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Sir Graham Wylie

Crazy Golf to Masters Magic

GRAHAM WYLIE was educated at Newcastle University and went on to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the North East. His interest in sport in general and golf in particular made him one of the most popular and respected personalities in the region. His love of golf stemmed from an unlikely beginning, at the Arnold Palmer Crazy Golf Course in Whitley Bay, where he spent much of his teenage years. After graduating from university, he established his hugely successful business, Sage, which he later sold, took up golf in earnest and retired in 2003. He bought Close House and was eager to give something back to the Newcastle area, so he opened it up to a multitude of local sports organisations. But golf was his passion and it was no surprise when he welcomed the ISPS Handa PGA Seniors Championship to Close House. PGA Chief Executive Sandy Jones hailed the golf club development as a ‘worthy and prestigious venue.’ Ten years ago his daughter had to undergo open heart surgery. The Sir Graham Wylie Foundation was subsequently founded.

Talk us through your introduction to golf and how good is your game?
I got into golf when I was a young boy, aged around 12 or 13 and I often played the Arnold Palmer Crazy Golf Course down in Whitley Bay. I used to go there for the Easter and Summer holidays and would play there given every chance I could get. On some days I would play 20-30 rounds a day because at the end of nine holes, if you rang the bell you got a free round – and I kept doing it. In fact, I probably hold the record for the lowest-9-hole total on the Arnold Palmer Crazy Golf course as I once went round with seven holes-in-one and two twos! That was what got me hooked on golf. I then joined Willoughby Golf Club as a junior. Then I went to university, started my business at Sage and didn’t really have time for golf. But then when I retired in 2003, I took it up again and I was very fortunate to be able to buy Close House and develop the estate with two excellent golf courses.

How did you come to buy Close House?
It’s an interesting story as to how I came to buy Close House. It was owned by the University of Newcastle, where I was educated, and I wanted to give something back to them. There were a number of different ideas floating around, but then I found out they owned this estate. For them, it was an expensive asset situated outside of town. So, I agreed to buy it. That was my ‘thank you’ present. I agreed to let them use it for many years for football, golf, rugby, agriculture and all that sort of thing. Having bought it, I then developed it into these two wonderful golf courses and the golf club. I have to say it’s been a great 15 years spent developing it.

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How did you come to work with Lee Westwood – had you met him at any stage before?
In my previous existence running a business, we always used to have a ‘personality’ to open up new buildings, so when we developed the golf course we thought we’d get a personality to attend the opening ceremony.

At the time Chris Evans, who was on BBC Radio 2, was going to auction off a round of golf with Lee Westwood. So, we thought we’d bid for it, ‘win’ the auction and get him to come and open up the golf course.

Sadly, on the morning of the auction it was revealed by Evans that the round with Lee would be at Sunningdale in the middle of December – so we didn’t bid! Instead, a good friend of mine, Newcastle and England footballer Alan Shearer, knew Lee’s agent at the time and got in touch to see if Lee would be interested.

Lee agreed on one condition – that he could play 18 holes with England international Alan! That’s how it all started.

So, Lee came here and opened the golf course. Then about two weeks later I received a phone call from Lee’s people to ask if we had an ‘attached Touring Professional’ – I didn’t even know what that meant back then. It was later explained to me and I said I’d love to have Lee as the Close House Touring Professional. So, we signed the contract. That was nine years ago, and he’s been a brilliant Ambassador ever since.

How have you developed the golf courses?
The course was built before Lee opened it, but since then Lee has made a lot of changes to the layout, based on his knowledge and experience of golf courses all around the world.

The Colt Course is the Championship course and for high-handicappers like me it’s quite challenging. The Filly Course is a fun course but can be difficult because the greens are built to USGA standards – so, it’s more forgiving to errant shots, which is better for me.

The name ‘Colt’ isn’t a reference to horseracing, instead it was Scott Macpherson, who designed the course in the style of courses created by Harry Colt. I also have a love of horseracing but it’s purely coincidental! However, when it came to naming the other course we did name it after Fillies because it’s slightly easier.

In 2015 you caddied for Lee at The Masters Par-3 tournament – what was that like?
It was such a thrill. It was interesting for me to see how the players’ mindsets have to be. With all the crowd watching your every shot the pressure is on, big style. I remember Lee saying to me on the ninth green, ‘here you go Graham, putt out,’ and I thought ‘oh my goodness me!’ I had all the crowd watching and my friends were there, egging me on. I knew it was being broadcast on TV and it was just a mere three-foot putt. I made the putt, but my heart was fluttering like mad!

How proud were you to bring the 2017 British Masters to the North East?
The first thing to factor in, is his how proud we are of the golf course. So, it was great that Lee chose this course when it was his turn to host the British Masters in 2017. It improved our brand and increased our profile because it got us on TV, so we could attract more members and more stay-and-play guests. I was pleased for that reason – to become more established on the golfing circuit. But more importantly, the North East loves its sport. Obviously, you know we’re football crazy, but we’ve got rugby and basketball teams up here, too, and although it’s not a hot-bed for golf we do, as people, get behind every sport. I can recall the European Tour being concerned ahead of the 2017 event about the crowds not turning up. I wasn’t worried at all – and I was proved right, as we had record crowds that week.

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Would you like to make Close House the long term home of the British Masters?
Yes, I would love to. I go to The Masters in Augusta every year with Lee and that’s probably the most well-established tournament in the world, and you can see why. It’s played normally at the same course every year, at the same time of year, and each year they improve it. It would be nice to think that way, and I’d be happy to do it. But I don’t choose the venues – the European Tour do. However, I would be very receptive to any conversation along those lines.

You have spent many years developing Close House and its facilities. Is there anything else left to do?
We’re always looking to improve the facilities here. I’m on the course every day and as I walk or drive around the place, I see things that I always want to change. It’s just like when you have your own house and garden – there’s always something you want to do with it. In terms of major changes, the course is as good as it’s going to get. Maybe, I could put a few more ponds in somewhere to make it more difficult! Perhaps we could add a little par-3 course. We also looked at adding a spa at some point. But right now, it’s great just for golfers. It used to be a popular wedding venue but we stopped the weddings because we wanted to focus on golf.

How did you come to establish the Sir Graham Wylie Foundation?
I’ve always been very charitable, even from my days at Sage. But ten years ago, when my daughter was born, she was born with a faulty heart, and she had open heart surgery at just two days old. That really brought everything into perspective and I realised how brilliant the doctors and nurses are at the NHS.

So, I started to get behind the children’s heart unit at the hospital, and raised its profile. It also helped them buy new equipment for the hospital. That was just one item. I was getting asked a lot by numerous people to donate money to charity. I was aware that members at the club here, for example, are all very generous, so I decided to create my own charity to help more than just one cause. That was three or four years ago and the Foundation is now well established.

We’re helping and educating and trying to inspire all kids in the North East to be as successful as other people are. We help with music therapy centres, schools and job creation, as well.

It’s correct that 100% of donations from the Foundation go directly to the relevant charities, and people have asked me why don’t I just donate the money myself. But the truth is, if I fund the charity, then for every pound that I put in, hopefully, I’ll raise five or ten pounds more than that, which is what has always  been the case. So, if anyone donates to the charity, 100% of that does go to local causes, and I pick up the costs of running the charity.

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Who was your childhood hero growing up?
I had two, Muhammad Ali and Bobby Charlton. They were on TV all the time when I was a young kid. I used to love watching boxing and the football on Match of the Day. My parents didn’t drive, so I couldn’t go to the matches but I used to watch them on TV.

First golfer that impressed you?
Probably Lee Trevino, going back many, many years! I liked his personality. He was serious on the golf course but also a bit of fun. I think golf is a fun sport and people need to enjoy it and not take it too seriously.

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Best tip you’ve received from Lee Westwood?
He told me when I’m in a greenside bunker to hit an inch behind the ball, because back then I couldn’t get out of bunkers – but I can nowadays!

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Who do you hate to lose to the most?
The lady members here, because they’re very good!

Best international golf course you’ve played?
I loved Pebble Beach but sadly it was many years ago and I wasn’t very good. I’d love to go back there now that I’m a little bit better. I also loved Adare Manor in Ireland.