Step aside football, this is golf's time to shine in the North East
It’s T-minus five hours to the arrival of the people that really count – the public – and the builders are still in.
In the spectator village they are cutting it fine. There are ladders everywhere, some rather frantic drilling and a cleaning brigade that make Kim and Aggie look the definition of relaxed.
Thousands are set to come through the doors for the Hero Challenge at Close House – the one-hole shootout that’s getting the British Masters festivities under way and there’s palpable excitement among everyone that’s sneaked in for a glimpse of practice day.
Tuesday on the European Tour is an odd experience for those witnessing it for the first time. The grandstands are empty, there’s no crush on the ropes and you’re not rolling around with cramp after spending several hours on your tiptoes.
You can get so close to a tour player you’re in danger of getting hit on their backswing. Try getting within six rows on Sunday afternoon.
Every word spoken echoes through the course, though that’s not much use when it’s the Spanish duo of Alvaro Quiros and Jose Maria Olazabal.
I find myself creeping around like an uninvited guest at a pretty large party.
As someone who plays a lot of golf here, it’s strange to see Rory McIlroy and company pottering about the same range, and in the same bays, where I’m frequently trying to hone my inadequate mid-handicap game.
At one point, the Northern Irishman misses a short one on the putting green and I feel almost compelled to shout out where the break is.
It’s also gratifying to see some of them having the same issues I do on this difficult golf course.
On the split-fairway 4th, as another European Tour star searches in the rough after misjudging their drive, I reckon I could have earned a pretty penny as a one-hole tour guide.
But most of all, I think who would believe we’d be here at all – with world-class golf back in the North East?
It wasn’t always this way. There was the famed Whitley Bay classic, which once saw Lee Trevino outshone by a plumber.
“Who is this guy Roy Clark?” the multiple major winner exclaimed after seeing his afternoon 69 matched by the amateur all the way back in 1970.
Seve, Sir Nick, Monty – the legends of European golf made their way around the likes of Northumberland and Slaley Hall.
We’ve had crumbs since those heady days. Close House and Rockliffe Hall, in Darlington, have both held senior tour events. This week’s venue is a feature of the EuroPro Tour.
But Rory? Sergio? Poulter? Any prospect of their arrival seemed very distant – ever since the Great North Open died a death in 2002.
That the British Masters is here at all is down to the ambition and the investment of Close House owner Graham Wylie.
I catch a glimpse of him walking past the media centre and there’s a British Masters hat on his head and a contented smile on his lips.
Wylie started out here with a cricket pavilion for a clubhouse and an embryonic Filly course that shared space with the rugby pitches.
You actually had to hit shots over the 22 – if you were lucky enough to find your ball at all in the boot prints of a prop forward.
He admits that, in those opening steps, the prospect of a European Tour event in his front garden – he lives on site in what was the former Close House hotel – was a distant dream.
But Wylie set out with an ambition to inspire, and now he’s got the perfect vehicle with which to hammer home the message.
Bringing in Lee Westwood as attached professional, when the Scott Macpherson-designed Colt course first opened in 2011, was a masterstroke.
The future Ryder Cup captain in waiting has grown to love the club, and the area, and has given Close House a genuine sporting legend with which to broaden golf’s appeal.
Everything competes with football in the North East. Is it a cliché to say something if it’s true? Football, here, is a religion.
Newcastle turns into a sea of black and white on matchday Saturdays and it’s an inspiring sight – or a fearful one if, like me, you happen to support Middlesbrough.
So it’s to the credit of Close House and the European Tour that the British Masters has managed to break a hole in what looked like an impenetrable wall.
From the smiling faces of the youngsters who turned up to compete in the Junior Masters on the Colt’s sister course today, to the fans who will fill every conceivable nook and cranny round the 18th green for the live one-hole extravaganza, this is ‘growing the game’ in action.
Thursday’s opening day will be packed out – thanks in part to a massive Sky Sports ticket giveaway that saw thousands of handed out to subscribers.
This is a one-off, for now. The British Masters will move on to new pastures in 2018 with a new host in Justin Rose.
But don’t for a minute underestimate the effect this week will have on this most passionate of sporting regions.
Big time golf is back, and it feels fantastic.