Ross Biddiscombe reports. The north Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe has delivered two significant people into the world of British golf. Many fans of the sport will know that double major champion Tony Jacklin is one of those famous sons of ‘Scunny’, but fewer will be aware that the other is Paul Armitage, managing director of Le Golf National, and therefore one of the most important men in European golf this year.
Scunthorpe is a steel town and Paul’s job in Paris requires some steely qualities because for the last four years he has been involved in preparing every aspect of this year’s match venue. If you have spent a few minutes with him on site at his course during that time, you will have witnessed him at the centre of a multiplicity of key behind-the-scenes decisions that will influence both the Ryder Cup this September and also French golf for the next decade or more.
I sat down with Paul for our latest quick chat on the day before the HNA French Open began. With walkie-talkie in hand, mobile phone not far away and constant questions from passing colleagues, Paul still had the answers to all the tough questions about how the two teams, all their officials, the sponsors, 51,000 fans and at least 1,500 volunteers per day will all be taken care of during Ryder Cup week.
Paul took up his role at Le Golf National in August 2014 with the job of establishing the course’s position as one of the top destinations in Europe, if not the world. After all, this was Europe’s first stadium-designed golf venue and had a growing reputation since it first staged the French Open in 1991. But being a Ryder Cup venue was Le Golf National’s destiny and Paul was brought in to help delivery it. Qualities of honesty, forthrightness and sheer hard work were his starting point and now the finishing line of his work is in sight.
Paul agreed to give me “10 minutes, that’s all I can spare today” at the French Open and, fair enough, I said. We agreed to meet in his mobile office – his golf cart – near the open-air press interview area and, sure enough, he was there bang on time with a queue of people around him also wanting their own 10 minutes.
Of course, the interview drifted beyond my allotted time because Paul is generous with his explanations about what it takes to run the venue hosting both a national championship and the world’s most anticipated two-team sports event within three months of each other. “Yes, it’s exciting, but it’s also an incredibly busy time,” he says. “I’m in and out of meetings about the Ryder Cup this week, but we’re still running a Rolex event which means I can’t take my eye off the French Open either.”
While many fans walked past us that day without recognition (there are plenty of Ryder Cup players to see, after all), one friend notices Paul’s name is inscribed on the front of the golf cart in which we are sitting. “I had to get my name put on this because people kept nicking the one I was using,” explained Paul in a matter-of-fact way. And that is how the Ryder Cup venue has been managed since he arrived in 2014 and it works because Paul and his team make calm decisions based on the needs of the whole event, the mini city that will be built in time for the last full week of September.
When Paul arrived in Paris, he knew his job was not to organise the Ryder Cup. “In my second interview, I was told ‘We need a guy to come in and turn this business around and make it ready for an international tournament. Change the whole thing. Get the staff ready. Get us ready for whatever’s going to fall on us and we’ll do the rest.’ It was very clear,” he recalls.
The Albatros course closed for 10 months
So, Paul put that plan into action with his teams which meant closing down the Albatros course for 10 months so that €7 million worth of work could be carried out, including installing fibre optics for the TV broadcasters.
France is not a nation of millions of golf fanatics, but Paul and his team have galvanised the people of Paris and Versailles in particular to support the event in every way they could. Meanwhile, he has also travelled the world talking about Le Golf National, making sure that every major golfing country knows it is the next course on every golfer’s bucket list.
A culture change was necessary on the ground to lift Le Golf National into the premier league of golf courses while still allowing locals to enjoy this world class facility. But in the next few weeks, it is the Ryder Cup that will the criteria for judgement about Paul’s work and, the fact that the European Tour are the promoters of both the French Open (now that it is a Rolex Series event) and the Ryder Cup is a big help. “We’ve got a build and a breakdown for two huge events, so it’s fantastic to be working with the same people each time,” says Paul. “It’s totally insane to have the two events taking place so close to each other, but it’s possible because both events are so well organised by the Tour.”
That sense of being organised comes from the fact that much of the essential work to the venue and the logistics behind the match were done months before the summer of 2018. The drainage, the power lines, building platforms and so much more are all complete. One of the last significant building jobs was a new tee line for the driving range that was finished this spring on time and on budget, just like the rest of the Ryder Cup plan.
‘We needed to spice things up‘
It’s a long time since Paul’s first days in the job. “We had no buggies, no caddie master and the environment felt aged, 25-30 years old. We needed to spice things up, make it more exciting for visitors from countries like America,” says Paul who was appointed by the French Golf Federation and is actually paid by them. “My job was to put in a business plan for pre and post Ryder Cup and make this a healthy golf place in the long term.”
Of course, being English helped because that was going to be the language of the Ryder Cup and, having worked for many years in France for many years (starting as a golf events manager in Dijon in 1992), Paul was bi-lingual right from the start. “When I arrived I had only one or two members of staff who spoke English and we had to have a more international attitude,” he remembers. The trust that the organisers have with Paul and his language skills meant that he was the man to MC the ‘One Year To Go’ event last September. “It wasn’t easy to find someone who can flip back easily from English into French. That was a fantastic moment for me. Stressful, but nice,” he says.
The week of the Ryder Cup will also be stressful, but likely in a good way. Paul now has a single focus, one thing only to concentrate on. “It’s very humbling. We can’t ever let go and say ‘It’s done’. No, we do actually have to deliver an event now, and succeed in delivering a good one and, hopefully, the best one we’ve ever seen. We are staying very concentrated and focussed,” he says.
Pictured top: The base for the main merchandising tent at the west village entrance takes shape
Editor’s note: The Golf Club Managers Association contributed some of the material for this feature which is much appreciated