Bernard Gallacher says Europe may have no choice but to play Ryder Cup without fans

Former captain reckons team will be ‘compelled’ to turn up if Americans say event goes ahead behind closed doors

Past and present: Former Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher with Europe's current skipper Padraig Harrington. Picture: Luke Walker/Getty Images

Everything is rosy in the Gallacher garden in Ascot. “It’s looking good,” said Bernard of getting green fingers during the coronavirus lockdown in helping his wife, Lesley, attend to floral matters and such like. “I don’t think we have ever devoted as much time to the garden as we have recently,” he added, laughing.

Earlier in the day, the 71-year-old had been out for his permitted daily exercise along the leafy Berkshire/Surrey border. “I go out for a walk around Virginia Lake every morning, doing about five miles,” he said of the area that has been home for nearly 50 years. “That’s about it, to be honest, at the moment.”

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You sense that Gallacher, an easy-going man like his nephew, Stephen, is keen to start talking golf, which, albeit good for two long-time friends to be catching up during these difficult times in the world, is the main reason for our phone conversation.

Top on my list of topics to be covered is the Ryder Cup, which, of course, is close to Gallacher’s heart. The Bathgate man played in the biennial event eight times, then assisted Tony Jacklin as he was instrumental in turning it into a proper contest before tasting success as a captain himself in 1995.

This year’s match is scheduled to be played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September. The world’s top three players – Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka – have all said they would rather see it postponed for 12 months than being played without fans. Padraig Harrington, the European captain, initially said the same thing before talking this week about how the Ryder Cup may need to “take one for the team” by going ahead without fans.

“My view, and I have held this all along, is that if the PGA of America wants to play it and it is good for the European Tour financially, I think we should ask the players to do it,” Gallacher told Scotland on Sunday. “It might come down to money 
here whether they play behind closed doors or not because the Ryder Cup will be linked to a TV contract.

“You are talking big bucks and, if the European Tour is going to suffer dramatically financially by the Ryder Cup not being played this year, then we can’t afford that to happen. We don’t have deep pockets like the PGA of America and the PGA Tour. I read what Padraig Harrington said earlier in the week, and he’s certainly shifted by effectively saying we may have to do it for the greater good. It’s understandable that players like Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy have been coming out and saying how they feel because no-one wants to play it behind closed doors.

“It would be a shock to the system if that was the case, especially after how fantastic the atmosphere was for the last Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in France. But, if it’s the only thing possible and, if it helps the finances of the European Tour, we’ve just got to go with it. Also, the European Tour is being hosted over there for this Ryder Cup, so the decision will be made by the PGA of America. If the PGA of America wants to put it on, I think we will be compelled to put a team up.”

The PGA Tour is due to restart in just over a month in Fort Worth, with plans to begin back in the US with four tournaments behind closed doors. It is too early to tell whether rescheduled events like the US PGA Championship in August, US Open in September and The Masters in November will have spectators in attendance or not.

“If all these other tournaments are going to be played, possibly behind closed doors, I don’t see why the Ryder Cup can’t be played without fans in these exceptional circumstances that we are in,” added Gallacher. “If you look at the calendar for next year, we’ve already got the Olympics, the Solheim Cup and the Presidents Cup in there. Are we going to try and squeeze the Ryder Cup in there as well?

“It might be more sensible for the players to put up for the greater good of the game by playing it without fans in September, as scheduled. I think it would be a lift for people if it did take place this year, with or without fans. We don’t know when we are going to come out of this lockdown. People are crying out for any live sport on television due to the fact we don’t have any at the moment. If the Ryder Cup can be played, it will still be a spectacle on television and people will still want to buy newspapers to read about it. It will still be of interest.

“But it will be up to the PGA of America. The last time it was cancelled [in 2001 at The Belfry] when Sam Torrance was the captain, it was an easy decision because it was quite imminent after 9/11 happened. The PGA of America said it was wrong and we also said it was wrong. It was quite an easy decision. This is a different thing. There’s a long lead-up time, there’s a lot of things involved, and we are trying to get things back to as normal as we can as soon as we can.”

Events have either been postponed or cancelled on the European Tour until the end of July. Keith Pelley, the circuit’s chief executive, has told players to expect a change in prize funds going forward. “We are having to implement tough measures both in the short and long term,” the Canadian said in an email to members.

By that, he presumably means things will not be as rosy in the European Tour garden as the Gallacher one at the moment, but the Scot says it’s not the first time that players have had to face troubled times. “When Ken Schofield was the chief executive, I think we went through two recessions and two big financial hits,” he said. “But we coped. The players understood and we got by.

“This is obviously worse, but golf will go on. The players will just put up with things the best they can. They have got used to courtesy cars, picking them up at airports etc, and having great facilities at tournaments along with big 
prize-money. But I think we will have to have more modest ambitions going forward. The players are sensible. They know what is going on. They know it is tough for everybody. I think they will just be happy to play.

“I don’t know how much the European Tour has in the bank. I think in the past they have put it into tournaments. That’s probably why Keith Pelley is warning the players that expectations will have to be lowered.”

As for the impact the coronavirus chaos is going to have on golf clubs, Gallacher admits he fears the worst for some of them, though he is hopeful that his beloved Bathgate will be able to ride the storm due to it being at the heart of the community in the West Lothian town.

“Golf courses are almost going to go back to the era I was brought up in with less facilities in the short term,” he said. “There are clubs that were struggling already before this happened, but Bathgate has always been a strong club and the membership has remained strong. It is an archetypal community club and, when I was growing up, we walked to the club. They’ve always had a focus on the juniors being the next generation of members and it seems to be a well-managed club.

“Historically, it has started from the bottom and built up. In contrast, a lot of new clubs popped up in the 70s when there probably wasn’t the calling for all of them and, unfortunately, I think we are suffering now from that as a lot of clubs struggle to survive.”

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