The Interview: Chris Williams

Hillside stepped in to ensure the British Masters had a home and, as secretary Chris Williams tells Steve Carroll, the Southport club can’t wait to welcome the European Tour’s finest next month.

We should start by thanking Hillside, on behalf of all golfers, for saving the British Masters…

It’s quite a story how it came about. We were approached by the European Tour at the back end of last year with a view to staging the British Masters in 2020.

I was quite taken aback and excited by that prospect but said ‘I’ll have to take it to the board of directors.’ We did that and we had an indicative nod that we’d be interested.

Then all the publicity emerged that the British Masters might not happen in 2019, after the successful Walton Heath event.

It’s ironic that Tommy Fleetwood was out playing the course with his dad, and I went to see him, welcome him and say ‘it looks we are on for the British Masters in 2020.’

He said ‘fantastic, can’t wait and really delighted to host it.’ He went out and played and, while he was on the course, Keith Waters, the chief operating officer of the European Tour, phoned me and said ‘we need to look at 2019, and May 2019.’

We had to make some very quick decisions. Tommy came off the golf course and I said ‘did you know they are looking at next year?’ He said ‘I’ve just had a text message.’

It all happened very quickly. We’re obviously delighted.

That outcry you alluded to, when it looked like it possibly might not happen, shows what an important tournament it has become for the British public…

The thing is that there are so few professional tournaments in England. There is only Wentworth. Scotland and Ireland have events every year. Obviously we get The Open when it’s on the rota but the English golfing fans are starved of top class golf. I think it’s great and the tournament has been around for a long time but it has certainly got a much higher profile in the last four or five years.

Open when it’s on the rota but the English golfing fans are starved of top class golf. I think it’s great and the tournament has been around for a long time but it has certainly got a much higher profile in the last four or five years.

So take me through the process of how the club were able to agree so quickly…

The structure here is a board of directors who, for want of a better phrase, form the general committee of the club. They effectively make all the main strategic decisions.

We do have committees but they tend to be working committees. The policy is set by the board and we do make quick decisions when we need to.We have a monthly board meeting, but we couldn’t wait a month, so we contacted all the individual board members and got their input.

We had to take a unanimous decision. If there was any doubt then we wouldn’t have done it. All directors were on board with it.

Was it exciting but frightening at the same time? You think you have a couple of years to stage a tournament and then it’s about seven months…

The biggest challenge was the golf course. For the logistics of staging the event, the infrastructure, and all those kind of things, the Tour run 40-odd events a year and so we weren’t so concerned about that side of it.

It was the course. We had come through a massive drought and loads of golf courses had suffered. We had a lot of turf loss on the fairways and, speaking to our links manager Chris Ball, I was saying ‘we’re going to have this tournament and it’s going to be May next year.’

You can imagine the deep intake of breath he had. But we said ‘if we turned it down would we get offered it again?’ Yes,it was hugely exciting but there was also the question of ‘could we get the golf course right?’

As soon as we switched the button on, we put a lot of resource into recovering the course after the drought. Chris Ball and his team deserve a lot of credit and this has been bolstered by members volunteering to help out.

We’re talking in mid-March and the course is looking spectacular…

It’s in absolutely magnificent condition. We’ve rested fairways from November. We had members and visitors taking it off to the side.

We’ve now gone to a partial fairway protection where there are certain zoned-off areas – where the landing zones are going to be – and you have to use a mat there. The greens are in great shape. A lot of bunkers have been rebuilt and it is in great condition.

We just need a bit of growth now and trying to get a little bit of rough up.

Would you normally have those protections in place at Hillside?

We have done it for the last two or three years but on a smaller scale. The members are on side with that.

We would have done it anyway with the drought, to be honest, because we did suffer a lot of turf loss and we needed to protect it as much as we could.

Members have been very positive. You are never going to get 100% buy in for anything. I’ve got to say that 95% are really on board with it. They are delighted to have the event and they take these temporary restrictions in their stride.

In fact, they’ve been saying ‘we should protect it even more.’They are so proud of the club and they want to show it off in its best light.

The purists among us all know how good a course Hillside is. This is a fantastic opportunity to show the course off to the wider world…

The exposure it will have, just through television and blanket coverage from Sky, will show it off in a fantastic light. We had the Ladies Amateur last year and Sky covered that on a smaller scale, but it looked fantastic on TV. To see it with stands and crowds is going to be pretty special.

The world’s best have hailed the course. I think Greg Norman once said it was the best back nine in Britain…

We get a lot of pros coming here and playing and they absolutely love the place. It’s going to be good to see it as a test. How is it going to stand up? There’s going to be a book in the bar speculating on what the best score might be and it’s all dependent on what happens with the wind and whether we get any rough.

It’s a course of contrasts. The front nine is lovingly manicured and pristine and the back 9 could be transported straight from Ireland as a wild links… You’ve summarised it very well. The flatter front nine leads you into the grandeur of the fantastic dune structures we have got on the back nine. It blends in well and I am sure they are going to enjoy themselves.

We’ve built a new tee on the 18th, high on the dune behind the current tee, and the view there is one of the most spectacular you will ever see. It’s an incredible panorama.

Tommy Fleetwood is a Southport legend and will have played Hillside a lot. Can you talk about his association with the club?

He’s a Southport lad and I have known him since he was a junior. He started representing Lancashire and I followed him really keenly all through his amateur career.

I’ve been here nearly five years and, just as I started, his then manager approached Hillside to ask if we would allow him to have playing rights and come down and use the facilities. The club granted that. We don’t see a massive amount of him because his schedule is so busy.

He’s a really polite guy, a super lad, and it’s great to see a young guy with a lot of talent come through and do what he is doing now. It’s great for Southport. He’s got associations with Formby Hall and he started playing at the Southport municipal.

They shouldn’t be forgotten – they are part of his history – but he was asked where he would want to stage it and his number one choice was Hillside.

That’s great for the club, isn’t it? There’s Royal Birkdale next door, Southport & Ainsdale across the road, and yet he opted for Hillside…

It’s absolutely superb. The Tour aren’t telling us the ticket sales but they are saying it’s ahead of any events they have had and I am sure the Southport public and the wider North West public will support it. I’d think it will be a sell – out for the tournament.

We’re restricted because of how tight a site it is. Everyone says it is the best course not to have held an Open and it never will because of the infrastructure you need. It is tight and too compact for a major golfing event. But we’re going to make this work with the Tour guys and I think it will be a record.

How involved has Tommy been?

He has been involved. We’ve had him on the golf course and he’s talked about what tees he’d like to play from. It’s quite interesting. He wants to see some short par 4s where he can drive the green and wants to push us back on a few. He’s very involved on the golf course. I am sure he has got a few things up his sleeve for some personal touches during the event.

All you need now is a decent field. You’re slightly hampered by the PGA Championship coming the following week…

I think Tommy has got a lot of pull. He’s an incredibly popular guy on both sides of the Atlantic now and I understand the Tour are organising a private jet on the Sunday. The PGA is in New York and so it is not too bad a flight time in terms of time difference.

It may be that 20 or 30 guys that are playing in the PGA have a facility where they can jump straight onto the plane and be in New York for Sunday evening.

Let’s talk about Hillside. Southport really is a golden place for golf. How do you see the club’s place in the area?

I describe all of these courses as aspirational clubs. You aspire to be a member of one of these clubs. You have fantastic facilities and world-class golf courses. I am biased but I think Hillside sits right up there with any of the golf courses. It’s a dream stretch of golfing terrain and the whole region is fortunate.

You would have full membership here?

We have full membership. We can charge an entrance fee and we only open membership at one time every year. We are very privileged and we never lose sight of that. I certainly don’t. I’ve been in golf all my life and I know how privileged we are in this spot.

How do you manage the expectations of people who want to join?

We do accept unsupported applications. Traditionally, you had to have proposers and seconders but we will consider applications from further afield where they don’t know anybody. Then you have member-supported applications but the reality is we are probably only bringing in around 10 to 15 new members a year. We might interview 30 people so there is always a cut out, unfortunately.

We can be selective and we will consider many things – golfing background, how they interview, how they would fit in the club. We manage expectation by telling them that. We say ‘we will consider but you might be turned down.’

When a male member is accepted, they are only given six-day membership. They have a five-year wait to get full seven-day membership. We set all that out at the beginning so no one comes under any illusions. We are open to lady members and have been proactively growing that and we are very keen on promoting junior membership and we have a colt – intermediate – section so the progression from junior to young adult is not such a massive leap.

I’d consider Hillside a traditional  private members’ club…

It has traditional elements but it’s like pot pourri as there are lots of different elements. It’s a really competitive club. If you come here on a Saturday afternoon, the place is buzzing. It’s extremely welcoming. It hasn’t got any airs and graces. The feedback I get from visitors is how welcome they are made – that’s from the members as well as the staff.

Has that attitude made it easier to adapt to this changing leisure market we are now in?

I’ll give you a good example. We’ve just gone to a policy where we’ll allow soft soled golf shoes anywhere in the club. It was a bit of a jump and it was because a lot of overseas visitors, for example, come in golf shoes.They arrive and leave in their golf shoes. It was embarrassing for the staff to say ‘sorry, you have to change your shoes’ when they didn’t have them. So rather than making a special rule for visitors, we made it a blanket rule.

The reality is that 90% of the members still change anyway but we made it so there wasn’t a stigma attached. We have high standards of behaviour and presentation in what we offer – the service, of food of drinks and the course – but we have an inclusive philosophy.

We are always looking to improve and we never stand still. We push resources where we need to and, whether it is improving
the clubhouse or the course, we never pinch on anything. We are currently looking at plans with

Martin Ebert and he is producing a masterplan. What we are trying to do there is maybe bring the front nine up a little so that it can complement the back nine, which gets all that focus.

You can’t stand still. Every other golf course in this area is spending resource to improve the facilities and if you stand still you end up falling behind.

What an exciting time for the club?

It is. We’ve staged a lot of events in the last five years, and done a lot of work on the clubhouse, and it is good for the staff. It is recognition of a lot of the hard work they have done – particularly the lads on the golf course – and it is good they are going to get that spotlight to show off this fantastic place.

Hillside Golf Club

Found on England’s Golf Coast in Southport, and flanked by Royal Birkdale and Southport & Ainsdale, Hillside was carved out of an outstanding stretch of coastal links. The club was established in 1911 and have staged some of the game’s biggest tournaments down the years. Recently a final qualifying venue for The Open, they will

host the British Masters in May, in tandem with Tommy Fleetwood. There had been numerous concerns about the future of the event, but

it was revealed that Hillside would stage it last October. It’s the Tour’s first visit since Tony Jacklin beat Bernhard Langer in a playoff to win the Sun Alliance PGA Championship in 1982.

By Mike Hyde

More from Features