King of the castle

Stuart Imeson shares his 15-year journey from apprentice greenkeeper to co-owner of Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Course

Many golfers dream of having their own little piece of golf course. From a putting mat in the spare bedroom to a simulator in the garage, they desire their own space for golf. For Stuart Imeson – who grew up in the village of Embleton, less than a mile from Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Course – that dream has evolved into something much larger.

Having started out as a golfer at the age of 10, riding his bike over the hill from the village down to the golf course, Stuart became the co-owner of his home club in May 2022.

Stuart, 30, has completed a fast-track rise from a work experience placement while he was in high school to co-owning one of Northumberland’s finest courses.

“It’s strange to sit back and think about how far I’ve come in such a short period of time,” says Stuart. “It’s a difficult thing to take in, to know I own part of this place which is so special to me. 

“Every step in my career has been like this, so I know it will become normal eventually. Walking through the door after the directorship was made official didn’t feel different. I still get out on the golf course with the lads, driving mowers and getting involved. My enthusiasm hasn’t wavered in 15 years, whatever position I’ve been in, and it’s only going to increase now.”

Stuart’s rise to co-owner has been incredibly fast. Having completed a two-week work experience placement while at school, he impressed head greenkeeper Simon Olver enough to be offered an apprenticeship that summer.

“I’ve been very fortunate to work in an environment where I could progress,” adds Stuart. “I’ve always wanted to get on with things. It all started on the first morning here, when I got in a bit too early and Simon found me picking up litter in the car park rather than just standing about. That willingness to work and learn, and it being recognised by the good people I’ve worked for, has been really important throughout my career.”

After completing his apprenticeship, Stuart went on to replace Simon as head greenkeeper when he was just 18. A further promotion to course manager followed, before he took on the role of general manager in 2017.

“There have been times when I’ve got comfortable, but those periods haven’t been too long,” he says. “Even in those periods, I’ve adapted and pushed on – whether it’s the bunker renovation camps with greenkeepers from across the country visiting us or implementing the BRS booking system and bringing in a team to handle bookings when I moved into the general manager role – a big expenditure at the time, but a step forward for the business which I’m really proud of.

“I’m still very keen to keep moving, keep improving, and build our reputation every day.”

Stuart never dreamed of co-owning Dunstanburgh, even as general manager – his dreams lay in presenting the golf course at its very best and hosting tournaments.

“I wasn’t an academic kid at school, I wasn’t comfortable in that environment, so being involved in running a business was never my plan.

“I became head greenkeeper four days after my 18th birthday and we’ve had so many highs since then.

“But it’s not all been easy going. We’ve had huge setbacks too – from the fire which destroyed the greenkeeping shed and our equipment in 2018 to the death of our colleague Susan Temple in 2019. Then we had Covid and everything we all suffered through in those two years. Those things have a big impact in any business, but in our small team they were huge events which could have set us back decades.

“All of those highs and lows have shaped me as a person and given me the confidence to know I can handle whatever this place throws at me.”

A constant throughout Stuart’s career has been the support and guidance of Peter Gilbert. Peter purchased Dunstanburgh in 1987 and, as Stuart explains, has shaped it into the business it is today while allowing him to grow into becoming a co-owner over the last 15 years.

“My progress may seem fast and haphazard from the outside, but it’s had a lot of structure to it,” says Stuart. “I’ve felt like I was in the deep end at times – like becoming head greenkeeper at 18 – but I now understand that Peter had calculated what was going on, and that he had faith in me.

“Peter has never held me back unnecessarily throughout the last 15 years. He’s encouraged me to do things my own way, to make my own mistakes – I’ve made lots of them and still make lots of them.

“Having that belief and trust from someone is incredible and I’ll never be able to thank Peter fully for what he’s done for me.

“Co-owning the golf course, the place I grew up and where I’ve worked for most of my life, was never a dream of mine. When I look back at what’s gone on through the years and how Peter has supported me from a very early stage, it’s far less surprising than it first seemed.

“I hope I’ll be able to tell this story to a 16-year-old starting out on a greenkeeping apprenticeship one day, maybe someone who didn’t think they were good enough in school. I’ve been very lucky to have someone like Peter to guide me, to trust me, and now to take on part of the business alongside him.”

While he will now work across all the various parts of the business, Stuart has no plans to slow down the development of Dunstanburgh as a powerhouse of Northumberland’s golfing landscape. His passion for the golf course has seen it improve a great deal in the last decade, with bunker renovations and minor remodelling allowing the course to host events from county championships and the North East & North West PGA to the Faldo Series.

Stuart Imeson (Images by Kevin Gibson, KG Photography)

On the golf course, Stuart’s ambition remains to host top-level tournaments, while continuing to improve the course’s conditioning and challenge. Off the course, improvements to the clubhouse have already been made, with further work progressing this summer.

“I’m certainly not going to be sitting in the office too long,” adds Stuart. “I thrive on being here every day, working with the team and getting my hands dirty out on the course. I’ll still be out cutting greens before heading into the office because it’s important to have a feel for your product. That’s all part of running Dunstanburgh for me.

“The chapter of being an employee is behind me and now I need to take some time to think about how I can shape Dunstanburgh as a co-owner. Two years ago, my biggest dream was to host Open Qualifying. Now, my outlook has changed completely. I need to look at the business as a whole – the course, the clubhouse and everything that goes into those. I want to take some time to reset and look at where we can take things.

“The golf course is in great shape, but we know we can’t stand still. We want to raise our profile further, and there will be some defining moments for the golf course in the next few years. We have a popular clubhouse, but that can also be improved too. We’re 125 years old in 2025, so we also have plans for that to develop.

“There are lots of questions to answer and I’m keen to take a little bit of time to work out the best way forward, talk to the right people, and get a plan in place.”

The team at Dunstanburgh will be an important part of shaping the business in the coming years, as will Stuart’s family.

“We have a talented and dedicated team and I know they’ll be a huge part of our journey,” he adds. “I’m one of the few members of staff over the age of 30 and that’s a fantastic position to be in. I hope I’ll be able to shape and support the careers of as many members of the team as possible. They’re all local people, which is really important to me as I grew up in the village and know how important the golf course is as an employer here.

“My family are also involved in the business, which is equally important as they’re always very honest with me – sometimes too honest. Lots of them have played a part, but without my partner Mel this journey would have been a non-starter. Having her around certainly keeps me on my toes too!

“It’s funny when you look back to being a kid, looking for golf balls in the rough with my dad or playing golf for a full day in the summer holidays. There’s a lot of luck and hard work involved, but there’s also been a lot of important people involved as well.”

It’s easy to see the joy flooding out of Stuart as he discusses what’s to come at Dunstanburgh. You can see the excited young lad who rode his bike over the hill from the village to the course every day, clubs rattling around in the bag on his back and golf balls bouncing down the road alongside him as he rushed to make it out for a few holes in the evening.

“Being general manager and going through the process of becoming a director alongside Peter while Covid was going on was stressful and difficult,” he says. “Having come through that and reached the point we’re at today, I’m so excited to come up with a new set of dreams. I never thought I’d be in this position and I’m incredibly happy to be here.”

It’s that love, the unyielding passion to see Dunstanburgh grow and thrive, which Stuart will bring to his co-ownership of the course. 

If the smile on his face throughout today is anything to go by, he’s going to enjoy every minute of being a king of this castle.