In the aftermath of arguably its greatest triumph – having showcased one of the great golf courses to the world – it seemed unbelievable the British Masters would be in such a perilous position.
Walton Heath had looked majestic despite a summer drought that had stripped many courses of much of their fairway turf and, in Eddie Pepperell, there was a winner whose triumph signalled a new star of European golf.
But Sky Sports’ four-year deal, which had seen titans of British golf in Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose play host to the tournament, had come to an end and the word around the European Tour was it was about to fall off the schedule.
Hillside came to the rescue – to the surprise of many commentators who thought the event was doomed. With Tommy Fleetwood as the host, the event has now moved from its late season spot to May and has been handed a new lease of life.
So with only a few weeks ago before play gets under way, we caught up with Hillside secretary Chris Williams to find out how they stepped in and what we can expect when the British Masters goes to Southport…
We should start by thanking Hillside, on behalf of all golfers, for saving the British Masters…
It’s quite a story how it came about. We were approached by the European Tour at the back end of last year with a view to staging the British Masters in 2020.
I was quite taken aback and excited by that prospect but said I’ll have to take it to the board of directors. We did that and we had an indicative nod that we’d be interested.
Then all the publicity emerged that the British Masters might not happen in 2019, after the successful Walton Heath event.
It’s ironic that Tommy Fleetwood was out playing the course with his dad, and I went to see him, welcome him and say, ‘It looks we are on for the British Masters in 2020.’
He said, ‘Fantastic, can’t wait and really delighted to host it.’ He went out and played and, while he was on the course, Keith Waters, the chief operating officer of the European Tour, phoned me and said, ‘We need to look at 2019, and May 2019.’
We had to make some very quick decisions. Tommy came off the golf course and I said, ‘Did you know they are looking at next year?’ He said, ‘I’ve just had a text message.’
It all happened very quickly. We’re obviously delighted.
That outcry you alluded to, when it looked like it possibly might not happen, shows what an important tournament it has become for the British public…
The thing is that there are so few professional tournaments in England. There is only Wentworth. Scotland and Ireland have events every year. Obviously we get The Open when it’s on the rota but the English golfing fans are starved of top-class golf. I think it’s great and the tournament has been around for a long time but it has certainly got a much higher profile in the last four or five years.
How were the club able to agree so quickly?
The structure here is a board of directors who, for want of a better phrase, form the general committee of the club. They effectively make all the main strategic decisions.
We do have committees but they tend to be working committees. The policy is set by the board and we do make quick decisions when we need to. We have a monthly board meeting, but we couldn’t wait a month, so we contacted all the individual board members and got their input.
We had to take a unanimous decision. If there was any doubt then we wouldn’t have done it. All directors were on board with it.
Was it exciting but frightening at the same time? You think you have a couple of years to stage a tournament and then it’s about eight months…
The biggest challenge was the golf course. For the logistics of staging the event, the infrastructure, and all those kind of things, the Tour run 40-odd events a year and so we weren’t so concerned about that side of it.
It was the course. We had come through a massive drought and loads of golf courses had suffered. We had a lot of turf loss on the fairways and, speaking to our links manager Chris Ball, I was saying, ‘We’re going to have this tournament and it’s going to be May next year.’
You can imagine the deep intake of breath he had.
But we said, ‘If we turned it down would we get offered it again?’ Yes, it was hugely exciting but there was also the question of ‘could we get the golf course right?’
As soon as we switched the button on, we put a lot of resource into recovering the course after the drought. Chris and his team deserve a lot of credit and this has been bolstered by members volunteering to help out.
The course is looking spectacular…
It’s in absolutely magnificent condition. We’ve rested fairways from November. We had members and visitors taking it off to the side. We’ve now gone to a partial fairway protection where there are certain zoned-off areas – where the landing zones are going to be – and you have to use a mat there. The greens are in great shape. A lot of bunkers have been rebuilt and it is in great condition.
We just need a bit of growth now and trying to get a little bit of rough up.
Would you normally have those protections in place at Hillside?
We have done it for the last two or three years but on a smaller scale. The members are on side with that. We would have done it anyway with the drought, to be honest, because we did suffer a lot of turf loss and we needed to protect it as much as we could.
Members have been very positive. You are never going to get 100 per cent buy in for anything. I’ve got to say that 95 per cent are really on board with it. They are delighted to have the event and they take these temporary restrictions in their stride. In fact, they’ve been saying we should protect it even more. They are so proud of the club and they want to show it off in its best light.
Find out about Fleetwood’s associations with Hillside and the involvement he’s had preparing the course on the next page…
Listen to our incredible chat with Billy Foster!