Date: October 10, 2015
Author: Mike Clayton in England

Clayton: England important to golf’s future

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For the longest time, England was the centre of the European Tour.

Administratively it still is, even though the newly hired chief executive Keith Pelley hails from Canada. Pelley has seemingly bought both optimism and hope after what many consider a decade of stagnation marked by the loss of big events and big players.

The leading players including McIlroy, Casey, Poulter, Westwood, Donald and Kaymer chose to play in the United States, effectively creating a two-tier tour distinguished by tournaments they play in and tournaments they do not.

The Open Championship aside, McIlroy barely plays more than a couple of events in Europe.

Most would argue the best days of Europe were the 1980s when the play was dominated by the incredible group of Ballesteros, Faldo, Langer, Lyle, Woosnam and Olazabal.

While they played their share of golf in the United States, they never came close to deserting their home tour and they all contributed to bringing the game to life on the continent.

Of course, none did more than Ballesteros, who remains the most compelling player ever to observe playing the game. He was not a once-in-a-generation player but a once-in-a-lifetime player.

Each season there was a staple of six or eight events in England sponsored by a variety of companies including those peddling nicotine, but long ago they were rightly legislated out of sports sponsorship.

Much has changed and Europe is now, in all but name, a world tour. Half the events are played in the Middle East, the Far East, China, South Africa, Perth and this summer the Gold Coast.

Formerly the Tour began in Spain just after Augusta and it barely crept into October before players packed the clubs away for the winter or followed the sun to tournaments in South Africa or Australia.

Staggeringly for a number of years now, the only regular tour event in England has been the PGA Championship at Wentworth. All the rest – the Benson and Hedges, the British Masters, The English Open, The Car Care, The Lawrence Batley, The TPC and more – disappeared.

This week the British Masters has been resurrected at Woburn, a three-course club an hour and a half north of London.

The crowds on the opening day were big and supportive as they always were in England. For a country starved of professional golf, it is hardly unsurprising.

There are a few Australians still playing in Europe but in numbers not even approaching the 15 or 20 who played in the 1980s and 1990s. The USA is now the Holy Grail, but young players would be foolish to adopt the attitude it is the only place worth playing the game professionally.

It is certainly far from the most interesting. American players want nothing more from the golf courses than “fairness” and week-to-week predictability of conditions. It is, of course, a recipe for boredom and the world can offer so much more.

Marcus Fraser was the best of the Australians on the first day. He was over par when he came to the par five 15th, his sixth hole, but he pitched close and made an easy four. A perfect iron into the short 17th ensured another birdie, he saved a nice four at the difficult 18th and then played in front nine in four under for a 66.

In this age he is a relatively short hitter, but a 255m drive is now considered short. Tour courses now hugely advantage the bombers and this, the newest of the three Woburn courses is long, narrow and wet. One would think the narrowness would offer something to the straight men but even they miss fairways and from the thick rough the closer to the green you are the better.

The mentality both on both sides of the Atlantic is drive as close to the green as possible and pitch from there.

There is talk the new regime in Europe will merge the tour with the Asian Tour and perhaps in time, Australia. Europe needs quality venues to play after the weather closes in and the game outside the US needs stronger and more interesting fields.

More importantly, the professional game needs a proper world tour made up of quality events on the best courses. It needs the next generation of non-American players to consider it the equal of what they find in the US.

It is the vision of Peter Thomson and, 50 years after he first promoted the concept, it perhaps is closer to fruition than ever before.

England will never be the main playing part of the tour as it once was, but it is in the English boardroom of the European Tour where some important choices will be made in the next couple of years – and they will affect the professional game as far away as Australia.