So the boys of ’66 have at last been replaced in the record books. The 11-strong representation here at the 81st Masters is a new high for England, beating the mark of 51 years ago, and, quite rightly, backs have been slapped for the achievement.
What makes it even more impressive is how difficult it now is to qualify for an Augusta invitation. Half a century ago all that was required was selection for the Walker Cup match, which meant that the 10th best amateur in Great Britain and Ireland could tee it up in the season’s first major. Now it is altogether more arduous, with only the top professionals and the champions of the main amateur events receiving golf’s version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.
Appropriately for a game obsessed with history and tradition, the past champions are also invited and if Sir Nick Faldo had accepted then this year there would have been 12 Englishmen. Instead, the past champion who is playing happens to be defending his title – Danny Willett standing proudly as only the second player from his country to don a Green Jacket.
Faldo might tell Willett how lucky he is to have so much company. In 1989 and 1990, Faldo won while being the only Englishman in the field and that says plenty about the so-called “golden generation”. It was strength in quality, because Faldo was the best player in the world, but paucity in numbers.
It remained that way through the Nineties and into the new millennium, with a young Lee Westwood arriving on the scene to lend some support to Faldo. It was only in 2004 when the couple became a crowd, with the likes of Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter helping to swell the representation to six.
By last year, there were eight, as the young generation led by Willett, but also including Matt Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan, marched through the Augusta National gates to show the world that England had a rich future as well as a rich present and immediate past.
They have been joined by Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood, two burgeoning talents with realistic major ambitions. From the 43-year-old Westwood to the 22-year-old Fitzpatrick they all have something in common – as well as nationality. They all have every right to be here on merit. Not a Wimbledon wild card in sight.
The English invasion is reflected in the rankings. In 2001, Westwood was the sole player with the Cross of St George next to his name in the world’s top 100. Now there are 13. Of the 112 exempt players on the European Tour, almost 25 per cent are English. There is a huge supporting cast backing up Rose and co and Faldo, for one, has been stunned by the development.
“We set up the Faldo Series in 1996 purely because there were so few English players coming through on to the biggest stages,” Faldo says. “A number of the lads here came through the series and I am proud of that.”
The six-time major champion has every right to be, but there is a bigger factor than the series. In 1999 the then English Golf Union set up a radical system, which is now England Golf’s Talent Pathway, to develop world-class players. Funding came via Sport England from the National Lottery.
Where before the union had to rely on subscriptions paid by members of golf clubs, suddenly they had a war chest. Sport England granted England Golf almost £12 million in 2013 for the years up to and including 2017, a vast sum, but one which nobody can say has not borne rich dividends.
Nigel Edwards, the three-time Walker Cup captain, is England Golf’s performance director and co-ordinates the coaching from grass roots to elite level. “The support our players receive now outweighs anything 20 years ago,” he says. “We send them across the globe, playing in competitions all over. Sometimes an individual turns pro too early, but I would like to think the majority of our players are ready when they join the paid ranks..”
The standard of English coaches in the professional game is peerless. Pete Cowen is the godfather on the range, overseeing the swings of Willett, Westwood, Fitzpatrick, Wood and many more. He is ably backed up by Mike Walker, another brilliant teacher in his own right.
“It’s funny, but it wasn’t that long ago when you were looking at Westwood, Donald, Poulter, Rose, Casey and thinking, ‘Well, this is great, but they’re not going to be around forever and where’s the next one coming from?’,” Walker says.
“There didn’t seem to be much coming through. But now it’s all changed and what’s most encouraging is that it isn’t just Danny up there but a group of them, driving each other on. The boys who come out on the circuit nowadays are so much more diligent and structured with their time than they used to be and we should thank England Golf for that. They already seem like professionals.”
John Fay is Hatton’s manager and, like every agent worthy of their commission, is busy scouting the young English amateurs searching for the next superstars.
“England Golf has had a profound impact,” he says. “You know, this new guard have been hugely influenced by Tiger Woods, as were so many kids across the world. England Golf harnessed the enthusiasm generated by Tiger, with a brilliantly organised system, with great coaches right down to grass roots. I’d also say that these lads are pushing on each other.
“Tyrrell and Tommy have known each other since they were very young as they came through the system and there is no doubt that when one of them does well it inspires the other one. The camaraderie between this group is very important.”
Thomas Bjorn, the Ryder Cup captain, concurs. “Danny’s victory last year was a really, really big injection of confidence for players in Europe – certainly a lot of those young English guys,” he says. “They have the talent but all of a sudden Danny doing it made them all start to believe. They all look at Danny and think, ‘Hang on a second it’s not unachievable, it’s not this magic thing that can happen. He’s a great player but I can match that if I work hard.’
“Tommy Fleetwood is a great example of that. They needed that one person to show the way. I think that’s why they are all coming good now. It’s a bit like when Padraig [Harrington] won his majors. We hadn’t won any for such a long time but all of a sudden he made others think they could win majors, especially his fellow Irishmen, and they just started coming.
“I think Padraig winning helped Graeme [McDowell] and Darren [Clarke] win theirs. It became OK to think we could win major championships. Before, it was almost like we weren’t allowed to. Danny has had the effect on young English players that Padraig did. They believe they can drive their games on and play with the best and the ones coming up behind will believe that as well.”
There is just one negative. Last week, Westwood told The Daily Telegraph that he was bemused by the seeming indifference from the media at large to this English achievement. “It should be shouted about from the rooftops,” he said.
Fay agrees: “Of the 11 here I think the most remarkable thing is that the oldest player is 43 and he came second in the Masters 12 months ago to an Englishman 15 years his junior,” he said. “That is worth celebrating.”