There is something beautifully fairy-tale comical about the idea of K.K.Downing, the long-serving lead guitarist of Judas Priest – or Ken, as he’s known to his friends – owning his own golf course. It’s not just because he left school at 15 to work in hotels and on building sites, or even that he is in a metal band. It has more to do with his size. At about five and a half feet, with not an ounce of spare flesh, Downing’s physique emphasises the magnitude of the dream that is springing up around him. Nine holes, designed to virtual US Golf Association standards, in the heart of the Shropshire countryside, plus another nine, nearly completed, and another nine well into development. The course, Astbury Hall, will not open to members until June, so for now it is all Downing’s. Strolling the fairways, he is its diminutive, straggly-haired king.
“When I was growing up in West Bromwich, round here was where poor families like mine came on holiday,” he says, as we approach the par five fourth. After leaving home and school (“I had a rough upbringing: my mum was a housewife and my dad didn’t work, so I guess that made him one too”) he hitched round Britain watching Jimi Hendrix and Cream, played in pop bands and then joined Judas Priest in 1969. With them, he went on to frighten over-anxious parents and sell millions of records. His interest in golf didn’t come until 1984 when the band was challenged to a game by their tour-mates, Def Leppard.
Like so many ageing metal musicians, Downing is ineffably sweet of temperament. When he gives me his e-mail address, I notice it has four sixes in it and ask why. “You’ve got to go one better than the devil, ’aven’t you!” he says.
Nonetheless, I’m surprised by the non-hellraising nature of his swing. It’s gentle and balanced – not the kind you would associate with the piledriver guitars that yielded such anthems as “Living After Midnight”, “Breaking The Law” and “Genocide”.
“Are we playing mulligans?” he asks, before we tee off at the short par four first – a reference to the special cheat rule, often employed by celebrity golfers, which allows a player to retake their tee shot. We haven’t even hit a ball and already I’m facing my first test of the day: resisting the challenge, set by a friend, to sing “Breaking the law! Breaking the law!” at Downing if he shows any sign of cheating.
Downing says he’s never been given an official handicap, but on today’s evidence he could play to 12 or 13 with little trouble, and is better-travelled than many scratch players. The layout of Astbury Hall is more influenced by the likes of Cog Hill, in Illinois, and the six months he spent playing every course in Hawaii than it is by nearby West Midlands clubs such as Shifnal and Beau Desert. On first glance it might not look hugely different to many young parkland courses. There’s still “tockey” on the side of the fairway: a West Midlands word for the mud where Downing is soon to plant hundreds of trees. But the fairways are alarmingly tight, and the greens astoundingly smooth, especially after a recent cold spell.
Is this a heavy-metal golf course? “I reckon it is,” says Downing who, after some initial help from architects, says he has essentially designed the course – and particularly its second nine – single-handedly. “I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve. Someone said I should name every hole after one of our LPs.” If so, I would suggest Angel of Retribution for the long, normally wind-defended par three third and Sin After Sin for the ninth where the drive must carry 220 yards over water to a pin that today is cut devilishly close to the front. If these seem somewhat masochistic gestures from Downing, who would need to hit his Sunday best shot to reach the green on either, then they’re perhaps not so surprising, when you consider his band is famous for sustaining serious injuries on stage but refusing to go to hospital until they’ve finished their set.
Downing’s favourite view is from the seventh tee: a rolling vista stretching to Dudmaston Hall on the hillside opposite. He says ideally he would have made it a par 12 hole, going all the way to Dudmaston’s grounds, but unfortunately his estate doesn’t stretch so far.
He originally bought Astbury Hall, and its accompanying 15 acres, in 1984, around the time of his match with Def Leppard, but his dream of his own golfing Valhalla didn’t really begin to take effect until he purchased the adjacent 460-acre farm in 1989. Since then, he’s played golf all over the world, cultivating a long-standing rivalry on the course with both Iron Maiden and Glenn Tipton, his fellow axe master in Judas Priest.
What is Downing’s most rock ’n’ roll experience on a golf course, I wonder. “Oh, probably having sex with a pretty Texan girl on a green in Corpus Christi in the mid-80s. I must ’ave woken up with 300 mosquito bites the next day.”
We stride into Astbury’s clubhouse, arguably the only one in Britain with its own recording studio. This could conceivably be the greatest golf club ever, I think, as he shows me a giant glass guitar, embossed with the club’s logo, and the reading room where he hopes to keep a library of golf literature and DVDs for Astbury’s 250 members-to-be. But, I wonder: will he allow jeans? “I haven’t decided on that yet,” he says. I am tempted to ask him, then, if the black denim drainpipes he is wearing today are a case of breaking the law, but I refrain.
After all, as he’s already amply proved in his 58 years on the planet, he’s Ken Downing, and he can do exactly what he wants.
Tom Cox is the author of the golf books ‘Nice Jumper’ and ‘Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia’
For more information go to www.astburyhall.co.uk