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George O'Grady

In the wake of a year in which things could not have gone more right, European Tour chief executive George O’Grady CBE was nothing if not relaxed for his recent interview with the Post’s Scotland-based senior correspondent Lewine Mair. Ian Poulter, Ernie Els and Francesco Molinari from among his flock had won a WGC event apiece; Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer had annexed three of the season’s four majors; and Lee Westwood had overtaken Tiger Woods at the top of the world rankings.

Things might have taken on a different slant had the Ryder Cup Monday been lost amid rain and fog. Instead, a week which had hovered on the brink of meteorological disaster turned into one more triumph as the skies cleared and Europe came out on top.

No less than some of his top golfers, O’Grady is enviably calm and in control. For example, where others at his level will often have scant patience with the media, he mostly opts for the considered response over the defensive snap. Again, his sense of balance is everywhere apparent, with specific reference to the time and attention he gives to his wife, Barbara, who is suffering from MS.

Proud though he is of the players under his umbrella, this 61-year-old father of two has good reason to be quietly satisfied with his own achievements. Back in 1984, he launched the development of the Tour’s commercial arm with the formation of European Tour Enterprises. Two years later, he was responsible for the founding of the Tour’s Benevolent Trust.

He combined with Ken Schofield, from whom he took over as CEO of the Tour in 2005, in starting the European Senior Tour and further paved the way for the hugely successful European Tour Productions, the Tour’s television arm. Still more impressive, he did as few had anticipated in steering the Tour virtually unscathed through the credit crunch. 

Born in Singapore, O’Grady is a 15-handicap golfer who, in the days when he had rather more time on his hands, was down to six. He is a member of Sunningdale, Royal Lytham and St. Annes and the R&A, while he is also an honorary member of Wentworth, where the European Tour is based. 

LM: The Ryder Cup is safely in European hands for a couple of years but do you feel a heap of pressure on your shoulders going into 2011? After so much success, you have a lot to live up to.

GO: I’m ready to take 2011 as it comes. Of course, we can’t expect our players to win three majors and three WGC events every year, not to mention a Ryder Cup. But there are different kinds of success. Rightly or wrongly, I suspect that this could be a good year for youth. We have some great young players, starting with Rory McIlroy and Matteo Manassero. I’m still shaking my head in disbelief at how mature Matteo is for his age. I love his attitude. When he was the 2009 Amateur champion, I heard him taking part in an Olympics presentation in Copenhagen and I couldn’t believe how wise he was for a 16-year-old. Last year, of course, he turned professional and won the Castello Masters and Rookie of the Year honours. It was a sensational start to his career.

LM: The season ended in the Middle East, with Robert Karlsson winning the Dubai World Championship and Martin Kaymer at the head of the Race to Dubai. The only thing which hasn’t come to pass from among the early predictions was the suggestion that the Race to Dubai would attract players from other Tours. I know that Camilo Villegas took up an affiliate membership with the European Tour in the first year and that Phil Mickelson came close to signing along the dotted line, but interest from outsiders would seem to have waned. Presumably, the fact that you have increased the number of tournaments it takes to be a Tour member (the figure has been raised from 12 to 13) has contributed to this state of affairs.

GO: A number of players from other Tours have considered joining up for the Race to Dubai at different times but, first and foremost, nothing matters more than that you hang on to your own players and keep them happy. It was a committee decision to raise the total from 12 to 13 and, personally, I don’t think it is asking too much. There are players who have complied with the minimum 15 in America and managed to compete in 13 events and more at home. 

LM: The 2011 schedule is heavily peppered with tournaments in Portugal and Spain. Is that due to these countries trying to heighten their chances of hosting the 2018 Ryder Cup? If that is the case, do you expect a lessening of interest from one or the other – or both – if the match goes elsewhere?

GO: We are hoping to make the announcement in April. What you have got to remember is that Spain and Portugal have been a prolific source of tournaments for years, long before the matter of the 2018 Ryder Cup came under discussion. All the relevant studies these countries have undertaken suggest that professional golf tournaments play a big part in attracting tourism.

LM: Can you pick out your favourite moments of 2010? Let’s say two straightforward and one quirky.

GO: Firstly, I’m going to go for Graeme McDowell’s putt at the 16th at Celtic Manor, the one that more or less set the seal on our Ryder Cup victory. What a moment that was, as indeed was the one when he tied up his U.S. Open title.

If it’s all right, I’m going to bracket those memories together and move on to my second choice – one which prompts a wry smile every time I think about it.

If, 15 years ago, I had suggested that one of our regular Tour members would win an Open championship at St. Andrews yet not be the recipient of our Golfer of the Year award, no one would have believed me. Yet that is precisely what happened with Louis Oosthuizen. To win the Open as he did, by a massive seven-shot margin, was a simply staggering achievement. Now for my quirky moment. This is a bit of a John Daly affair. Just as Daly was the umpteenth reserve for the PGA Championship he won at Crooked Stick all those years ago (1991), so Simon Kahn was the last man into our flagship event, the BMW Championship at Wentworth – and ended up with the trophy. It did a lot to reinforce my conviction that we nowadays have plenty of depth. Anyone can win in any week. By way of something more general, I want to mention the humour on the first tee in the Ryder Cup. Yes, we had some appalling weather conditions and disruptions to the organisation but there was never any shortage of passion and good nature from both sets of players.

LM: To what extent do you put all our present success down to Padraig Harrington? I know Paul Lawrie won the Open in 1999 but Padraig seemed to breathe new life into the European Tour when he captured two Opens and a PGA Championship in the space of a couple of seasons.

GO: Padraig’s influence has been enormous. I attended a sports’ awards luncheon in Ireland the other day and, as in every other environment, Padraig was his usual impressive self. Aside from working so hard for what he has achieved, he gives any amount of help and advice to others. He’s a tremendous credit to the game and we’re inordinately proud of him. Tony Jacklin, of course, was the father of it all when he won the Open and the U.S. Open in 1969 and 1970. Then came Seve and all the other great champions from Europe – Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal. And now, after Paul Lawrie’s triumph at Carnoustie, we have our present crop. At the Dubai World Championship, I stood on the first tee to see the players off and each in turn was incredibly positive. They all had the feeling that if Padraig, Graeme, Louis and Martin Kaymer could win majors, they could follow suit. 

LM: Up until recently, it was generally accepted that the European Tour was a distant second to Tim Finchem’s PGA Tour, with that batting order having been accentuated a few years ago when it was agreed that almost all the WGC events would be hosted in the States. On a slightly different tack, Finchem still appeared to be very much in the driving seat when he arrived at the 2009 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and gave the impression that American officialdom would sort out the game in China. If I remember correctly, I think you muttered a quiet reminder that the European Tour had been visiting China for years.

GO: So we have. We have always worked well with the Chinese, and nothing has changed. But there are plenty of areas where the European Tour and the PGA Tour can unite. We are bright enough to know that it makes sense for us to come together. The combined strength of our two Tours is huge. Regarding the first part of your question, about the World Golf Championships, the bulk of them have indeed been played in the States. There was hostility in the air when the early venues were announced, but it was all about money and sponsors’ needs being met by the U.S. TV networks. Since then, the HSBC Champions in Shanghai has gone up a notch to earn WGC status and that has turned into an outstanding event.

LM: Is it fair to suggest that the European Tour is the No. 1 Tour of the moment?

GO: I think that’s for others to judge. The PGA Tour is still the Holy Grail for a lot of people but when you ask me about one Tour versus the other, I can only reiterate that I’m more inclined to think in terms of the combined strength of the two. No one defers to anyone. Tim Finchem and I work together and have been doing so even more closely since we became involved in the drive to get golf in the Olympics. We have regular telephone conversations.

LM: Do you sense, though, that he has been irritated at the way in which first Lee Westwood, then Rory McIlroy and then Martin Kaymer declined taking up their U.S. cards for 2011?

GO: Of course, they would want all the best players but it’s not all one-way traffic. Louis Oosthuizen is going to be playing more in America in 2011 and so, too, are Graeme McDowell and Charl Schwartzel. We are not in the business of telling our members where they can play. We want them to do what they feel is right for them. Back to your question, I don’t think Tim Finchem is irritated at the players you mentioned choosing to play at home or, if he is, he hasn’t shown it. He is putting on a great Tour over there.

LM: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your relationship with him at the moment?

GO: Eight out of 10. It’s very strong. We have an excellent business rapport. 

LM: Has he congratulated you on 2010?

GO: Yes, he has been very magnanimous. A couple of years ago, he was full of congratulations when we hung on to the Race to Dubai at a time when Dubai was being hit by the worst of its financial problems. Also, he was thoroughly gracious at the Ryder Cup. We shared a lot of laughs and jokes over what were four very stressful days, largely down to the bad weather and constant re-jigging that went on. We had a good conversation over dinner on the Sunday night and he wasted no time in proffering congratulations after we had won.

I can honestly say that I felt that the two of us were on the same wavelength when it came to admiring the passion and commitment which goes into a Ryder Cup. Someone else put it to me that we had earned “bragging rights” on this occasion but the truth is that no one was bragging about anything, either on the last night of the match or since. I know the score was 141/2 – 131⁄2 but, to look at it another way, we only scraped home by half a point. 

LM: I was at a meeting in Perth over the Christmas holidays where Colin Montgomerie was saying that the Ryder Cup needs to be completely overhauled. For a start, he said that he had hated having to announce his team when he did – i.e. on the last day of the Johnnie Walker tournament at Gleneagles. It seems that he is still having sleepless nights over how he had to ring Justin Rose with the news that he wasn’t in the team just minutes before he set out on the last round of the FedEx Cup. Also, he still has hanging over him the prospect of having to explain things to Paul Casey. Paul was already on the course at the FedEx and Monty had to leave him a message. In Perth, he admitted that he has so far failed in his endeavours to speak to him personally.

He believes that future captains should be able to do as Corey Pavin in announcing their team away from the last counting tournament. 

GO: We have agreed to listen to Monty because he was a great player and captain besides being a brilliant ambassador for the match itself.

LM: The other thing Monty wants – and he indicated that this is very likely to happen in 2014 if not in 2012 – is for all 12 men to play all the time. He mentioned how people have always advanced the explanation that you need to rest players, but his answer is why would you need to have four players resting on the first morning when they haven’t played at all.

GO: Certainly, I don’t agree with sticking with the old format purely for the sake of it. I got the same feedback as Monty. Namely, that the 12 players loved it at Celtic Manor when they were all involved at the one time. It struck me, then, that if anyone had been looking down at the match (Ryder Cup) from Mars and seen four people sitting out on the first morning when none among them had hit a ball, they would have thought it ridiculous. The public was desperately disappointed when Jim Furyk, who had just banked six-million dollars at the FedEx Cup, was cheering on his teammates during the opening series rather than playing himself. To many, that really didn’t make sense. 

LM: By way of signing off with the individual game rather than the team scenario, who would you expect to be the next European player to win a major?

GO: That’s a difficult one. We have got several great players – world-class competitors like (Ian) Poulter, Casey, McIlroy, (Luke) Donald and (Lee) Westwood – who have what it takes. Of them all, though, I’m going to go with Westwood. He’s ranked No. 1 and he’s not ranked No. 1 for nothing. Apart from being a fantastic golfer, he’s shown any amount of grit and determination over the last few years. There’s every indication that the best is yet to come. 

LM: Finally, do you think Tiger will improve on Jack Nicklaus’ major record?

GO: Yes. 


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