At a time when the European Tour has only just got underway and the Ladies European Tour still is waiting to tee off again, assorted mini-tours have never had it so good. Take the Clutch Pro Tour. Catchy though the name is, you’ve probably never heard of it.
The man behind the venture is 32-year-old Tom Hayward, a professional who spent the best part of eight years coming close but just failing to make it onto the European Tour. Realising he could not carry on in that vein, but reluctant to tear himself away from a golfing career, he decided to start a private mini-tour.
His parents had a fit. “After all the money that had gone into my golf, it was the last thing they wanted to hear,” said Hayward. “They’d been hoping I’d move on to something sensible.” No doubt they were still more nervous when Hayward and his fiancée, Lily Ross, gave up on everything else to run the show.
Last year, they mustered three events. This year, they had two in March, and then came the lockdown and, four weeks into it, they were on the point of admitting defeat. “We were panicking,” he said. “The lockdown kept extending and, though cyclists were allowed to cycle, golf was not happening.”
Finally, on 13 May, the game restarted and, shortly after that, the government and the R&A were raising the number of people who could play together from two to three or four. Almost before Hayward knew it, his Clutch Tour sprang to life. It blossomed into a 14-strong schedule of one-day events and attracted sponsorship from Bedford Insurance Group. Meanwhile, a steady stream of players of both sexes started to get in touch. “We were simply inundated with player enquiries and, before we knew it, European Tour guys were among them,” said Hayward. “They were looking for somewhere to warm up” before the first of their two Austria-based events.
The entrance fee for Hayward’s events is £165, with the winner collecting a healthy £10,000. The first of the days was at Sandwell Park on 22 June, and the second at Hollinwell on the 29th of that month. The latter included three Ryder Cup men in Andy Sullivan, Jamie Donaldson and Oliver Wilson, along with a Solheim Cup star in Charley Hull.
“Our star players were stars in every sense. They put their reputations on the line by coming along but there were no big egos out there at all. They signed autographs and did everything that was asked of them.” – Tom Hayward
Everyone at Hollinwell marvelled at how Hayward and his fiancée were managing to run a tournament. After all, the rules in force did not permit entry to the clubhouse and there was just the one loo – a mixed one – tucked round the back of the professional’s shop. But the Hollinwell members made up for all of that by giving the visitors the best of welcomes, with two members going round with each group to serve as bunker raker and flag attender.
Liam Phipps, Nick McCarthy and Peter Odemwingie among the competitors told their members-cum-shepherds that Hollinwell was “as good a golf course as we’ve ever played in the UK,” while every one of the players revelled in the experience.
“Our star players were stars in every sense,” said Hayward. “They put their reputations on the line by coming along but there were no big egos out there at all. They signed autographs and did everything that was asked of them, with Andy Sullivan (he ended up in second place behind Ben Follett-Smith before winning at Stoneham on 16 July) smiling from ear to ear throughout.”
Hull had made Hayward chuckle. The women have separate tees (on average they gave the women a 12 percent advantage) and, when Heyward showed her the whereabouts of the ladies’ first tee, she asked if she could play from the back tees along with the men. Hayward had to say, ‘no,’ but afterward nominated her or Meghan MacLaren as a likely winner of one of the tournaments ahead.
Hull had a 70 to finish in a share of ninth place at Hollinwell, three shots behind Follett-Smith, while the previous week Felicity Johnson returned a 69 at Sandwell Park to pull up in fifth place and on the same mark as Donaldson. As far as Johnson is concerned, there is no greater star in the Clutch Tour operation than Tom Hayward. “There are always going to be winners in a situation like this and, to my mind, Tom is an out-and-out winner in the way he and his fiancée have worked so hard to get their tour up and running,” she said. “It fits the bill for everyone and I hope it continues to be a great success. It’s what it deserves.”
“We’ve come a long way in a short time,” acknowledged Hayward.
He will tell you that nothing is giving him more of a buzz than handing out the £10,000 cheques, with the circumstances attached to Follett-Smith’s victory amply demonstrating how a tiny event can make for a big story.
This golf-starved Zimbabwean, who would have been playing on the Sunshine Tour in a normal year, had to fill in a sheaf of papers and get them signed by the European Tour before he was allowed to emerge from isolation in his homeland to fly to the UK. As for the next requirement, that involved spending a fortnight in quarantine before being let loose to tee up at Hollinwell.
An incredible palaver for 10 one-day events, only he’ll find plenty more as mini-tours like Hayward’s seize the moment.
Top: Ben Follett-Smith (left) is presented a ceremonial winner’s check from Tom Hayward after capturing a Clutch Pro Tour event. Photo: Courtesy Clutch Pro Tour
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