Why England needs a champ

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English golf is in rude health, but we’re still waiting for another Major champion. TG investigates why we need to end the drought soon.

The world number one, five players in the top 20 at the turn of the year, 14 European Tour victories in 2011 and a third of the victorious 2010 Ryder Cup team at Celtic Manor; it’s fair to say that English golf is in good health, but there is one glaring omission. Despite the huge success of recent years, the fact remains that Nick Faldo was England’s last Major winner when claiming his third green jacket and sixth Major at the 1996 Masters. A total of 63 tournaments have passed since then, and while Englishmen have come close on a number of occasions no one has quite been able to get over the finish line and bring England the wealth of positives that come with what many consider to be the true measure of golfing success, Major victories.

Investment and development
“Funding from the government is all about participation,” says John Petrie, CEO of England Golf. “There would definitely be a lift in media coverage in the weeks following a Major win and the player would probably win BBC Sports Personality of the Year as well. You’d get a lot more profile for it and maybe one or two per cent more people might take up the game.”

When there are in the region of 750,000 golf club members in England and the Sports Marketing Survey says there are around three million regular golfers (people who play at least 12 times a year) in the country, a one per cent is significant. Petrie continues: “This could lead to more investment because when Sport England is making their decisions on funding for 2013-2017 this reflects the number of people who play the sport.

“In the current health sport plan, 2009-2013, Sport England has given £13 million between the English Golf Union, English Women’s Golf Association, PGA and Golf Foundation, as well as some administrative costs.

“We receive about £1.1 million a year, of which £700,000 goes into development. That money is channelled primarily down through the county golf partnerships and they conduct the activity at clubs.” Petrie provides a great example of how much extra money this grassroots development and a few extra members can bring into clubs.

“From April 1 to September 31 last year, 36,083 people (all new to the game) were directly involved in golf development activity at club level, an increase of 94 per cent on the same period in 2010. “As a direct result of the activity in that period there were 926 new golf club memberships. At an average club membership fee, that amounts to £880,000 of additional revenue.”

The last Scottish Major champion is a great example of how much good the right winner can do for a country. Duncan Weir, Executive Direct – Working for Golf, The R&A, explains: “Paul Lawrie winning The Open at Carnoustie in 1999 might not have made a huge difference to golf in Scotland at that time but the Foundation that he set up five years ago has made a massive difference.

“The profile of his foundation wouldn’t have been as high had he not won a Major and it therefore might not have been such an attractive proposition to sponsors. Now, Paul Lawrie is sponsoring the Scottish Boys Championship, making him the first Tour player in history to directly sponsor a Scottish Golf Union Championship.

“All of that has come about as a result of him winning The Open. A lot of children have been introduced to golf and met Paul Lawrie because he won a Major.”

We need only look towards Northern Ireland to see proof that a Major winner or three can make a real difference at governmental level, with significant knock-on effects.

“Across the board we’ve found that the level of interest in golf has dramatically risen since Graeme McDowell’s win and latterly Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke,” says Kevin Stevens, General Secretary of the Ulster Branch of the GUI. “It’s shot Northern Ireland to prominence. “It’s massive for us because golf is now a priority sport and that has brought the investment to bring the Irish Open to Royal Portrush this year. Without the three guys winning golf just wouldn’t be such a high-profile sport at government level and you wouldn’t get the positive spin-offs.

“The Government are seeing the economic benefit of the investment. The tourist board has always used golf to bring people to Northern Ireland but that has now multiplied.”

Tourism
When a nation is successful in golf it’s natural that amateurs want to visit the country and sample the courses that have produced such talent. This appeal is only heightened and made more global by high-profile Major victories.

“We saw a huge spike in interest in Northern Ireland; the local tourism industry owes a debt of gratitude to its golf stars,” Euan Gillon, Head of Product Marketing & Strategy at Your Golf Travel.

“Our business to Northern Ireland in 2011 was up 125 per cent in terms of passengers, and revenue up by 153 per cent, so not only did we see lots more travellers, they were also spending more. I think this reflects added interest in the marquee courses like Royal Portrush that the likes of Darren Clarke have publicised.

“Royal Portrush has grabbed the majority of the column inches, and the public clamour to have it back on the Open rotation seems set to continue. It’s great news that the Irish Open will be heading there this summer, when I’m sure the Irish Major winners will be there showcasing the product. That said, there’s also been a general uplift in interest in Northern Ireland more broadly as well.”

Holywood GC, the home of Rory McIlroy, has also enjoyed a surge in interest: “The increase in tourism attraction was huge in terms of percentages. This is largely due to the fact that Holywood would never have seen a tourist before other than a few groups a year from England, Scotland, Ireland. This year, we’ve had visitors from USA, Canada, New Zealand, Asia and continental Europe.”

It’s obvious that clubs and regions associated with the specific winner, as well as England as a whole, would see great benefit if England was to end the drought this summer. Gillon expands: “A Major win from Donald or Westwood this year would certainly benefit golf tourism from an international perspective; the ideal scenario would be an Englishman winning at Royal Lytham & St Annes, one of England’s greatest courses. The worldwide coverage of the event (hopefully with the sun shining) can only be beneficial.”

Inspiration
You can’t underestimate the importance having positive role models can play in encouraging new players, young and old, to take up the game, and inspiring talented players to excel.

According to Weir: “You have to say that the surge of European winners like Faldo, Ballesteros, Olazabal, Woosnam, Lyle and Langer in the 1980s and 90s had a very positive impact on the game in terms of encouraging new players.

“Today’s top English players grew up watching these guys winning Majors and I think it’s important that youngsters today get to watch and be inspired by this same level of highly-publicised success.”

Reputation
“It’s becoming very important that we get a Major because we’ve ticked every other box,” says Petrie.

“By having two golfers that have reached the summit and been world number one and a total of five in the top 20 we’ve proven that we can be the dominant golfing country in the world, but there’s always someone that wants to criticise, like Nick Faldo criticising Lee Westwood for being world number one without winning a Major.”

As well as improving England’s reputation in the golfing world, a Major winner could also do wonders for the reputation of golf itself within the country.

“It’s about the profile that the players get. When you hear someone like Lee Westwood talking on TV, with his dry Nottinghamshire accent, people see that they’re normal blokes and not from the snooty perception of golf,” Petrie adds. “The more coverage you have that shows this, the better it is for people feeling comfortable with golf and the idea of playing it and joining a club.”

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