Walton Heath Golf Club, near London, almost wallows in its elite history. The original club, currently celebrating its centenary year, boasted twenty-six dukes, lords, knights and honorables, a large band of members of Parliament, top lawyers and leading clergy. Four British prime ministers honor the historic membership list. King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, was club captain. The Duke of York, later King George VI, was also a member. More recently, on the competition front, Walton Heath hosted the Ryder Cup and five European Opens. You still expect a red carpet, if not an honor guard, to escort you from the members' car park to the clubhouse.
However, nothing is quite as it seems at Walton Heath.
Pat Sheehan, a successful building-company owner, plays his golf at Walton Heath. But Sheehan and his large Mercedes are not allowed in the members' car park. He is also not allowed on the immaculate practice green in front of the clubhouse, nor is he normally allowed in the clubhouse itself. But like a Cinderella tale in which the proletariat is temporarily elevated to the privileged, before 8:30 a.m. and after 3 p.m. the heather and heaven—to steal the title of a book about the place—of Walton Heath's two glorious courses are home to Sheehan and ninety-nine others just like him. Sheehan is a member of Walton Heath Artisans Golf Club. And he wants to stay just where he is. "If they offered me membership of the full club, I wouldn't join," he said. "All my friends are in the artisans club."
Artisan societies are quiet clubs-within-clubs, relics of English class division that have been largely ignored because historians of the game have tended to focus on the great clubs and the landmark achievements of the dominant personalities. But many of the country's elite golf clubs still have these unique memberships, which were established as a way to allow local blue-collar workers—the "artisans"—access to golf courses, which were entirely private until the 1920s.
The first artisan clubs were organized sometime around 1884 at the Royal North Devon Golf Club in Westward Ho! by J. H. Taylor, the former greenskeeper turned legendary professional who won the British Open five times. His aim was simple enough: Everyone, regardless of their financial standing, should have access to the game of golf.
If golf had an early social revolutionary, it was Taylor. He would go on to help form the Artisan Golfer's Association in 1921 and was instrumental in creating what is believed to be England's first public courses, at Richmond Park just outside London. (Taylor is also usually credited with founding the first Professional Golfers Association.)
After Royal North Devon, an artisan section was formed at Royal Ashdown Forest, then Buxton and beyond. In 1906 it was the turn of the Walton-on-the-Hill villagers. The principle throughout was honest labor in return for fairway access.
In 1904, the Old course at Walton Heath Golf Club opened for play. (The New course opened in 1907; both were designed by Herbert Fowler.) The club attracted titled gentlemen and wealthy arrivistes; it was an enclave of leisure-proud Edwardian men comfortably rubbing shoulders with an emergent class dismissed elsewhere as "business money." This was a club where Prime Minister David Lloyd George would play his golf (with his mistress ensconced nearby) and where Winston Churchill was a member from 1910 to 1965.
The club had been open barely two years when the local villagers decided that they wanted some of the golf action. (It's worth noting that this was the period just after Queen Victoria's reign, when the British aristocracy was beginning to see its position challenged by an emergent working class suddenly realizing the political power of sticking together.) In Walton's equivalent of storming the Bastille, the village wannaplay rebels either stood directly in the way of the wealthy new members or actually tried to play on the course without permission. Barristers were summoned, and in due time, "divide and rule" was dismissed in favor of "If we can't beat them, let them (sort of) join us."
The founder and patrician owner of Walton Heath, the grandly named Henry Cosmo Orme Bonsor, helped cut a deal: The locals were told to form their own club, and in return for maintenance work done mostly on the course—repairing divots and raking bunkers, patrolling fairways for unauthorized players and so forth—the artisans would be allowed to play at times when most members didn't want to.
Walton Heath's bylaws still state that "members should live within the confines of Walton-on-the-Hill village or otherwise as expressly permitted by the board." But how times do change. The "village" is no longer a quaint euphemism for "where the poor live." Eighteen miles from London, Walton-on-the-Hill is now peppered with homes costing upward of $1.5 million. And as England's middle class expands, breaking the rigidity of an evolving class structure, the very definition of "artisan" has become so fluid that it is no longer clear which way is up.
According to David Tingley, editor and publisher of the thrice-yearly Artisan Golfer journal, "You'd need a crystal ball to know where the artisan movement is going. Twenty years ago there were two hundred artisan golf clubs. Now there are just under ninety. The trouble is that there's now not that much difference between some artisans and their main clubs. And when the artisans start looking wealthier than the main clubs, they're shut down. The British class divide is simply narrowing."
Sir Michael Bonallack, the former captain and secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, said the artisan movement "might be an anachronism, but it is a part of golf here that I would not like to see lost."
Over the years, artisan clubs have been disbanded at Wentworth, Burnham & Berrow, Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast and at other notable courses throughout England. Tony Everett, secretary of the Artisan Golfer's Association for twenty-seven years until his recent retirement, said some clubs didn't appreciate the value of the artisans until it was too late. "At Wentworth, when a new consortium bought the course in the early 1980s, the first thing they did, within days, was to disband the artisans. But within months of the artisans going, as the club was planning to host a major European Tour event, it realized how crucial the artisans were in preparing the course for play. The irony is that the club secretary spent weeks frantically phoning 'round other Surrey artisan clubs to see if they would help him out."