Successful businessman and keen golfer Ken Wood is the man who should take the most credit for the transformation of the site from two 17th-century farm workers’ cottages into what we see today.
Over time, the two cottages became one property and Wood purchased it in 1949, converting it into a working dairy Old Thorns Farm. He added 28 additional bedrooms, a kitchen, a large drawing room and a cellar, and, in the early 1970s, realised his land possessed all the requisite attributes for a golf course.
He engaged Commander John Harris to create the design and the former civil engineering student produced the first blueprint, across 130 acres of land, in 1976. Though not one of the best-known architects, Harris had been working alongside the ‘big names’ since the 1930s, constructing courses to their designs. It was a career which was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Royal Navy thus attaining the rank of ‘commander’ by which he was known thereafter.
At the cessation of hostilities he returned to the fairways, as a course designer, working along the way with such names as CK Cotton, five-time Open champion Peter Thomson, of Australia, and US architect Ronald Fream, and once estimated that he had designed, remodelled and constructed more than 450 courses.
Sadly, however, he was not to see his plans come to fruition in east Hampshire, as he died in 1977, aged just 64. The course was approved, though, and it fell upon friends and design partners Peter Alliss, the BBC’s Voice of Golf and still Old Thorns club president to this day, with Dave Thomas to oversee its final design and construction.
The inauguration of the course, in 1981, saw a competitive four-ball the like of which has not been seen since in this part of the country. The legendary Seve Ballesteros, the previous year’s Open champion and soon-to-be five-time Major winner, was joined by another member of golfing royalty, Jack Nicklaus – who, then aged 44, still had his 18th Major title to come two years later. Keeping them company were the reigning Open champion Bill Rogers and Asia’s first golfing superstar, Isao Aoki, now a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
It was the popular Japanese, tied fourth in that year’s US PGA Championship, who took the honours on the day, carding 69. The scorecard was framed for posterity and takes pride of place today on the wall of the Sports Bar.
But it wasn’t the last time the Japanese nation would have a telling impact on the Hampshire venue. In April 1984, Old Thorns was purchased by the Kosaido Development Company, after its chairman, Yoshiaki Sakurai, became enamoured with the club.
Among the new features introduced by the new owners was, in 1985, a high-class Japanese restaurant, Nippon Kan, regarded by many as one of the UK’s finest outside of London.
The club continued to flourish under this ownership for 23 years, during which time it was a sister property to the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort & Spa at St Andrews, and the number-one course in continental Europe, Les Bordes, near Orlèans, in France.
In 2007, however, it was sold, once again, this time to the Shaw family. And the new owners wasted little time instigating a multi-million-pound development programme, which has seen the introduction of a raft of high-quality facilities including new accommodation blocks, the Alliss Family Suites and the Shaw Wing, which have helped raise the number of available bedrooms to more than 160.
Other innovations, which took the resort to a whole new level, include a champagne and cocktail bar, a sports bar with live events showing daily, the Kings Restaurant, a purpose-built 26,000ft2 health club with 20m pool, sauna, steam room, state-of-the-art gymnasium, fitness studio, spinning studio, wellness area, sub-tropical bubble pool and hot tubs and a spa with 15 treatment rooms.
In addition, the introduction of 14 conference rooms has seen the complex become one of the region’s foremost business, wedding and party venues. Yet, despite all the developments, Old Thorns still retains, at its heart, its popular golf club. The late Ken Wood would be delighted.