Opening of the course
The course was opened in 1882, had just nine holes and was for men only. The turf was imported from Cumbria, which may explain some of the more unusual plants seen today.
It was also one of the very first golf courses in England. It came close to challenging the Royal and Ancient (R&A) Golf Club of St Andrews in terms of fame and as the source of an authoritative set of rules of the game, resulting in changes to some of the current R&A rules. In 1888 if you lost a ball at St Andrews, you lost the hole as well, but on the Royal course on the Isle of Wight you just dropped another ball and took a two-stroke penalty.
Prince Edward of Saxe Weimar was the first president, and Queen Victoria’s eldest son (later to become Edward VII) became a member in 1883, making it the ‘Royal’ Isle of Wight Golf Club.
Several other European princes and monarchs were involved, mainly because of the Island links with Queen Victoria at Osborne House. Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, was President of the Club until she died in 1940. As the popularity of the course increased, the Spithead Hotel roof was raised to cope with the influx of golfing guests.
Black’s Guide in 1899 commented that ‘the Sailing Club vies with the golf as an attraction to visitors of the better class. In short, Bembridge is a select rather than a popular resort’.
The rich and famous
Celebrity members of the club include Horace Rawlins, winner of the first US Open Golf Championship in 1895, Arthur Balfour the Prime Minister from 1902-1905, the UK’s first pilot Lord Brabazon, members of the Guinness family and Admiral Beatty, First Sea Lord in the 1920s.
Some would sail into Bembridge Harbour at high tide, and play golf at low tide. In the 1930s, the actor and novelist David Niven was a keen golfer and an active member of the club.
He did not care much for the retired colonels and stuffed shirts among the membership, and on one occasion stuffed cushions down the clubhouse chimney to smoke the old buffers out.
The ladies had to do their own thing
The ladies of the area did not take kindly to having to stay at home whilst their men folk were out playing golf, so in 1893 a ladies golf course was founded less than a mile away on land reclaimed 13 years earlier which is now part of the RSPB reserve. This course shut at the outbreak of the First World War and never reopened.
End of an era
The fortunes of the Royal Isle of Wight golf course began to wane in the post-war economic stringency, and the few remaining members decided to present their land to the National Trust in 1961. The land is to be kept as an open space for all time, but the clubhouse is now let by the National Trust as a holiday cottage.