Lose the valleys

The problem with golf in Wales

The First Minister for Wales, Rhodri Morgan, has arrived at the clubhouse for lunch, but Sir Terry Matthews is still at his hotel, talking. And talking. I’ve been given 30 minutes to discuss golf with the technology tycoon – Wales’s first and perhaps only billionaire – but he doesn’t seem interested. He prefers to give me Welsh history, with particular reference to the industrial revolution.

To be polite, I write a number of facts and assertions in my notebook that have little to do with golf, such as: “Swansea was the non-ferrous capital of the world between the 1700s and 1900s.” But after 20 minutes, increasingly anxious, I request a bare minimum of information about Matthews’ interest in golf. “Golf?” he booms. “Play golf? It’s a boring game!” Laughing loudly, he then admits he can remember neither his handicap nor the last time he played.

Nevertheless, Matthews has spent tens of millions of pounds on the game, building three championship courses at Celtic Manor, the hotel he owns outside Newport. He’s put up £1m in prize money for a new event there, the Wales Open; and encouraged Morgan, the First Minister, to promote a bid for Wales to host the Ryder Cup. If they can see off a bid from Scotland – the original home of golf, with three times as many courses as Wales, and the most fancied of the other bidding nations – golf’s most exciting and lucrative event will come to the Principality for the first time in 2009. (The winning bid will be announced on Tuesday [25 September].)

Our meeting takes place in August, on the last morning of the Open, which has not been hugely successful this year. After days of heavy rain, there’s no chance that the players will complete 72 holes as originally planned. Shortly before noon, it remains unclear how the match will be decided. But while Matthews lists for me the virtues of the local coal (anthracite), a man tentatively pops his head in to pass on the news: immediately after lunch, the three overnight leaders – an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman – will play the 12th hole over and over again until there’s a winner. After that, Matthews and Morgan will present the prizes.

As lunchtime rapidly approaches, conscious of the waiting politician, I remind Matthews of the need for brevity. “Half an hour? You can have as long as you like,” he assures me. Morgan can wait: Matthews still has a lot to tell. There’s the decline of traditional industries. Why Matthews moved to Canada, in 1969, aged 26, on unpaid leave from a job with the Post Office (“you can call it a fuck of a long holiday”). And a description of the technologies underlying various telecom-related companies he established.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the years he has spent overseas, Matthews has a vigorous sentimental attachment to his native land. He uses north American locutions (such as when describing king Henry V, who was born in Monmouthshire, as “hard-assed”) but his accent remains more or less Welsh. Several of his companies are named after places in Wales. And his golf plans too have a sentimental motive: by building a lavish, award-winning hotel with golf facilities on the site of the maternity hospital where he was born Matthews hopes to attract business types who enjoy the game. And with them, investment in Wales. The Ryder Cup bid merely takes that dream to its limit: “Sandy Jones [the chief executive of the PGA] gave me the idea, about three years ago,” says Matthews.

Jones – who despite his Welsh surname is Scottish – holds the casting vote on the Ryder Cup committee; but that’s not necessarily bad news, because when he visited Celtic Manor two days ago, for a tour by helicopter, he said he felt like applauding – or at any rate that’s what I’m told, over lunch, by Matthews’s sister Kay Dawes, who runs Celtic Manor for him. (Matthews, after warmly greeting the first minister, abandons his food to wander round shaking hands with old friends.)

Not long after lunch, I spot the tall, hairy figure of Morgan standing on a hillock at the 12th hole. Between shots, Morgan tells me in whispers why he’s so keen to support the bid. “Of the big events in the world of sport to bring in, the top two are the Olympics (and we can’t bid for that)” – not enough infrastructure – “or football (and we can’t do that either). We’ve done the fourth biggest – rugby – but we can also do the Ryder Cup.”

He falls silent, briefly, as Daren Lee’s putt stops just short of the hole. There’s a gasp from the crowd: “Ooooo-oh!” Then he continues. “The Ryder Cup is the world’s third-largest sporting event, in commercial value. And it’s the most important event in American and Japanese business circles, which means it can make us better known there.” Unlike the Scots and the Irish, he points out, the Welsh have no substantial community of expats promoting their cause in the US.

Another gasp from the crowd hails a successful putt from 16 feet. But the next shot, by Paul Lawrie, is a miss, and with an “Aaaah!” the crowd acknowledges the Scotsman’s exit from the tournament. Now it’s down to two men: the Englishman, Lee, and Paul McGinley, from Dublin.

Also watching on this damp hillock, slightly apart from the main crowd, is Robert Trent Jones Jnr, son of the legendary course designer who met Matthews in Florida, many years ago, and developed a friendship based on their shared Welsh origins. Trent Jones Snr helped Matthews to win planning permission for the first course in 1992, and built a second course a few years later. His third, the 7,400-yard, par-72 Wentworth Hills – where we find ourselves standing in drizzle – opened in 1999.

As Robert Jnr – himself a renowned designer – explains, golf courses constantly evolve. The flat land that his father would have liked to use, down in the Usk Valley, was not then available, so the course unavoidably assumed a hilly character. (The winner of the first Wales Open, Steen Tinning, said that when he first saw Wentworth Hills, “I thought I should have brought my skis.”) After the first Wales Open, Matthews was advised by players, and other experts, to install bridges to reduce walking distances, to widen the fairway and level the green on the 16th hole. The Ryder Cup committee has indicated that still more improvements are necessary, because players – and load-bearing caddies – dislike too much up-and-down. The PGA’s advice to the Welsh bidders, cutting to the heart of the national identity, can be summarised thus: lose the valleys.

And that’s what Matthews is doing. Having acquired additional land, he’s commissioned Robert Jnr to redesign the course, at an estimated cost of £12m. Seven new holes will be created, and two substantially redesigned. The hilly surplus will be worked back into one of the other courses, Coldra Woods, providing plenty of exercise for the executives who favour it.

“We will spare nothing to bring the Ryder Cup to Wales,” says Matthews. “We therefore need to offer a layout that is perfect for an event in which huge crowds follow a small number of matches, and the players have to play two rounds in a day… I think there is a chance we can win this,” he says, adding that improvements to the course will go ahead even if the Ryder Cup goes elsewhere in 2009. He’ll keep bidding until he wins. “Only dumb nuts give up.”

That bullish slogan is vividly illustrated on the fifth attempt at the 12th hole. McGinley’s ball lands in the bunker. Has he blown it? Not necessarily, because immediately afterwards, Lee whisks his ball into the rough. Morgan, on tiptoe, is transfixed. “This game ain’t over,” whispers Trent Jones correctly.

But it doesn’t last much longer. On the green, Lee’s putt stops just short of the hole. “Ooooo-,” goes the crowd, ”-aaah!!” McGinley, the Irishman, has won. He takes a (reduced) prize of £125,000 and enough points to secure a place in Sam Torrance’s European Ryder Cup team. For one 34-year-old from Dublin, Terry Matthews’s costly golf dream has already reaped rewards; but until Tuesday, when the PGA announces the venue for 2009, it remains impossible to say precisely what it has done for Wales.