End of an era as PGA chief Sandy Jones prepares to step down

Familiar faces in golf are disappearing like snow off a dyke. Peter Dawson, George O'Grady and Tim Finchem, key figures in the game over the past decade or so, no longer hold their respective positions at the R&A, European Tour and PGA Tour. Another era is also about to end. After 25 years in the role, Sandy Jones steps down on Friday as the PGA's chief executive. Having served as Scottish Region secretary for 12 years prior to his move to The Belfry, it's been quite a journey for the Lanarkshire man.

Sandy Jones, pictured at the Ryder Cup Exhibition Launch 2014 in Stirling, is set to step down from his role as PGA chief executive. Picture: Getty Images
Sandy Jones, pictured at the Ryder Cup Exhibition Launch 2014 in Stirling, is set to step down from his role as PGA chief executive. Picture: Getty Images

“I’ve been to 16 Ryder Cups, 25 Masters in a row and god knows how many Opens,” recalled the 70-year-old during a return to home soil before handing over the reins to Rob Maxfield, his right-hand man for the past 15 months. “As a kid growing up at Mount Ellen, if someone had said ‘how many Opens will you do?’ I would’ve said ‘one and only if you take me’. I never dreamed I’d do all this.”

Even in the wildest of dreams, Jones, who worked for an engineering company in Coatbridge before embarking on his career in golf administration, certainly never thought he’d have the pleasure of being in the company of the late, great Seve Ballesteros as the Spaniard, in tandem with Tony Jacklin, helped the Ryder Cup become the epic contest it is today.

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“Seve was always a big one for me,” he replied to being asked about some of the characters he’d come across. “I was doing a bit of refereeing at a Ryder Cup match. We shook hands on the first tee. Seve said ‘are you the best referee in the world?’ I just ignored it and started counting his clubs. ‘You think Seve cheats?’ I said ‘no, I’m just checking your clubs to make sure you’ve not made a mistake’.

“And he keeps saying ‘so are you the best referee in the world?’ I eventually said ‘well, Seve, I think you are the best player in the world, so they wouldn’t put the worst referee in the world with you’. He shook my hand and said ‘you’ll do for me’. He was great.”

Of all those Ryder Cups, Europe’s first win on US soil at Muirfield Village in 1987 is the highlight for Jones, though, having been heavily involved in the process that led to the biennial event being held in Scotland for the first time in more than 40 years, he will also cherish the 2014 encounter at Gleneagles.

“I remember sitting in this bar [in Gleneagles Hotel] with Dougie Donnelly and the First Minister at the time, Henry McLeish, came on the phone and said, ‘whatever we need to do, tell us because we want this Ryder Cup’,” recalled Jones of Scotland bidding to host the 2010 event before having to wait an extra four years after losing out to Wales.

“I didn’t make a public statement at the time, but inside I felt it was the best news,” he added. “Scotland wasn’t ready. That extra four years was huge, plus the way the economy went was in our favour, too. Was it the best match? No. Was it one of the best staged? Probably.”

There’s absolutely no hiding Jones’ passion for the Ryder Cup, and he hopes Maxfield or whoever else holds the chief executive post in the future feel as strongly as he does about the PGA having been made its custodians by Sam Ryder.

“I would hope not,” he answered to being asked if there could be a possibility of Keith Pelley, O’Grady’s successor at the European Tour, challenging that position. “It’s not all about the commerciality and I’m kind of Sam Ryder’s voice in this. He was a very successful businessman but, when he started the match, it wasn’t about the commercial aspects, it was getting the best players in the world. It was a world event at the time. USA and Britain and Ireland was world golf at the time. They say the Presidents Cup is that now, but you can’t cheer for the world can you?

“We need the commerce to make the Ryder Cup work, but you have to be careful it’s not just seen as a money-making machine. Don’t soil what is a proper match. In fairness, the players have maintained that respect.”

While a role as executive president will see Jones continue to offer his expertise to an organisation that has 7,800 members, 1,600 of whom now work around the world in around 80 countries, he’s hoping to play a bit more golf himself and also watch his beloved Rangers.

The club’s former manager, Walter Smith, has offered Jones advice about what to expect after giving up a role he’s held for such a long time.

“I was talking to Walter and he said to me, ‘the first year you’ll be all over the place thinking I should never have packed it in’. Walter also said, ‘the difference between you and me is that I won the championship on the Saturday and by the Monday I was a nobody at Ibrox. You’re out’.

“If I’d known they were going to give me the title of executive director, which sounds quite important, I’d have packed it in ten years ago (laughing). But it’s time for change. Nobody goes on forever. You look back and think, ‘we’ve done ok’….whether other people think that is another thing.”