How a Whiskey Company Saved The Ryder Cup

How a Whiskey Company Saved The Ryder Cup


In the days leading up to the Ryder Cup, will proudly share with you excerpts from Robin McMillan’s book, 'Us Against Them: An Oral History of the Ryder Cup.' In the first installment of the series, McMillan shares the story of how the Ryder Cup went from nearly collapsing to become the biggest spectacle in golf.

On a cold, snowy Tuesday in the winter of 1982, an Englishman named Colin Snape boarded a train in London and traveled some 500 miles north to a small town on the southernmost margins of the Scottish highlands named Perth. His mission? To save the Ryder Cup.

Before one wonders why Snape, then the executive director of the British Professional Golfer’s Association, should have been heading to a place not known for much more than its location on the salmon-rich River Tay, one should really question why the Ryder Cup needed saving in the first place. The biennial match that pits golf professionals from the United States against their counterparts from Europe today draws galleries of up to 40,000 per day — even just for practice rounds — and claims a worldwide television audience of more than 100 million. Each time it is played the Cup’s two governing bodies — the PGA of America and a joint body made up of representatives from the European PGA Tour and the British PGA — ka-ching an estimated $60 million between them.

Not too long ago, however, the Ryder Cup was on life support.

It should not have been, but here is what happened. Since the event’s genesis in the 1920s, the United States had come to dominate the results to such an extent that television, the print media and golf fans had lost almost complete interest. Some of the American players had too, and not without good reason. By the time Tom Weiskopf chose to go hunting rather than represent his country in the 1977 matches in England, the U.S. had lost only three of 23 matches. Two years later, Tom Watson withdrew from the U.S. squad at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia just three days before the matches were to begin, as though the impending birth of a new baby had taken him completely by surprise.

But things were changing. After a lop-sided affair in 1977, it was decided to expand the British team into a European team and tap into the supply of

promising young talent from the continent. With Germany’s Bernhard Langer and Spain’s Severiano Ballesteros in the European fold, no longer would Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin be able to treat their opponents like the Washington Generals. At last there would be a contest!

Except this new European team lost badly in 1979, then were giving a good old-fashioned hiding by the U.S. at Walton Heath, just outside London, in 1981. When the Ryder Cup should really have been taking hold, it was in worse shape than ever.

Colin Snape: “That was the best American team there ever was, and they gave us a pasting. It couldn’t have been worse. And after 1981 our sponsor, the Sun Alliance Insurance Company, was pulling out. The Ryder Cup was finished. Sun Alliance had been one the last of the ‘patrons,’ as distinct from commercial sponsors. The chairman, Lord Adlington, was a golf nut and a friend of British Prime Minister Ted Heath, and he felt that sponsoring the Ryder Cup was in Britain’s national interest. So Sun Alliance sponsored us from 1973 to ’81 but almost every one was tainted. Weiskopf going hunting. Tom Watson’s wife Linda due another baby so Tom pulls out. Sun Alliance finally said ‘Why do we bother?’

So it was my job to find another sponsor. For months I went door to door like a brush salesman, trying to sell someone — anyone — the Ryder Cup. I went to a tile company, to Chemical Bank, the American bank which had just opened in London (which is now JP Morgan Chase). I even approached the company that managed the careers of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdink!

Eventually we had a meeting of the Ryder Cup committee and I had to report that in six months the only offer I’d had was 80,000 pounds in cigarette coupons which could be redeemed for cash. Because it was tobacco the offer didn’t see the light of day, but it shows you how bad things were.

Bernard Gallacher [played in eight Ryder Cups and captained Europe in three] was on the committee and inisted ‘Look, we have to get to America in any shape or form. We’ll even pay for our own tickets to get there.’ How realistic that would have been we’d never know but, again, that shows how bad it was.

Then one day I got a call from a man called Bill Watson, who was on the Ryder Cup Commmittee and was a former captain of the Scottish PGA. He said, ‘I think Raymond Miquel of Bell’s Scotch Whisky might be worth an approach.’

Now, I was getting these calls all the time but never had any luck with any of them. But I called Raymond and made an appointment and went up to Perth on a bleak day and met Raymond for the first time.

‘Ruthless’ Raymond Miquel was a hard-nosed Scottish businessmen whose specialty was ‘efficiencies,’ which is to say he slashed costs, and boosted productivity wherever he went. While at Bell’s in the 1970s and early 1980s, he increased the blended whisky’s sales more than seven-fold and almost single-handedly turned it the top-selling brand in the U.K. He also had Bell’s buy The Gleneagles Hotel, where he still lives and which will host the 2014 Ryder Cup matches.

Talk about an autocrat! They had a boardroom table that sat 24 and he had all these minions all around him and let’s just say it wasn’t a case of ‘Well, gentleman, what do you think?’ He drove an Aston Martin Lagonda with the registration ‘1BEL.’ He wasn’t a shrinking violet by any means.

Raymond explained that he wanted Bell’s to sponsor the team when it was in America, which was really unusual, but he wanted to spread his wings into the American market. I did a deal for 300,000 pounds for two cups, the second one back in Britain in 1985, and when you consider the Sun Alliance deal was 75,000 pounds, that was phenomenal. So at least we were in business, up and running.

Although I then had to persuade the PGA of America to agree to it because they were loathe to even think of putting a UK sponsor’s name on a Ryder Cup in America. During a meeting at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in 1982, before I’d met with Raymond, we had been quite frank with them and told them that if we couldn’t swing a sponsor, then the Ryder Cup was on its way out. So they were much more supportive than I would ever have expected, but then they wanted to see the matches continued. Bell’s got exposure on the golf course [PGA National. At PGA of America headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida] and on the periphery of the hospitality.

To think that I went up there in December of 1982 and the matches were in September of 1983. With less than a year to go, we didn’t have a sponsor, which shows just how desperate we’d been. So when history is written, I’d have to say that Raymond Miquel’s drive and initiative was the springboard for everything has happened since then.”

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