With just under three years before the Ryder Cup returns to Europe at the Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, one man who was an organisational mainstay of the 2018 event talks exclusively to Ross Biddiscombe about what needs to happen to make the competition’s Italian adventure a similar success
Paul Armitage was in his job as general manager of Le Golf National near Paris four years before the first Ryder Cup tee shot was struck last September. Now, just over one year since the victorious European team left the site, the English-born, French-speaking GM has been offering advice to the men who will operate the next match in Rome in three years’ time.
Armitage’s most topical piece of advice is to beware the aftermath. “The first six months after the Ryder Cup was depressing for the whole staff at Le Golf National, including myself and especially the green staff who had come off years of hard preparation work, all in the background for what was the best presented golf course the RC has ever seen. Once the Ryder Cup leaves town, you have to get quickly back to business as usual.”
A year later and that transition to “back to normal” has happened with Le Golf National now preparing for the World Amateur Championships in 2022 and the Paris Olympic golf events two years later. But the post-Ryder Cup period has been difficult and included putting parts of the course back together. “Business has been good since the Ryder Cup with a definite rise in green fees, visitors from overseas and everything to do with golf like rentals and buggies,” says Armitage. “But we also struggled with areas where there was Ryder Cup build, like the driving range which fans experienced as the merchandise area. For 10 months, we’d said goodbye to people who’d used that area because that’s how long it had to be closed. We’ve lost those golfers and that income, at least in the short term and now we need to try and get it back.”
For the benefit of Italy’s first Ryder Cup, Armitage also suggests his counterparts in Rome would have an advantage if they had the same dual cultural understanding as he enjoyed. At the moment, the Marco Simone commercial manager Riccardo Tirotti is the closest that the organisation has to a true equivalent to Armitage who, although born and raised in Scunthorpe, England, enjoyed a number of years working in the golf business in France and was fluent in French.
“I was able to do perhaps more than what you’d expect from a GM, partly because I’m a dual national, but I also had a cultural understanding of how the British and the French both functioned, how those two worlds needed to meet.” He says it was the backstage of the job, the politics, which drained him the most, despite his twin-cultural advantage, not the front office and working with the staff. “The stakeholders need confidence in the GM of the course to say no and yes at the right time and to the right people. The GM is in that unique position to work for the greater good of everyone,” he says.
The Ryder Cup week will also slip by very, very quickly at Marco Simone in three years’ time and Armitage suggests that the leader at the Roman club should make his or her staff the focus of attention.
“You’re so busy during that week, so giving your full time and attention to everything and everybody is not possible. I spent lots of time checking on my staff, not in an officious way, but I wanted them to be aware of the importance of what they were doing. The best thing I did was being a support for them and they still thank me today. I didn’t go into hospitality tents very much or even go to the official after-match party with the players. I stayed in the sheds with my guys,” he says.
“The staff got plenty of thanks from various people and that’s politeness, but I was a cheerleader for them during the week of the tournament. Remember, they are all working to a common cause. You might have an executive doing the job of cleaning Tiger Woods’ golf shoes for an hour on a rota, but that’s fine because it’s about the love of our image at Le Golf National and their love of the job.”
On the Sunday night after Europe’s victory, Armitage says he stayed close to Le Golf National. “After Europe had won, my place was on the course with the staff and we all went into the main public restaurant which was set up as a nightclub. I went to that party – not the big, official one – and that was the best decision I made that week”
Post-Ryder Cup will also deliver another challenge in Italy, just like it has for Le Golf National – maintaining the strength of the Ryder Cup and the course brand images.
“The Ryder Cup brand image is so strong that we couldn’t have people coming here and comparing this Ryder Cup destination to all the others and not have the same level of customer service. We needed to make sure our promise to the golfer was upheld. We’d reached the level of Ryder Cup excellence and we had to maintain it, but that’s tougher when the event is in the past.”
Also, with the post-Ryder Cup period in mind, Armitage suggests a change of course logo. “We re-branded Le Golf National’s logo to include a cockerel after we did our homework and saw what Celtic Manor, Gleneagles and The Belfry had done; you have to move on and re-position yourself.”
There is also a line of merchandise selling well at LGN, especially clothing, with a logo showing just the image of the Ryder Cup itself. “We call it the trophy collection and these new re-brands have meant that our income from merchandise has stayed the same because, although the sales of the original Ryder Cup logo items has dropped, the new logo merchandise has done amazingly well. Share of the turnover cake has moved from 65% Ryder Cup gear is down to 35%, but we’ve picked up on LGN and the trophy products. Our own LGN logo sells nicely because it looks better and the trophy logo looks very classy.”
With standards maintained, Le Golf National will also benefit in an unexpected way because the Paris Olympic organisers are now preparing to ramp up their golf tournaments and open up the course to many more fans than previously anticipated.
“The Olympic organising committee here in Paris has changed its way of seeing the golf because of the Ryder Cup success,” says Armitage. “They knew Rio was successful and everyone expects the same, if not better, from Tokyo next year, but the committee was really only thinking of making sure the tournaments at Le Golf National worked properly and maybe selling 10,000 tickets per day. Since last September, they can see almost 70,000 people per day coming to watch the top 100 players in the world and they now have the model of a major championship.”
Armitage also hints that if Marco Simone follows the path of Le Golf National, then another Ryder Cup could come its way. He certainly believes there’s a strong chance of a second Paris Ryder Cup at his course. “There has to be good odds that Le Golf National will do it again. It needs two factors, firstly leadership and maybe Pascal Grizot will again be president of another French Ryder Cup committee in the future, but the second factor is already in place – Europe won and the players want it back here. That’s why the Americans are going back to Hazeltine.”
The grandees at Marco Simone should take note.
Pictured top from left: ready for The Opening Ceremony: Alejandro Reyes (superintendent), Paul Armitage (GM Le Golf National), Philippe Pilato (assistant GM) and Pascal Grizot (Chairman France Ryder Cup committee)