News & Opinion

European Tour borrows a page from its past

Lee Westwood 2019 Betfred British Masters
England’s Lee Westwood will serve as tournament host of this week’s Betfred British Masters as the European Tour stages the 1st of 6 consecutive events on its UK Swing.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, a 6-tournament UK Swing begins with this week’s British Masters, giving 2020 golf in Europe a look and feel of how things used to be on the tour

Anyone looking at the current European Tour schedule could be forgiven for thinking he had been blasted back to the past. Six straight tournaments in Great Britain?

Is it 1989?

It certainly looks like it.

The tour’s decision to stage six consecutive tournaments in Great Britain, including four in England, beginning with this week’s British Masters, in the so-called UK Swing of the revised schedule amid the coronavirus pandemic, might look like blatant parochialism. The European Tour is based in Virginia Water, England, about 25 miles southwest of London. It makes perfect sense in these troubled times when international travel isn’t high on anyone’s list.

It’s fitting that Great Britain, in general, and England, in particular, should shoulder the load to restart the tour: English golfers dominate the European Tour, and multiple English golf tournaments used to be a staple of the tour schedule.

A quick scan of the European Tour’s 2019 Race to Dubai season standings attests to English dominance. Four Englishmen finished inside the top 10: Tommy Fleetwood (second), Matthew Fitzpatrick (fifth), Matt Wallace (seventh) and Tyrrell Hatton (ninth). There were 15 in the top 50, and 25 in the top 100. Of the 115 who kept cards, 29 came from the land of “God Save the Queen.”

No other nation comes close. There were 12 South Africans in the top 115 and nine Spaniards, plus seven Italians and six Swedes. Of the other four nations that make up Great Britain & Ireland, Scotland had seven top-115 players, and the Emerald Isle claimed only Ireland’s Shane Lowry, the “champion golfer of the year” as the British Open winner, and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the former top-ranked player in the world. Wales had no representatives. Where’s Ian Woosnam when you need him?

The current Official World Golf Ranking mirrors last year’s Race to Dubai. England has 12 players in the top 100, more than any other European nation. Spain is next, with four.

So, England’s position as the leading nation in European golf is unquestionable. What has become questionable in recent years is England’s place as the leading nation hosting golf tournaments. Just two of the four British tournaments on the 2019 schedule were held in England. When the tour officially started in 1975, almost a third of the European Tour schedule – seven of 22 tournaments – took place in England.

I didn’t have to travel far from my London home to cover the tour when I started my golf-writing career, in 1989. Eight of the 12 British tournaments were in England, including four in row: Volvo PGA Championship, Dunhill British Masters, Wang Four Stars and the NM English Open.

There were nine English events in 1991. Up until 2003, the number of English events fluctuated from five to seven annually. Those were heady days for English golf fans and England-based golf writers. Then things began to drift. By 2009, there were only two English tournaments. Seasons 2010 and 2013 included just one English event, the Tour’s flagship Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth Club, where the tour is based.

What happened? A financial tweak to the European Tour’s business model. The tour discovered venues connected to hotel chains were willing to pay to stage tournaments for marketing and promotion purposes. Cash became king. Thus, venues such as the Forest of Arden and Hanbury Manor, both owned by Marriott, and The Belfry increasingly came into the picture. These venues were willing to stump up money, in some cases as much as £250,000 (about $310,000), to secure tournaments. Traditional members’ clubs had no interest in paying such fees. The Grove, just northwest of London, reportedly paid $1 million to acquire the 2006 WGC American Express Championship, which Tiger Woods won.

This same business model applies to Ryder Cups held in Europe. The match consistently has gone to venues willing to pour money into European Tour coffers. So, out went classic British courses such as Walton Heath, Royal Lytham, Muirfield, Royal Birkdale, Lindrick, Wentworth and Ganton.

You didn’t think the quality of the course was the main criterion for European Tour Ryder Cup venues, did you?

Don’t be silly. Cash decides where matches will be held.

So, Valderrama, The K Club, Celtic Manor, Gleneagles and Le Golf National got golf’s greatest event. They had the cash to invest in the tour by staging numerous regular-season tour events over their layouts in the runup to the match. Valderrama held the European Tour’s Volvo Masters, the K Club the European Open, Celtic Manor the Wales Open, Gleneagles the Johnnie Walker Championship and Le Golf National the French Open. The Belfry got four matches from 1985 to 2002 because the British Professional Golfers’ Association is headquartered there, and the PGA previously had a bigger share of the Ryder Cup. However, The Belfry also has staged numerous European Tour events.

“It’s great that we can go back to venues that have supported the tour for so many years,” said Mark Roe, a three-time European Tour winner who now sits on the tour’s board of directors. “It makes sense for us to repay the favor in some small way by staging tournaments at these courses. It’s also key that they’re all connected to hotels, to make it easier to keep everyone in the same place.”

It’s understandable why the tour, after this week’s British Masters at Close House, will return to the Forest of Arden, Hanbury Manor, Celtic Manor and The Belfry. The four hotels have suffered during the pandemic for the simple fact they haven’t been able to welcome hotel guests. Plus, the tour can more readily control its strict coronavirus protocols because most personnel are on one site.

The difference this time around is these venues aren’t paying the tour. The tour is funding the entire UK Swing.

It’s true: what goes around comes around.

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