Great Britain eventually left the European Union at 11pm on 31st December last year, severing over 50-years of political, economic and cultural co-operation having joined the year after the European Tour – the primary professional golfing vehicle for the continent – was formed.
Six-years-later, after 25-years of USA domination over Great Britain & Ireland, the Ryder Cup was reconfigured to include players from mainland Europe, resulting in a period of intense, close competition where the balance of power shifted perceptibly towards a reinvigorated Europe.
But now, with no Ryder Cup possible on UK soil for at least a decade, Bunker Mentality examines what the impact of the political and economic isolation brought about by Brexit might have on both the European Tour and its cash-cow spin-off, the Ryder Cup and concludes that, whatever Wentworth might say, whilst ties with the UK will never be completely severed, the gravitational pull of the biennial transatlantic event may well drift away from the small island in the edge of Europe that Samuel Ryder called home.
That the Ryder Cup has in the past found itself buffeted by crosswinds over which it, and its two prime movers, the PGA of America and the European Tour have had marginal influence was already in no doubt, having found itself forced into a year-long delay in light of the horrors of the 9/11 attacks on New York, which unfolded on the eve of the 34th staging of the event in 2001, and that was due to take place over 5,000km to the east in England, the postponement made – rightly so – on the grounds of safety, image and politics with a small ‘p.’
Almost 20-years on and the Ryder Cup, this time scheduled for the US side of the Atlantic Ocean has once again found itself a hostage to fortune, postponed anew, courtesy of events entirely outside their control, this time, Coronavirus.
The global pandemic that has already seen 100-million infected around the world (a quarter of those in the 2021 Ryder Cup host country alone) taking 2-million lives worldwide and counting, the grizzly landmark of half-a-million deaths in the USA alone recently passed, despite organisers insisting plans for the rescheduled 43rd Ryder Cup this fall are well underway, given the predictable unpredictability of COVID, with six-months to go, it’s still too close to call.
Rightly so, sport in general and golf in particular are vulnerable to exposure to events beyond their control – World War II was the last significant cause before 9/11 – now with Coronavirus, it’s clear golf’s powerbrokers are becoming, by necessity bolder, more media savvy, prepared to be proactive where necessary, taking control of what fragments remain within their control.
But 9/11 was relatively transient, a one-off, the passing of time blurring the immediate trauma and a year on from the New York atrocities, the 34th Ryder Cup was underway at The Belfry and a jolly fine event it was too, partly out of respect for the thousands killed in the World Trade Centre attack and in a far better spirit than the previous Battle of Brookline.
However, the impacts of COVID, grim though they are may lighten somewhat as science comes to the rescue with fast-tracked vaccines and therapeutics, allowing mankind to work around and deal with the virus ultimately as an inconvenience. Yet, there is a fresh, dark storm cloud lurking overhead for the Ryder Cup, one that is not a passing inconvenience but – potentially – a strike at the very fabric of the event.
That’s Brexit, the departure of the UK from the European Union, under whose flag many of the 12 triumphs Team Europe has celebrated since 1979 when the inclusion of continental Europe had the desired effect of spicing-up an event that was dying on its feet.
Following the surprise, narrow instruction by UK voters in 2016 for their government to exit the EU, the European Tour was at pains to play down the potential impact of the split, a ‘Nothing to see here, move along’ attitude taken, but five-years-on and a tortuous, acrimonious split by the UK from the other 27 members of the EU, the harsh realities of what was a very messy divorce are becoming clearer.
That the next two Ryder Cups on European soil are not in the now-isolated UK but at the Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Italy in 2023 and, four-years-later at Adare Manor in Ireland is – by good fortune rather than forward planning – advantageous, the rift with the UK camouflaged to an extent.
But Brexit still begs the question, after 18 Ryder Cups hosted by the UK on British soil – 15 of those in England, the country that was the driving force behind Brexit – when, if ever, is the UK likely to see the Ryder Cup back in its natural ‘home?’
Meanwhile, Wentworth is without question going to have to reconfigure the Ryder Cup qualification system as the European Tour looks set to become less and less attractive to the pool of 20 or so candidates for a place in the 12-man European team.
Ask any of the elite European players, perhaps with the exception of Harrington and Westwood, from Rahm to Casey, Rose and Poulter, García and McIlroy, Stenson, McDowell et al why they love playing in the USA so much and you’ll inevitably get two answers.
First, ‘Prize money,’ and, second, ‘The ability to travel freely, unhindered across the USA,’ by plane or car, state to state with no borders, no queues, no passports, visas or customs, players, families and friends, caddies, the entourage, it’s seamless, hassle-free and lucrative.
But now, with European Tour prize funds dwindling, post-Brexit, whilst elite golfers may be afforded exemptions from the need for either an EU or UK visa, they and their ever-growing band of retainers will require – if British – to queue-up at EU border control /immigration, along with Australians, Americans, Indians; and, for European players, heading for The Open Championship, the Scottish Open or the BMW PGA Championship, the same in reverse, passport control – with six-months minimum before expiry – customs checks, valid health insurance, international driving license, along with yet-to-be-announced punitive tax measures.
Don’t forget, these are young men who, whether playing in the USA or Europe, enjoyed far greater freedom of movement than your Ordinary Joe, many rarely flying commercial, ushered through immigration to a waiting luxury limousine, but when they and their flunkies are forced into compliance – and into two-hour long queues at immigration – that won’t go down at all well.
And looking forward to the next Ryder Cup but one, in Italy, the 44th staging of the most emotive of all team events in the sport, British members of the European team will be able to spend time with their American rivals in the same ‘Non-EU Aliens’ immigration queue at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport, while their Team Europe teammates get fast-tracked through the frictionless border reserved for EU citizens, hardly the foundations on which team cohesion is constructed.
Meanwhile, the Ryder Cup, wherever it is played can be a raucous, tribal affair, the ‘Get in the hole’ brigade when on US soil, the more informed but equally cacophonous Brits who, statistics show, form the majority of the 35,000 – 40,000 spectators each day will – unlike Paris in 2018, the K Club in 2006 and Valderrama back in 1997 – require the full bureaucratic suite of documentation, passport and visa, health insurance, and international driving license.
Indeed, UK-based fans traveling to the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, will be treated exactly as visiting USA supporters and quite differently to their fellow Europeans arriving in Rome from fellow-EU countries.
And sponsors, the lifeblood of the Ryder Cup, both commercial backers and governments and their destination marketing agencies will inevitably take stock, not only taking a view on how, ‘European’ they see themselves, but also demographically geographically and commercially analysing their constituencies and customer bases.
Then there’s the delicate matter of the Ryder Cup iconography; on the USA side, it’s simple, fly the Stars & Stripes as the band blasts out, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but in the ‘new Europe,’ it’s all a bit more complicated.
Since 1979, Team Europe has coalesced under the iconic blue flag with golden stars of the ‘Flag of Europe’ and united under the ‘Anthem of Europe,’ but post Brexit, expect European anthems and flags to come under increasing scrutiny.
But, as a relatively conservative, conventional organisation, the Europe Tour – which took no formal position during the 2016 Brexit debate – expect the Union flag and ‘God Save the Queen’ to re-enter the arena in some shape or form, perhaps even taking parity with the Stars & Stripes and the Flag of Europe.
And, lest we forget, the women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup, the Solheim Cup, due to take place as scheduled at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, USA a fortnight after the Ryder Cup will be similarly impacted by Brexit, perhaps a degree or so less given its roots are sunk deeper in mainland Europe than in the UK, but effects there will certainly be.
Looking ahead, given the hostility caused in the UK and to a lesser extent in Europe over Brexit, especially during the 2016 referendum and subsequent withdrawal negotiations and beyond, it’s hard to envisage any UK government sanctioning an English bid to host the Ryder Cup anytime soon while the scars and wounds of an acrimonious five-year battle that was almost entirely, from a British perspective, all about national identity, an issue still not healed as Scotland – the Home of Golf – heads consistently closer to the UK exit door.
Like everything related to Brexit, the devil really will be in the detail and the full effects are unlikely to be known until Italy 2023 is wooing inbound fans from the UK, because golf in Italy alone won’t sustain the numbers required to make the event commercially viable.
And, on top of that, there is the philosophical facet of a Team Europe with arguably its most influential element – Great Britain – ideologically sitting noticeably outside the core concept, begging serious questions over cohesion, togetherness and team spirit.
Both the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup are very much framed in Blue (Europe) versus Red (USA) and will, post Brexit, remain so, but one cannot help but sense the potential for a gradual gnawing erosion of the blue side of the debate with the UK and its players in effect partially outside the European tent and everything it stands for.
Only time will tell, come late afternoon, Eastern Time, Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, USA on Sunday 26th September 2021 – COVID permitting – when the outcome of the 43rd Ryder Cup becomes apparent, but, win, lose or draw, Team Europe, will be draped in the flag of the European Union, the strains of
‘Anthem of Europe,’ with the Union flag and ‘God Save the Queen’ conspicuous in their absence.