Denis Craggs, the founder of Knotty Hill Golf Centre at Sedgefield, near Stockton-on-Tees in Durham, is a man with a vision – to provide affordable golf all year round for the serious golfer and casual player alike, of all ages, in a friendly, inclusive atmosphere. That vision has seen the Craggs family establish a successful business that has grown steadily over the last 20 years from a 14-bay floodlit driving range to a 54-hole golf centre with two driving ranges, a short game practice green with bunkers and chipping areas, and an outdoor natural grass tee range. Amazingly, membership and green fees have hardly changed since the centre opened in 1991, and the same number of staff maintain the course now as when the first 18 holes were opened in 1992. The Craggs family has been farming in the area for 100 years, and it was Denis’ father Frank who had the original idea for a golf course as far back as the mid-1960s, after the family bought an additional 210 acres of farmland in 1962. The idea resurfaced when interest in golf really took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and farm diversification was all the rage. Knotty Hill very nearly didn’t make it past the drawing board, as Denis struggled to find anyone willing to lend him the money to get started. After much effort and research, an initial loan was obtained from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. Since that time, Denis has never taken out another loan, with expansion of the business always being funded by income. “That’s why the driving range came first,” said Denis. “There was no farm income as we had no crops to sell, so we had to make some money somehow. Once we got the driving range up and running, that effectively paid for the first 18 holes to be constructed, and it just went on from there. “Our initial studies into golf led us to understand that, just like farming, we had to expand to survive and ultimately make a profit. We had always planned to build two 18-hole courses eventually, and we also wanted a clubhouse, so we needed to increase visitor numbers to achieve both aims. “We also always planned to build a big, modern course to use big, modern machinery. The contours of the site naturally lent themselves to golf, and we’ve never really had to change the basic topography, it was there from the start – we’ve been very lucky in that respect.” The first 18 holes grew to 27 by 1996, the 36-hole target was reached a couple of years later, and the clubhouse was built in 2000. Finally, the current 54-hole golf centre was opened in 2009, providing five loops of nine, with the flexibility to change holes around so that visitors can experience something different each time they play, and to ensure at least 18 holes can always be open right through the winter. Unusually, the clubhouse has no alcohol licence. “We want to keep it that way, too, to have it open to all and make everyone that comes here feel equal,” said Denis. “When we did our original research, one of the main things we found that people really hated was members’ cliques and too many rules – we always said we had to change this perception of golf. “The clubhouse has been a massive selling point for this club, as people can relax and bring the whole family. I do believe some golf courses are losing out simply because people are frightened to go – we try to cater for everybody, regardless of age or ability.” With the expansion of the course, however, came a dilemma. More holes meant more grass to maintain and therefore increased costs. In 2007, the family initiated a five-year plan with the essential aim of reducing fuel consumption and man hours, which led to the course being closed every Monday to enable the bulk of the course maintenance activities to be carried out without affecting play. “Basically we found that to continue expanding, we needed to address the machinery situation to control the course running costs, which were getting too high. We’d designed the course to take big machinery, but we were running too many greens’ and fairway mowers, and chasing people around the course – people come to play golf, they don’t want to be pestered by us working around them. “We therefore thought about closing for one day a week, to try and do most of the key jobs on that day, and admittedly it was a big decision. However, we carried out a three-month trial and found that it had no detrimental effect on our income at all – most people opted to play on a different day, so we went for it full-time.