x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

By George

Saturday interview The credit crunch is affecting sport, but the European Tour's chief executive believes golf's future is secure.

George O'Grady hopes the Race To Dubai will help golf through the recession.
George O'Grady hopes the Race To Dubai will help golf through the recession.

As a former stockbroker, George O'Grady is well aware of how money can make and change fortunes. The recent cancellation of the Indian Masters has shown how volatile the situation is for golf in the world's current economic crisis. But even this disappointment and a preparation for "more hits" to next year's calendar does not shake his confidence.

A calm resonance surrounds him: there is determination in his soft tones. Staying cool is part of his job and the stress of staging a demanding Ryder Cup has shown him that "if you go around shouting and screeching, that doesn't get you anywhere". The European Tour's partnership with the Dubai-based Leisurecorp company could not have come at a better time and he remains unruffled just like he was in 1974 when a similar recession in the United Kingdom actually began his present career.

"I was blissfully unaware of just how bad the crash was at that time," said O'Grady, who added he works "not in golf, but in the people's business based on golf." "I was an investment analyst and in the City they don't necessarily fire the last guy in because you are cheap. "When I got offered the job [as a tournament director with the Tour], I had to make up my mind quickly. I was playing rugby for the Stock Exchange versus Lloyds, the FTSE Index had just gone to 149.0 and the headlines were saying the capitalist system was dead.

"I was in the bath after the game when someone said: 'You're leaving? When this rebounds, it will do so quickly and you will be right there sitting in the middle'. "It was absolutely no time to be going into golf, but I did - and off we went. I always felt there was great potential, but I thought I'd do it for two or three years then go back into the City." O'Grady never looked back, growing with the Tour and filling several positions before eventually replacing Ken Schofield as chief executive in 2004.

He worked closely with Schofield, a charismatic and tenacious Scot, as he took golf global. "We didn't agree on everything all the time, but we did agree on the direction of the Tour," he says. "It is his model and I have maintained it and the security of golf. "The aim is global cohesion and definition. "We can't deliver a really strong tournament all the time, but everything has to enhance a bit and move forward.

"These are challenging times across the globe and no one thinks it is going to be easy. We might lose one or two events, one or two we might postpone for a year. "You just don't know and it's a question of reacting to areas in the world that hit rocky patches from time to time. "It was a shame about the Indian Masters, but it is a hiccup rather than anything else. "We have a lot of people with interests in India and who wanted to keep it going, but time pressure was against us. We needed to go in a five-star manner or not at all."

The dark spectre of terrorism is another challenge the sporting world faces. The Dubai Desert Classic was cancelled in 1991 because of the Gulf War, and while players have again raised concerns O'Grady remains unmoved. "If we were worried about terrorism, we wouldn't have anything in London would we?" he said. "Players are worried about it, and wherever you see suicide bombings it is a worry, but life must go on. This is the world we now live in."

O'Grady has always tried to meet life's obstacles head on. As the youngest of three boys, he recalls how "you normally have to fight harder". He spent less than a year in Singapore following his birth and playing sport helped him through boarding school in Somerset. Manchester United were his first love, hooked by their glamour and also the sympathy that followed the Munich air disaster in 1958, which saw the loss of many of the Busby Babes.

Then came Tottenham Hotspur in the 1970s, but O'Grady quickly adds that he has no favourite now, preferring cricket, horse racing and rugby. He dreamed of being a footballer, and told a career adviser that plumbing would be an option once his playing days were over. "If you'd asked me at 21 or 22 what I would be doing now, I would have imagined myself being a damn sight richer," he says. "I don't like the fact I have to do this for the money."

Golf - he plays off a 15 handicap - was never a career option but O'Grady has enjoyed some great memories during his time in the sport. There have been Ryder Cup triumphs, spectacular majors and great characters. Pictures on the wall, such as one of the seven-time major winner Bobby Jones, in his cosy Wentworth office provide a constant reminder of such days. His first day was eventful too, when he ruled against one of his heroes, the Englishman Tony Jacklin.

"When I came into golf, he embodied the youthfulness of the sport, he was inspirational," said O'Grady. "That first ruling was at the French Open in Chantilly in 1974, He said: 'My ball is plugged in there, can I get a drop'. "It was my first day and I didn't know what he meant by plugged. "The ball was nestled in some pine cones and in the rules it means embedded. This one, I said: 'No'. "He ended up taking a seven and he was leading at the time too. There was a lot in the papers the next day because I had turned Jacklin down.

"If you turned him down and you were wrong, you were dead." O'Grady, who enjoys the theatre and bands like Genesis and Simply Red, has a soft spot for the stylish Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, who is recovering from a brain tumour. "I remember he won the Volvo PGA, which was our tournament at Wentworth, in a play off in 1991; he won it in style as only he could," said O'Grady. "At the 17th, crowds broke through the ropes and I love that. The only crowd problem that hurts me is when you get no crowd at all.

"He's got a three wood to the hole and a little kid moves behind him and he backs off a shot. "Instead of shouting at the kid as other players might do, he says: 'Are you nervous?'. "The kid nods his head and Seve replies: 'Me nervous too', and then hits the ball straight on to the middle of the green. "So instead of scolding the child, who was just trying to get a good view, he encouraged him forever."

Pressed to name his favourites now, O'Grady is reluctant, but of course he would love to have Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as part of the Race to Dubai - the new name for the Tour's order of merit. "If Tiger played, it would be the icing on the cake, but the agreement is what the European Tour was and had; that's what Leisurecorp bought," he says. "But if Woods, Mickelson or Anthony Kim, played then they would get even more for what they had paid.

"We also want to develop our own Tiger Woods from whichever country it is. "Rory McIlroy has got it all while Martin Kaymer is a great role model in Germany." O'Grady is driven to make the Tour as good as it can be, with or without Woods and no gimmicks such as women playing, and has done so amid family difficulties. His wife, Barbara, has been battling with the debilitating condition multiple sclerosis for 14 years.

It is a private side, something he and his family, son Nicholas and daughter Anna, cope with quietly. "A lot of people have it worse," he said. "At this time of your life, occasionally, you want to be able to take your wife with you and she can enjoy certainly the major championships. "But it's not always possible as things have to be carefully planned. Since the illness, I don't do the extra bits.

"If she was well, then for three weeks in January, I'd probably take up station with her in Dubai and run the business from there." By next November, he will be in Dubai a lot longer in the Tour's new international headquarters at Jumeirah Golf Estates. So, while many at 59 would be counting down the days to retirement, he definitely is not. The end-of-season Dubai World Championship is an exciting new chapter for the Tour and O'Grady.

He also believes the Emirates will be a key player in golf's future, suggesting a tournament along the lines of the Ryder Cup could be held in the country. "The UAE is a perfect place for a really important international match," he says. "Asia against Europe or the Rest of the World in a three-way thing or maybe a new one that we have to come up with. "I have discussed the Seve Trophy with the Ballesteros family and a World Trophy: those are the ideas we can look at now.

"If you build more golf courses in Abu Dhabi and see the changes in Dubai, then everything they have in the Emirates, the sky is the limit. "If you look at the interest in these developing nations, then as they change, your brain must change with it. "I would like to feel my brain is young enough to bring these parts together. "You can retire if people want you to retire, but I've no intention of doing so yet.

"There's much still to be done. We have to steer this ship through this current climate and when I eventually finish, I hope I've made professional golf better going out than what it was when I came in. akhan@thenational.ae