Golf: BBC fumes as Ryder Cup offer is rejected

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HOPES THAT the Ryder Cup, described earlier this week by the newly appointed European captain, Sam Torrance, as "the premier event in golf", will return to terrestrial television screens have ended up as pie in the sky.

A strong bid by the BBC to regain live coverage of the event - for the first time since the match was last played in Britain in 1993 - has been rejected by the PGA European Tour. Instead, BSkyB, which has held the live rights since 1995, will show exclusive live coverage on Sky Sports when the Ryder Cup returns to The Belfry in 2001 as well as for the 2003 match in Detroit.

The arrangements are part of a multi-million pound, three-year extension of the European Tour's deal with BSkyB - which began in 1997 and was due to run out at the end of next season - for Sky to show 33 Tour events a year, including the English Open, the European Open and the Dunhill Cup.

The BBC has to make do with their usual events, the Volvo PGA, the Benson & Hedges International, the Loch Lomond Invitational and the World Match Play, in addition to "increased terrestrial highlight coverage" of the next two Ryder Cups, according to a statement from the European Tour.

But the BBC reacted angrily to the new arrangement, which will inevitably be seen as a setback for the new director general, Greg Dyke, in his efforts to raise the stature of BBC Sport in the wake of its loss of the FA Cup, Des Lynam, Test cricket and certain rugby union internationals. "The PGA has missed a golden opportunity to give the Ryder Cup back to the nation, especially after its recent well-publicised dismay at the broadcasting arrangements this year," said a spokesman. "The BBC made a very competitive and imaginative bid for the Ryder Cup package - one which more than matched BSkyB's.

"We do not believe that the PGA can possibly justify this decision, which lets down millions of golf fans. At a time when the golf industry is complaining about falling interest in the game, the decision seems quite out of step with public opinion."

Prior to this year's Ryder Cup in Boston, the European Tour had to go to court to prevent BSkyB showing the match solely on Sky Box Office. Viewing figures were paltry, only 650,000 seeing America's sensational comeback victory live. Forced to show highlights after the close of play, which meant around midnight due to the time difference, the BBC still pulled in more than two million viewers.

Terrestrial viewers saw only late-night highlights of Europe's win in Spain in 1997 and nothing of their victory at Oak Hill two years earlier, when millions tuned in to BBC Radio Five Live's award-winning commentary.

While no one can deny the hours Sky devotes to golf, with more than 100 tournaments a year, including the entire US Tour, there is growing concern that the game's biggest events are not seen widely enough. Only two of this season's five leading tournaments - the four majors plus the Ryder Cup - were seen live on terrestrial TV.

The last-hole birdie putt by the late Payne Stewart to win the US Open and Sergio Garcia's inspired duel with Tiger Woods at the USPGA were only shown on satellite. But 3.6 million viewers saw Jose Maria Olazabal's emotional win at the US Masters over Greg Norman on the BBC and almost 7 million watched the drama at Carnoustie as Jean Van de Velde lost a three-shot lead at the 72nd hole and Paul Lawrie became the first Scottish champion on home soil for 68 years.

Ken Schofield, the executive director of the European Tour, said: "The commitment made by Sky to golf has been unprecedented and this agreement will not only extend our partnership but also enhance the continued development of the game throughout Europe.

"The commitment made by the BBC to golf," Schofield added, "has from the very start been nothing other than quite outstanding and we are delighted to extend our partnership through 2003."

On his appointment as Ryder Cup captain on Wednesday, Torrance said: "The Ryder Cup is the premier event in golf. No disrespect to the Open or the Masters or the US Open or the USPGA, but I think if anyone had to sit down and watch a golf event, it would be the Ryder Cup. The excitement is wonderful." Shame more people will not get to see it.