June 3, 2009

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To John Huggan, Wales' Celtic Manor may be just the latest offering in a run of unspectacular European Ryder Cup venues

While much improved from what it was, Celtic Manor's selling point as a Ryder Cup venue wasn't necessarily the golf course.

While much improved from what it was, Celtic Manor's selling point as a Ryder Cup venue wasn't necessarily the golf course.

A couple of years ago, I think it was, the golf purist in me issued a challenge. "Just once a year," I said to George O'Grady, executive director of the European Tour, "could you make a decision based on what is good for the game rather than what is beneficial only to your bottom line?"

Disappointingly, but perhaps understandably in these economically challenging times, I'm still waiting for such a thing to actually happen. And I suspect that won't change any time soon, especially in one area. When it comes to the Ryder Cup, the man charged with running the world's second biggest circuit is never going to take up my dare. If he did the always-fascinating contest with the Americans would surely never be played on mediocre-at-best tracks like Celtic Manor. The venue for this week's Wales Open, while much improved from the universally derided layout it once was, is not a course that lives long in the memory, unless one is prone to golf-related nightmares.

"I don't think the Ryder Cup has to be played on the greatest course in the world," says O'Grady, only a little defensively. "Look at the Belfry, where there have been some great Ryder Cup matches. I happen to think that a course is up to Ryder Cup standard if the ninth green comes back somewhere close to the clubhouse."

Given that hardly taxing qualification criteria, it is perhaps not surprising that, since it was last played on a genuinely top-class course on this side of the Atlantic -- as long ago as 1981 at Walton Heath -- the biennial bun-fight has been held on a succession of less-than-stellar layouts, each of them all but bereft of any architectural or strategic merit. I give you the old potato field that is the Belfry, the beautifully conditioned but much-flawed Valderrama, the desperately dull K Club, Celtic Manor and, in 2014, the PGA Centenary course at Gleneagles (the third best course at, eh, Gleneagles), none of which are ever going to make anyone's top-100 list, unless it is one labeled "courses you'd rather not see the Ryder Cup played on."

Still, it is hard to be too hard on O'Grady and his predecessor Ken Schofield in this regard. A huge cash cow for the European Tour, the Ryder Cup funds an enormous and perhaps unhealthy amount of the tour's day-to-day business. Which is why, on this side of the Atlantic, the matches have long been up for sale to the highest bidder.

Celtic Manor, in fact, will be just the latest "rich man's toy" to host what has become one of golf's most anticipated events. Owned by Welsh-born Canadian billionaire Sir Terry Matthews, it follows Jaime Patino's Valderrama and Michael Smurfit's K Club into that ultra-exclusive club. Which is not to say that such a trend is necessarily all bad news. Holding all the Ryder Cup cards has meant that the European Tour has been able to negotiate deals that bring more than money to the table.

"Starting with the decision to go to Spain in 1997 -- Spain first, Valderrama second -- was the commitment of that country to grow the game," points out O'Grady. "Then there was the contribution of their star players to the event. Plus, at that time Turespana (the Spanish Tourist Board) were underwriting as many as five of our events in the early part of the season. So there was a bit of everything involved in what, at the end of the day, is a business deal.

"It was the same when we went to Ireland. The business deal was done to go to Ireland, then we had to find a venue. This time around we have a powerful man in Terry Matthews; he has a dream to create the perfect golf course. In Scotland we had a business reason for going there because it is obviously a developed golfing market. But it was attractive from the standpoint that the First Minister of the day pledged to put a golf club in the hands of every child under the age of 11. In other words, we had a different motivation each time.

"So the rich men who have been involved in the Ryder Cup have always done so with the help of the host country. And in future we are going to be talking more with government officials than private individuals. Every country we are talking to now is at government level, albeit with commercial backing. Each part of the bid documents has to include building the game in that country, as well as a commitment to the European Tour. You can see that in Wales. As well as the Wales Open, we have the Wales Senior Open and an event on the Challenge Tour.

"We are looking to achieve the same sort of impact in Spain, Portugal, Sweden, France and Germany. And we will. Take Portugal. We have a commitment there at Presidential level - not the president of the tourist, the president of the country. The same is true in Spain. In those countries they know what golf can do for their tourist industry."

All of which is all very well. O'Grady and his team have a responsibility to look after the needs of their members before anything else. Putting money in the pockets of European Tour players is what they do, first and foremost.

But the purist in me is still left feeling a bit dissatisfied and frustrated. Yes, the Ryder Cup has been a terrific spectacle over the quarter of a century since the European side became truly competitive. And yes, truly memorable and enduring moments have abounded. But it is hard not to imagine how the whole thing could have been even better played -- over here at least -- on one of the game's truly great venues. The mind's eye goes immediately to St. Andrews, or Royal County Down, or Morfontaine, or Royal Dornoch -- anywhere but Celtic Manor really.

Hey, a man can dream can't he?