Interview: Ken Schofield, former executive director of the European Tour

Europe used to get just one entry to the US Open. A determined Ken Schofield changed all that, writes John Huggan

Less than half a century since eventual champion Tony Jacklin was the only European representative in the 1970 US Open, as many as 36 Old World natives teed up in America’s national championship at the Olympic Club in San Francisco on Thursday. At first glance, such a transformation might be seen as inevitable in an ever-shrinking world, but to assume as much is to do one man in particular a grave injustice.

Ken Schofield, St Johnstone fan, former bank manager and, for three decades until 1 January 2005, executive director of the European Tour, is that individual. Driven by a need to correct professional golf’s most overt discrimination, the now 66-year old Scot made it his mission to see the very best players on his circuit gain automatic entry to all four legs of golf’s Grand Slam.

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“From the moment in 1979 that Seve Ballesteros did what Tony Jacklin had done ten years earlier – win the Open at Lytham – it was obvious we had players deserving of playing at the top level,” says Schofield, pictured below, who nowadays attends each of the four majors in his capacity as an analyst for America’s Golf Channel.

“We underlined that when Europe started winning the Ryder Cup on a consistent basis. It seemed wrong that the top half of those Ryder Cup sides got into every major but the bottom half generally did not. All they had each year was the Open Championship.

“The structure of tournament golf today is so much more orderly. The major tours are not as one but a ladder exists on to each. You can work your way up to the elite events. Mark McCormack deserves some credit for that. He came up with the world rankings and they have become more and more relevant with every passing year.”

It didn’t happen overnight though – far from it.

“I remember boarding a plane to Atlanta at Heathrow,” continues Schofield. “It was April 1987. Nick Faldo was on the same flight. But when we arrived he went on to Hattiesburg in Mississippi as I journeyed on to Augusta and the Masters. He hadn’t qualified for an invitation. That only underlined for me the fact that we, as a tour, should be pushing for our best players to be exempt into the American majors – even if we had our own tournament that week. Bigger and wider benefits to the tour would accrue if our members could go over there and win.”

Soon enough they did, of course. After Seve, six more Europeans would finish first in one of golf’s four biggest events before the end of the 20th century. And Schofield’s persistence was a big part in that string of successes.

“By 1994 the top 15 players on the previous year’s Order of Merit were exempt into the US Open,” says Schofield. “That was a huge event in the evolution of the European Tour. Not only did the eventual champion, Ernie Els, get in via that route, so did the man who signed his card on the last day, Frank Nobilo. I remember going to see David Fay, the then executive director of the USGA, right after that. All he did was smile and say: ‘I don’t think you need to worry Ken’. Things have improved hugely since, of course. The US Open now has an international qualifying event at Walton Heath every year. Michael Campbell qualified there in 2005 and went on to win the championship at Pinehurst. That showed what we in Europe already knew – our members are more than competitive at the highest level.”

Still, for all that such an obvious wrong was eventually put right, Schofield continues to feel sympathy for those who were never given a chance to show their worth in the Masters, US Open and US PGA.

“I still think of men like Howard Clark, Mark James, Sam Torrance and Ken Brown,” he admits. “They were every bit as good as the likes of Scott Simpson, Bob Tway, Larry Mize and Andy North, all of whom won major championships. But our lads were all excluded. Go even further back and the same is true of the likes of Christy O’Connor senior and Neil Coles.” By 2004, Schofield was nearing his 60th birthday and, not wishing to be “carried out the door,” passed the reins to his deputy, George O’Grady.

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But he has not been idle since. Apart from the Golf Channel, a variety of sporting bodies have taken advantage of his long administrative experience.

Back in 2006-7, for example, he authored the Schofield Report, a far-reaching and almost immediately effective look at all aspects of English cricket.

“I had a long run after I got the European Tour job at the age of 29,” he says. “When I left I was confident things would continue to progress and they have. Our aim was always to give the players maximum opportunity to play then give them the maximum possible reward for doing so. And that is still the case today.

“I had a thing about getting to 60. So I went on my own terms. I felt as if I had gone beyond 60 I would have been tempted to run down the clock to 65. That would have been wrong for the tour – and for me too.

“I now have a variety of things going on. I’m on the board of the Asian Tour. I still consult with the European Tour. I chair the R&A’s commercial committee for the Open. And I was involved with the Golf Foundation for a while. So I keep busy and I love every moment of my involvement in golf.”

Schofield’s role with the Asian Tour is perhaps the most important aspect of his ongoing involvement in the game that has dominated his working life.

“In many ways, the challenges faced by the Asian Tour are not dissimilar to those faced by the European Tour back in the 1970s,” he explains.

“It was hard to unify all the various foreign federations under one banner. They were understandably hesitant to give away their power and influence. And the same problems exist in all of the Asian countries. They are even bigger, in fact. While the issues are the same, the pressures have increased because there is so much money involved these days. Mistakes today are so much more expensive.”

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Still, for all that he left European Tour headquarters at Wentworth more than seven years ago, it is there that Schofield’s fertile mind often returns. He is justifiably proud of all that was achieved during his tenure, with the increasingly international nature of what has become a world tour (minus America) top of that list.

“The biggest factor in the success of our players was getting them to accept a European Tour with no geographic boundaries,” he contends. “Today they play all over the world in all conditions. So they can come to a US major and not be disadvantaged.

“I’m proud of all that was done to create the present situation. But due credit must go to Seve, Faldo and all the rest. They came along and gave me the opportunity. They broke the door down. Then we stepped through.”