SUTTON COLDFIELD, ENGLAND | There was a time when the British Masters, won last week by Thorbjørn Olesen at The Belfry, was a big draw on the DP World Tour.
Lee Trevino ventured across the Atlantic to win it in 1985, and that decade also witnessed success for Greg Norman (twice), Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Severiano Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo.
Honour-board listings don’t come much better than that.
Right into the early years of the 21st century, the event was part of the then-European Tour’s regular festival of golf in the English spring. But the 2009 edition was canceled, unable to find a sponsor, and it remained off the schedule until 2015.
Revival came in the form of a new era. The tournament’s decline had been rooted, at least partly, in the difficulty of attracting the game’s greatest stars as guests. The solution? Get one of them to host.
The results have been mixed. Highlights have been the sports-mad (but mostly golf-starved) public of northeast England enjoying the first visit to Close House in 2017, a fond return to Walton Heath in 2018, and the heart-warming celebration of host Tommy Fleetwood’s visit to his hometown of Southport (and Hillside’s highly-rated linksland) in 2019. Last week, Danny Willett, who appears to have really relished the role, became the first back-to-back host.
The main misgiving would be that the hosts have been unable to attract fellow stars (at least in significant numbers) and that their allegiance to the event often has been limited only to the week of their duties.
It has contributed to the reality that this event no longer has the prestige it once boasted; where once it sat just below the top echelon, now it is the best of the rest.
There is no one cause for this shift, instead a series of subtle changes whose combined impact is to weaken stature and with it field quality.
Westwood, a proud two-time host, is the exception that proves the rule, playing all but one event in the new age. “I’ve never been driven by playing on the PGA Tour like a lot of the guys have,” he said last week. “It’s been their goal, and it never has for me. My goal has always been to be a European Tour member and support this tour and kind of go in and out of the PGA Tour. I’ve always tried to support the European Tour as much as I can.”
Westwood was talking in relation to his request for a release to play the inaugural LIV Golf event next month at Centurion Club in Hemel Hempstead, so there was an element of diplomacy at play. But the point holds true; the balance of his golfing schedule is old-fashioned and as such straddles the Atlantic.
“Having fans makes everything so much better. We don’t get crowds like this at a lot of tour events. British crowds know good shots – they know bad shots as well, by the way – and they appreciate what you’re trying to do.”
It is not only homegrown golfers who have influenced the shift, however. In the past, Australian, South American and Asian golfers often kick-started professional tour careers in Europe. Had that pattern been retained, names such as Jason Day and Cameron Smith, maybe even Hideki Matsuyama and Joaquin Niemann, might be on the trophy.
Finance matters, too, of course. Back when Trevino won in 1985, this tournament had the joint-largest prize fund of regular events on the European Tour schedule (and actually more than the circuit’s flagship PGA Championship); nowadays the big money is in the Middle East. Top golfers follow the money.
And then there is the truth that the decade which supercharged the growth of European golf inadvertently created this “problem.” Golfers from outside the States have greater access to the PGA Tour than back in the 1980s, and the strength in depth on the DP World Tour is vastly deeper, too, both factors driven by the boom time. In contrast, those stars 40 years ago had to focus on Europe and were big fish in shallow ponds; they hoarded trophies as a consequence.
And yet if all this reads like a downer on last week’s tournament, then it shouldn’t. The week was boosted by (mostly) fine weather, a return to normality post-social restrictions, and large galleries (Sunday’s action was sold out).
There was an unmistakable buzz about the joint, obvious to fans and players alike. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” said a grinning marshal behind the tee on the short par-4 10th. “I didn’t realise how much I missed that sound.” What sound was that? “The sound of galleries clapping 500 yards away. Wondering what it might be for. Waiting to find out.”
Host Willett was delighted with the atmosphere and its undoubted echo of that golden past. “To get 27,000 people coming through the gate at the weekend is fantastic, and it’s very special to be at this place because it’s iconic in European golf,” Willett said. “Having fans makes everything so much better. We don’t get crowds like this at a lot of tour events. British crowds know good shots – they know bad shots as well, by the way – and they appreciate what you’re trying to do.
“There was a time when we had eight, nine events a season in Britain. We’re down on that, but it’s great to be back, and this week has been a reminder of how good it can be.”
Top: Danny Willett