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Fairway to heaven for ex-heavy metal guitarist.

ENDAMULLEN enda.mullen@birminghampost.net The musical mayhem of heavy metal might seem like a world away from the more sedate sport of golf but both are central in the life of former Judas Priest guitarist KK Downing.

Devotees of leather and loud music might be disappointed to discover that these days golf comes first for the rock legend who founded one of the Midlands' biggest bands more than 40 years ago.

So much so that in 2011 the West Bromwich-born former trainee chef called time on his guitar playing with the band to concentrate on developing the 18-hole golf course he has painstakingly created around his home Astbury Hall near Bridgnorth in Shropshire.

Though Judas Priest are still recording and touring, Downing is more likely to be discovered fine tuning the impeccable course than playing the Fender Stratocaster he keeps in his office.

Downing said he set out to create a course to rival the very best in the world, many of which he played during his days touring with Judas Priest.

Golf proved something of a salvation of him as a constructive distraction from the rigours of life on the road.

He and fellow Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton first took up the sport after a "drunken challenge" from fellow rock stars Def Leppard.

Band members Joe Elliot and Rick Savage challenged the Judas Priest guitarist to a golf match, who in turn laid down the gauntlet to play tennis.

It signalled the start of a lifelong love of the sport for Downing.

"We got bitten by the bug and thought 'this is a pretty cool thing to do'," he said. "It was good to get out and do something rather than going to the bar in the hotel, which is far too easy to do.

"It put a bit of a quell on the amount of partying we were doing as we would have to get up in the morning and play golf. With that in mind you tend to turn in a bit earlier. It was very sensible and it was good for us. We would be on tour and we'd be saying 'stop the bus' so we can go to the driving range."

It was a pattern that continued throughout the band's peak in the 1980s and Downing conceded he was at his happiest on the green.

At the end of one tour he took full advantage of his success to maximise the opportunity to play golf. "We had an emphasis on some countries rather than others, such as the US, which was a good earning country for us.

"On one tour we finished in Hawaii and I decided to rent a house there on a golf course. I ended up playing every golf course on the island and stayed there for seven months."

For Downing it was the perfect escape from the insanity of the rock 'n' roll business, particularly in countries like Japan where they were virtually stalked by female fans everywhere they went.

Though the stereotypical image of a heavy metal concert in the western world would be of legions of denim-clad men, in Japan it was different.

"At around the time our Turbo album came out we would get massive numbers of girls at our concerts, which for a heavy metal band was good.

"It was crazy - in Japan the audiences were about 95 per cent girls. It was just like Beatlemania.

"They'd be throwing themselves over cars. The Tokyo Prince Hotel even asked us to leave, as some of these girls were renting rooms there and there might be 12 to a room.

"They were everywhere, popping around posts giggling. You couldn't go anywhere, it was quite amazing."

Downing bought Astbury Hall in 1985 when he swapped his modest semi-detached home in Bloxwich for the 19th century mansion. Although he wasn't bothered by people getting off the bus outside and knocking on the door to ask for an autograph, he felt it was time to move on.

"I went and did what they all damn well do when suddenly you come into a bit of money and you go mad."

If anything, he needed somewhere to house his collection of eight cars, which included classics like a Healey 3000 and a Jensen 541R.

"The highlight when I came here was to get the keys to the house, but I was also delighted to get the keys to a barn where I could put my new Porsche Turbo," he said.

"Suddenly I went completely mad and wanted everything I had never had," added the guitarist who once lived in a bedsit in West Bromwich, where he shared a bathroom with five families.

"When I came here I didn't care if it was big. I just thought I will find a use for every room, though initially it kind of felt like it wasn't mine and was all a bit of a dream. It had an antiquated alarm system that used to keep going off in the night. I used to walk around with my pellet gun. It was a very solemn and desolate place, particularly at night time - I could hear all sorts of things."

Because of a relentless touring Downing was rarely there so he eventually decided to move into one of the cottages on the estate.

He later acquired some additional land and the dream of developing his own golf course started to take shape.

From the outset he was only interested in creating a course that would match the world's finest and initially a nine-hole course was created with a further nine added later.

The aim at Astbury Hall has been to create "the finest standard of playing surfaces possible," according to Downing and cost has proved no object when it comes to either its construction or maintenance.

As a Troon golf venue it sits alongside some of the world's leading high-end facilities such as Turnberry and The Grove.

It is not a members' club but caters for the premium market, accommodating individual, group and corporate golf. Its platinum disc deal enables golfers to pay a one-off yearly fee for unlimited use of the course.

Downing's only concern these days is that he is so preoccupied with the running of the course he doesn't find much time as he would like to play himself and get back to the days when he had a swing which worked "quite well".

Reflecting on his musical past he confesses there isn't much he misses, apart from the chance to seek out new golf courses on tour.

"As far as I am concerned I can't think of anything more enjoyable than go to a brand new country, jump in a car and go to the nearest golf course."

CAPTION(S):

The former rock guitarist on stage with Judas Priest, left Astbury Hall golf course in Shropshire, which was developed by Kenny 'KK' Downing of Judas Priest.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 23, 2012
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