british masters

The crushing truth behind the demise of European Tour events in the UK

Once upon a time you couldn't move for UK tournaments on the European Tour calendar. Mark Townsend speaks to players and sponsors to find out where it all went wrong

Just a week on from the warm, fuzzy feeling inside of Eddie Pepperell winning at Walton Heath we are once again facing the prospect of another UK light European Tour calendar.

It remains to be seen whether the European Tour’s chief executive Keith Pelley can pull a rabbit out of the hat for the British Masters – he did and Tommy Fleetwood will host it at Hillside. But, as for the possibility of an English or Welsh Open, it barely seems to get a mention these days.

Justin Rose, the host at Walton Heath, had this to say: “It’s a shame that these ones with history, and ones that get support, are under threat. The fans really do come out in force in the UK and support these events. And the players love the atmosphere you get from playing in front of them.”

Course-wise it’s probably fair to say that Walton Heath has been the best of the quartet of the British Masters-Sky Sports productions – the others were Woburn, where home boy Ian Poulter hosted, The Grove with Luke Donald and Close House with Lee Westwood. The players are familiar with ‘Walton’ from the US Open qualifying held there and the sweeping feedback is that it’s right out of the top drawer.

The easy numbers are these – the British Masters, which began in 1946, wasn’t held for six years from 2009. Then Sky Sports stepped in with a four-year agreement to put it back on the calendar and the fans got behind it from day one. Close House topped 60,000 last year – 68,000 if you include the practice days – which was ahead of Woburn in 2015 (57,047) and The Grove two years ago (53,066).

Walton Heath

So, on a support level, it couldn’t be faulted. Compare that to a number of low-level European Tour events where one man and not even his dog are in attendance.

Sky’s brief was take the game more to the masses and, wherever you stand on how golf should be broadcasted, you would have to say that their coverage has been outstanding. Their brief was to provide a different and varied viewing experience and they’ve done exactly that.

We spoke to Sky’s director of news and sport PR, Stuart Mawhinney, and from Sky’s perspective the tournaments were a huge success.

“We enjoyed a four-year partnership with the European Tour to help take our role even deeper into the sport to engage new fans and create content that would take them closer to the game,” Mawhinney says.

“Through fantastic player access and exciting ideas like the masterclass tutorials, the innovative use of the practice range and the Hero Challenge we were able to push the boundaries with this tournament and help show the sport in its best light. We set out to do things differently, and after four years of a great partnership with the European Tour, that we are confident we achieved that goal.”

Growing up in the south of England I was spoilt by the number of tournaments which I could go and watch within an hour or so of where I lived.

A few snippets from the 1986 calendar:

  • May 23: PGA Championship, Wentworth
  • May 29: Four Stars, Moor Park
  • June 5: British Masters, Woburn
  • September 11: European Open, Sunningdale
  • September 18: Lawrence Batley, The Belfry
  • October 2: World Match Play, Wentworth

Otherwise there was the Car Care at Moortown in July and the Benson & Hedges at Fulford in August, as well as the Welsh, Irish and Scottish Opens and, of course, the Open Championship.

The most recent Welsh Open took place in 2014 while you have to go back to – wait for it – 2002 for the last English Open.

Seve Ballesteros

Two-time European Tour winner Robert Rock has played in all four of Sky Sports’ British Masters and, like any purist, was a big fan of Walton Heath.

“We have just had one of the best British tournaments that we’ve ever had because it was at Walton Heath. As soon as it was announced it was there I was definitely playing; a great course, great crowds and it’s a good viewing course for the fans. I can’t remember playing a decent heathland course on Tour in last 15 years.

“It’s so old but it’s still a really good test, they changed some of the par 5s to 4s which is what you have to do and the winning score was in single figures. Early in the week some holes that were playing as driver-short irons were then driver, 3-iron. You didn’t know what you’re going to get and we’ve missed that,” Rock tells NCG.

As for the lack of sponsorship in the UK the simple answer it seems is that the big names demand appearance fees and, if the big names aren’t guaranteed, then the sponsors aren’t interested.

“You can’t blame the players for accepting appearance fees,” Rock adds, “but a lot of players have done a lot for the European Tour and never got paid for turning up so it would benefit a tournament to not take money out of the prize pot.

“It’s a fact of life but it would be a great opportunity to do a lot of good for the tour. You don’t mind non European Tour members coming over – Tiger brings more than enough to an event to promote it – but as far as European Tour members getting it when they would have been playing anyway then it’s not quite right. You might finish second and not even scratch the surface of someone getting appearance money.

“Most English pros are frustrated that we can’t host tournaments but your normal English pro can’t do anything about it. The best are in America and if they’re not coming back then the tournament isn’t going to happen. Other countries seem to get their superstars coming back but we struggle. Which is a shame as we’ve still got a great product with the players over here but they look like a second tier in comparison.

“In the course of my career I got paid once, £9,000 to play in South Africa. I missed the cut and felt so bad that I went back the next year when I might not have done.”

Robert Rock

You’d like to think that there are still plenty of big names to pull in the necessary backing but it seems not. As for the quality of courses then the European Tour is able, at times in the season, to visit some spectacularly good venues.

“We’ve just had a run of the Dunhill so the Old Course, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie, then Walton Heath and now Valderrama,” Rock explains. “If you were looking from afar then you couldn’t pick better venues. Personally I would prefer to play an event for less money if the course was great. I would love an annual event at Walton Heath. In an ideal world you would offload some of the lower quality events.”

One problem of course is that the European Tour doesn’t always visit the likes of St Andrews and Walton Heath on a weekly basis and that, for parts of the season, the courses can be a lot less interesting.

Another European Tour member, who wished to remain anonymous, believes the sponsorship problem is a mixture of a few factors.

“The scheduling is the hardest bit. The schedule is more important that the venue as we rarely play the best venues.

“The sponsors want the best fields so they aren’t willing to put the money in unless they get the top players which is hard to do. At the end of the day the big names are the most important thing for a big sponsor. Sky does a great job for the British Masters but it’s hard to get it that good every week and the ratings are rubbish for the normal events.

“The players do like what Sky do but they are only concerned about the top players and the other players just get to play golf. I don’t think they do a good job of promoting the whole membership, it’s almost like they don’t care about the golfers.”

Once upon a time the subject of appearance fees was the elephant in the room, now it just seems that it’s easily accepted. So if you were wondering why an American superstar is performing a strange dance at the start of the week in Abu Dhabi then wonder no more.

“Players don’t really care about the appearance fees, as it’s never spoken about. It’s just part and parcel of it really.”

Mark Townsend

Been watching and playing golf since the early 80s and generally still stuck in this period. Huge fan of all things Robert Rock, less so white belts. Handicap of 8, fragile mind and short game

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