Ticked off: Swiss watch companies vie at Ryder Cup

BY foxsports • September 26, 2012

Even as the Ryder Cup moves toward a more congenial competition, one battle is shaping up to be more acrimonious than any golf match.

It's not between the Americans and Europeans, rather two companies.

And they're from Switzerland, off all places, a country with a history of being neutral.

The PGA of America last year abruptly ended its 17-year sponsorship with Rolex and signed a five-year deal with Omega, its fierce rival. It was a major coup for Omega, the official timekeeper of the Olympics since 1932, which until recently only dabbled in golf through title sponsorship of a few tournaments and personal contracts with elite players, such as Greg Norman and Michael Phelps.

''We've always seen in golf that it's worldwide, it's the universal sport everywhere,'' Omega President Stephen Urquhart said. ''The biggest was golf becoming an Olympic sport. As the official timekeeper, it was a must for Omega to be involved in golf. Omega hasn't reached where we should be. But we felt we have made inroads.''

Rolex had practically owned the golf market until this deal came along, and the tension between the two companies escalated to the point this summer that Norman was banned from a Ryder Cup press conference and kept from playing the Senior British Open pro-am. Both events were sponsored by Rolex.

''Competition is very, very healthy,'' said Norman, a two-time British Open champion whose own business empire includes real estate, golf course design, wines and apparel. ''Not everybody uses a set of Ping golf clubs or Nike golf balls. You have MasterCard and American Express. It goes on all the time in golf. Where I get really upset is when you come after me personally about this.''

The Omega deal was significant because Rolex had such a stronghold on the industry, dating to when Arnold Palmer first slipped a Rolex around his wrist in 1967. Rolex was the official clock seen on clubhouses and tee boxes at all four majors, including every Ryder Cup.

Omega's deal with the PGA of America, which goes through 2016, gives the company marketing rights at the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, regarded as the biggest spectacle in golf behind the Masters. However, it gets only the Ryder Cup in America.

That's where it gets messy.

The European Tour, which has joint ownership of the Ryder Cup and negotiates its own marketing deals, has a longtime relationship with Rolex.

The PGA of America runs the Ryder Cup this year, meaning Rolex is not allowed any presence at Medinah Country Club in the Chicago suburbs. The European Tour will be in charge for the 2014 matches at Gleneagles in Scotland, where Omega will be off limits.

''It gives us some operational challenges geographically,'' European Ryder Cup director Richard Hills said. ''We have to do some work in respective each other's territories. There are some challenges with two companies in a very competitive sector.''

It's not unusual for companies with competing interests to be involved in golf. For example, the PGA of America has a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, while the European Tour has a longtime relationship with BMW.

The rivalry with two Swiss watch companies is different.

Already this summer, Rolex has seen Omega move onto its traditional turf. With its Olympic relationship, Omega covered up all the Rolex clocks at the All-England Club during the Olympic tennis competition at Wimbledon.

And not the Ryder Cup.

The rivalry reached another dimension this summer when Norman said he was kept from playing the pro-am in the Senior British Open at Turnberry because Rolex is a sponsor. It turned ugly a month ago when Norman was in Gleneagles for a corporate clinic and stopped by a news conference in the hotel where Jose Maria Olazabal was announcing his two captain's picks for Europe.

Norman said Rolex officials wouldn't let him in the room.

''They are crossing the line between the business of golf and the game of golf,'' said Norman, who previously had an endorsement with Rolex.

The watch wars are a delicate subject at Rolex headquarters in Geneva, and the company was not willing to comment beyond an email from spokeswoman Virginie Chevailler that ''we can only regret the current nonuniform approach of the communications surrounding the tournament.''

''We are concentrating on our current and future relationships with the events we sponsor,'' she said. ''We hope this edition of the Ryder Cup will be as exciting as usual.''

Even more peculiar was the timing of the deal.

The PGA of America and the European Tour worked together to create one logo to be used for the Ryder Cup no matter where it's played. Previously, the logo changed depending on which continent it was played. Five months later, the PGA of America announced its new deal with Omega.

It was not clear how much of a chance Rolex was given to match the offer.

''Our partners are given an exclusive window to maintain the relationship. That window came and went,'' said Joe Steranka, who is retiring this year as chief executive at the PGA of America.

The deal also gives Omega a presence at some 11,000 PGA-member golf courses in the United States, which was appealing to the company.

Norman was the matchmaker in the deal. Urquhart said Omega met with the Australian after signing him as an ambassador to ask how else it could get involved in golf.

''He introduces the fact that with the PGA of America, there is the possibility to ... I hate to say the word `replace' Rolex, but our aim was to get in,'' Urquhart said. ''We managed to find a common agreement.''

Omega since has signed up U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III as an ambassador, and it presented all the American players at the Ryder Cup with a specially designed watch with a sapphire crystal case and the Ryder Cup emblem in the dial.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have deals with Rolex.

Meanwhile, Rolex traditionally presents the European team with watches. Sergio Garcia has a contract with Omega.

Norman, however, has become the face of this battle of Swiss watches. He said his involvement in the PGA of America deal with Omega ''wasn't me charging like a bull in a china shop. The opportunity was there for negotiations, and the rest was up to them.''

Turnberry is where Norman won his first major championship in 1986. Only when he arrived for the Senior British Open was Norman told he no longer was needed in the pro-am, which is reserved for the top players. Few others have credentials of Norman, who is in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

''I was absolutely miffed,'' he said. ''At the end of the day, it completely takes away any incentive. I won't go back and play the Senior British Open sponsored by Rolex. Who's cutting the throat here? In my opinion, it's a childish attitude.''

Omega, meanwhile, already has elevated its deal with the PGA of America, giving it preferred access at the Ryder Cup and an expanded presence in the corporate hospitality area. And while it can't promote its Ryder Cup relationship in Europe, Urquhart said, ''People watching the Ryder Cup on European television will see the Omega clock.''

Ultimately, the PGA of America and Europe would like to have similar sponsors for the same event. If that's the case, it could be quite a bidding war.

''Everybody loses sometimes,'' Urquhart said. ''We will do everything we can not to lose what we have.''