English golf fans have lost their annual launch of the golfing summer with the move of the BMW PGA Championship from May to September, but in its place they can enjoy instead the British Masters.
This time around the crowds will be made up of the same enthusiastic north-westerners who regularly make Open Championships at Birkdale, Lytham and Hoylake the most electric outside the ropes.
The tournament briefly looked like it had fallen off the schedule after last year’s renewal, but the European Tour put money behind it and then Betfred also came on board as the sponsor.
Tommy Fleetwood takes over the hosting duties and will be well aware that none of his predecessors have managed to claim the win; it’s an exacting week, full of extra responsibilities and onerous media duties.
The venue is a fun one because Hillside sits snugly next to Royal Birkdale and has long been considered one of England’s gems.
One factor to consider this week might be the extensive travel some in the field will have undertaken in the last three weeks. A South African, for example, will have flown from home to Morocco (that nation’s players were complaining about the lack of direct flights on that route last year to further complicate the issue), onto China and now back to the UK. It is perhaps telling how many English players opted out of the China Open.
Note: On Tuesday the proximity of next week's PGA Championship had an impact on the field. David Lipsky, Kurt Kitayama, Erik van Rooyen and Mike Lorenzo-Vera withdrew to play next week at Bethpage Black.
Recent winners of the British Masters
In fairness, these names are of only passing interest. Matthew Fitzpatrick won at the tree-lined Woburn in 2015; Alex Noren at The Grove, a very modern design, in 2016; Paul Dunne at the extremely hilly Close House in 2017; and Eddie Pepperell at the heathland Walton Heath last year. All of them, of course, inland and also in the Fall.
You could be forgiven for thinking everyone playing this track is waiting for the turn because just about every golfer who has played it raves about the back nine. Yes, it’s very good, but don’t underestimate the first nine. They are flatter, but nicely contoured, bearing more resemblance to Carnoustie than, say, the flat holes at Hoylake. The back nine heads into the sand hills and many holes have natural amphitheaters for the galleries to enjoy. This stretch has more in common with its neighbor Birkdale.
Heavy rain is forecast for Wednesday which will soften the greens, but as the week wears on the conditions should improve. If the predictions are correct almost comically so in the neatness: cloud Thursday, sunny spells Friday, sunny Saturday, warmish Sunday. Thursday and Saturday are both expected to be very blustery, the other two days less so, but remember this stretch of land is a known microclimate.
Tommy Fleetwood (2018): "I can’t wait to host the British Masters in my home town. It will be such an honor and I’m so grateful to have been asked."
Matt Wallace (2019): "I know Hillside is a great course. It’s a big thing for the North West having this event up there and the crowds will be great. I played Hillside for the British Amateurs and it’s a pretty special place."
Jack Nicklaus (unknown): "A wild looking links. Within the second nine are some of my favorite holes."
Greg Norman (1982): "The back nine holes are the best in Britain."
The Leading Contenders
This promises to be quite a week for the popular home boy. At the Birkdale Open in 2017 the fairways were packed out for him – expect more of the same. He picked the course because he loves it, his tournament form is strong (T13-T4-T9), he has six top 15s in the Dunhill Links, and he was T2 last time out alongside Sergio Garcia in the Zurich Classic. Can he become the first host to win this event?
His form is strong with T3 in the Players Championship and T16 at The Heritage standout. But above and beyond that he is a quality links performer. He was T6 at Carnoustie in last year’s Open, has been T2 and T4 at the Scottish Open, and he lost a play-off in the Irish Open at Royal County Down. He’s also the defending champion and has a solid record in front of the Pepper Army.
Not in the greatest form when last seen (two MCs on the PGA Tour followed by the last 16 in the Dell Match Play and T56 at Augusta National). But he likes links golf. His last three Dunhill Links starts have reaped 1-1-2, he’s been T4, T2 and T9 in the Scottish Open, T4 in the Irish Open and T5 in the Open. Oh, and his record in the event is strong too: T13-T9-T8.
It’s easy to see the Englishman thriving on the buzz of playing in front of a home crowd this week and he did make two top 20s on home soil last season (T20 at Wentworth, T16 in this event at Walton Heath). Against that his links record is not good. He’s 0-for-2 in Ireland and 2-for-5 in Scotland with a best of T28 in last year’s Dunhill Links.
When talking to Dutch journalists they say that Luiten is not overly keen on links golf. Against that he has won at Kennemer (a links track on home soil), but they counter he just likes that one layout and it didn’t blow. He also won the links-like Oman Open so maybe take it with a pinch of salt? On the other hand, only two of 22 starts on British links have reaped top 20s.
He is one Englishman who did go to China and reaped T5, maintaining a strong start to the season. He’s 9-for-9 with six top 30s and now has three top 15s on the bounce. However in seven starts on the links at this level he has a best of T20 in the Portstewart Irish Open of 2017. He was T3 in this event at Walton Heath though.
Didn’t play in China after logging T21 in the Trophee Hassan II. Before that he was T11 in the Qatar Masters and T7 at the Maybank Championship. Nice form to bring to the table alongside plenty of nice links efforts. He’s twice been T6 in the Irish Open (Ballyliffin, Royal County Down) and also T6 at Castle Stuart in the Scottish Open. He’s also 10-for-11 on home soil and will be followed by the Sully Army.
He’s had time off in recent weeks (last seen when T36 in March’s Maybank Championship), but the newly crowned World Super 6 Perth champion (his first ET success) thrives on the linksland. He was T4 in both the Irish and Scottish Opens in 2017, then T2 and T6 in the same tournaments last season.
Not been seen since struggling in the WGC Match Play, but before that was T33 in the WGC Mexico Championship and T7 in the Dubai Desert Classic. This is precisely the sort of event in which he could pose a threat with his new relaxed approach. Bear in mind, however, he is famously much better on Scottish links than English. Indeed he has no top 25 in his last ten starts by the English seaside.
Ahead of his rookie campaign on the European Tour the South African was excited about the prospect of playing links golf and he backed it up with results. He was fourth at Ballyliffin’s Irish Open (leading by four after 54 holes) and T17 in the Open (second after 18 holes, five shots back after three rounds). He’s also in nice form: second in both the Qatar Masters and two weeks ago in Morocco.