The European Open Arrives at Walton

The customers have to pay admission charges!
(An extract from the club's centenary history - Heather & Heaven)

In October 1978, after nine years of abstinence, Walton Heath again began to drink its fill of professional golf. The first taste of it was the initial European Open, and £16,000 was negotiated for staging it: small beer by today's standards but at the time, it was claimed, a national record.

To lapse into the modern vernacular, it looked a ‘nice little earner' for the Club at the right time. ‘A major sponsored tournament would hopefully help stem the remorseless rise in subscriptions in this age of inflation,' captain Sir Patrick Macrory had stated 18 months previously.

Behind the championship was Sven Tumba, a 46-year-old Swede who had helped his country to three world ice-hockey titles, represented it at soccer and played golf internationally both as an amateur and a professional. Tumba was ‘championship president' and Jack Nicklaus's name was bandied about as ‘chairman of the advisory board.'

Tumba planned a 72-hole championship that he hoped would become the world's fifth ‘major.' It would be multi-sponsored and £105,000 prize money would make it Europe's richest stroke-play tournament except for the Open. Qualifying rounds would be played locally, but sundry exemptions were in place to ensure entry by the world's top players.

The course was to be a composite, embracing 15 holes from the Old and three from the New. It began with the Old's second and fourth, the latter being played as a 520-yard par-five; then came the holes normally numbered five to 13. From there the 12th and 13th of the New were taken in; then back to the Old until a final switch to the New's 18th.

‘The famous Walton Heath finish has lost nothing by using the last hole of the New to minimise traffic distractions behind the green,' claimed captain Cyril Hewertson. Various tees were built or changed and it all added up to 7,130 yards, par 73, Walton's longest course so far. ‘Fantastic,' said America's Tom Weiskopf, a budding designer himself.

The old place looked as never before: spectator stands, TV towers, scoreboards, a Press centre, hospitality tents, a trade exhibition, car parking on the first of the Old and refreshment tents on the first of the New.

Most significantly, Ministerial authority had been obtained to erect temporary fencing on the heath and to rope off the playing area. Thus, for the first time, admission could be controlled, charges made and undesirables and dogs sent packing. Moreover, secretary McCrea explained, the club was now authorised to enclose the area of the courses for one seven-day period each year. It was all a vivid contrast from the days of the old matches when hordes surged over the fairways for a free show.

Twenty-five US tour players, including USPGA champion John Mahaffey, Tom Kite and Gil Morgan, third on the world money list that year, competed, and Ballesteros and Faldo, fierce rivals at the time, were among 75 Europeans.

Ballesteros lost his clubs, borrowed some and missed the cut. Faldo set off as though on auto-pilot with a 68 and 70 to lead Weiskopf by a stroke, then turned into a helpless roller-coaster passenger in the third round before holing the 191-yard 17th in one with a six-iron All this left him with a 75 for an aggregate of 213 and a three-stroke deficit behind the new leader, Australia's Greg Norman.

On a glorious fourth day two strokes covered the top 12 as the leaders reached the turn. The unlikely pace-setter was another American, Bobby Wadkins, a young man deep in the shadow of his elder brother Lanny and averaging about $25,000 a year on a US tour when Tom Watson was winning over $360,000. Out in 33, he finished in 68, nine under par for the championship.

Who could catch or beat him? Not Malcolm Gregson... nor Faldo... nor Mac McLendon. All three had had chances to tie. Gil Morgan? He came to the final hole needing a birdie to draw level and got it.

In the last group Norman and the Scot Bernard Gallacher also had chances. Gallacher needed a par to tie but hit a woeful drive that barely reached the fairway; Norman, needing a birdie, struck a beauty. The ultimate scenario was that Norman missed the putt he needed and Gallacher, requiring a chip and a putt, succeeded. For the second time, following the long-ago Daily Mail event, a professional tournament at Walton had yielded a three-way tie.

By the time Wadkins, Morgan and Gallacher reached the green on the 16th, the first play-off hole, Morgan was out of it. Wadkins had struck a three-iron to a yard or so while Gallacher was within about six feet. Gallacher missed, Wadkins holed. It was the American's first tournament win and he pocketed £18,000 - riches beyond belief!

The course, claimed Hewertson, had emerged ‘undefeated by the greatest golfers of the day in a championship that will bear comparison with anything anywhere. That the leaders after four rounds without any Walton Heath wind were not lower than 283 indicates that the modern experts found it, in their way, just as challenging as Vardon, Braid and Taylor had 75 years before.'

Hewertson's eulogy was not unanimously shared by neutrals. The greatest golfers had not competed; and although the course was handsomely praised, a few critics saw in the play-off trio's nine under par a hint that things might profitably be slightly toughened.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, competitors returning for the 1980 championship (it had been held at Turnberry in 1979) found the course subtly tighter and par 72. In the pro-am early in the week America's Keith Fergus promptly hit a driver and five-iron pin-high from the new tee at the 521-yard 11th and went through the green at the 554-yard 14th with a drive and a seven-iron. He was rewarded for his insolence by failure to make the cut in the championship.

The event was nearly not played. The 1978 organisers had accepted the club's criticisms of their publicity and financial controls, but more problems arose.

‘Payments of the facility fee were phased over preceding periods and we had difficulty in collecting them punctually,' Douglas Thomson, captain in 1981, recalls. ‘By the time of the final payment date we had to give an ultimatum. On the Sunday prior to the event it was "No cheque by midday Monday, no tournament".' The cheque arrived. ‘Tumba and his board of management have been forced to underwrite the event in its difficult first two years, but the future now looks assured,' a Daily Telegraph correspondent had reported.

Bookmakers made Ballesteros, the Masters champion, favourite, followed by America's Curtis Strange, while the defending champion was Sandy Lyle. First to produce something special, though, was a 15-stone American, Lon Hinkle, who insulted the course with a second-round 65 (32 out, 33 in), eight under par!

Al Geiberger hits his second to the 8th on the composite course (the tenth of the Old) in 1978.

The weather, wrote John Hennessey in The Times, ‘provided a benign morning, a stormy afternoon and a soft, sunny evening when all the leaders except Hinkle were back in the clubhouse looking for drying facilities and cures for frostbite.' Hinkle was delayed 25 minutes by lightning and played 12 holes in wind and rain before the sun came through and the wind dropped. He chipped in for an eagle at the long second and had eight birdies. With a 12-under 134 he led by four strokes.

As the wind swung 180 degrees, the temperature dropped and the rain returned, the course completely changed. Tom Kite, out in 31 (five under par), had been forced to take refuge from the storm for half-an-hour and over the finishing holes the howling wind swept rain on to his spectacles. Yesterday he had used a driver and a short iron at the 18th; now he had to hit what he described as one of the three-woods of his life to reach the green and help him to a 67.

On the third day, in a fresh, gusting wind, when Kite (71) got within a stroke of Hinkle, only two players broke 70 and on the fourth only one did so. It was all a reminder that you can never take Walton Heath for granted.

The heather and bracken can break your heart, not to mention your wrists, and the fairway bunkers are true hazards, wrote Peter Dobereiner in The Observer. The possibility of disaster therefore looms on every hole and the sheer length of the course precluded any possibility of playing safely with pawky iron shots off the tees.

Lyle, third overnight, showed himself a man at sixes and sevens on the final day. At Turnberry he had scored six birdies in the first seven; now he dropped seven shots in the first six. Hinkle had a 77 and, having three-putted the last green when two putts would have tied, he did not attend the prize-giving to receive his cheque for the second place he shared with another American, Leonard Thompson.

Tom Kite, 1980 champion

The winner was Kite, who kept the ball in play and showed a sensitive touch on the greens, but even he was two over par for the round, with not a single birdie, to complete his 284. Like Hinkle, he three-putted the final green, assisted on his second attempt by a three-tone car horn no doubt operated by the ghost of the dear lady who had disturbed Fred Daly a quarter of a century previously.

The tournament's problems continued. Attendances early on had been disappointing and sundry reasons were mooted: apart from publicity concerns and the absence of the top Americans, the British players, to plagiarise Damon Runyan, had collapsed like concertinas. For a second time the club felt the tournament organisation unsatisfactory.

Even Private Eye commented on the tournament's debts. Douglas Thomson recalls that at close of play the club had outstanding accounts of between £6,000 and £8,000 and minutes indicate that in August 1981 it was still owed just under £7,000. Douglas finally received payment after attending a meeting of creditors in the West End - but not before he and McCrea had been asked to go for a drink and a sandwich while the cheque was cleared. ‘After the 1981 tournament at Hoylake, it all settled down on a more stable basis,' he says.

The committee now felt the club needed a rest from European Opens. Nevertheless, after Sunningdale had held the event five times, Walton Heath made a six-year agreement to stage the event in alternate years.

Accordingly, the championship returned in 1987 (by which time Panasonic had become its sponsor), 1989 and 1991. The champions naturally deserved their wins but did not always have the names or pedigrees for which the organisers and sponsors would have prayed. The first was Paul Way, who had stood 136th on the Order of Merit; then came Andrew Murray, whose future was threatened by spondylitis, a disease of the joints, but who courageously led from start to finish and clinched things with his first sub-70 round of the year.

The 1991 champion came with impressive credentials: the Australian Mike Harwood, runner-up in the most recent Open and winner of the previous year's Volvo PGA and Masters events. On a par-72 course and on a sunny, windless final day, he stormed home with a 65. This gave him an 11-under-par aggregate and earned him £83,330 from a prize fund that had by now reached £500,000.

As for facility fees, the record £16,000 the club had negotiated back in 1978 now looked very small beer. By 1989 it was £70,000 plus a share of the gate and two years later the committee, authorised by the membership to negotiate, were telling Birchgrey, the promoters, that they would be willing to have the event at Walton every third year for £200,000 or a sum equal to the first prize, whichever was greater.

But the tournament did not return. In 1992 Birchgrey told the club that they were sorry but they were leaving Walton. The championship moved first to East Sussex National. Not only was that club not charging a fee, it was paying for the privilege of being the venue. Golf was being transformed commercially just as it had been changing socially.