GOLF has been a big part of life for RON CROSS for as long as he can remember. The senior vice president of the PGA Tour’s corporate affairs has one of the most important and influential roles in the golf world. In the past, he’s been a senior director at Augusta National, he’s been the special assistant to the PGA Tour commissioner, and he’s been the executive director of THE PLAYERS Championship. Impressive on any level. More recently, he headed up the uber-successful Presidents Cup tournament at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. BarønsLife sat down with Cross during the Presidents Cup to discuss life at the top of the PGA Tour, how the event can continue to grow, how he fosters corporate partnerships for the PGA Tour, and how the game still affects him all these years on.
Thanks for sitting down with us Ron, here in the Rolex marquee. In terms of the brand association between Rolex and the PGA Tour, what’s the biggest benefit you get from the partnership?
I think we get that big picture brand association of quality and excellence that when Rolex attaches their name to an event, that event gets elevated to the highest quality of events possible. So that’s where we’re very fortunate.
We then hope we can, through the Presidents Cup and through the PGA Tour brand, elevate Rolex further and broader around the world as we take this event more globally.
That’s what this event represents for us at the PGA Tour. It’s our greatest global opportunity to promote golf, to tell the story of our players, our members and our brand partners as well.
Considering all the work you put in behind the scenes – and it takes years to get it to this stage – from a personal perspective, do you still get a sense of enjoyment from watching the golf yourself or is it more of a deep breath seeing it finally all come to fruition?
That’s a great question. I’d say during this particular week, I have responsibility for the event, so I don’t watch golf. Everything else is going on that you’re trying to make sure is going well and is being taken care of. I’ll take a shot at the TV every once in a while and see what’s going on.
Away from this, I love playing, I love watching PGA Tour events throughout the rest of the year. But when it’s here on site as a tournament we’re responsible for, we’re doing everything else but watching the golf unfortunately.
“IT’S OUR GREATEST GLOBAL OPPORTUNITY TO PROMOTE GOLF, TO TELL THE STORY OF OUR PLAYERS, OUR MEMBERS AND OUR BRAND PARTNERS AS WELL.”
What’s the process for choosing a venue for the Presidents Cup?
I would look at it a couple of different ways. There’s the golf course, and we always want the golf course to be the best field of competition that we can provide for the best players in the world. That’s first and foremost for our players because we are a membership organisation.
At the PGA Tour we work for our members, the players that are out there. We want to provide them with the greatest playing conditions we can.
From that perspective then, as a tournament operator, the surrounding elements of that from a market, from an admissions, spectators, from a corporate sponsor or hospitality perspective, to details of hotels and shuttle and transportation and airports, all of those go into a factor, and also markets in which our global partners have business or want to do business or deem important. That all goes into part of the factoring of where we go.
We have all those conversations with all of our partners as to where we go. The good news is people are knocking on our door saying, “we want to host the Presidents Cup”.
With the US dominance in the event over the years, have you ever thrown around the idea of mixing up the format at all, or do you think it’s just something that’ll even itself out over time?
Well, I think the formats are solid in terms of foursomes, four-ball and singles. I think our players like the four days of competition, and we’ve adjusted points back and forth where we’ve gone anywhere from 28 to 34 points. So, numbers of matches has been changed trying to change the points, but I would look back and suggest to you that we’re only 25 years old, 12 tournaments. From that perspective, we’re still a young tournament as compared to other team match play events that have been going since the 1930s and truly didn’t start being as competitive until 1989-91-ish, you know, the ’90s.
What took a long time to get that as competitive, hopefully we’ll do that a little quicker. But you can look at 2015, when it came down to the last putt on the last hole. ’17 was one of the best US Teams ever put together and they just played well every day, all day long, every point. So, it’s been closer in reality than 10-1-1 suggest in terms of the overall record, but it’ll be a great story.
As an organiser, do you find yourself rooting for the Internationals, to a degree, to even up that competition?
It’s interesting because if you’re The Ryder Cup, you’ve got the PGA of America that runs the US team and you’ve got the European Tour that runs the European team. We, the PGA Tour run both [International and US teams], so they’re all our children, and we want them all to be happy and we want them all to play well.
From a membership perspective, I want it to be close. I want it to go down the last putt on the last hole again. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the International team won and provided that level of excitement and competition, but I don’t sit back and root for either team.
Would you describe The Ryder Cup as more of a battle and the Presidents Cup as more of a party?
That’s a good reference. I would say all the players on both teams want to win, so there is that competitive spirit. The Ryder Cup has certainly ratcheted up the competitive fire a little bit more than what we’ve had recently. But I think moving forward, I think you’ll start to see them have the confidence and the competitive spirit that the International team can win again. And these are young kids, right? Haotong and C.T. are 20-something years old and the average age of this team is the youngest we’ve ever had 29.5 years old, so to have them provide that level of motivation and excitement for the future bodes well for the event.
I think in that regard that it will maybe amp up a little bit in the competition, but we look at it as an opportunity to promote goodwill of golf. In the countries that we play, we look at it as the opportunity to provide the best players in the world, opportunities to play in a team match play event.
It’s a vehicle and a platform to be able to tell that story for players in these countries, to provide the platform for us as a PGA Tour to tell the story of our great partners, to be able to spread that word as best we can around the world.
Speaking of goodwill, one of the best kept secrets being the charity aspect of the Presidents Cup. Nearly $50 million raised since the inception. That’s incredible. Why do you think that hasn’t had as much focus?
I think one reason is that most of the stories in the media are telling of birdies and bogeys, and the excitement, and the lifestyle of golf in this event.
Then, we don’t announce charity until 90-120 days after. And, what we do is we split the net proceeds among the players and the captains, so they all get an equal share that they get to donate to the charity of their choice.
When you spread it out among 34 different people, it’s a lot of money, but it makes an impact in Lexington, Kentucky for Justin Thomas or in Beijing for Haotong Li, you know, whatever he wants to do with his money.
It’s that versus some tournaments on the Tour that give $3 million to a children’s hospital, and you’ve got a great story to tell with that.
We’re still donating to good causes; a lot of these players are donating to a local children’s hospital. It’s still making an impact. It’s just not as big a story and that’s good and bad. That’s not going to get the headline news or the big stories out there, but it’s important to what we do and it’s at the heart of what we do.
We’re not paying a purse to these players. They’re not getting a paycheck to come and play, and yet they’re taking a week out of their schedule where they could go play another event somewhere and try to earn money.
But they do this for the goodwill, the sportsmanship, the team camaraderie. And at the end of the day, they get to make an impact in their name to charity. So, it’s a good combination of all those things together.
I notice you’re wearing a Rolex watch yourself. Is there a story behind it?
Thank you for asking. My Dad, who actually just passed away in February , aspired to own a Rolex. When he was a young executive, I remember as a kid, him just wanting to own a Rolex. That, to him, meant that he had been successful. So, for my Mum and Dad’s 25th anniversary, they bought each other a Rolex. He bought this one for him, and bought another one for Mum.
And forever afterwards he always would say, “Ron, when I pass away, I’m going to give you that Rolex”.
It just, it has that sentimental value. Every time I look at it, I think of him. It means family to me. It’s just special. It gets me a little teared up thinking about it right now.
It’s just because I’m thinking of him and how special that it was to him, which makes it special to me and I’ll never take it off. It just means that much. It represents that emotion, too.
Family obviously means a lot to you, and golf is a great family pursuit. Do you still have that raw passion for golf that you had when you were young now that you’ve been in it for so long in the corporate sense?
One hundred per cent. Everything that golf represents is incredible.
I’ve always looked at it from a perspective of the people we work with and that can be our staff, my colleagues, wonderful people, our partners that we get to work with.
And it’s not only this event, we see Rolex at so many other events. You cross paths; it’s your family whenever you see each other, right? And so, to have corporate CEOs that invest in our sport because they see the value in entertaining clients like this, or they see the value in putting their brand out there for the television audience that’s watching in 227 countries and territories around the world.
There are 1200 volunteers here that are executives of their companies that are local businesses – doing whatever they do, and they are taking a week’s vacation to come and work at the golf tournament free of charge so we can give X number of millions of dollars to charity.
The vendors we work with, the players, it’s just everybody that we deal with are just quality people to work with. I’m clearly 100 per cent biased as well because this is what I do. But once you get ingrained in this sport and have the opportunity to [experience the world] – I mean, my office this week is Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Melbourne, Australia. That’s a pretty good deal. It’s a fascinating job. It’s a great job.
I’m not aware of a better thing to do. Clearly, I’m biased, but yes, I remain very passionate about it.
“WHEN YOU CAN BRING FOUR DIFFERENT GENERATIONS, FOUR DIFFERENT SKILL LEVELS TOGETHER – WELL I’M NOT SURE YOU CAN DO THAT IN A LOT OF OTHER SPORTS AND THAT’S WHAT MAKES GOLF SPECIAL.”
Do you have children who play golf?
I have an 18-year-old daughter who does not play golf. She’s not a sports person at all. My son is 15. I will tell you that he plays any sport with the ball that’s in season right now. Yeah, golf – we play more in the summer. What’s great is that I started him playing golf at four or five, [maybe] six years old. So, I believe he’ll play forever more. I started when I was six.
My grandparents taught me to play and one of the greatest foursomes I’ve ever had was with my 82-year-old grandfather, my at the time probably 50-60-year-old Dad, me when I was 30, and my 18-year-old nephew – four generations and four skill levels.
But we went out to play golf and had a great time playing together. It was needling fun, you know, “I can’t believe you hit that shot”. It was, “Wow, that was an awesome shot”. It was me and my nephew versus, my dad and my grandfather as well, so it was competition.
When you can bring four different generations in, four different skill levels together, well I’m not sure you can do that in a lot of other sports and that’s what makes golf special.
One last question on Royal Melbourne. Obviously, it’s a world-renowned course, but the vast majority of the top 100 players in the world have never and may never play here. Do you think it’s a course more players would now love to get down here and play?
I think it’s probably a better question for the Adam Scotts and the Cam Smiths and those guys that live here and they’ve, I’m sure, for the last two years been saying, “You’re not going to believe this when you get down there, you’re going to love the sandbelt, you’re going to love Royal Melbourne”. A lot of the international players came last week. They played in Sydney, but they came to Australia to play. I’m not certain how many are staying next week to play. But I would guess there’s probably a few – even Tour players – that have the sandbelt on their bucket list that at some point would love to come back down and play these courses. If they had the chance, I think they would love to do it. It’s just too good of an experience. Ø