2018: The big decision

Matt Cooper talks to the European Tour’s Ryder Cup Director Richard Hills about the race to host the 2018 Ryder Cup.

“1500 million eyes on Newport, no pressure then.”

So said a poster that welcomed the fans, players, media and officials to Wales for the 2010 Ryder Cup.

It needed just seven words to explain that the Ryder Cup has assumed massive status in global sport – indeed by some estimates it is the third most-watched sporting event in the world.

And yet just over 30 years ago the event was on the brink of fizzling out: the American team was effortlessly dominant and the Great Britain and Ireland team, by embarrassing contrast, was a disjointed joke.

Bringing Europe to the party in 1979 was not an immediate success – indeed just two years later the gulf between the two teams was as vast as ever – but by 1983 the event had become competitive and ever since it has grown as a contest, as an event of global significance and as an ever-more commercially valuable asset.

And yet Continental Europe – the guests who saved the party – have still hosted it just once.

Which is just one reason why the 2018 Ryder Cup will be a bit different because it is guaranteed to return to Europe for the first time since Valderrama played host in 1997.

Five nations are bidding for the right to host the event – France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain – and the responsibility is huge because the success of the Ryder Cup is integral to the health of European golf.

If the duty of hosting the event is one pressure, selecting the correct venue is another. We spoke to the European Tour’s Ryder Cup Director Richard Hills to discuss the nature of this selection process and he started by explaining how it differed from those that have gone before.

“Essentially this is the first time we have made the bid tender process formal,” Hills said.

“Admittedly Celtic Manor, Gleneagles and Slaley Hall were all up for consideration at the same time (when all wanted to host the 2010 tournament) but we’ve made the process more concrete.

“Those past bidders might have addressed similar issues but the evaluation panel now has six criteria set in place as recognised requirements.

“We had a very successful symposium at the start of the bid process which brought us all together and set out what the Tour was looking for.”

Those six criteria are worth looking at. The first is that the event requires a world class golf facility (either green-field or existing course).

It is notable that four of the bids are based around courses that are still in the planning or building stage – does that count against them?

“We were willing to take bids with courses still on paper, but in those cases we have required certain guarantees,” said Hills.

The second and third needs focus on the running of the tournament: excellent infrastructure and government support. Both make sense because an event of the Ryder Cup’s magnitude could not cope otherwise.

There is also a obligation for the bids to leave a legacy – a genuine contribution to that country’s game of golf.

The final conditions are financial: an underwritten budget for the tournament and a commercial relationship between the European Tour and the host.

“The commercial relationship is a key component,” says Hills, “and it represents one of the differences to the past.

“It also reflects the fact that the Ryder Cup represents a big opportunity for the Tour.”

Indeed, the Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady has often spoken of this.

“It is the one major championship of the European Tour,” he said (the Open Championship is an R&A tournament.). “We have got one home match every four years. Everything else we do is driven by it, including TV contracts.

“The Ryder Cup keeps the interest going in the game, it makes the field stronger in other tournaments through the year.”

Moreover, talking at the launch of GolfLIVE last December, the 2010 captain Colin Montgomerie made a fascinating point when discussing the pressures he felt ahead of, and during, the contest.

“I felt personal pressure,” he said. “I felt pressure for the players, for my country, for my continent, for the Tour, for the fans. I also knew the importance of winning for sponsors – for maintaining current deals and finding new ones. The lifeblood of the Tour.”

Hills is aware of Montgomerie’s point.

“Yes, I was at a dinner with Colin shortly afterwards and he told me he had said that.

“I think it’s true to say that the importance of the Ryder Cup is enormous to the Tour but, as Colin also stressed, that was not an added burden on the players.

“The players are all on board with the current bid process by the way – the likes of Thomas Bjorn, in his committee role, has been fully briefed on the bids.”

One potential problem the Tour faces with five prospective hosts is that only one of them can be left satisfied.

“We have five outstanding bids and without a doubt the toughest part of this job will be letting four teams know that they won the silver medal.”

Given the effort of the five bid teams in creating their plans some have suggested that more than one venue will be selected – in other words one venue will be asked to host in 2022.

But Hills is clear: “No, this is purely about 2018. We’re looking no further.”

Originally an announcement was due in April but that has been pushed back to May 2011. Between now and then there are contracts to be signed by all parties before the final decision is made.

As of yet, however, the manner of that is not known. “We’re unsure yet about the nature of the announcement,” admits Hills. “It will be some sort of function in May.”

For the European Tour it has been some change in the last 30 years: in 1979, in a reflection of the commercial value and importance of the event, the team lacked even the basics like uniform clothes and bags. The promotional, marketing and corporate possibilities of today were beyond anyone’s dreams.

Continental Europe helped fuel that change and, when the decision is made, it will, for one nation, represent the chance to feel the pressure they crave: the pressure of 1600 million eyes.