Whereas Le Golf National was announced as the host of this year’s Ryder Cup more than seven years in advance of the match, this kind of long-term planning for host venues was not always the case, writes Ross Biddiscombe.
When Walton Heath had to step in as host club at the last minute for the 1981 match, it was because the chosen venue, The Belfry, was not ready. Looking back, this match proved to be a nadir in almost every way: the Americans won by a country mile, the weather was appalling and Walton Heath (through no fault of its own) was always on the back foot with all the arrangements.
Never again would this situation be allowed to happen and, thankfully, both the fortunes of the European team and its host venues have never looked back. The breakthrough came when The Belfry was finally ready for the Ryder Cup in 1985, not just because the facility was perfect for the match, but also due to the fact that the event finally turned a significant profit. The only problem was the four-year delay.
When the course and resort were officially re-opened in 1977 with the newly-completed Brabazon course and a re-fitted hotel, it could have been custom-made for the Ryder Cup: millions of pounds had already been spent on the resort; the Brabazon was the ideal course for spectator viewing; there was plenty of space for the fans and their cars; the practice facilities were splendid; a large hotel complex and function rooms were on site; and there was even a nightclub within the grounds. The PGA’s executive director, Colin Snape, also signed a deal that year with the resort owners who would build the PGA’s new headquarters and give the association a 99-year, rent-free lease in
exchange for two Ryder Cups coming to The Belfry, starting in 1981. Everything was in place, or so it seemed.
However, problems then began to emerge as soon as the pros played the Brabazon in 1978: the course received heavy criticism – too many stones in the fairway, complained some players; it was a quagmire and too bland, said others. Then came fears that the resort might not be ready, even in three years’ time. The man faced with that decision was Snape.
Snape had joined the PGA in late 1972 as a tournament administrator, but then was suddenly thrust into the key job of the association’s secretary the following spring when his predecessor, Major John Bywaters, died of a heart attack while at work in his office. At just 34-years-old and with less than six months in the job, Snape’s appointment was unexpected, but the man from Bury in Lancashire was a wheeler dealer by nature and also someone who liked to make decisions, even tough ones. He knew that one of his first tasks was to change the culture of the PGA from a slow, committee-based one to a more commercially-driven mentality.
“The PGA in those days was long on reputation, but short of money,” says Snape. “Our offices were two rooms under the main stand at The Oval cricket ground in London and we had £17,000 in the bank. Commercially, it was a shambles.”
The Ryder Cup was an early priority and, according to Snape, was only “washing its face” in terms of profit and loss, so it was a huge breakthrough for him to bring in major sponsorship money from Sun Alliance (£375,000 for the next three matches) with their chairman Lord Aldington requesting Muirfield as the venue for the 1973 contest.
“We were still only just balancing the books. We never made any money from the Cup in those days,” remembers Snape whose deal to take the PGA to The Belfry in exchange for two Ryder Cups was a win-win for both sides.
But there was a certain amount of trepidation when the Ryder Cup finally arrived at The Belfry four years late. However, as luck would have it, for the first time since the matches began almost 60 years earlier, the PGA finally found the planets were fully aligned in their favour: The Belfry’s golf course and its whole facility was considered of a high enough quality to stage the 1985 event; the European team was full of star names (Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle were all major winners by now); Team Europe had been competitive in the 1983 match in America (when they suffered only a narrow defeat), so interest among fans and TV companies had never been higher; and Snape had signed a fabulous sponsorship deal with Bell’s whisky. The breakthrough was imminent.
A record 90,000 fans turned up for the 1985 match (over five times more than at Walton Heath four years earlier); a tented village with dozens of hospitality suites proved hugely successful; and the European team capped it all off by winning the Cup for the first time in 28 years.
This was truly the first modern-day Ryder Cup in terms of commercial activity. The gross income shot past the £1 million mark and, for the first time enabled the PGA to pay a huge facility fee to The Belfry of £50,000 (for comparison, it was just £6,000 to Walton Heath four years earlier) and so, from this moment on, the Ryder Cup began supporting the association rather acting as a drain on its finances. “The Belfry in 1985 was really what we dreamt of,” Snape said years later. “There was a lot of criticism that it was played there, that it was all about commercial greed, that we were playing on a manufactured course… but when Concorde did a fly-past it was the culmination of a dream.”
Europe now had a great team and a venue to match, so before the Cup came to The Belfry again in 1989, its new owners DeVere Group had pumped another £8 million of upgrade work into the facility and now the bar had been raised again in terms of the type of venue that would stage the matches on this side of the Atlantic. Further and greater profits for the PGA were inevitable.
Ross Biddiscombe’s acclaimed book Ryder Cup Revealed is available at amazon.co.uk via this hotlink: https://tinyurl.com/y9w75whd
The Belfry Hotel & Resort https://www.thebelfry.co.uk/en-gb
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