In singing golf’s praises, the late Sir Henry Cotton would often marvel at how it was a game for everyone – all ages, all standards and both sexes. At the same time, he would note, approvingly, that it had what it takes to be competitive and social at the one time.
Without a doubt, this winner of three Opens would have seen the Duke of York Young Champions Trophy as the optimum in junior events. And not least because of the way in which the world’s top boys and girls compete alongside each other for a title which every one of them wants for his or her golfing CV.
At a time when the DOY Young Champions Trophy is celebrating its 10th anniversary, its scroll of champions embraces as many as seven different nationalities. Last year’s winner, Gudmundur Kristjansson, hailed from Iceland, a destination where golf has only recently ignited among the 320,000 inhabitants. In 1990, there were only 1,000 participants but, today, there are as many as 17,000 and their number is rising all the time.
In 2010, in what could not add up to more of a climatic contrast, the winner came from a country of monkeys, monsoons and scorching sun – namely, Thailand.
The champion of ‘10 was the then 15-year-old Moriya Jutanugarn, the first girl to lift the Duke of York’s title. Nor was she the only girl to have the better of the boys in that sometimes stormy week at Dundonald Links. Laetitia Beck from Israel finished in second place, leaving Richard Jung from Canada as the first male in the mix. Needless to say, Jung had mixed feelings about being congratulated on that score.
The Duke of York’s initial vision for his tournament has never changed…. . For the most part, it was born out of alarm at the number of young players who were turning professional without having any real understanding of what they were about. This former Captain of the R&A felt that they needed an event in which they could look at their rivals of the future and draw comparisons.
“As a rule,” he said, “youngsters spend a lot of their time playing events where there is a massive gulf between the best players and the worst. I wanted them to understand that there are any number of talented golfers out there and, above all, I wanted them to be realistic.”
Since not all of the best young players can expect to make the grade in the professional arena, HRH believes, very strongly, that they should be armed with a back-up plan: “You want to give youngsters the chance to play golf to the best of their ability but, if they can keep on with their education at the same time, for heaven’s sake let’s help to make it happen.”
The Duke is certainly playing his part through the academic and golf scholarships offered at Wellington and Whitgift Colleges via his Duke of York Sports Foundation. Not only that, but he likes to have an educational element to each of his events. In the past, the players have visited Prestwick Golf Club, home of the Open in its earliest years. This year, they will be taken on a tour of Liverpool’s historical waterfront, city and docks before enjoying an official dinner in the Beatles’ old haunt, the Cavern Club.
The Duke has always been mindful of the need to balance the ledger by setting some of the pluses of the professional way of life alongside his warnings. In which connection, he took aim, from the start, on giving his competitors a tantalising glimpse of what could be in store if they were to make it on tour. BMW provide the same courtesy car service at his event as they do for contestants at The Ryder Cup while the DOY Young Champions Trophy is staged over one famous links after another.
The players can handle them. Across the last ten years their handicaps have plummeted to the point where as many as 50% of this year’s cosmopolitan field – the entrants come from 32 different lands and all five continents - have handicaps in the +1 to +3 range.
When, back in 2000, the Duke of York first advised the Queen of his plans, Her Majesty disappeared into the vaults of Buckingham Palace and reappeared bearing a handsome 17th century silver sugar-bowl to serve as the first trophy. England’s 17-year-old Michael Nester was its first recipient, winning the inaugural championship – it was held at Royal Liverpool on 4th and 5th October 2001 – by seven shots from 17 Grigory Bondarenko of Russia.
Nester is one past winner who has yet to fulfil his pristine promise, but he, no less than Zac Gould, who defeated Rory McIlroy at Scotland’s Kingsbarns to win in 2004, knows only too well that golfers peak at very different stages. In exemplification of which there is no need to look beyond this year’s majors in which McIlroy won the US Open at 22 while Darren Clarke, his old friend and mentor, captured the Open at 42.
John Simpson, who co-founded the DOY Young Champions Trophy with Prince Andrew, has vivid memories of seeing the then 15-year-old McIlroy at Kingsbarns. “He looked so young,” chuckles Simpson, who used to manage Nick Faldo in the days when the Englishman won his six majors. “He had this wonderfully natural swing – and a lovely manner to go with it.”
McIlroy is not the first competitor from the ranks of those who have played in the DOY Young Champions Trophy to have bagged a major. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist – “a superb striker and a long hitter,” to use Simpson’s words - had that honour when she won the 2009 LPGA championship some five years after she had recorded the first of her two top-girl finishes in the Duke’s event.
Pablo Martin, Oliver Fisher, Sam Hutsby, Matteo Manassero and Melissa Reid are five more former players to have demonstrated that they have what it takes to make it to the very top. Manassero won the amateur medal at the Open and at the Masters before embarking on a professional career in which he has picked up two winners’ cheques while still in his teens. Meanwhile, Oliver Fisher won his first pro title, namely the Czech Open, this August.
As for Reid, she was the No 1 on the Women’s European Tour points’ list for this autumn’s Solheim Cup. She played in the Young Champions Trophy in Gould’s year and, to this day, can remember the very special feel to the event. “I was on my best behaviour,” she recalled during the recent Aberdeen Scottish Ladies’ Open. “I’ve never had an on-course temper but I remember making a special effort to play well and to speak the Queen’s English, not that anyone would have noticed!
“The other great thing about the Duke’s event,” she continued, “is the social side of things. Golf is a very individual sport but that week you make friends you will probably keep for life.”
Two members of the 2011 GB&I Walker Cup side, Stiggy Hodgson and Tom Lewis, are similarly on the Duke’s long list of stars-in-the making. Hodgson, who is one ace short of having clocked up a hole-in-one for each of his 21 years, won the DOY Young Champions Trophy in 2008. Lewis, for his part, finished sixth in 2009, Moriya Jutanugarn’s year.
Juganugarn is not given to boasting. However, you would like to think that she did not waste the opportunity to bring it at least to her family’s attention that she beat the man who was the joint first-round leader in this year’s Open championship.
The Young Champions is back to where it started for its tenth anniversary. Only where, in 2001, the 11 competitors could have stood side by side and virtually unnoticed on Royal Liverpool’s first tee, the field of 2011 takes in 56 participants, all of whom are making waves around the golfing world.