The interview… Sir Graham Wylie

The owner of Close House reveals the inside story about the rebirth of the Newcastle venue, how he brought Lee Westwood to the North East, and why he’s always looking for ways to evolve and improve the estate Close House is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its rebirth. How did you see the potential that was there in the site? I remember standing on the first tee box when I first bought the estate. There was an honesty box. I opened it up and there were Tesco vouchers, train tickets, there were IOUs. No cash at all. I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to sort this out, make it commercially viable’. What led you to own a golf course in the first place? I actually did it as a favour to the University of Newcastle because that’s where I was educated. That’s where I started Sage Accounts. I wrote it at university. When I retired from Sage, I wanted to give a thank you to the University. We talked about lots of different things with the Vice Chancellor and nothing really appealed to me.  I was looking to buy a cottage, as a family second home to go on holiday. I don’t know why, but the estate agent brought me to Close House. We expected a two-bedroom small cottage in the country and he brought me to Close House mansion and said ‘this is for sale, Graham’. I said, ‘really?’ I talked to the university and they said ‘we enjoy Close House, the students enjoy Close House, but it’s draining our resources. It’s not our core activity’. I said ‘listen, as an idea, why don’t I buy it from the University? That’s my thank you and I’ll let you use it for x number of years’. So that’s how it started.  But when I got the key to the house I thought ‘what have I done?’ It was OK but not great. The golf course was OK but not great. The clubhouse was a changing facility. There’s agricultural experiments going on in the walled garden. I thought, ‘How do I turn this into a commercial venture that actually pays its way?’ The only way of doing that was to improve the golf course. I tried that. It didn’t work. I turned the mansion house into a hotel to do weddings and dining. That didn’t work – because we couldn’t get the revenue to cover the costs. What do you do next? Build a better golf course. Luckily, I was talking to a farmer who said ‘I’m sick of farming. I’m sick of having sheep and cattle on that field. I don’t want to do it anymore and, if you want, you can buy the land which is 200 acres’. We bought the land from him and John Glendinning, who ran the golf course for me at the time, said he was close friends with a golf course designer who might be able to help. Well, let’s get him to come down here...
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