GUARDIANS OF THE FAIRWAY The success of the Ryder Cup hinges on more than just world famous golfers. Meet the captains of its unheralded third team…

In Untold

Ask a golf fan to name a Ryder Cup hero, and while dozens of greats from both sides of the Atlantic will be recited, it’s unlikely Jock Ballantine will be among them. His name will mean little to most. As Ganton Golf Club pro, he never played in the Ryder Cup. But when American captain Ben Hogan objected to grooves in the British team’s clubs on the eve of the 1949 contest in Scarborough, flustered officials turned to Ballantine to resolve the issue. Without hesitation, he began filing the offending clubs down to conforming standards. Thanks to his all-nighter, the eighth Ryder Cup commenced without delay.

Similarly, the volunteers who joined forces with Celtic Manor ground staff in 2010 to do battle against the brutal Welsh elements remain nameless in the annals of Ryder Cup history. Yet, with squeegees and towels as their weapons of choice, their efforts over an unprecedented four days ensured that all matches were completed in full, a scenario that seemed unlikely when lashing October rain resulted in less than four hours play on the opening Friday.

Throughout its 91-year history, the Ryder Cup has relied on the diligence and dedication of those working in the shadows of its most famous venues. Today, with the competition having a legitimate claim as the world’s third most-watched sporting spectacle after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, that reliance has only increased.

To the millions watching at home and the thousands in attendance, the Ryder Cup is but one long weekend of intense golfing drama. Yet to a select few permitted inside the ropes, it represents years laying the foundations on which golf’s greatest players can showcase their brilliance. Their decisions and actions in the months, weeks and days preceding help shape the moments that become TV montages, history book chapters and lifelong memories.

When Justin Rose drove left into the gorse off the 13th tee on the final day at Gleneagles in 2014, his subsequent recovery to within a foot of the pin became one of the defining moments of the tournament. His birdie meant he’d clawed back Hunter Mahan’s four-shot lead, removed another red from the scoreboard and, with Europe 10-6 ahead, further extinguished any faint American hopes of a recovery.

Two years after golf’s greatest comeback in Medinah, there would be no miracle in Perthshire. Rose smiled at the camera and quipped: “there’s a bit of Seve for you”. As the Scottish crowd cheered and the commentators enthused, one man had his own unique reason to feel particularly relieved. For that bush was not there by chance, but by design. Steve Chappell was the course superintendent at Gleneagles for the 2014 Ryder Cup.

“In the spring of 2014 we were out looking around the course with [European captain] Paul McGinley. We were clearing out all of the scrub under the pine trees about 300 yards off the tee on hole 13, a fairly long downhill par four. But there was a couple of bushes at the end of the trees that he wanted to leave in. He said if someone goes in there it’ll be hard to play out of, and it’s going to be hard for a European to hit into it. OK, that’s fine. Then on the Sunday, Justin Rose drove into them.”

“I was actually watching on the big monitors we had in the maintenance facility thinking ‘I bet someone’s cursing us for not taking those bushes out’. But it was a great second shot. He hit it stiff, it was a tremendous recovery.”

Chappell, who began his career in 1988 as an apprentice greenkeeper at Bath Golf Club, speaks with the authority of a man with four Ryder Cups under his belt. He got his first taste at Celtic Manor in 2010, invited along by superintendent Jim McKenzie to help out during the wettest tournament on record. It didn’t put him off.

“The scale of the thing at Celtic Manor was a surprise. It was my first Ryder Cup, and because I’d been going in and out of the course in the nine months leading up to the event I’d seen the infrastructure being built. But when people started coming on site, the noise was like ‘holy shit this is big’. It gave you a real adrenaline rush.”

He was appointed at Gleneagles the following year, three years before its lush PGA Centenary grounds would welcome the world’s glare. During that time, his role swung between maintaining the course for the daily use of its members while simultaneously allowing for key upgrades required for the Ryder Cup.

Off the fairways, this meant building infrastructure relating to spectator access, new roads, bus terminals and media facilities. On the course, it meant re-engaging with the its original architect, Jack Nicklaus. When it first opened in 1993, the American great described the sprawling inland course as “the finest parcel of land in the world I have ever been given to work with”. After he was given a chance to rework his magic 18 years later, modifications on its 7,296 yards included rebuilding the 9th and 18th greens to better suit the drama of Ryder Cup match play.

While working alongside the biggest names in golf is a considerable perk, Chappell says the camaraderie among a close-knit greenkeeping community is the most satisfying part of his job. Either side of his own Ryder Cup stewardship, his expertise was also sought across the pond at Medinah and more recently at Hazeltine in 2016. For him, professional pride and a desire to exchange knowledge usurped any sense of bias, despite the tongue-in-cheek jibes from his American colleagues.

“At Hazeltine, the superintendent Chris Tritabaugh would laugh and joke if I was out mowing or doing anything agronomic that could affect the surface performance of the greens. He’d tell the rest of the crew to keep an eye on those Brits!”

“The camaraderie enjoyed among a close-knit greenkeeping community is the most satisfying part of his job.”

In 2017, Chappell was reunited with superintendents from Ryder Cups past and present – including Celtic Manor’s McKenzie and Hazeltine’s Tritabaugh – to speak at a British Turf Management event. The latest member of this exclusive club is Alejandro Reyes. In 2013, at just 29 years of age, he was put in charge at France’s Le Golf National, host of the 2018 Ryder Cup.

Like his more experienced peers, Reyes’ job description doesn’t just require him to be – quite literally – an expert in his field. The role is predominantly one of management, oversight and leadership. In that regard, it shares many similarities with that of a Ryder Cup captain. Only in this case, the team that a superintendent is skippering is 15 times bigger.

At Le Golf National, Reyes’ greenkeeping crew usually numbers around 35. When June’s French Open comes around, his regular team is bolstered by 40 seasonal greenkeepers, many of them volunteers from around the world looking to gain valuable Tour course experience. For the Ryder Cup, Reyes has 180 greenkeepers under his charge.

“I organise, I look, I work. I try to be very close to my team, trying to be a leader and always reviewing the golf course,” says Reyes. His technique is to divide his staff across five sections of the Albatros course, each with a team leader who reports into him, ensuring that standards remain consistent throughout.

“For the height of a green, we have to cut to 3 millimetres, 3.2 millimetres or 3.5 millimetres. Normally if we modify the height of a cut, we’re talking about 0.1 millimetres. That’s nothing! So, everything has to be absolutely precise. We have 20 greens on the golf course and the cutting has to be exactly the same quality and exactly the same height of cut on each.”

In the five years that followed Reyes’ appointment, he oversaw a number of crucial upgrades to a venue long envisaged as a perfect Ryder Cup course, set just outside of Paris in the shadow of the historic Palais de Versailles. With its amphitheatrical man-made hills and dunes, the Albatros course was designed with the spectator experience in mind, its 6,800-seater first-tee grandstand over three times bigger than any of its predecessors. Those lucky enough to be seated there can spot rough to the right of the tee, and water to the left. They can also see play on the devilish 18th, statistically the toughest hole on the European Tour. With shades of Florida’s TPC Sawgrass, water plays a prominent role throughout the course.

“The Albatros course was designed with the spectator experience in mind, its 6,800-seater first-tee grandstand over three times bigger than any of its predecessors.”

For Reyes, this meant dedicating much of his time in the lead-up to building a completely new irrigation system. Le Golf National was closed completely for nine months between 2015 and 2016 for work to improve the drainage of its clay-based soil. As well as reconstructing all 18 greens on sand bases, 1,500 sprinklers and 50 kilometres of pipes were installed to ensure that, even in the unlikely event of 90 millimetres of rainfall, play can resume within three hours. Catering to record crowds of 60,000 per day also meant implementing waste management facilities and a network of fibre optic cables.

Evidently, the privilege of hosting a Ryder Cup comes with a number of strict requirements. As well as the resulting logistics that come with accommodating thousands of spectators a day, there are financial and legacy-led commitments to fulfil.

Driven by businessman Pascal Grizot, a former French amateur captain, Le Golf National’s bid included promises to build 100 new courses around France and to host the Junior Ryder Cup at Disneyland, as well as presenting a contemporary method of meeting the tournament’s €40 million running costs: crowdfunding.

Thanks to a €3 increase on golf licenses, it meant the first ever Ryder Cup to fly the Tricolore was effectively paid for by every golfer in France. This co-operative touch helped emphasise Grizot’s passionate argument that the event would re-energise the sport in the country, targeting a rise from 400,000 registered players to 700,000 by 2022. Rival bids from Germany, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands couldn’t compete.

But among the many key hosting criteria handed down by organisers, Chappell recalls his surprise at how little focus there was on the actual playing surface before the players arrived at Gleneagles.

“The golf course is actually quite low down on the list of priorities that they set. You had to be within a 30-minute drive of an airport that could land a 747, in case the President of the United States wanted to attend in Air Force One. And it had to be close enough to hotels and accommodation, either on-site or very close, for players or dignitaries. Yet all of these things came before the actual golf course itself.”

One likely reason for what may, on the face of it, appear to be a laid-back approach to course conditions is that the Ryder Cup has tended to pitch up at venues with a seasoned CV. Those whose ability to host world class golf has already been proven. The PGA of America like their courses to boast major championship pedigree; recent hosts Brookline, Oakland Hills, Medinah and Hazeltine have all at some point required a wardrobe in which to hang a certain green jacket.

Ryder Cup Europe, meanwhile, tend to opt for reliable staples of the European Tour. Gleneagles welcomed the Johnnie Walker Championship for 15 years before the Ryder Cup came along, while Le Golf National has held the French Open since 1991, considered a players’ Tour favourite. Its 14th hole is even named “Les Collines de Colin” after Montgomerie’s memorable eagle on the way to victory in 2000.

Contrasted with the way FIFA and the Olympics often expect its hosts to shell out on brand new sporting arenas, golf’s ruling bodies prefer to go for tried, tested, and trusted. Speaking to those in charge of the chosen venues, it’s easy to see why.

“This is the first time hosting the Ryder Cup in France. We want the best possible golf course we can show to the world,” says Reyes. “So, that’s our standard. Actually, I’m going to say our standard, what we expect from ourselves, is higher than what Ryder Cup Europe expects from us.”

This drive for excellence has been with Reyes from a young age. At 13, while his friends headed to high school, he opted to enrol at a specialist school for agricultural agronomy in his home of Almeria, Spain. He got his first job working on six Nicklaus-designed courses in nearby Murcia. By the age of 25, he was in charge of a team of 20. Such was his desire for the job at Le Golf National, he learned fluent French in the three months between his first and second interviews. After a nine-month recruitment process, the French Golf Federation had their man.

Next on their list was a General Manager to work alongside Reyes. The Federation may be a non-profit organisation, but for any course – let alone one situated near a tourist-magnet like Paris – the Ryder Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to monetise memories into an everlasting business model. It’s why, in 2014, Paul Armitage was brought in at Le Golf National.

“There wasn’t really a business attitude to running the day-to-day core business of being a golf club which has a major event on it,” says Armitage, originally from Scunthorpe but an adopted Frenchman since moving to Dijon in 1991. His task has been to convert Le Golf National’s status from a well-respected golf course, to a world-renowned golf club.

“Now it looks and feels more of a place where you want to go on a pilgrimage to sports and golf. Before, we just had pictures of the golf course on the wall. Now we’ve got all our past champions of the French Open, we have the trophy in the cabinet, we have Ryder Cup backdrops and the Ryder Cup logo all over the place.”

“We’ve made it into a place where people will want to come take photos, post on social networks and get souvenirs. We’ve made it into a living museum. It’s a great experience from car park to car park now, whereas I would say five years ago it was a great experience from the first tee to the 18th green.”

“With shades of Florida’s TPC Sawgrass, water plays a prominent role throughout Le Golf National course.”

Even if organisers are unlikely to admit as much in public, a common perception behind the scenes is that – for a course to fully reap the benefits of hosting golf’s most high-profile event – a home win is a must. The theory works on the idea that nearby golf fans are more likely to want to play on the greens and fairways on which they witnessed their heroes celebrating, not crying. It’s one that Chappell subscribes to.

“Ultimately you always want to showcase your product and it was massively important for us at Gleneagles that Europe won. The Ryder Cup in 2014 to the outside world would have been perceived as a bit of a failure if the USA would have won. Thankfully they didn’t.”

“One thing I felt at Medinah was that Curtis [Tyrrell] and his team had a summer from hell. It was hot and humid, they really had a tough time of it and yet they produced a beautiful golf course for the Ryder Cup. Everyone remembers the ‘Miracle at Medinah’, but they remember it for a European victory, they don’t it remember because Medinah Country Club was in superb condition.”

It’s with this desired end result in mind that greenkeepers work to the bespoke requests of the home captain in the final stretch before a Ryder Cup. It doesn’t always work. At Medinah, US captain Davis Love III requested short rough and fast greens. Chappell remembers that the European team weren’t too happy at what they perceived were quickening greens during the event.

“[European captain] Olazabal was certainly convinced on the Saturday, in between the morning and afternoon rounds, that the greens were a foot quicker. The greens were stimping at 13-and-a-half feet at Medinah, they were very, very quick. But as it turned out, it played into Europe’s favour on the Sunday anyway.” After the Ryder Cup roadshow had departed, Medinah’s green speeds reverted to around 11 feet.

As for his own experience working alongside a Ryder Cup captain, Chappell was in regular touch with Paul McGinley in the year before the tournament. If Sam Torrance’s bold decision to front-load his singles on the final day of the 2002 Ryder Cup is hailed as an executive masterstroke alongside Paul Azinger’s 2008 revolutionary “pod system”, then Chappell witnessed first-hand the attention to detail that often goes unnoticed; the captain’s decisions that don’t make headlines but can often tip the balance of a contest hinging on the finest of margins.

Take the Gleneagles gorse bush on the 13th. McGinley may have reasoned that only the Americans would be hacking away from there, but it didn’t stop him having the foresight to note the exact yardage just in case. This information was making its way to Rose the moment his ball veered left.

But while McGinley didn’t want to change too much on a European Tour course that his players were already well accustomed to, he did have some specific instructions adhering to the prevailing view that the Americans hit it long and prefer fast greens, while Europeans don’t drive as far and prefer their greens a little slower. He requested the greens run no quicker than 10-and-a-half feet.

“Chappell witnessed first-hand the attention to detail that often goes unnoticed, the decisions that don’t make headlines but can often tip the balance of a contest hinging on the finest margins.”

“He wanted it to be with a premium on accuracy,” remembers Chappell. “He was very much into his player statistics; driving distance, accuracy off the tee. And he recognised that the European team, although on average they didn’t hit the ball as far as the American team, were more accurate off the tee.”

“On one of his visits he was quite specific about the width of fairway that he wanted between 290 to 320 yards off the tee. So, if you were hitting shorter than 290, you had a generous landing area. If you were hitting into that zone between 290 and 320 then, if you weren’t accurate, you weren’t on the fairway. He also wanted the semi-roughs to be as thick as they could be to penalise non-accurate golf.”

A week after Team Europe secured their third consecutive Ryder Cup, he received a letter from the European captain thanking him and his team for all the work that they’d done. The irony is that Chappell, now overseeing the Royal Bled Golf Club in Slovenia, isn’t entirely convinced such intricate course modifications are as advantageous to the home side as they once were.

“In the past there was a definite advantage for having the greens slower because generally the only time American golfers played in Europe would have been in the Open Championship. Likewise, the only time Europeans played in the States would have been The Masters, the US Open and the US PGA Championship.”

“Nowadays in the modern era, most of the top European players play as much golf in America as they do in Europe. So, I don’t necessarily see that having the greens slow for a European Ryder Cup actually benefits the European team.”

Emphasising his point, Chappell recalls that the European team eventually requested the greens be considerably quicker than McGinley had asked for, feedback that was relayed to him following their first practice round early in the week. Additional rolling and mowing ensured the green speed had increased to 11-and-a-half feet in time for the Friday start.

Yet if the hard and fast rules on European and American course preferences are blurring, it remains difficult to argue that home advantage isn’t significant. Two years after Gleneagles, the Americans regained the trophy on Minnesotan soil. It meant that, since 1979 when the Europeans were invited to join forces with the British team, the home side have lifted the trophy 13 times from 19 encounters. That’s a win percentage of nearly 70%.

“A boisterous Ryder Cup crowd is more akin to the atmosphere at a fiery football derby than a sport once described by Augusta founder Bobby Jones as a ‘game that’s played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.’”

If, as Chappell believes, modern golfers are less likely to be unsettled by a foreign course, then it points to another factor at play that ensures the Ryder Cup trophy rarely clocks up any air miles in the immediate aftermath of a tournament. For that, one must simply cast a glance at the many lining the ropes. Wide-eyed, singing and baying.

These days, a boisterous Ryder Cup crowd is more akin to the atmosphere at a fiery football derby than a sport once described by Augusta founder Bobby Jones as a “game that’s played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.” Unlike footballers, golfers are not always used to playing in an environment where they can be derided between every shot. The distance between their ears must feel a whole lot bigger when they can’t even hear themselves think. But for the ground staff, it’s all part of the fun.

“I’ve only ever experienced positive interactions with spectators, but it was something that we had to prepare the guys for,” admits Chappell. “You could be out mowing a green and there might be 5,000-6,000 people watching you.”

“That was very much the case at Hazeltine and also at Medinah. In the latter stages of the set up in the morning, when the crowds were coming into the facility, people would find it fascinating watching the guys change the pin position. Every time the hole changer would hammer it into the green the crowd were cheering. There was always a lot of laughing and joking, which was good fun.”

“With his daily alarm set for 3.15am, following an initial debrief with team leaders, Chappell would address his 90-strong greenkeeping team at 4.30am.”

While the relationship with a partisan crowd is one the greenkeeping team can enjoy, the same cannot always be said of dealings with another collective that descends on the course en masse.

“The problem with the TV is when they’re putting the cables down. What we usually find is that they drive everywhere with the buggies inside of the ropes, on some areas that they have been told not to drive,” says Reyes on the arrival of the media. Chappell, having long shed the diplomacy expected of host staff before a Ryder Cup, speaks in a way that suggests his interactions with Sky Sports et al may have been as entertaining to witness as the golf itself.

“For a TV company who want the place to look a million dollars so it looks great on the screens, they’ll think nothing about driving a golf buggy up the fairway and leaving marks up through the middle. Which they’re then going to broadcast around the world.”

“You try to explain that and they just look at you as if you’ve sprung out another head. They really don’t give a shit, they will drive anywhere as long as they get from A to B. So we made a rule that, apart from the team officials, no buggies inside the ropes.”

Once the event began, Chappell and most of his team lived on site. With his daily alarm set for 3.15am, an initial debrief with team leaders would be followed by him addressing his 90-strong greenkeeping team at 4.30am, outlining the plan for the day and relaying any feedback from Ryder Cup Europe.

With such an intensive schedule, with millions watching and with years of preparation condensed into three days that could determine the success of the golf club – and in Le Golf National’s case, the future of the sport in France – is it really possible for a course superintendent to enjoy the moment? Reyes, speaking before his Ryder Cup bow, certainly believed so, provided his new irrigation system wasn’t overly employed.

“I really hope so, because it would be sad if I wake up on Monday, it is gone, and I didn’t enjoy it. But the weather is going to play a main role in that.”

“Both Chappell and Reyes encourage their staff to take pictures, interact with the golfers and smile with the fans.”

Chappell admits to struggling with mixed feelings throughout the experience. “I watched the first match get underway and I felt quite emotional to be honest, the atmosphere was incredible.”

“Then for the next two-and-a-half days I actually spent most of the time feeling sick. From the minute the match teed off I was just kind of waiting with a knot in my stomach.”

He didn’t have to wait long. Despite central Scotland’s reputation for being partial to a raindrop or two, Chappell’s first emergency had nothing to do with the weather. Instead, when the radio eventually crackled on the first morning of the first day’s play, he didn’t expect to hear the word “hooves”.

“We had some deer run across the 17th green and we had to do repair work to heal these little hoof marks. The TV cameras were running, there was 3,000 people around the green and there was golf being played five minutes away on the 16th.”

A diet of cigarettes and coffee got him through the weekend. He attributed his extreme nervousness to his desire to remain outwardly calm for the benefit of his team. “I wanted to relax people because you don’t want them being all hyper and starry-eyed.”

In France, Reyes aims to take a similar approach, though hopefully without the churning stomach. He has emphasised the importance to his team of taking their time, remaining focused and, especially the volunteers, not being afraid to raise a hand if they’re struggling, rather than wilting under the pressure. Seven-time major winner Sam Snead once said, “of all the hazards, fear is the worst”, and there’s no reason why even those creating the hazards won’t succumb to it. To combat this risk, both Chappell and Reyes encourage their staff to take pictures, interact with the golfers and smile with the fans.

Because then, with the last putt holed before sunset on the Sunday, it’s over. In 2014, it was only then that Chappell could truly appreciate the endeavours of his years of hard work. “Once it was finished, effectively I just felt like I had this burden taken off my shoulders, I felt hungry again, I felt thirsty. It surprised me a lot to be honest, I didn’t expect the event to really have that effect on me.”

On the Monday, the deconstruction work and clean-up operation begins. Amidst the gentle buzz of vacuums and clanging of tools, somewhere in the groggy heads of the ground staff will be a doleful sensation of that being it. For many, a career pinnacle will have been, and gone.

But not for Reyes, who despite admitting that the calm after the storm is going to seem strange, will soon be expected to prepare for another incoming sporting squall. For as the Ryder Cup flags are lowered, replacements bearing five rings will be hoisted. Having proven themselves capable of hosting sport’s third biggest event, in 2024 Le Golf National will be ready to welcome the one that sits in top spot. The Olympics are coming.

Start the mowers. It’s time to get back to work.


Thanks to:

Paul Armitage
Steve Chappell
Laura Leclercq
Steven Railston
Alejandro Reyes

Photography:

Conseil départemental des Yvelines
Steve Chappell
Le Golf National
Allan Nygren / Unsplash
Ryder Cup Europe