Peter Jones: Growth needed at golf’s grass roots

Bucks fizz and quids in for some as the European golf team splash out on winning the cup at Gleneagles. Picture: PA
Bucks fizz and quids in for some as the European golf team splash out on winning the cup at Gleneagles. Picture: PA
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The success of the Ryder Cup spotlights a sport awash with cash and it is time that this filtered down, writes Peter Jones

SCOTLAND’S hosting of the Ryder Cup looks to have been an unmitigated success with no downsides. To have managed that hard on the heels of another huge international success – the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games – and all in the midst of the enormous political upheaval of the independence referendum, is a staggering triumph, not least because the home side won.

But for all the talk of it being a great sporting occasion, which it was, and of partisan pride in Europe having a team ethos which the Americans did not, it seems to me that the Ryder Cup glitter hides some dark secrets which revolve around absurd amounts of money and exclusivity.

I was there on Saturday, courtesy of Standard Life Investments. I was staggered by how much had been spent on temporary infrastructure – the huge and solid-feeling pavilions housing companies and their guests and giant TV screens everywhere. Many of the fairways seemed to be lined with blocks of flats and catering bungalows whose occupants were demanding £5 for a bacon roll.

So what do the players get out of it? Even though they don’t get any prize money apart from a $200,000 donation to charity made on behalf of each US player, money still turns out to be a big part of it.

Of course, it is competitive sport. And the things that work in most sports also work in the Ryder Cup, like good captaincy. Paid a modest sum, Paul McGinley seems to have worked harder than any other captain at building relationships with his players and between them, and at attending to every detail.

The players acknowledged that effusively, which tells you they were motivated to win for him, something which seemed to be absent on the US side.

The money motivation seems to come from deeper down. To folk like you and me, professional golf’s European Tour is a millionaire’s paradise with a total prize fund in 2012 of about £112 million across all the events. And that’s before all the player sponsorship deals which probably double the amount of money to be earned.

But in the professional golf world, it is a poor relation to the US Professional Golf Association tour with a prize fund about twice that amount, and even more lucrative sponsorship. The key to understanding the European Tour is that it is in effect a trade union, probably the most successful one on the globe, second only to the US PGA.

The Tour’s job is to maximise the amount of money a professional can earn, from both winnings and sponsorship. And the Ryder Cup – all rights to which are owned by the Tour when it is staged in Europe – is by far and away the Tour’s biggest money-earner. Gleneagles is estimated to have earned the Tour about £70m, money which will subsidise the Tour next year, when there is no Ryder Cup and the Tour would otherwise run at a loss.

The players, who are fully represented in the Tour’s hierarchy, know this. They also know that the Tour subsidises the European seniors championships, where they will go when they are past their best, and the Challenge Tour, which is where the golfers of tomorrow aim to earn their spurs.

All that adds up to a huge motivation to win. It is partly a direct financial self-interest because a successful Ryder Cup campaign will indirectly boost their earnings from European Tour events in the years to come, and partly indirect self-interest stemming from the boost in interest that the sport gets from a winning European performance.

For example, the French Golf Federation (FFG), which will organise the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National outside Paris, aims to popularise the game in France where it is generally a middle class sport. France, with ten times Scotland’s population, has about 430,000 club golfers compared to Scotland’s 230,000.

The FFG aims to have 700,000 club golfers by 2018 and to build 100 urban courses, making golf accessible to all. All the French officials were blown away by what they saw at Gleneagles, including the sports minister who was astonished by the noisy, partisan, but sporting crowds. It was more like a football tournament than the polite, genteel golf events in France he was used to, he said.

That also provides European motivation. There is still huge scope to develop the sport in Europe and the more people who become interested in it, the more spectators and corporate involvement for professional championship events there will be and hence, more money for the professionals.

But in the US, you sense that the game has reached such financial heights that there is much less incentive amongst the top professionals to be involved with this wider development.

However, there is a huge job to be done.

Why, 17 years after Tiger Woods first won the Masters championship at Augusta, are there still so few black faces in US golf? Why, when out of 314 million Americans of whom about 40 million are African American and about 50 million are Hispanic or Latin-American, is US professional golf almost exclusively white and Anglo-Saxon?

Not that our own European eyes are without beams in them. Why did it take the Royal & Ancient so long to admit women members to its exclusive club? Complaints among women club members that they do not get anything like the access to the course that men do are common. And golf this side of the Atlantic also suffers from the same lack of racial diversity among its participants.

But in Scotland, the class and monied exclusivity which you find is all too prevalent in continental Europe and America is thankfully mostly absent. Yes, there are hierarchies, but for not much investment in second-hand equipment and a few pounds spent at the many decent municipal courses there are, pretty much anyone can take up the sport.

Spreading the worth of that kind of ethos ought to have been one of the mission objectives in Scotland hosting the Ryder Cup.

However, my overwhelming impression from Gleneagles was that the powers-that-be in golf are more intent on preserving privilege that earns small fortunes for those at the top of the game than in breaking down barriers.