The British Masters, which starts here today, would probably have disappeared from the schedule of the European Tour but for an extraordinary act of oneupmanship by Sky Sports.
In the past the tournament was sponsored by Dunhill, held at Woburn and televised by the BBC. Alfred Dunhill (luxury goods) sold the name Dunhill (cigarettes) to Rothmans. The Tour, despite applying the hard sell for nine months, failed to find a replacement sponsor. Three weeks ago Sky, never slow to exploit an opportunity, offered to underwrite the tournament.
The Tour then had to conduct delicate negotiations with the BBC whose contract, already contracting under the advances of Sky, included the British Masters. If the BBC had kept the Tour to their word, the championship would almost certainly have gone to the wall. Instead they agreed to the Sky deal.
Thus an event that was exclusively televised by the Beeb will now be broadcast, with at least five hours live coverage each day, on Sky. The BBC are left with recorded coverage following the close of play on Sunday evening. Sky are making a significant contribution to the prize-money fund of pounds 650,000 and the Tour hopes the balance will be met from money at the gate. In all, the BBC estimates that Sky's expenditure this week will be in the region of pounds 800,000.
If Sky have paid a price for helping the Tour and usurping the BBC, there is also a price to be paid by the Tour in terms of customary tournament scheduling. On Sunday there will be a two-tee start and the event will finish at the extraordinarily early time of 3.15pm. This is to meet Sky's deadline for afternoon football.
Sky have 10 tournaments in their portfolio plus the jewel in their crown, the Ryder Cup in Rochester, New York, next week. The BBC have five Tour events and the Open Championship and the Johnnie Walker World Championship in Jamaica.
Ken Schofield, executive director of the European Tour, said: "Sky's willingness to assist the British Masters at short notice is a further strong signal of their outstanding commitment to Tour golf while the BBC's understanding of our need on this occasion for some flexibility within our current contractual arrangements are equally important to the success of this initiative and reflects the strength of our relationship over the past 15 years."
The BBC sees it rather differently. If they had kept the Tour to contract they would have been open to accusations of killing off a tournament. Auntie felt she didn't have much choice in the matter. "You would think that with the BBC covering an event we would be bullet proof, but we are not," Schofield said. "We need a third party, a sponsor." The BBC's irritation is caused by the fact that had it been any other sponsor than Sky, they would not have been placed in such an invidious position. " is very expensive," Schofield added. "Some companies can't afford it."
Some who can, have gone elsewhere: Bell's, for example, who used to support the Scottish Open, moved to football and the event no longer has a titled sponsor. Other names are missing from the 1996 itinerary: Heineken from the Dutch Open and the World Cup and Mercedes from the German Masters. The Tour starts in Singapore and moves to Perth, Australia and Sun City, South Africa.
With the European Tour reaching Europe slightly later in the year, they are hoping to avoid the risk of players drowning or catching hypothermia in some remote part of Spain. Similarly they will welcome the switch of the Benson and Hedges International from St Mellion in Cornwall to the Oxfordshire in Thame. Bernhard Langer once described St Mellion as a "man's course." The Oxfordshire will literally be tame by comparison.
Langer is one of three of the Ryder Cup team not playing at Collingtree, a course near Northampton designed by Johnny Miller. The other two are Nick Faldo and Costantino Rocca. Ian Woosnam, who has replaced Jose-Maria Olazabal in the match against the United States, is the defending champion of the British Masters.
Woosnam is hoping to benefit from the result of "positive thinking". He is reading a book called Neuro Linguistic Programming. "It's made me feel better," Woosnam said. Positive thinking? He can't remember the name of the man who recommended the book.
CARD OF THE COURSE
Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par
1 348 4 10 350 4
2 386 4 11 387 4
3 474 4 12 192 3
4 531 5 13 423 4
5 179 3 14 543 5
6 367 4 15 170 3
7 388 4 16 422 4
8 166 3 17 401 4
9 498 5 18 543 5
Out 3,337 36 In 3,431 36
Total 6,768 72