Friday 24 January 2020

Dermot Gilleece: It was great entertainment but the Ryder Cup was all about unashamed commercialism

Players might be playing for free but unashamed commercialism led way at Hazeltine last week

‘Darren Clarke got some things wrong while a superior US team responded to the determined captaincy of Davis Love.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy/ Sportsfile
‘Darren Clarke got some things wrong while a superior US team responded to the determined captaincy of Davis Love.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy/ Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

If the primary function of a tournament professional is to entertain, it must be acknowledged that the Ryder Cup teams at Hazeltine National were on top of their game last weekend. Marvellous entertainment for television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic made the 41st staging an unqualified success.

Even perceived failures contributed to the dramatic impact. Like the empathy Lee Westwood would have generated among club golfers everywhere through missing a putt of little more than two feet on the final hole on Saturday evening. And, as the ultimate irony, players performed free of charge.

So it hardly mattered that Europe's captain Darren Clarke got some things wrong. It always seemed likely that his long-time friendship with Westwood would prove costly. And his reaction to Peter Willett's mischievous machinations was grossly over-played.

At the end of the day, what did we learn from the decisive American victory? That Patrick Reed is a better player than Rory McIlroy? Surely not. That serious soul-searching is called for from our near-neighbours after the failure of six English players to gain even a point from Sunday's singles? Hardly. What really mattered were unprecedented TV ratings and significant money generated by record attendances.

During three days of intense competition, professionals suspended the reality of their normal tournament activities to embrace this biennial extravaganza and everything it entails.

As an unfortunate by-product, European players, especially McIlroy, had to endure tasteless hostility from a section of the home galleries. Could the organisers have expected anything else, when upwards of 50,000 sports fans were admitted to watch only four matches at any given time on the course on Friday and Saturday? The temptation to abandon such hopeless spectating for the hospitality tents would have been overwhelming.

Naturally, European commentators conveniently overlooked a long history of unsporting crowd behaviour on this side of the pond, going back to the 1985 matches at The Belfry.

These prompted America's Peter Jacobsen to remark: "All that cheering when we missed shots. I've never known anything like it before and especially not from a British crowd. You expect so much from them."

Money. Serious loot. Ken Schofield, the former executive director of the European Tour, had no problem in admitting as much when discussing prospects for The K Club in 2006. "Let's be clear about this," he told me, "we're talking commercialism, unashamedly as far as I'm concerned."

Which is what we witnessed last weekend - unashamed commercialism. So, let's not confuse the niceties of competitive golf with the significance of what we observed over three fascinating days on which a superior US team responded to the determined captaincy of Davis Love.

And by way of adding to the sense of occasion, we had off-course rivalry between the respective WAGs, with the Europeans clad by Loro Piana of Milan and their American counterparts sashaying around in Ralph Lauren. No other golfing event comes even close to offering such an attractive TV package for all members of the family.

Small wonder that the first two series of matches on the Friday attracted the highest ratings in the 21-year history of the Golf Channel, with an average of 673,000 viewers for the day. The average across the three days was 4.3 million viewers for NBC Sports, peaking with 6.4 million on Sunday.

From an American perspective under NBC's new, 2016 to 2030 contract, this was a whopping 95pc increase on the figures for the 2014 matches at Gleneagles, but down 22pc from the previous US staging at Medinah in 2012. Then there were the various digital platforms.

Fans from an estimated 41 countries gathered in Minnesota, the home of 453 golf courses, where the game contributes $1.2 billion to the state's economy each year. So there were quite a few golfers among last weekend's attendances.

From total revenue of around $80m, quite apart from TV and sponsorship deals, an estimated $54.8m came from business sales; $9 million for the lodging industry; $5.2m on transportation and $4.7m on food and beverages. Interestingly, the European Tour's return from The K Club in 2006 was €73.5m.

Based on revenues of £78m from 2014 at Gleneagles, however, and the prospect of weaker sterling, the Tour will be looking towards a figure approaching £100m from their next home staging in Paris in 2018. Which will effectively determine whether they make an overall annual profit to balance a projected loss in 2017, based on recent figures.

Meanwhile, it seems the PGA of America will continue to have their much-vaunted task-force in place. This is so highly regarded by Phil Mickelson that one might be forgiven for thinking that a reduction of the national deficit will be among its future targets.

On being asked last Sunday evening to assess its success, Mickelson put on his most earnest face before replying: "We've got some work to do. The guys have played some great golf today. That whole thing [task-force] has nothing to do with one particular event, per se. This is something we're going to build on as we move forward, otherwise it's all for nought. Got to take this experience and continue to add to it."

In my innocence, I saw the US victory as a reward for committed players who putted brilliantly on a course set up to capitalise on their traditional dominance in that area. And wayward practitioners like Mickelson were helped reach the greens in regulation or better, through unusually generous fairways, flanked by rough nowhere near as punishing as when I visited Hazeltine for the US Open of 1991 and the PGA Championship of 2009.

In which context, it was illuminating to see how Tiger Woods embraced the whole experience, as one of Love's lieutenants. It brought me back to the American Express Championship at Mount Juliet in 2002 on the week prior to that year's Ryder Cup.

When asked if his Ryder Cup record at that stage - a disappointing 3.5 points from 10 matches - rankled with him, he replied: "Not really." A day later he was asked which would be more important for him to win, "this week, or the Ryder Cup next week." "Here this week." "Why?" Alluding to the €1m first prize, he responded to much laughter: "I can think of a million reasons why."

With Woods as their top player, the US lost that Ryder Cup. And they lost again in 2004 and 2006, by crushing margins. Interestingly, when they next won in 2008, he was out of the side, recovering from knee surgery.

When questioned at Hazeltine as to the difference between playing for pride and playing for money, he replied: "I always take pride in the work I do out there, whether I'm playing for money or not." He added: "I was trying to do my role. My role was to help the team however possible, and I hope I've done that."

Which, whether he cared to admit it or not, was a marked change from his Mount Juliet mood 14 years ago. And in its way, it captured perfectly the change in US attitudes, characterised by the dynamic on-course leadership of Reed.

Finally, apart from the financial benefits to the European Tour from sponsorship and television deals, the emergence of Thomas Pieters has to be viewed as a huge boost to golf over here. The gifted Belgian showed himself to be every inch the player Pádraig Harrington described, when he talked of a future world No 1.

At 24, his performance revived memories of 21-year-old Jose-Maria Olazabal in 1987, and the thrilling contribution of 22-year-old Paul Way, in beating no less a rival than Raymond Floyd en route to Europe's breakthrough of 1985.

Two years later, Way's departure from the Ryder Cup scene seemed to be golf's way of warning us that class need not necessarily be permanent. Barring injury or illness, however, it is hard to imagine this particular performer experiencing such a fate.

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