I have just enjoyed the first women’s Major of the year – the Kraft Nabisco – and the first men’s – the Masters – at fabulous venues, Mission Hills in California, and the iconic Augusta National in Georgia respectively.
I can well recall in the early days of my professional career playing on courses that nowadays wouldn’t be considered suitable to host a professional tournament, let alone a Major championship!
In 1979 when the then Women’s Professional Golf Association was formed, we barely had enough players to make up a minimum field of 30 players, and were grateful for any sponsorship that we had or to any golf course that wanted to host our events!
Of course, we played on some top-rated courses such as Southport & Ainsdale, Woburn and Moor Park, which hosted the British Women’s Open Championship.
But we didn’t get to play those sort of courses week in week out. The main thing was that the courses where we did play welcomed us and wanted us to be there. There wasn’t a question of us or our sponsor paying them to host our tournaments. The clubs and the players were mutually happy with the arrangement.
Of course, we played some gems, such as Caldy, on the Wirral, and during the first three years of the WPGA, Carlsberg sponsored a series of events – 12 in year one, 10 in the second year and three larger events in 1981.
All were played on excellent private members’ courses and several on recognised championship courses, such as St Pierre, Moortown and Gleneagles – albeit on the Glendevon course which only survived for a few years.
We also regularly played at Royal Portrush, one of Northern Ireland’s finest links courses as Rory, Darren and GMac will all testify.
During those early years, we also played on several public courses – Eastleigh in Hampshire, Middlesbrough Municipal and Haigh Hall in Manchester. Then in the mid-80s the tour became much more European rather than solely British.
In general there weren’t many spectators. In fact, I can remember playing with Muriel Thomson from Scotland, one of the top British players at the time, but someone who could hear a pin drop a hundred feet away, at Hill Barn in Sussex. One of Muriel’s (and most players’) pet hates was male spectators who put their hands in their pockets and jingled their loose change, and as this was a totally unconscious act, they had no idea that they were doing it! Well, if a man following Muriel did it, first of all they would get one of her stares and if that didn’t have the desired effect a few words cured them from putting their hands in their pockets for life! On this occasion at Hill Barn just as Muriel was about to take the club back, a noise that sounded distinctly like the aforementioned man rattling his change occurred.
We have a lot of good British players, but no-one to challenge the best in the world – yet! Muriel stepped away from her shot ready to give the man one of her infamous looks only to see that it was actually a dog with a metal collar shaking his head! Both Muriel and I were in hysterics!
I would say that even nowadays as the standard of play has improved dramatically from the early days of the women’s tour, there are only a handful of tournaments that get great crowds. We always get fantastic crowds in Sweden and generally for the Ricoh Women’s British Open, but obviously less so when it’s played in places such as Carnoustie.
I believe that a number of factors affect attendance at British tournaments.
One is the fact that Laura Davies is still the biggest draw in British women’s golf. That isn’t a slight on Laura – she’s still a fantastic player and very exciting to watch, it’s just that as she approaches 50, I would hope that we’d have another superstar to take her place.
We have a lot of good British players, but no-one to challenge the best in the world – yet!
We have some potentially world-class European players, but that’s not the same as supporting home-grown golfers. Everyone loved it when Catriona Matthew won the Ricoh at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2009 and further back still in 2004 when Karen Stupples won the then Weetabix Women’s British Open at Sunningdale.
It most definitely helps when the public know about you. This comes about often through seeing players on television. It is well documented that Sir Nick Faldo was inspired to take up golf after watching Jack Nicklaus win our Open on television. Television allows the viewer form an opinion about your personality, and whether they love or loathe you, they will then be inclined to follow your progress.
Although it’s still possible to follow a player with all the media and social networks available these days, it’s so much easier and more likely that we might be attracted to a sport or person if we can switch on our TVs and see them.
One of the things that happens with every professional tournament in America is that the tournaments have an association with a charity – usually a local one.
That has happened occasionally in the UK, but the only time it has ever been a big success was when McDonalds sponsored their tournament at Gleneagles. The event got a lot of McDonald’s suppliers to pay to play in the Pro-Am prior to the tournament with all the proceeds going to Ronald McDonald Charitable causes.
The association was also promoted by Catherine Panton Lewis – the McDonald’s tournament organiser, who spoke at clubs throughout Scotland to spread awareness of the tournament, which increased the number of spectators, volunteers and in turn how much was raised for the charities.
It always helps of course when an event stays at the same venue for a number of years, as the Ford Ladies Classic did at Woburn and as the McDonald’s WPGA Championship did at Gleneagles.
About Mickey Walker
Lady Golfer’s consulting editor captained Europe in the first four Solheim Cups. She regularly appears on sky Sports as an expert summariser.
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