There is nothing quite like it in professional sport. Golfers of various ages, sizes, shapes and ability converged on Spain’s Costa del Sol last week for the annual gathering which, for some, has almost become a pilgrimage - MacGregor Week.
The week-long European Tour Training School began eleven years ago under the banner of Apollo Week and has more recently enjoyed the patronage of the MacGregor Golf Company.
But whether Apollo Week or MacGregor Week, it is undeniable that the seven-day event at the luxurious San Roque Suites Hotel offers the 1999 European Tour rookies - and others returning to the Tour after an enforced absence - an opportunity that is second to none to be educated, and to educate themselves, on life in the ‘big league’.
The aims and objectives of MacGregor Week are to develop the players’ awareness of every conceivable aspect of playing on the European Tour, having achieved their status through the Challenge Tour or the Qualifying School Finals. A total of 20 players from those avenues of qualification attended the 1999 MacGregor Week. None went home, or jetted out to South Africa to launch their Tour careers, without having added considerably to their golfing knowledge.
In the past, players of the calibre of Lee Westwood, Thomas Björn, Ignacio Garrido, Patrik Sjöland and Vijay Singh have all visited the week and gone forward to perform with distinction in Europe and beyond. And there is just a possibility that one of the 20 players who tackled the 1999 MacGregor Week with such diligence and enthusiasm may, one day, stand alongside Westwood and receive the accolade of European Tour Golfer of the Year.
More than 165 tournament professionals have now attended the Training School, the graduates winning over £32 million in prize money between them. The week has produced five Ryder Cup team members and a total of 65 tournament wins, including a first major championship when Vijay Singh captured the US PGA crown at Sahalee last August.
William Marsh, President and Chief Executive Officer of MacGregor Golf, recognised the success of a group regarded by many of the top coaches to be the most enthusiastic and eager in the eleven-year history of the event.
He said: "We are very pleased with the week. It represents everything that is important to us as a company and a brand. It gives us an opportunity to build relationships with the Tour, the players, and the people who manage the Tour. It gives us direct feedback to continuously enhance our performance as a company.
"This week gives us a buzz. As a brand, we are about to launch more products than ever before and this week we have had the opportunity to put those products in the hands of a lot of players who we respect and they have come back and said ‘great - that is exactly what we are looking for in MacGregor.’ Throughout this week we can add something to the game of golf."
Advice, as ever, was in plentiful supply. Such is the informality of that advice, the players can choose to act on it, absorb it or ignore it. However, with coaches of the quality of John Jacobs, Tommy Horton, Denis Pugh and Harold Swash, the advice dispensed is almost always regarded as beneficial.
Horton’s short-game clinics have become legendary. The European Seniors Tour No.1 for the past three years never ceases to amaze youngsters who thought they knew it all with his fabulous skills around the greens.
Jacobs, the founding father of the European Tour, is as knowledgeable a coach as there is in golf while Pugh, coach to several top players, was popular with his video techniques. Only one player out of the 20 opted not to have his swing analysed on tape.
Swash, the putting guru, held his audiences spellbound as he explored the various techniques of getting that little ball into the hole while Alan Fine was on hand to dispense advice on the psychological aspects of the mind-bending game of golf and Guy Delacave, head of the European Tour’s 3M Physio Unit, offered help on physical preparation.
They were backed up at San Roque by a powerful team from MacGregor Golf, including Barry Schneider, Chairman of the company; John Ennis, Vice President Europe and Africa; Don White, its expert clubmaker and Gary McNeill and Helen Lennon, respectively the teaching coach and physiologist at the MacGregor Golf Academy in Dublin.
John Ennis explained the role of MacGregor in golf while David Garland, Director of Tour Operations on the European Tour, uided the players through the details of how the Tour functions.
John Paramor, the European Tour Chief Referee, puzzled, perplexed and then enlightened those with a dubious knowledge of the rules on his specialised subject while Tim Barter of Sky Television and a teaching professional, was available to discuss course etiquette.
Non-golfing items were also on the agenda. From the International Management Group, Adrian Mitchell conducted a seminar entitled "Management and Sponsorship", which offers the players help and advice on both those thorny subjects as well as explaining financial matters.
After competing in the MacGregor Challenge at Valderrama, every player was subjected to a media ‘inquisition’, at which they had the opportunity to recall their moments of glory (or otherwise) during the round. The idea was to recreate exactly the circumstances the players find after playing well, when their services are required in front of a television camera, a radio mike or to attend a press conference for the written media in the Press Tent.
Under the supervision of the European Tour’s Press Office team, Gordon Simpson and Roddy Williams, the players survived the ‘grilling’ with a selection of golf journalists and BBC Radio Five Live’s James Porter and Rob Nothman while Sky Sports’ Steve Beddow interviewed each player in front of the cameras.
The media representatives were also free to talk to MacGregor players, Darren Clarke and Jose Maria Olazabal, who turned up to practice and discuss topics with the MacGregor bosses. John Ennis described both as ‘outstanding ambassadors’ for MacGregor while he gave special praise for Padraig Harrington, back for a fourth visit, by saying: "He is simply a wonderful Tour role model".
It was an informal yet demanding week for golfers setting out on their quest to become the next Westwood or Björn. For Spaniard, Carlos Rodiles, it was an especially rewarding week. The Qualifying School graduate, who had been educated in America but lives on the Costa del Sol, was voted Graduate of the Week by the coaches, based on two categories - diligence and professionalism. He was presented with a scholarship by CTV, European Tour Productions’ technical facilities supplier, which carried a cheque for £1000. Carlos admitted: "This is a wonderful surprise. It’s been a fantastic week and the input of the coaches has been outstanding."
Denis Pugh commented: "We have had a tremendous week. The main thing about what I do is to ask players what they think they should be doing and see if they are doing it. If they are not then we can see how they can improve. It is important to help and not hurt."
Tommy Horton added: "We have had a lot of positive comments this week. John and I look upon this week with some apprehension because we are the seniors here and perhaps the players are not aware that we coach. With all this modern teaching we are not sure how they will react to us. But we have achieved a great deal this week, particularly as the weather has been so good and we have been able to do so much on the range. A lot of players came back to us after the scheduled sessions which is very encouraging.
"I don’t think any of the players realise how much there is to learn until they come here. We have got so many experts in every field that we can cover the whole aspect of playing tournament golf. It is not just about playing golf, but about taking care of themselves, both mentally and physically, learning the rules, management, communicating with the media and finding out what is required of them. It is so important to find out what everybody does and we’ve got the answers."
John Jacobs pointed out: "The coaches here are the best in the world. For me it is a great honour to be here with this level of golfer and still be involved. We are able to answer their questions and hopefully they can learn something from us. All aspects from the travel, media and fitness are very important and if the players take something from this week we have done our job."
And so says every single person who attended MacGregor Week and helped make it one of the best, and most informative, to date.
Qualifying School (Top 38 ranking)
Henrik Bjornstad (Nor)
Kalle Brink (Swe)
Stephen Dodd (Wal)
Mårten Olander (Swe)
Andrew Raitt (Eng)
Neil Roderick (Wal)
Carlos Rodiles (Sp)
Johan Ryström (Swe)
Qualifying School (39-81)
Jorgen Aker (Swe)
Morten Backhausen (Den)
Andrew Barnett (Eng)
Grant Hamerton (Eng)
Nick Ludwell (Eng)
Mikael Lundberg (Swe)
Nigel Preston (Eng)
Simon Wakefield (Eng)
Challenge Tour (Top 15 ranking)
Max Anglert (Swe)
John Bickerton (Eng)
Fredrik Lindgren (Swe)
Per Nyman (Swe)
Challenge Tour (Category 5-tournament winner)
Alvaro Salto (Sp)
José Maria Olazábal