Whitefield Golf Club - one of the country's oldest Jewish clubs - never fail to be impressed by the beauty of the course.

"Magnificent, isn't it ?" murmurs Anthony Harris, the club's current president and a member for over 45 years. "As a golfer it's perfect and as a Jew it represents an important part of our heritage. That's why we need it to survive for generations to come."

Unfortunately fielding such an emotional argument might not be enough to sustain this legacy. Jewish golf clubs - once a critical part of Anglo-Jewish culture - are withering on the vine.

With a demographic that hints that golf is mainly the preserve of the middle aged and retired, along with the rival temptations of other sporting activities, low takings at the bar and membership charges that are pricier than other, "non-Jewish clubs" - and there are three cheaper ones within a few miles radius of Whitefield in north Manchester - membership numbers are dwindling fast - down to 400 from a high point of 800 in its 1950s heyday.

"There is simply no future for Jewish golf clubs in this country," explains Martin Caller, a past captain of Whitefield and a former president of the Association of Jewish Golf Clubs and Societies. "Of course, there will always be Jews who play golf but we will lose something special if the Jewish golf clubs go. The rarefied atmosphere and like-mindedness of Jewish people in a club culture, the banter. It will be a great shame too for Jewish charities who host fund-raising days at the club and so make the club a good community resource. But I think the writing is on the wall - and I say that with a heavy heart, having played here for 42 years."

It is certainly a bleak view when you consider the verve and enthusiasm which accompanied the establishment of the club in 1932. At the time there was a tacit prejudice against Jews joining clubs, a move which was fired by the antisemitism of the time, and which prevailed, according to Caller, at golf clubs well into the 1990s.

We will lose something special if they disappear

"We had a member called Goldstein who wasn't Jewish yet he went on endless waiting lists for golf clubs without ever securing membership. Our club will accept anyone and happily took him," he says.

A group of local Manchester philanthropists, including clothing manufacturer Emmanuel Raffles and Joe Cassel, a wealthy builder, reacted to the policy of exclusion by leasing and then buying the open farmland on which the golf club stands. It was a popular move - the club's first annual report recording that it had a total of 406 members. From then on Whitefield Golf Club rapidly became a major social centre for Jews throughout the Greater Manchester area, with membership peaking in the '50s. Indeed, some of the current members have belonged to the club for up to 50 years.

However, the membership has always been low compared to nearby non-Jewish clubs, and this has driven up fees to make Whitefield viable, so fuelling its reputation as a millionaire's club. Its air of exclusivity was catalysed further by its location - Whitefield remains one of the premier Jewish addresses in north Manchester.

"Back then the atmosphere was quite aloof, golf was a snob sport if you like," explains Harris. "Ten years ago we were still one of the most expensive golf clubs. But we have had to move with the times. We now have pay and play where people can come and use the course without being members. We have to if we want to survive. We can't afford to be elitist."

The problems at Whitefield are faced to varying degrees by Jewish golf clubs around the country. At Dyrham Park Country Club in Barnet, Hertfordshire, which was established in the early 1960s, there is concern over a decline in members - the roll currently stands at around 700.

Club official Stuart Robson says: "Like all clubs our membership numbers are down. It is not necessarily due to the economic situation, rather more to the rise in numbers of clubs. Near us here there are two or three other clubs within a few miles, so there's a lot of choice for golfers. We have not had a waiting list for a few years now, so it's not just because of the recession. There has been an overkill of golf clubs. "

These are challenging times, too, at Abridge Golf and Country Club, in Essex. As Ruth Hobbs, who handles the club's marketing, says: "We've been here for 40 years and are well-established. There is still a good mix of Jewish and non-Jewish people joining. But our numbers have fallen over the past 10 years."

Part of the problem has been attracting Jewish golfers under the age of 40. "There is less inclination with the younger generation to stick to their roots, both through intermarriage and leaving the area," says Hobbs. "In the past, Jewish people may not have felt welcome elsewhere, so they came here. But now things are different and they probably feel more comfortable elsewhere as well, which is positive for society but maybe not for the Jewish golf club as such."

There are some encouraging signs, however. "We've also found there has been some effect due to the economy, but in a positive way for us. People would maybe rather pay £2,000 for a membership which will last them a year than spend that on just one week's holiday," says Hobbs.

"People have found comfort in their friends here at the club or they have come here to do business. We have had a big increase in corporate memberships recently."

So what is it about a Jewish golf club that makes it so special? After all, a club's constitution may say it is "Jewish" but this is not a legally binding description - non-Jews are not prevented from joining. What "Jewish" means in practice at Whitefield, for instance, is that competitions are not played on a Saturday and that the club is closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The meat they serve is kosher, yet the kitchen is not.

The club's membership ranges from Orthodox Jews, though admittedly in the minority, to the broadly conservative mainstream. "One of the great things about Jewish golf clubs is that the game is the great equaliser, a great leveller. It doesn't matter what your Jewish background is. We just want to play," says Harris.

Whitefield has had to steward its way through difficult times. Some land was sold to a developer when its old club house was knocked down but officials stress this was to help pay for the building of a new club house, and only a very small area was lost from the course. Up till now, Whitefield has been able to rely on initiatives like the pay and play days to weather the recesssion, but a long-term answer is needed.

Many of the area's Jews have over the years migrated from Manchester to Cheshire which led to the establishment of another predominantly Jewish golf club, at Dunham Forest. Amalgamating the two sounds nice in the abstract but in reality is unlikely because, as, Martin Caller, observes: "People don't like to travel if they don't need to." And while golf is no longer an exclusive sport, there is still a frustrating lack of interest from the 20-35 age-group.

The future looks, at best, uncertain, but Harris intends to fight on.

"As Jews we feel the importance of Jewish continuity and we want it through Whitefield Golf Club. We want generations of families to play. My father played, I play, my son plays and in fact he is a professional golfer. I want Whitefield to thrive. We have to approach it as a business now, not a hobby. We will lose far more than a golf club if Whitefield were to close. We will lose a golf club where Jews are always welcome. We just can't allow that to happen."

Additional reporting by Marcus Dysch

Last updated: 11:15am, August 12 2010