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Tuesday topic: Rockliffe Hall must seize the moment to shine
After three days of top quality golf returned to the North-East for the English Senior Open, Paul Fraser found both the European Tour and Rockliffe Hall are keen on a long term relationship
AS the hospitality tents were being pulled down and the branding banners removed from the tee boxes around Rockliffe Hall on Sunday night, there were smiles and handshakes in the clubhouse after a job well done.
Proving to the European Senior Tour that the Hurworth course was capable of hosting such an event with a little more than six weeks preparation time had been noted.
As Tour golfers headed off with bags and clubs to the Dutch Senior Open starting this week, the next chapter in Rockliffe’s rise to prominence was already being discussed.
Rather than rest on the achievements of proving a worthy host for the English Senior Open, there is a real desire from within to seize the moment and earn the five-star venue a regular slot on the golfing calendar.
The tournament, won in dramatic fashion by Denmark’s Steen Tinning on Sunday evening, will definitely be returning on August 22-24 next year, but discussions are already taking place for beyond that.
“We have loved working with the European Senior Tour guys and from all the feedback we have gathered from them and from the Tour golfers we are being told that we have everything to be a future venue for the main European Tour,” said Rockliffe Hall’s chairman Warwick Brindle.
“Really our next goal is to host a main European Tour event. The Senior Tour guys will be back next year and we will look to make improvements to make it better. But we are extremely happy with what we managed to do in such a short space of time and the numbers of spectators who turned up.
“The Senior Tour know we wanted to use them to showcase what we have here and they have got us on the ladder. After hearing what the golfers and the Tour guys have had to say, we know we have the course and the infrastructure, it’s putting them all together now and finding a sponsor.”
This month’s English Senior Open went ahead without a major backer, mainly because of the short turnaround after being named as a host. The two-year agreement with the Senior Tour and Rockliffe is understood to be worth around £600,000, which is why work is underway to find a backer.
European Senior Tour’s commercial manager, Simon Harris, said: “I think the biggest objective for this tournament is to find a commercial partner going forward. As with any tournament, the prize fund dictates the quality of the field and if we are to get the best players then the prize fund needs to be comparable to the other tournaments on the circuit.
“Secondly it is to get the word out that this tournament is here. We have a number of top players coming on to strengthen the field next year so it has the potential to be one of the stellar tournaments on the schedule.”
While former Ryder Cup players Mark James and Barry Lane showcased their talents around Rockliffe this time, the hope is that the likes of Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam and Sam Torrance will play next year. There are also players such as Miguel Angel Jimenez who will qualify next year after turning 50.
Even without such star attractions, though, approaching 5,000 visited over the course of the three days on the outskirts of Darlington, to enhance Rockliffe’s reputation among Tour chiefs.
Harris, born in Sunderland and now living down south, said: “It's been highly successful in terms of the fact Rockliffe have put this event on in eight weeks. The quality of the operation here at Rockliffe has surprised everybody.
“I have spoken to the players and they have said, to a man, this is one of the best courses they have played all season. That's testament to the groundstaff and to Warwick Brindle for doing that here.
“The DNA of this place is incredible, the facilities this place has got, not just the course but the hotel, the spa, the restaurants, this is by far one of the best venues we could have.
“With time, with the business connections in the North-East, this could be one of the biggest tournaments on this schedule. Everything that is required is here already.
“We have the right media partners, there are a lot of golfers in the North-East and they will be looking to increase those numbers next year. In the middle of August, the weather should be good, longer day light hours. Hopefully the numbers will swell once more.”
The main European Tour has not visited the region since the Seve Trophy was held at Wynyard in 2005, while Slaley Hall’s profile on the golfing map increased after holding the European Grand Prix and Great North Open there.
If the business contacts of Rockliffe Hall’s managing director Nick Holmes and Brindle can secure a notable sponsor for the English Senior Open next August, all eyes will be on repeating the trick to bring the main Tour back to the region.
Laying on a European Tour event would mean a financial package well in excess of £1m would have to be put together, which is why raising the money to support the second English Senior Open at Rockliffe Hall next August will be crucial going forward. The Tour, though, thinks it is possible.
Harris said: “To get the big names here then finance is a big factor. It is not the only factor: Montgomerie is exempt in the USA on the Champions Tour for instance, that takes up a number of his weeks. But this could become one of our prestigious courses.
“Woburn is our main tournament for the Travis Perkins plc Senior Masters, well established with 25,000 spectators turning up. Monty won that this year so he will go back and defend – and the advantage is that next year Rockliffe Hall will be pencilled in the week before.
“If the players play at St Andrews at the SSE Scottish Senior Open, then at Rockliffe before heading down to Woburn, logistically it works. It's almost the A1-M1 Championship!”
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