They say golf is dying on its feet and isn’t all that appealing anymore as a spectator sport. If so, the good people of the north-west of England clearly haven’t been told that, having turned out in force to help make the European Tour’s return to Hillside after a 37-year gap an incredible success as the Southport venue hosted the Betfred British Masters last week.
A final-day attendance took the total for the week to almost 65,000, which is fantastic for a regular European Tour event and even more so when you take into account the fact the field lacked the star names, at least in terms of depth, of tournaments such as the Scottish Open and Irish Open
It was helped, of course, by the host, Tommy Fleetwood, being such a popular figure in his native Lancashire and his presence on the leaderboard was certainly a factor as the crowd numbers stayed strong to the end despite the last round taking place on the same day that two football teams from the north-west were involved in the climax to the English Premiership season.
With that in mind, fair play to the organisers for implementing an early two-tee start on Sunday and getting the golf finished before the games involving Manchester City and Liverpool kicked off at the Amex Stadium and Anfield respectively. You used to get the feeling that people running golf were those head stuck in the sand-types, but not any more and long may that continue.
It wasn’t just the attendance numbers, though, that made the event the most enjoyable this correspondent has covered outside majors and Ryder Cups for a good few years. A bit like on the Saturday at Gullane in last year’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, it had a mini-Open Championship feel to it on the corresponding day and for the last one as well.
The atmosphere out on the course was absolutely fantastic and not just around Fleetwood’s group. Everywhere you looked, groups had good-sized crowds following them and there was simply no disguising how much people were enjoying getting the chance to be part of the European Tour’s return to this part of the country.
In comparison to Scotland, the north-west of England is starved of top-class golf. It hosts the Open Championship on a fairly regular basis due to three courses – Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool – being on the R&A’s rota for the Claret Jug event. On top of that, it also stages events now and again like the Women’s British Open, which took place last year at Royal Lytham, where the Senior Open is also heading this summer.
It has been unused by the European Tour for way too long, though, and thank goodness that Fleetwood stepping in as host and Betfred taking up the title sponsorship this year allowed a new audience to enjoy the golfing gem that is Hillside, which may sit bang next door to Royal Birkdale but is by no means a poor neighbour. In fact, it’s doubtful that there are two better courses anywhere in the world that sit as close together, though I am prepared to be corrected if anyone knows otherwise.
Soon after Swede Marcus Kinhult rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt to claim his maiden European Tour victory on Sunday, it was announced that the 2020 event will be returning to Close House, near Newcastle, as Lee Westwood becomes the first player to act as host for a second time after a first visit there two years ago.
With all due respect, Close House isn’t a patch on Hillside as a golf course. However, around 70,000 fans turned out for that tournament in 2017, when, admittedly, the field was headed by both Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, and, based on that alone, it deserves another chance to be in the spotlight, this time in a summer slot.
Can we expect to see Scotland staging a British Masters in the coming years? Well, I heard a rumour over the weekend about a possible visit to Gleneagles at some point and that, of course, is one of the best tournament venues in the UK, but is that really necessary for this particular event?
As things stand, Scotland has sufficient big tournaments, something that was illustrated when Paul Lawrie, pictured, put his name to a new European Tour event in recent years but didn’t get the support he deserved at either Murcar Links or Archerfield Links due to the fact it came at the end of a frenzied spell on the golfing schedule.
No, let’s leave the British Masters in England, at least for the time being. After the success of last week, a return to the north-west surely has to be on the cards and it would also be great to see it over on the other side of the Pennines at somewhere like Fulford, Lindrick or even Ganton. Why not?