WHEN Stuart Bingham won the 2020 Masters it looked to the casual observer like just another top pro taking another top title.
By the time Ball Run broke off against perennial Essex sparring partner Ali Carter in the final at Ally Pally he already had six ranking titles to his name, including a 2015 world crown.
But the truth is it was an overnight success that was no less than 25 years in the making.
Snooker’s greatest invitational started in 1975 and ran a now defunct qualifying tournament for 19 years from 1990.
Bingham, famed for a play-in-anything-and-everything approach, competed in it from the get-go when he turned pro in 1995.
The first time he got a real sniff of qualifying for the main event was in 2000 when he played Shaun Murphy in the final of the qualifier – at the time called the Benson & Hedges Championship, and played in Malvern, Worcestershire – and lost 9-7.
But the Essex star would have to wait another five years before finally earning the chance to make his full Masters debut – and this time he took it with both hands.
Bingham beat Carter (who would crop up again in the opposing chair at the event on other very significant evenings) 6-3 in the now cigarette-free advertising re-branded Masters Qualifying Tournament in Prestatyn, Wales, in 2005.
And so the boy from Basildon, ranked world No 37, took his place at the Wembley Conference Centre for the 2006 Masters, where he lost 6-4 to 2002 world champ Peter Ebdon in the opening round.
At the following year’s Masters Qualifying Tournament – this time at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield – Bingham underlined his growing statue by beating Mark Selby 6-2 in the final, becoming the only player to ever win the event twice.
His progress around this time saw him move from around the top 40 in the world rankings to closer to a top-20 mark.
The 2006 qualifying final win over Selby led to him playing wildcard Carter for a place at the 2007 Masters – and this time he lost a decider in a 6-5 defeat to The Captain from Colchester.
Carter made an 81 break in the decider to progress after what was described in reports as a “titanic match”.
Bingham played in the next three (and as it turned out last) Masters Qualifying Tournament events but did not go beyond the last eight.
This meant he would have to wait six years until his next Masters appearance and it came courtesy of his maiden ranking event title win at the inaugural Australian Goldfields Open in Bendigo in 2011.
Bingham was now closing in on a long-chased top-16 spot and – despite losing 6-3 to Judd Trump in the first round at the 2012 Masters – was about to embark on some truly golden years.
But while making ranking in-roads on the Tour – the Masters continued to be a source of frustration.
In 2013, he lost his opening round match 6-5 against eventual champ Selby, all the more galling considering Bingham had led 5-1.
In 2014, Bingham lost his Masters opener 6-2 to John Higgins. The great Scot arrived at the event in poor form but produced what was described as a “stellar performance”.
Bingham said afterwards: “Diabolical. My nan was in the crowd and she could’ve played better than me. It was a bad day at the office and I don’t deserve to be here when I play like that.”
Bingham lost 6-3 to Marco Fun on the opening night of the 2015 Masters. Fu was in great form and made a 147 and two more tons.
Notably, Bingham arrived at the 2016 Masters as the reigning world champion after his fairytale Crucible win in the previous spring.
And he did not flatter to deceive as he not only won his first-ever Masters match but reached the semi-finals for the first time where he lost 6-3 to the mercurial Ronnie O’Sullivan, who would go on to thrash Barry Hawkins 10-1 in the final.
Bingham had won the opening frame of that last-four clash but the Rocket then reeled off five frames in a row to take control.
In 2017, Bingham lost 6-1 in his opening match at the Masters against Joe Perry.
The man they call The Gentleman said: “I was thrilled with my performance against Stuart, one of my best of the season. It was totally unexpected, you never know when you will hit form.”
Bingham did not qualify for a place at the 2018 Masters but an English Open win that year helped secure him a return in 2019.
He played O’Sullivan again and lost 6-2 against the most successful player in Masters history. Bull Run, again, won the opening frame before the Rocket put on the afterburners to take another 5-1 lead.
But all of the previous Masters heartache would fade away 12 months later when Bingham won the famous Triple Crown event in 2020 after a thrilling final and 10-8 victory against Carter.
The accolades included the observation Bingham had become the oldest Masters champion in snooker history at 43 years and 243 days. It was formerly Ray Reardon, who won in 1976.
Bingham went so close to defending his title in a covid-enforced bubble Masters in Milton Keynes in 2021 but lost 6-5 in a semi against Yan Bingtao, who went on to beat Higgins in the final.
The then 20-year-old Chinese star became the youngest Masters champion since Ronnie O’Sullivan won it in 1995.
Last year Bingham lost his opening match at the Masters 6-5 to Kyren Wilson – the man he will start this year’s campaign against at Ally Pally tomorrow evening (January 11).
The match is live on BBC TV’s red button between 7pm and 11pm.
Good luck Ball Run. We are always all right behind you champ.