The 67-year old telecom billionaire is the owner of the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, the host of the 2010 Ryder Cup. The matches will be played on the Twenty Ten course, which opened in November 2007.
What should the golfing world expect this week from the matches at Celtic Manor? You have spent more than $50 million to ensure that this Ryder Cup will be the most spectacular show on earth by customizing the golf course, The Twenty Ten Course, and the 430-room hotel, especially for this event.
I’ve been to most of the Ryder Cups in the last 20 years and this is definitely by far the best. Whether it’s the scale or the amount of land — 2,000 acres — this is pretty spectacular. Because we were able to do this from scratch we were able to get the slope of the land just right so that the people in the hospitality tents can see straight over the heads of the spectators walking around. At Valhalla two years ago you couldn’t do this.
Your roots to the property in Newport run deep.
The first hotel was an old manor that I happened to have been born in. In 1980 I saw it boarded up from the major highway and I learned that it was to be put up for auction. I thought it was a great location for a resort hotel so I bought it.
Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designed the first golf course on the property, Roman Road, which was opened in 1995. How did you form a relationship with him?
I first met him in 1982 at the Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, which was the only golf course he owned. We were very close friends up until his death in 2000. In fact, he invested in some of my tech companies. He used to laugh and say, “I’ve made more money on these tech investments than I’ve made in designing golf courses.” We used to have a lot of laughs together. He was a real character and storyteller.
What were his first impressions of the land that is now the site of Celtic Manor?
I picked him up at the Heathrow airport in London and he came to see this land that I owned. He looked at this piece of land in the valley and said that it would be great for a golf course. I said that’s great, but I don’t own it. He said, “then you better buy it.” Of course eventually I did buy it, and that’s how the Twenty Ten course came to be.
How did you persuade the PGA of America and the European Tour to allow you, as a relative unknown to the golf world, to host a major international event before there was even a golf course?
It happened because I committed to building a golf course and clubhouse and so on just for the Ryder Cup. This was the first time that anybody has ever done anything special like that for this event. But it isn’t just about the course. You have to be able to move 50,000 people and do it pretty damn quick. We have 140-plus bus parking spots. At Valhalla they had 49.
Getting all of this done hasn’t been easy. The town preservationists wouldn’t allow you to move an old farmhouse near the clubhouse off the 18th green.
This was the biggest Roman fortress 2,000 years ago. Out of 20,000 legionnaires assigned to the U.K., 5,500 were right here. So there are Roman remains all over the place. We found a Roman soldier with all the attributes of a human body intact. We found a Roman ironworks and fortress and the evidence of a Roman bypass road. All of these remains created a little problem about building around them.
How did you solve the problem with the farmhouse?
I took off everything except the original walls so it’s a stone shell. It looks awful. I wish the city had just allowed me to take it down so there could be a view of the river.
This is quite an undertaking for a person who doesn’t play golf.
It takes four hours to go around. That’s a lot of business time. But I once had a hole-in-one at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club.
You made your money in the telecommunications business. How is the golf business?
Most of the senior people that I know play golf. The golf course is an extension of my home. If I want to run a business meeting or conference or a party, it’s good to have a golf resort to do it. So it makes since as a business.
The Ryder Cup is the best thing that’s possibly ever happened to Wales and you obviously love doing this for your hometown, but you’re doing this to ultimately make Celtic Manor a great travel destination for golfers and to make money doing it.
If you take a look at the motel industry in the U.S. and the U.K. in two years of the recession, business has been hurting. But Celtic Manor has been full all the time. It’s become an icon because the Ryder Cup is an international event. My business takes me all over the world and people know Celtic Manor. At the end of the day if I put $50 million-odd into a building you get a building. Who the hell cares? But if I put that type of money into the Ryder Cup everybody around the world knows it. So it’s an incredibly valuable thing in terms of brand. Anyone in business understands that.
The players will be staying at your five-star, 430-room hotel. What unique amenities will there be for players and their families?
How many hotels do you know of that have a children’s cinema? You don’t know of one except Celtic Manor. When you come here you have to let me know so I can have one of the girls give you a massage. You’ll never been the same.
You were knighted in 2001. Did you get along well with the Queen?
We had a one-on-one discussion. Lou Gerstner of IBM fame was knighted at the same time, but I was first in line.
Won’t this weekend’s golf inspire you to take up the game?
I promised the European Tour after the Ryder Cup that I would take it up properly. The good news is that I can play anytime I damn like.
Which team wins the Ryder Cup?
I think it’s going to be a nail-biter. It’s no easy pick. Corey Pavin is a great captain. But I think Colin Montgomerie is a guy that is a great promoter of golf. Is Tiger going to play well this week? You tell me. I want it to go right down to the end.
You promised everybody that the weather was going to cooperate. How’s it looking?
There are little microclimates here, and so even though the forecast might say rain it could turn out to be a great week. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.