My Masters history stuff has had to be curtailed due to other commitments (namely all the snooker happening) but this is the first part of a two-part look back at the players who have won the game’s oldest and most prestigious invitation tournament.
When I first began covering the Masters over a decade ago it was clear that the top players of the time regarded it as second only to the World Championship.
In the B&H years it was an event awash with money, and as it was only for the top 16 it felt like an achievement just to be playing in it.
Thankfully any thoughts of opening up into yet another ranking tournament were resisted, and the Masters has maintained its prestige through a long and distinguished history.
The first Masters was staged at the West Centre Hotel in Fulham in 1975 and contested by just ten players. The top prize was £2,000.
It provided a thrilling finish as John Spencer beat his great adversary Ray Reardon 9-8 on a re-spotted black, proving that the game’s best players could serve up drama to compete with the best that other sport has to offer. It was finals such as this which persuaded TV companies that the sport could pull in viewers, which it has certainly done in the 37 years since.
Reardon won the title the following year at its new home, the New London Theatre, but was beaten 7-6 by Doug Mountjoy in the 1977 final, a remarkable achievement by a player new on the pro scene.
Mountjoy had beaten two multi-world champions, John Pulman and Fred Davis, before a 5-3 semi-final defeat of crowd favourite Alex Higgins.
There was something about London that suited Higgins: the big city brashness which attracted loud and enthusiastic audiences, who took the Northern Irishman to their hearts.
They cheered him all the way to victory in 1978 and shared his disappointment in losing to Perrie Mans in the 1979 final.
The ‘78 event had been played under a best of seven format (by no means a modern innovation) but it went up to best of nines and moved to the Wembley Conference Centre the following year.
It was a cavernous arena and the players were reminded that they really were alone out there. It would be the scene of many dramatic battles over the next 27 years.
By 1979 there still had not been a century break in the Masters. Higgins in fact won the high break prize that year with his 132 but lost the final to Mans, who failed to make a 50 all week.
But Mans was a very talented potter, able to knock them in from anywhere and then battle it out in the safety stakes, and this unorthodox style had got him to the world final the previous year.
The Reardon-Spencer era was coming to an end, as a new breed of players swept in led by Steve Davis. But the Masters was one tournament the new king of snooker would fail to dominate.
It was perhaps because, as a Londoner, the hostile atmosphere among fans who should logically have been supporting him was hard to stomach, a typically British reaction against anyone ‘too’ good.
Davis did win the title in 1982 but had to wait six years for his second success and another nine for his third, long after his heyday was over. Needless to say, the crowd loved him by then because he was no longer winning regularly.
Higgins, the darling of the Wembley crowd, lost 9-5 to Terry Griffiths, the reigning world champion, in the 1980 final but won the title for a second time in 1981, beating Griffiths 9-6.
The first three time champion was Cliff Thorburn, winner in 1983, 1985 and 1986, a run of success broken by Jimmy White in a memorable 1984 tournament.
White’s semi-final against Kirk Stevens remains one of snooker’s most fondly remembered matches in terms of atmosphere and drama. Stevens, the man in the white suit, made one of the most stylish maximum breaks ever seen but was beaten 6-4. White would beat Griffiths 9-5 to win the title, his only Wembley triumph.
Higgins was in the final again in 1987, against Dennis Taylor, his compatriot and long time adversary, who had never done much in the Masters before.
Higgins led 8-5. Taylor left the arena and heard that the Higgins camp had already started opening the champagne. A great battler, as stubborn as they came, Taylor dug deep to pull off a dramatic late night 9-8 victory, his biggest since his famous world title triumph two years earlier.
Davis’s second title was also a first: a whitewash in a Masters final, 9-0 over Mike Hallett.
Stephen Hendry joined the top 16 at the start of the 1988/89 season and arrived at Wembley as an authentic title challenger. It was a step into the unknown, a large arena and big, noisy crowd, but it made no difference to Hendry. His self-belief was unshakable and he beat Davis in the semi-finals and John Parrott in the final to win one of snooker’s ‘big three’ titles for the first time.
And so the Hendry years began. A decade later he had won 18 ‘big three’ crowns, including five Masters titles.
He beat Parrott again in 1990 and 1992 but far more memorable was his 1991 success against Hallett, who led the first session 7-0 and had the pink at 8-2 for victory.
He missed, though, and Hendry clawed his way back to win 9-8, a remarkable comeback and further cementing of his reputation as the man to beat.
Hendry beat James Wattana to win in 1993 and arrived in the 1994 final having won 23 successive matches at Wembley.
His opponent was Alan McManus, a fellow Scot who had established himself as one of the hardest players in the game without quite winning the titles to support this status.
It was a closely fought affair and Hendry’s run finally ended with a 9-8 defeat.
It wasn’t the end of his spell of success – far from it – but at around this time a new generation of players were coming through.
The game was changing again and the Masters was set for a new era of thrilling finals and spellbinding snooker.