In order to take your amateur game to the next level, three things are required: practice, passion and a tolerant partner. But with a billionaire’s budget, there are other ways the weekend player can pay their way to the top, as our three sports-mad writers discovered.
Measure up for a customised bat and knock them for six
By Alex Preston
There’s something slightly unseemly about three middle-aged men pampering themselves. We’d had a rough few years, but we’d hardly been at the coalface of Covid – three writers, continuing through the pandemic much as we had before it. But the bleakness of the preceding months certainly helped to heighten the joy of one of the great days of my life. The Newbery Bat Builder Club is the supreme indulgence for any cricketer, and for one brief day, we felt like elite sportsmen.
We are members of the Authors XI Cricket Club, a team of writers initially founded by PG Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle in 1895. JM Barrie, AA Milne and Alec Waugh have all played for the team in the years since. We now count Sebastian Faulks, Peter Frankopan and Richard Beard among our number and have played at many of the country’s finest grounds as well as touring from Iceland (we lost) to India (we lost dozens of games on several trips) to the Vatican (the Pope’s XI trounced us). The average age of the team is around the half-century mark, and many of us have notched up more sporting injuries than we have runs. It’s a wonderful, heart-repairing thing, though, the team: a bunch of good friends who have learnt to lose together.
I collected Tom Holland – historian and fast bowler – from Lancing station, and we met Jon Hotten – cricket writer and surprisingly explosive batsman – outside Newbery Cricket. It was a nostalgic journey for me. The headquarters is less than a mile from where I grew up; you can see my old school from the car park: this was the landscape in which I learnt to play and love cricket.
Newbery is named for Len Newbery, a master batmaker in the early 1900s who passed on his craft to his son, John. John is one of the great figures in cricketing history, designing the first steel spring handle and, with New Zealand batmaker John Guy, fashioning the iconic shoulderless Excalibur bat for Lance Cairns in the 1980s. A black-and-orange striped Newbery was a sign of a joyful, renegade spirit when I was at school. Jon and Tom both played with Newberys as teenagers, and you could see the veneration stirred in them as they entered this temple of cricket.
We were met by CEO Andy Miller and his team. After coffee and croissants, Miller talked us through the day. We were to be the very first cricketers inducted into the Bat Builder Club, a day-long experience in which the Newbery pros would analyse our game and then, with their master batbuilders, fashion the perfect bat for each of us. Here we were, three cricketers at best half-decent (I am, quite honestly, only quarter-decent) about to have our technique scrutinised by some of the sharpest minds in the game.
In the workshop, Andy and his team of coaches asked us about our batting techniques. Now, I averaged four last season and am suffering a crisis of cricketing confidence at least a decade long, but Jon had a splendid year, and Tom has hit shots that are now part of cricketing folklore, so I let them take centre stage.
There are seven basic templates for a Newbery bat, each with a different set of attributes to suit the player and the pitch to be played on. From these templates, each bat is customised. Andy tells me clients speak wistfully of a bat they owned when they were younger; now, with Bat Builder, it's possible to reproduce such a bat precisely. Tom – ever the historian – goes for a classic Mjolnir; I – predictably favouring style over substance – choose the Excalibur.
Next we put them to the test. Behind the shop and workshop there’s a sleek sports hall with two cricket nets in it. Now, I’m a sucker for a net, but this is a cut above. I pad up, fizzing with excitement, and a bowling machine begins hurling balls at me. What’s lovely is that as I try out different options, Andy and his team offer me much-needed coaching. Mostly it’s just enormous fun. I’ve always needed encouragement not to hit cross-batted and so Andy suggests a haft-tech handle – one with square sides to keep the hands straight. It’s decided that I hit the ball quite low on the bat and, particularly given the green wickets we tend to encounter in what passes for a summer in England, we decide to situate the middle of my customised bat lower than usual. To minimise weight and maximise power, we make my already trimmed bat even shorter.
Customisation is carried out on a giant screen, where I can specify a range of other variables – the length of the handle, how rounded the bat face is, the weight and size of the blade. You can do this whole process via Newbery’s website – but it’s invaluable to be there with Andy and his team offering advice. I’m delighted to learn my bat will be hewn from willow coppiced only a few miles from my house in Kent. Amazingly, it will be with me in less than two weeks.
A final customisation – I have my initials engraved on the sloping shoulders of the bat and the Authors XI motto, nihil praeter ingenium (‘nothing except intelligence’), down its spine. I went, of course, for the classic black-and-orange livery. Perhaps we spend our adult lives trying to live up to our childhood ambitions. I walk out of Newbery and look up at my old school on the hill and think that the 15-year-old Alex would feel pretty good about his 43-year-old self just at this moment. Now I just have to hope that Excalibur scores me some runs.
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A weekend of one-to-one coaching at a princely polo academy
By Kim Parker
Winston Churchill once said: “A polo handicap is a person’s ticket to the world.” And these days, with major tournaments zigzagging between Argentina, Dubai, England and St Moritz, the pursuit of a high-goal handicap (the sign of an outstanding competitor) requires great wealth.
Serious players spend upwards of £200,000 on a first-class pony. Even hiring a practice pony can cost £100 per seven-and-a-half-minute chukka, with six chukkas in a match. Factor in club membership (about £7,000 a year), tournament fees, travel, equipment and livery costs, and the bar to entry is high.
So it’s with some apprehension that I check into Polo Valley, near Sotogrande, on the south-east coast of Spain, for a weekend of one-on-one lessons. The 100-acre estate boasts more than 50 immaculate ponies in state-of-the-art barns, coaches to cover everything from the basics to fine-tuning advanced techniques, and a full-sized playing field.
The high-quality turf of Sotogrande means its polo clubs attract legendary players Adolfo Cambiaso and David ‘Pelon’ Stirling, along with the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex, and the Maharaja of Jaipur. Polo Valley isn’t the only club to welcome beginners, but it is the only one with a luxurious on-site villa with its own pool (most clubs offer only basic rooms) and a dedicated concierge service to arrange those essential massages and private chefs.
As a keen equestrian but a total polo novice, I spend my first day on a scenic ride along the Guadiaro river, getting acquainted with the estate’s agile steeds. Compared with my usual tank-like half-Irish draft horse, Polo Valley’s nippy, pocket-sized thoroughbreds are like Ferraris. They can turn on a sixpence at the lightest touch of a rider’s heel.
The next morning, a coach puts me and my impressive mount, Martina, through our paces. I walk, trot and canter while holding the reins in my left hand and a wooden mallet in my right (no mean feat, if you’re left-handed like me). A far cry from the black crash hat and earthy tweeds I wear at home, I’m outfitted in a wide-brimmed helmet and numbered shirt in a striking purple, Polo Valley’s house colour, and huge leather pads to protect my knees should an opponent steer their pony into mine. I feel like a knight ready for battle.
Then, it’s on to ‘stick and ball’ sessions, in which I practise hitting a ball forwards over my pony’s shoulder, or flicking it backwards, first walking, then at speed. Martina barely bats a long-lashed eyelid at my frustrated swiping. Her saintly demeanour scored her a role in season four of The Crown, recreating the polo match played during the Prince of Wales’s 1983 tour of Australia. Unlike Josh O’Connor’s prince, I hope to stay in the saddle during my first-ever match.
After a delicious paella lunch, it’s time to put my new skills to the test with a game. Martina is swift, often galloping towards the ball before I’ve even spotted it, and my body is soon thrumming with adrenalin as I learn to hook an opponent’s mallet with my own, or thwack the ball towards the goal. In what seems like a few minutes, it’s all over. I’m exhausted and my right arm is in spasm, but I can’t stop smiling. I haven’t even kept score. Later, as I wobble to the evening asado, a rugged Argentinian barbecue, I see my aching muscles as the sign of a day gloriously spent. I dream of thundering hooves and swooshing mallets all night long.
This summer, the ranch introduces the €16,500 Polo Challenge, an accelerated course that will transform novices into skilled players in two weeks, culminating in a game on one of Sotogrande’s championship fields, in front of a crowd. It’s akin to being invited to play tennis at Wimbledon, or race against Lewis Hamilton at the Monaco Grand Prix. If Martina is available, I may be seriously tempted to sign up.
Take a private jet to the world’s most fiendish golf course
By Tim Southwell
What do you do when you’ve worked hard, built up a hedge fund and made a ton of money? Well, if you’re a golf fanatic, you buy the estate of Bic ballpoint billionaire Baron Marcel Bich and declare that you’re going to create the best private members’ golf club in the world. And that’s just what Driss Benkirane, founder of private equity firm RoundShield Partners, is doing.
The 1,400-acre Les Bordes estate in the heart of the Loire Valley was established by Baron Bich in 1986. He commissioned legendary golf architect Robert Von Hagge to create what would become one of the finest courses in Europe: the Les Bordes Old Course. When Bich told Von Hagge “just create me a masterpiece,” he was taken at his word. A million dollars was spent crafting a single hole (the 16th). But the Baron’s faith was well placed. The Old Course was unlike anything France had seen. The holes meander through the Sologne Forest, intersected by vast bodies of water that a player must tackle head-on if they are to score well. Swathes of bunkering were dug and mountains of earth moved to create dramatic changes in elevation. In all, 12 of the 18 holes bring water into play – from the first tee shot on the 1st to the challenging final approach to the 18th green – and its 7,009-yard layout is as marvellous today as when it was created.
For years the estate was the Baron’s private sanctuary, but such was its allure, he put on occasional amateur and professional events. The French player Jean van de Velde (notorious for blowing the 1999 Open Championship when he ended up standing in the Barry Burn with his trousers rolled up on the 18th hole) holds the course record of 71.
But now Les Bordes has been thrown open to a membership of up to 500, as part of a development that will cost Benkirane and his fellow investors an eye-watering (and undisclosed) sum. Six Senses is handling the conversion of the estate’s 19th century Chateau Bel Air into a hotel.
Before an 8am tee time, I check the weather: fair, with mist rising from a nearby lake. A swan glides past. A quick breakfast in the clubhouse and we’re on the first tee. The Old Course is so difficult that anyone who breaks 80 gets their name added to a short honours board. There are long carries, huge bunkers and fiendish-looking island greens.
After three holes, I had the wide-grinned, manic face of the geek in rapture. By the 13th tee (I was playing the back nine first), I was beginning to run out of golfballs: the fairways are elusive and the lakes quite greedy.
After Baron Bich died, in 1994, Les Bordes drifted until, 27 years later, Benkirane and his private equity funding came in. Under its new owners, a 7,391-yard golf course has been added to the estate, designed by golf architect Gil Hanse, whose creations include Castle Stuart, Streamsong and the Olympic Golf Course in Rio. Its layout has been compared to Pine Valley in New Jersey, widely considered to be the best example of penal golf-course architecture (that is, where there is no alternative route to avoid a hazard).
Fortunately for us, Hanse was determined to soften the New Course. It’s every bit as beautiful as its older sibling, but much easier. “I can’t think of another golf landscape that looks and feels like the New Course at Les Bordes,” says Hanse. “There are so many different facets to heathland courses, and I’m always influenced by Pine Valley. I think some of the scale of National Golf Links is apparent here, too. If you roll all this into one, that's a pretty good recipe.”
The fairways are more generous and the carries are not so long. Low handicappers can score well, while the rest of us can enjoy a first-class experience. Benkirane, who plays to a handicap of six, says he’s close to realising his golfing dream, with “two world-class golf courses born out of two very distinct design schools. The Old is the quintessential modern target-golf design, whereas the New, ironically, is inspired by the golden age of golf architecture.”
The wider plan for Les Bordes is to create a plutocrat’s playground with riding, go-karting, boating, fishing, tennis, natural swimming pool, organic farm, gallery and amphitheatre. All that is due to open in 2024. In the meantime, i’'s golf nirvana and remarkably tranquil. “I love the nature and sense of peace and relaxation that one feels upon setting foot on the estate,” says Benkirane.
Most members of Les Bordes will arrive by private jet at Aéroport Orléans, 30 minutes away, but plans are afoot to build a runway adjacent to the property for the really time poor and cash rich.