Under starter’s orders
Anders Mankert is very particular about the coffee served at Leicester Golf Centre, writes Adrian Milledge.
So much so that he has sourced the coffee beans from Brazil and has them roasted just down the road in Market Harborough.
Such attention to detail is typical of the standards he insists on and hours he devotes to breathing new life into what once was Oadby Golf Club.
The nine-hole venue, which is adjacent to and owned by Leicester racecourse, closed down in 2011 and had lain idle until Mankert took it on 14 months ago.
Since then the Advanced PGA Fellow Professional has hardly had a spare moment for himself, let alone time to relax and smell the coffee.
Not least in the early days after the racecourse had agreed to grant him a 25-year lease with the option to renew for another 25.
“I was combining my work as a pro at Cosby Golf Club with getting this place into shape,” he recalls. “I was getting up at the crack of dawn and not finishing until 10 in the evening at the earliest. I did that for six months until starting here full time.
“As you can imagine, the course was totally overgrown and unkempt because it hadn’t been maintained for seven years.”
Making the course playable was effectively phase two of the project; phase one involved building a floodlit range comprising 16 bays each equipped with a Toptracer touchscreen ball flight monitor.
“Toptracer enables visitors to try their skills on some of the most famous golf courses in the world,” explains Mankert, an award-winning coach whose career has included working closely with blind and visually-handicapped golfers.
“It also enables youngsters perhaps hitting a golf ball for the first time to see just how far and where their shots have gone, be encouraged, and perhaps start to progress from their initial visits into a game which could develop into a lifetime’s interest.”
Such has been the popularity of the range that, within six months of it opening, a million balls have been despatched and it is already profitable.
As for the youngsters who get a taste for the game on the range, participation in the junior sessions run on Saturdays by Tom James, Mankert’s assistant and fellow PGA pro, is booming.
“Tom started the sessions from scratch and now 60 kids turn up,” says Mankert. “We’ve introduced a Leicester Golf Centre Junior Pathway. It’s a proper structure that, just like karate, sees youngsters progressing from nothing to elite level and everything in between.”
Once the youngsters have gained a grasp of the basics, where better to take the next step on their golfing journey than on the nine-hole course that Mankert and his team of helpers, including his father, have not so much restored to its former glory as improved?
Appropriately named The Gallops given its location, two of the nine holes are new, another is more than 450 yards long, bunkers have been dug out and rebuilt and there are four tees to cater for golfers of all standards.
“We’ve created what we call ‘turbo tees’ for the juniors and three others on each hole,” Mankert explains.
“There are no women’s nor men’s tees. There are just tees – three of them – and people can play from whichever suits them.”
By way of maintaining Mankert’s attention to detail and the course’s connections, tee markers are horseshoes once worn by thoroughbreds engaged in the sport of kings next door.
In addition, signage made from the remains of an oak tree felled to facilitate the course’s renovation, gives details of a hole’s number, length and stroke index.
Such features, however, are the finishing touches to the hours spent and effort expended to make the course playable.
“It’s taken a lot of grass cutting to bring the course back but everything here is pretty much the way it was before 2011,” says Mankert.
“The tree growth over the years though will surprise a lot of golfers; it looks like a completely different course now.
“And because the course has been untouched for seven years it’s become a haven for wildlife – there are foxes, kingfishers down by the river, woodpeckers and sparrowhawks.
“We’ve had an amazing reaction, several local greenkeepers have given us their free time. The racecourse has been fantastic too, donating us some greens equipment - we’ve been so humbled by the help we’ve received.”
Despite the help, goodwill and, as Mankert describes, ‘pulling in some big favours’, the buck has stopped with him in terms of overseeing his lifetime ambition. As a result, his commitment extends far beyond the hours he has put into getting the venture off the ground.
“It hasn’t been cheap to do,” he admits. “But there are ways it can be done. If you stick to your values and are honest with people rather than giving them a load of bull you’ve got a better chance of success.
“And I’ve also put everything on the line and sold everything I own. That includes my car and my watch.
“In the negotiations with the racecourse I even put my house up as security against the lease.
“However, in the final stages of the negotiations, the chairman of the racecourse said they were not in the business of taking people’s houses and as much as they appreciated my commitment they waived that part of the agreement.”
Now 14 months on, the course is open for business and the initial reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve already had enquiries about membership,” adds Mankert, “but it’s going to be solely pay and play. There’s no need for people to have a handicap and there isn’t a dress code. I want people to come here, have fun, enjoy the game and the social aspect.
“My wife, Pippa, Tom and my young head greenkeeper Adam Preston, are working with me and the aim is to create a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, so that all visitors can enjoy themselves whenever they come along.
“It has been a long held ambition to have my own golf course, so this is a highly exciting time in my career.”
Out of Africa
South Africa-based Neil Cheetham won the Senior PGA Professional Championship at Foxhills to justify making and financing the long journey from Johannesburg to Surrey on at least two counts.
Not only has the £6,000 winner’s cheque more than covered the cost of the trip, the victory has qualified him to play in the Staysure PGA Seniors Championship at the London Club in August.
A place in the top 15 would have achieved that objective, so adding his name to a list of winners that includes the late Tommy Horton was a welcome addition.
“My main goal was to try and get in the top 15 and qualify for the Staysure PGA Seniors Championship later in the year,” said Cheetham, who has worked in South Africa for the past dozen years.
“So winning the tournament was a real bonus – it’s a fantastic achievement for me.”
Given that the 51-year-old went into the last round leading the tournament and nine shots clear of 15th place, the key element of his mission was effectively guaranteed.
His prospects of claiming the trophy and first prize were less certain by contrast, not least because he began the final negotiation of the Bernard Hunt course at the Surrey resort with Darren Prosser just a shot behind.
However, come the fifth hole after Prosser had endured a nightmare start that cost him four shots and Cheetham had recorded two birdies, the gap had increased to seven.
To all intents and purposes Cheetham appeared home and hosed, that is until he wobbled at the 16th and 17th and, with Prosser remaining bogey-free from five onwards and posting three birdies, his advantage was down to three.
Reflecting on the turnaround in fortunes, Cheetham admitted: “I had some anxious moments coming down the stretch.
“Apart from making a silly error on the ninth when I three-putted for a bogey, I played beautifully until I got to 16.”
In the event, both players made par at the last, resulting in Cheetham posting a one-under-par round of 72 to finish eight-under for the tournament, three shots clear of Prosser and six ahead of John King, the defending champion.
Despite rueing his disastrous start, Prosser, who runs the Kingswinford Golf Centre in the West Midlands and became eligible to play in senior events in November, was happy with his overall performance.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening on those three holes,” said Prosser. “But I managed to turn things round and, as this was my debut as a senior, it’s great to play competitively again. Qualifying for the Staysure PGA Seniors Championship is a real plus point and I’m looking forward to it.”
So, too, is Cheetham. First, though, there is some pressing business in South Africa to attend to.
“I’ve got some teaching to do and I own the pro shop at the Wanderers Golf Club,” he added.
“And I’ve got a Sunshine Tour senior event just before I come back in July to try and qualify for the Senior British Open.
“It’s being staged at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s this year – I played in the Open there in 2001 so I’ve got fond memories of that place. It would be nice to do the double and play in that event as well.”