It isn’t every day a DP World Tour event arrives on your doorstep, so when the Cazoo Classic (formerly known as the English Open) rocked up to Hillside Golf Club, 10 minutes up the road from my house, I couldn’t have been more excited. Did it live up to my expectations? Short answer: no, it totally exceeded them. I had a fantastic time and can’t wait to attend another event.
For the uninitiated, the DP World Tour used to be known as the European Tour. This is the place where all the European greats such as Ballesteros, Faldo, Woosnam, Montgomery, Olazabal, Garcia, Westwood and the rest all first cut their teeth. Over the years it has lost much of its lustre and is now essentially a feeder tour for the much more lucrative and high profile PGA Tour over in America.
The big European stars do still have to play a certain number of DP World Tour events in order to keep their membership, but sadly, the Cazoo Classic was not one of the events they elected to attend. While it is still a prestigious tournament, it took place a week after the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews so almost all of the big names were enjoying some time off.
There was no Tommy Fleetwood or Tyrell Hatton, no Jon Rahm and there was certainly no Rory McIlroy. The presence of some of the game’s superstars would have added more glamour to the event but I can honestly say that their absence did not detract from my enjoyment at all.
The usual format for events such as this is that there are practice days on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday is the Pro Am (a fun day when pros will team up with celebrities and amateur golfers who have paid for the privilege) and then the actual tournament runs from Thursday to Sunday. I attended the second round by myself on the Friday and then I took my teenage daughter to the final round on Sunday.
There is a significant difference in vibe between the weekend and the first two days but both are great fun for anyone who has even a passing interest in golf. You don’t need to be a golf fanatic like me to enjoy these events, although obviously it helps if you are.
I’ve been to a couple of Open Championships at Royal Birkdale but I’d never attended a regular tour event before and I’d never been to Hillside either, despite it being only a handful of Bryson DeChambeau drives from my home.
Attending the Open is an incredible experience as there’s an electricity in the air that you only find at the very biggest sporting events. At the Open you get to see the absolute best of the best playing for the biggest prize in golf (some may argue the case for the US Masters but they would be wrong), but the trade off is that the crowds are much bigger so it can be difficult to get close to them, meaning there are much fewer vantage points when you are following a group.
A DP World Tour event has a lower quality field but the upside to that is there are some opportunities to get extremely close to the action, and as a fan experience it’s everything you could want.
So here are my thoughts and observations from the Cazoo Classic, as well as some useful hints and recommendations for anybody thinking of attending a pro golf event for the first time.
Should I attend the early rounds or the weekend?
Attending all four days is time consuming, expensive and not for everyone. If you have the time and passion to make a week of it then cool, but for most people one or two days is more than enough to experience what a tour event is all about.
The opening two rounds you will find players in groups of three and the pace of play is slower, but after the halfway cut (when the bottom half of the field are sent home without pay - yes, pro golf is a harsh business!) things are more streamlined and the attention is mostly on those at the top of the leaderboard.
There was certainly a different vibe at the weekend to what I’d experienced on Friday. The stakes were higher and we were following one of the leading groups (containing a local golfer who was in contention to win) which meant the crowds were bigger. Not like Open crowds mind. It was still easy enough following any group and still being able to get close to the action. You’re not getting that at an Open as the galleries are just too big. Regular tour events are different and therefore it’s much more of an interactive experience. You’re more involved and it’s more fun.
If you just want to see some golf and get a feel for how good these players actually are, then the early rounds are ideal. Similarly, if you have your heart set on seeing a particular golfer then you should look at going to the first or second round as there’s always a risk they won’t be around for the weekend if they miss the cut. Most of the drama and excitement takes place on Sunday though.
How tough are the courses?
It’s only natural for amateur golfers to wonder what score they’d shoot from the same tees that the tour pros play from. I’m here to tell you that having witnessed how long Hillside played from the back tees, unless your handicap is low single figures you’ll shoot at least 15 more than you think you will, and that’s being generous. These seaside links courses from the back tees are terrifying, especially if there is any wind, in which case you can add 25 to whatever you think you’d shoot.
I have a pal who is a pro golfer. Not a tour level player by any means, but he is a fully qualified PGA professional and a seriously good player. He had a knock around Hillside a couple of weeks before this tournament took place and he shot 88. That wasn’t from the tournament tees either. From some of the back tees there is a good chance most mid-high handicap golfers would not even reach the fairway on some holes. It’s incredibly tough if you can’t carry the ball at least 240 yards with driver.
The greens at tournament courses are incredibly fast. Even after seeing hundreds of putts I still couldn’t get used to it. Every time a player would strike a putt I’d think it was going to come up ten feet short, but they just run and run and run as the greens are so fast and pure. While that presents a difficult challenge for the average golfer, the incredible condition of the greens ensures a much truer roll than you’ll find at most golf courses so what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.
Handy hints for attending a professional golf event
Have a plan before you get there because otherwise it is quite overwhelming when you arrive on the course. There’s so much going on it’s hard to know where to start. You have players getting prepared on the driving range, the chipping green, the putting green or practicing bunker shots. Then there are the players being announced on the first tee, plus those out on the course whose rounds are already underway. There is also the option of the grandstands around the 18th green, where you can sit and watch each group come through.
With so much going on it makes sense try to have some idea what you want to do before you arrive. If there’s a particular golfer you want to see then work around his tee time to make sure you’re there when his round gets under way. In my case, I wanted to get a closer look the big hitting South African, Wilco Nienaber. I’d seen this guy and his long drives on social media videos. He’s the longest hitter on tour so I needed to see this for myself. I did, and wow. His driving is indeed something to behold. Everything else? Meh. He finished 69th out of the 70 players who survived the halfway cut.
The plan was to follow his group, either for nine holes or, if I was enjoying myself, the full 18. I wasn’t enjoying myself that much because there was just no “juice” in that group. I don’t think the three golfers exchanged a single word with each other the whole time I was watching. They spoke with their own caddie and nobody else. Three golf robots in their own little golf bubble and as soon as the novelty of Wilco’s big hitting wore off it just wasn’t that enjoyable to watch.
My back up plan was to hang back and pick up the group behind, which featured the first round leader Paul Waring as well as one of the best social media follows in golf, Eddie Pepperell. The problem was that it turns out they weren’t actually the group behind, they had started on the 10th and not the first. That’s something else you need to be aware of. Some tournaments with larger fields will have half of the players start on the back nine. Much like the story of my school days, I hadn’t done my homework.
Anyway, I ditched big hitting Wilco’s group at the 8th green to take advantage of the hospitality area located between the 8th and 9th holes. There I plotted my next move over an ice cream. The hospitality at the event was good. There were plenty of food and drink stalls as well as a golf simulator and a long putting challenge. Good fun, but I needed to get back out to watch some golf. So off I went in search of another group to follow. I didn’t know who I wanted to watch, I just knew that I’d know when I found them. And I did, but more on this shortly.
Other helpful hints are to check the weather forecast and if there is going to be rain, be sure to bring a golf umbrella. You might be put off doing that because you don’t want the hassle of carrying it around all day, but if the course is hilly then the umbrella will help you navigate the course by doubling as a walking stick. I saw at least three people slip over while walking down wet grass embankments. It’s funny when it happens to someone else but you don’t want to be the source of the amusement. An umbrella will help, while obviously shoes with good traction are also advisable.
Golf shoes are ideal. I went with trainers on Friday and almost took a tumble so I learned that lesson and on Sunday I wore a pair of Adidas CODECHAOS golf shoes as they provide the ideal balance between comfort and grip. They feature prominently on our guide to the best golf shoes.
You might also want to bring a folding chair if you plan on setting up camp next to a specific green. The par three holes are a popular choice for this but you can do it at any green you like really.
When I booked my ticket it said in the T&Cs that any photography and filming is prohibited. That struck me as weird given that any time I’ve watched golf on TV it seemed as though every person in the gallery was filming every shot on their smartphone. I asked one of the on course marshals about this and he told me they had been given no instructions to stop anybody taking pictures or videos so for me to have at it. I did, as you can see!
While there are some leaderboards dotted around the course, on Friday it was difficult to identify who was in each group so you’ll need your smartphone to check scores and groupings. Whereas at the Open every group has someone accompanying them with a board showing the players names and current score, that was not the case in this event (at least not in the first two rounds, the weekend was fine). This is completely understandable as the organisers are relying on volunteers to carry out a lot of these duties and it’s unreasonable to expect a regular DP World Tour event to have the same amount of volunteers as the Open.
That’s not to say there were not plenty of marshals. There were hundreds of them around the course performing important duties, such as ensuring the fans are quiet at the right moments and generally helping anyone who needed it. Not being able to identify each group was frustrating though, as the only way to do it was to look at the name on the back of the vests of the caddies.
You will pick up on things you would not notice on TV
Speaking of caddies, it was strange seeing so many of them carrying the lightweight stand bags that many of us pleasure golfers use. I’ve always associated the professional game with the big tour bags. Watching the big names on TV they always seem to use the huge bags but there were a surprising number of caddies with stand bags at Hillside. On that note, may I recommend to you a little article I wrote on which golf bag is best for you. And when you’ve read that you might want to check out my guide to the best golf bags.
The dynamic between a golfer and his caddie is fascinating. Some caddies will be more involved than others and you can usually tell the ones who have been with their player for a long time as they will have a more active role in shot selection and reading putts etc
I mentioned the lack of interaction between some of the groups I watched and that was quite surprising to me. Sure, there are so many players on tour that often they will be in a group where they do not know their playing partners, but surely that’s even more reason to make an effort to interact and get to know them a little bit? Maybe that’s naive of me. These guys are trying to survive in the cut throat world of pro golf and many of them are struggling to make a living so they’re focused entirely on their own game. I just don’t think it would kill them to occasionally say “nice shot” to a playing partner, but maybe that’s just me.
One of my biggest takeaways from seeing a round unfold in real time is just how slow some players are. All of them are very deliberate on the putting green and will go through a painstaking routine prior to every putt. Even the quick ones take their time on the greens as that’s where the money is made. Some take forever on every shot though, which can be frustrating for their playing partner as well as the crowd. When you consider the financial implications of every shot it’s easy to understand how much time some players are taking. There was €105,000 difference between first and second place, but the gap was only one shot. Every single shot matters.
Just how good are these pro golfers?
For many casual golfers the main reason for attending these tournaments is to see in person just how much better these guys are than we are. Sure, we KNOW that they’re miles better than we are, but you want to see it for yourself and with each shot I witnessed I’d find myself thinking “could I have done better than that?”. Almost always the answer is “not even in your wildest dreams” but every now and then there’s that bad shot that gives you hope.
One of the first shots I saw was an awful snap hook off the 2nd tee that went miles left into the rough. I was in the middle of texting a pal to tell him “these fellas aren’t that great you know” when I heard a ball thud onto the first green behind me. I turned to see it nestle around four foot from the flag but the player who hit the shot was barely even in view he was so far back down the first fairway. Stunning. That text was never sent. These guys ARE that great. Just not on every shot.
I expected the players to be better than they were though. It’s hard to explain, because obviously they are incredibly talented and the guys at the top of the leaderboard were playing some great golf. It’s not them I’m talking about though. It’s the other guys. The ones I saw on Friday who were well over par and missed the cut.
Off the tee they’re all just on another planet to the likes of me and my golf buddies who I play with. They hit it miles and even the shorter hitters are launching it way past where I could ever hope to reach on my best day. As for the long hitters? I’d watch them hit and I’d track the ball in the air but by the time it came down I couldn’t even see it. My eyesight just isn’t that good. When I play I have no trouble seeing where my ball lands but these guys are hitting it at least 100 yards past me. And if the wind is behind, then forget about it. In the final round some of them were reaching the green side bunkers on the 9th hole, which was well over 400 yards but playing downwind.
Next time you play a hole that’s around 420 yards, stand on the tee and look at the green, and try to imagine being able to reach it with a drive. It’s utterly obscene.
As for their iron play, again, it’s so different to the average golfer it’s almost like they’re playing a different sport. The flight, the trajectory, the sound. My God the sound. It’s just different. Not even the most sweetly struck iron I’ve hit in my entire life has ever sounded like the noise you hear when a tour pro hits it. It’s just so pure.
The practice range is a great place to experience this as you are stood behind a barrier just a few yards away from the players. You can watch them go through the entire bag hitting everything from driver to wedge. It’s seriously impressive how consistent they are.
So the ball striking lived up my expectations. Even the bad shots from these guys are mostly still on another level to the average golfer. The short game though? I was often underwhelmed. When I see a pro golfer chipping or even putting from just off the green, I expect them to get within a couple of feet or to really go close to holing it. Honestly though, I came way from Hillside thinking that in a chipping contest I could probably hold my own with most of the guys I saw. It’s nonsense of course, I absolutely couldn’t ‘hold my own’ as I’m rubbish, but for me to even be contemplating that tells me they weren’t really as good as I thought they’d be.
The putting didn’t blow me away either but at the same time I have to mention that the greens on these elite championship level golf courses are something else. They’re full of subtle breaks and borrows that even the pros can’t always see. They’re much more difficult to read than your local course (unless of course your local course is one of those elite tracks they play tournament golf on).
The beauty of being green side is that you can see some of the slopes and undulations that just don’t show up on TV. Sometimes you can even position yourself in line with the putt and make your own read. Then you get to see a pro strike the putt and you know if you read it correctly or not. More often than not, I hadn’t. That’s one of the many reasons I’m watching and not playing.
When they hit a bad shot though there is a kind of a perverse pleasure in it when watching as a mid-handicap player. I saw a handful of terrible shots and each one had me a little giddy. It had nothing to do with taking pleasure in anyone’s misfortune, it was more a case of knowing that I could probably do better than that.
One particular moment stands out. Finland’s Sami Valimaki hit an absolutely hideous iron shot on a par three. It was an awful strike that was short and way, way right. We’re talking forty yards offline. My daughter turned to me and whispered “that was like one of your shots”. It was exactly what I was thinking too!
When you see tour pros hitting shots like that it does give you some hope that maybe the gap isn’t that big. It’s false hope though, the gap is huge. These fellas hit shots that average golfers could never hit. They don’t do it every time though and on those occasions you can allow yourself to think “I could do better than that” and it’s quite a nice, comforting feeling.
How close to the action can you get?
Being at these events just allows you to get so much closer to the action. After ditching the original group I was following on Friday I went walkabout looking for a new group. At one point I was walking along a path and almost tripped over a golf bag. There was no caddie with the bag, he was on the other side of the rope with his player, who had pulled a drive miles left into the deep rough. Being the equipment nerd that I am, I had a good old nosey at the clubs that were in the bag and when I heard the player say “I’ll go with the pitching wedge” I did consider for a brief moment whether to pull it from the bag for him. The wedge was a Titleist Vokey, which features prominently on our best golf wedges buying guide.
In the end I decided not to overstep and allowed the caddie to do it, but the point is I was right there with the bag. That’s how close to the action you can get. The player was young Australian, Blake Windred, and he hit an incredible shot out of the rough onto the green that had those of us present gasping in awe and applauding enthusiastically. “I didn’t actually mean to hit it there guys” he admitted sheepishly. He’s still young, he’ll soon learn that savvy veteran golfers know that when you get lucky you always pretend you mean it.
As close as I was to the action there, it was nothing to what happened soon after when I stumbled upon a different group and I was almost hit by a wayward drive by former Ryder Cup player David Howell. The ball sailed over my head and nestled into some “proper thick stuff” as we golfers call it.
Being a 49 year old 12 handicap golfer I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to looking for golf balls in deep rough, so I quickly located Howell’s ball, waved back to the tee to let him know there was no need for him to hit a provisional, and then waited for him to arrive. I looked at how bad that lie was and commented to another interested spectator that if I was playing that shot I’d be happy if I was able to hack it out the 15 yards required to get back to the fairway. Honestly, that ball was sitting right down in some nasty, bramble type stuff.
Mr Howell arrived (see above), I showed him his ball and he thanked me before assessing his options. It was fascinating listening to the discussion he had with his caddie. It was clear he wasn’t going to just chop it out as I would have done, and he asked his caddie how far away the fairway bunker was. Range Finders and GPS technology are not permitted in professional golf (with the occasional exception like the US PGA Championship) so the caddie didn’t have an exact number. But I did, because I was wearing my trusty Garmin Approach S62 GPS golf watch.
The S62 is one of the best GPS golf watches money can buy and it informed me that we were 80 yards away from the back of the bunker. What if the caddie under-estimated it? Would it be cheating if I helped them out? Probably. Should I do it anyway? Probably not. As I weighed up the pros and cons in my head, thankfully I was saved from a tricky decision as the caddie informed Howell that it was “about an 85 yard carry” to clear the bunker. Close enough.
Howell then took a smooth swing and hit a high, handsome shot out of the thick rough, right over the back of the bunker and landed it about 90 yards away in the middle of the fairway. Exactly how he drew it up with his caddie. I honestly don’t know how they do it, because that ball was sat right down there. We see this all the time on televised golf but this was different as I was right there on the spot and I saw just how bad that lie was.
That’s why you go to these events though. To see shots that make you go “wow, I can’t believe they did that?”.
It happened again on the next hole but in a vastly different manner. Howell was chipping and he completely duffed it. Honestly, the ball travelled no more than a foot and there was an audible gasp of horror from those watching. It was incredible. This guy played in the Ryder Cup and he’s doing that?
To his credit, Howell turned to the fans and said “it’s ok for you to laugh” which took the awkwardness out of the situation. After putting out on the green he joked about it again with more fans as he made his way to the next tee. That’s the kind of juice I was missing with the other group. This was the threeball I was going to follow now.
You can feel like you are part of the story
The whole dynamic in the new group was much different. The three golfers may not have been best pals but at least they seemed to be enjoying each others company. When one made a nice shot, the other two would both say “well done”. It just appealed to me much more than the seriousness of what I’d seen earlier.
I was familiar with Howell due to his Ryder Cup exploits back in the day, but I hadn’t even heard of the other two golfers in the group. Then I got talking to the parents of one of them and found out about his back story and his struggles on tour. That’s another cool element of attending these events. Many golfers have family and friends following them and you can strike up conversations with them. The golfer in question was 28 year old Andrew Wilson and this is his first year on the DP World Tour. I chatted a bit with his mum and I’ll be looking out for his results now as I feel like I have a connection there, albeit a tenuous one.
Sunday was similar. Neither myself nor my daughter had even heard of Paul Waring prior to this week but when his putt to tie the lead narrowly missed on the 18th green, we were both genuinely gutted.
Waring is a local golfer and he’s the classic journeyman pro. He’s been on the European Tour since 2008 and has only one win, which came in 2018. I was shocked to later discover when researching his background for this article that he has won close to €5m Euros during his career, even though most golf fans will have no idea who he is. I don’t follow the European Tour very closely as my focus tends to be on the events taking place stateside with the big names, but on that Sunday my daughter and I were rooting hard for him. It was surprising how much it mattered to us.
I can only assume that we were so invested in it due to having followed him for the best part of four hours and that’s one of the cool things about attending these events in person. It felt like we’d been a part of a journey with him. It’s hard to explain and probably sounds silly, but you do feel like that. You walk around watching every shot, experiencing the highs and lows and you feel something. Had I been watching it on TV I genuinely wouldn’t have cared who had won.
For the record, Scotsman Richie Ramsay won by holing a six footer on the last to beat Waring by one shot. It was a cool moment and Ramsay was very emotional having not won for several years. My daughter and I witnessed it from the grandstand, having taken our seats there after following the completion of Waring’s round.
Would I recommend it?
Hell yes I would. I really enjoyed the experience and will absolutely be looking to go again any time there is an event close to me. It’s a ton of fun and very reasonably priced. There was even free car parking on site, which was a nice touch as where do you ever get free car parking these days?
If you wanted you could turn up at 7am and stay until 9pm and it would only cost you £25. That’s great value, especially in comparison to other sports which don’t last anywhere near as long. At that price you can go for just a couple of hours and still feel like you’ve had value for your money.
Attending a pro tournament is something that any golf fan should look to do at least once. It can still be a fun day out even if you’re not an avid golf fan. The courses are beautiful and as long as the weather is ok it’s really enjoyable just walking the course and taking in the scenery and atmosphere.
I’m a golf nut but my daughter can take it or leave it. She’s had a few lessons and occasionally comes with me to the driving range, but she’d lost interest over the past year or so. We’d only been at Hillside for about half an hour when she said “this is really fun. It’s making me want to play golf again”. Five hours later when we left the course she still felt the same. She wasn’t expecting to enjoy herself but she ended up loving every second of it and we spent a nice day together.
In short, it’s a great day out and if the tour makes a stop at a course near you, get yourself down there and see for yourself.