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London Golf Club

A relatively new name on the county scene, London Golf Club underlined its potential to host big name events by attracting huge galleries for successive European Opens. Words by David Pritchard - Photography by Ady Kerry

Designed by the sport’s most decorated player with hosting big events in mind, London Golf Club came of age when it was chosen to host the European Open.

Jack Nicklaus - designer of The London Golf Club

The Heritage Course, near Ash in Kent, was designed by Jack Nicklaus with the brief to stage top-class tournament golf. Starting with a vast plot, which could swallow huge numbers of spectators, the fairways were threaded between landscaped mounds which acted as natural grandstands, providing the galleries with excellent views of the action without the need to rely on man-made structures.

After successfully hosting three events on the Seniors Tour, the first tournament on the main European Tour followed in 2008, less than 15 years after the club opened its doors. The European Open was one of the biggest events on the calendar and arrived at the club after 13 years at Ryder Cup hosts The K Club, near Dublin.

Keen to make as big an impact as possible, organisers launched an innovative ticket scheme, where the public were let in for free on the opening day. They responded in huge numbers, with 24,000 coming through the gates on day one – a scale almost unheard of, especially for a course making its debut.

The big galleries may have arrived planning to watch a star studded field, including Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington, but they were all put in the shade on a sun-baked opening day. Ross Fisher produced a dazzling display to seize control of the £2.4 million tournament, making six successive birdies to break the course record with a nine under par round of 63.

The Englishman was in control of the tournament and he went into the final round three shots clear. Garcia shot an incredible 66 in difficult conditions on the Sunday, but Fisher marched on regardless. He completed a seven-shot victory in style, chipping in at the 18th.

Benn Barham, who lives in Kent, was delighted with the reaction his fellow Tour pros had of the club, where he had practiced for several years.

“The venue has been great, it’s just made for a tournament like this,” he said. “I’ve heard nothing but good reports from the players I’ve spoken to, everything from the facilities to the catering, the condition of the course, everything has been good.”

The Tour were also impressed and talks to bring the tournament back in 2009 had begun before the end of the debut event. Jamie Birkmyre, director of Tournament Development at the European Tour, said: This is a really good championship venue. It’s a great course in great condition and there’s enough people interested.

“The key thing with tournaments is to build up a franchise and a relationship with the local public so every June they know the European Open is coming to town. I can’t see any reason why we can’t do that here.”

London Golf Club was duly named on the 2009 calendar. The ground-breaking free ticket scheme was extended to all four days of competition, which saw the already healthy crowds of 58,000 from 2008 rocket to more than 90,000.

Rory McIlroy

Another strong field assembled, with rising star Rory McIlroy and the everpopular John Daly among the biggest draws. ‘Wild Thing’ was among an illustrious group who failed to make the cut as the big names again found life difficult, with Darren Clarke, Henrik Stenson and Angel Cabrera all sent home before the weekend.

Unlike the previous year, when Fisher cruised through the final round to victory, the climax to the 2009 edition was a thriller. At one stage the top-10 were covered by just two shots, leaving the 30,000 golf fans with a tough decision on which group to follow.

One by one the contenders fell by the wayside, leaving Frenchman Christian Cevaer, who came into the tournament ranked 449 in the world, standing on his own at the top of the leaderboard.

“What a great surprise to come down 18 and see I was the only guy left on seven under,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Unfortunately for London Golf Club a lack of sponsors prevented them from hosting a third successive tournament. The European Open vanished from the 2010 calendar altogether as the Tour weathered the tough economic climate.

The club hopes the break is only a temporary one, with plans submitted in December to build a hotel and leisure facilities. If approved it would transform the site from an excellent club to a golf resort, greatly enhancing their chances of becoming an established stop on the European Tour.

The Tour themselves appear to be of similar mind, with an agreement announced last summer which made the London Club the first ‘European Tour Destination’. Part of a new project to promote the Tour around the world, the partnership should greatly benefit the London Club’s global profile.

George O’Grady, chief executive at the European Tour, believes the club fits the Tour’s future aims perfectly.

“This is part of our new strategy of being on really big championship courses which have development potential and are acceptable to our membership,” he said.

“There’s a lot more that can be done at the London Club and that’s what we want to do in the future.”

Kent Garden of England

Reproduced with kind permission of KOS Media Ltd and Visit Kent. For further information, go to www.kentnews.co.uk and www.visitkent.co.uk

 








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