LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND l Since its inauguration in 1965, the Lytham Trophy has usually been the “one to win” in the British calendar, apart from the Amateur Championship, for any aspiring Walker Cup player from the home nations. However, despite its venerable history, rich honours board and the world-class Open Championship venue of Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, it may be on borrowed time as one of Britain’s four amateur majors. Press coverage used to be extensive, and all meaningful British and Irish newspapers were properly represented. Now, a lone local freelancer, David Birtill, for many years on the staff of the Manchester Evening News, does what he can to report the basic scoring data and newsworthy performances to a dwindling audience and with minimal encouragement.
“When I started coming here over 25 years ago, every major British newspaper sent its golf correspondent, including The Times, Telegraph and Guardian,” says Birtill. “Now, I am alone and wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for the Irish papers covering my costs. I get the sense that the organisers aren’t bothered one way or another if the event goes completely unreported, and that is a crying shame for an event of such historic importance in British amateur golf.”
Should a return to glory days matter to the event’s custodians, it might be worth noting that the new South East of England Championship begins in mid-May at Royal St. George’s Golf Club – another Open venue – and Royal Cinques Ports Golf Club. Much will depend upon the enthusiasm and commitment of these local memberships, but in time, if promoted well, it could give rise to a switch in allegiance from the few international golf federations who hitherto support the Lytham Trophy. Budgets are not unlimited. Indeed, of only 35 non-British and Irish entries this year, 21 came from France and Germany; and certainly the southern venues would be easier and less costly for them and other continental Europeans to reach.
While the GB&I Walker Cup selectors were out in force at Royal Lytham, they were still outnumbered by agents and manufacturers keeping a close and watchful eye on the leading lights in European elite amateur golf. It is a significant investment of time and resources for the likes of IMG and ISM, but clearly one that plays an important part in each organisation’s player representation strategy. Despite meaningful financial and logistical support from national governing bodies, the temptation to join the paid ranks is often too great for most elite amateurs before they are good enough and/or mature enough to handle life on tour.
“When I was GB&I Walker Cup captain and then chairman of selectors, my toughest challenge was persuading top players to stay amateur long enough to allow us to select them,” commented two-time (1999 & 2001) victorious captain Peter McEvoy. “My only significant loss was Paul Casey, who went pro in late 2000 rather than wait for the 2001 match, as Luke Donald did. Now the situation is much worse.”
Gone are the days when Nigel Edwards, current GB&I captain, could plan 12 months in advance of a Walker Cup match by “blooding” talent in the biennial match with the continent of Europe and assume most would remain around for the encounter with the Americans.
“I can only hope,” observes Edwards, “that the quick professional success after two Walker Cup campaigns each of my countryman Rhys Davies and Luke Donald, who I played alongside at Ocean Forest, will be often highlighted, discussed and properly taken into account by the current crop of talent, their parents and advisers.”
In a field made up principally of 17- to 22-year-olds were a number of noteworthy individuals. Two 18-year-olds, England’s Chris Lloyd and world-ranked No. 16 Romain Wattel from France, both have the ball-striking ability and temperaments to succeed at the professional game. Lloyd, who the writer first saw as a 16-year-old playing in the European Young Masters at Chantilly Golf Club in France, already has an understated confidence and a level disposition that will prove valuable in the future.
Wattel exudes Gallic flare, but with admirable patience and an excellent short game. Victory in the Argentine Amateur, last week’s Coupe Muchy and January’s Junior Orange Bowl, which included a play-off triumph over Emiliano Grillo and relegating Matteo Manassero to third place, has put him firmly in the centre of the French Golf Federation elite player-development plans. He will be alongside equally gifted countrymen Johann Lopez-Lazaro, also doing well at Lytham, and Alexander Levy, who led the 43 qualifiers at the half-way mark by a single stroke from a threesome that included England’s world ranked No. 6 Tommy Fleetwood. The young Fleetwood was fully attired in Nike apparel and using a Nike ball and equipment, and looks every inch the professional he is destined to become in reasonably short order. Running under the radar but with one of the best swing actions and attitudes in the field is 19-year-old Englishman Hugo Dobson. He and Lloyd were paired together for the 36-hole, final-day challenge that was endured in a stiff north-easterly wind.