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Richard Hills: Committed and Adaptable

A Profile

Posted Sep 27, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

ryder cup 4

Richard Hills, Director of the Ryder Cup which has its 38th staging this week at Celtic Manor, happens to be the most experienced of any official connected with the biennial event, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. In fact he can boast an involvement in every European staging, dating back to 1981 at Walton Heath, where he had charge of the media centre. 

Recalling the various incidents that occurred on his watch, Hills has a particular affection for one from the 1985 staging at The Belfry where he filled the modest role of car-park attendant.  "That was when I learned that if your traffic system isn't working at 6.00am, you're in for a difficult day," he said.

In the event, difficulties arose for Hills when "we had a bit of a run-in with the local constabulary who changed the plan on us only 24 hours before the event."  He went on:  "The result was that by 6.15am, traffic was beginning to stack up and by 8.30, queues were pretty much back to the M6.  So we put a contingency plan into operation.  This entailed getting the greenkeepers' JCB and making a hole in a fence so that cars could park in a nearby field.

"We had gradually begun to release the dam when this chap, looking for all the world like Mr Magoo, drove up in a Hillman Imp and wound down the driver's window.  I instantly decided a PR approach might be appropriate. 'Terribly sorry, sir.  The police changed the plan.  But I've got news on the radio that we're up in three and level in one. You'll be able to catch the matches at the ninth hole.'  To which Mr Magoo responded in the broadest Brummie accent: 'I didn't want to come here. I was going to do my mum's shopping in Sutton Coldfield.  How do I get out?'"

Problems of a very different nature confronted Hills for the ill-fated 2001 staging which, of course, had to be postponed a year because of the horrendous events of September 11th of that year: 9/11 as it came to be known.  A particularly crucial development from a Ryder Cup standpoint, happened on the seventh birthday of Hills's daughter, Fionnuala, when, by way of celebration, father and daughter went to the ski run at Aldershot.  Said Hills: "That was where I received a phone call to the effect that Mr Awtrey (Jim Awtrey of the PGA of America) needed to talk with Ken (Schofield) and Sandy (Jones of the British PGA).  A postponement of the Ryder Cup was now very much on the cards."

In the course of transatlantic phone calls, the European Tour were informed that "the scope of last Tuesday's tragedy is so overwhelming that it would be impossible for the United States Ryder Cup team and officials to attend the matches this month."  This led to a crisis meeting of top Tour officials being called for 7.30 on the morning of Sunday the 16th.  By 5.00 that afternoon, they were ready to announce officially that Ryder Cup 2001 was postponed.

When Awtrey attempted to apologise to European officials over his country's withdrawal, he was almost rebuked for thinking that way.  The American recalled: "I'll never forget ..... They said 'Jim, don't do it. Don't even go there. It's going to be such a mess, let's start working toward next year.' "

There was a proposal that the 34th and 35th Ryder Cup Matches be staged in successive years, 2002 and 2003.  But on September 19th, Hills's Board issued this statement:  "The 34th Ryder Cup matches, which were postponed out of necessity following the enormity of the tragedy in the United States on Tuesday, Septeember 11, have been rescheduled for The De Vere Hotel, Sutton Coldfield, England from September 27 to 29, 2002.

"The European Ryder Cup Board announce that the inevitable consequence of the decision to postpone the Matches in 2001 and reschedule in 2002 is for the immediate Matches to be played in the even-numbered years.  Consequently, the Ryder Cup Matches will be played at Oakland Hills CC, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan USA in September 2004; at The K Club, Straffan, Ireland in September 2006 and at Valhalla GC, Louisville, Kentucky USA in September 2008..."

In the meantime, it fell to Hills to set about what was obviously a sharply different sort of salvage operation on this side of the Atlantic.  On Sunday the 16th, lawyers, insurers and the European Tour themselves began the process of assessing the implications of a postponement.

Failte Ireland received compensation of £178,000 as part of the overall package.  Hills concluded: "Anything with 2005 on it had to be replaced and was covered by the insurance."  His duties had clearly changed from those early car-park problems at The Belfry.

- Dermot Gilleece

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