Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister for Wales, speaks during the opening ceremony (Getty Images)
The First Minister with cousins in both camps relishes international spotlight on Wales
If timing is everything in politics, Carwyn Jones hasn’t done badly by becoming First Minister for Wales as his country was about to host The Ryder Cup.
By Steve Howell
The platform it gives him, reaching into 600 million homes across the world, is beyond the wildest dreams of most politicians.
But if it’s gone to his head, he doesn’t show it. Jones carries his role in the same relaxed manner as his approachable predecessor, Rhodri Morgan, and cheerfully answers the familiar questions for the umpteenth time.
We’re in the bustling Ryder Cup media centre, the base for 1,000 media representatives, and Jones knows Wales never get another chance like this to raise its profile.
“It’s the biggest advert we’ll ever have,” he says. “More people will notice Wales, more people will visit and hopefully more will invest.”
It’s familiar stuff from a politician hosting a major sporting event, but Jones can already back Wales’s aspirations with hard facts. Since 2002, the value of golf tourism to the Welsh economy has more than doubled to £35m.
Meanwhile, a £2m Ryder Cup legacy fund has been invested in building 200 new holes and 32 chipping and putting greens and more than 100,000 children and adults have taken up the game.
“There are far more clubs and public courses, and far more opportunities to play, than there were in my day,” says Jones, who was brought up in Bridgend where the nearest course – Southerndown – had a long waiting list when he was a child.
“In those days if you wanted to join a club, you had to wait for someone to die. My father joined Southerndown when he was 43 – he’d had to wait – and by that time I was 14 and playing rugby.”
Jones’s father went on to captain Southerndown and see the club go from strength to strength, this year winning a Visit Wales ‘Golf As It Should Be’ award.
While (his) dad was learning golf, Jones junior played rugby for school and college as a forward – “in the front row in a light team, the second row in a short team and the back row in a slow team.”?
And on the academic front, he completed a law degree at the University of Wales Aberystwyth and passed his bar finals at the Inns of Court in London to qualify as a barrister. Then came a spell in chambers in Swansea before his election in 1999 to the newly-established National Assembly for Wales when he was 32.
One of Jones’s early tasks as an elected politician was to attend a Welsh-American festival of song – Gymanfa Ganu – in Harrisburg, Pennyslvania, and it gave him a chance to visit family who had emigrated to the United States three generations earlier.
It’s a connection that makes the international goodwill fostered by The Ryder Cup meaningful for Jones in a very poignant sense.
In 1942, at the height of the war, a great uncle on the Wales side of the Atlantic was sent to Alabama for training as a pilot. Uncle Edgar had opted to join the Royal Air Force instead of going to Edinburgh University to study medicine. The son of a miner, he was set to be the first member of the family to go into higher education but he never returned to take up his place for he died in Alabama in a plane crash.
Those family members who had earlier settled in the United States took Edgar’s body back to their local chapel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a proper burial.
“They filmed the funeral and sent it back to the family in Wales,” says the First Minister. “We still have it along with Edgar’s chapel certificates and letters. The contact with our cousins in the States has been continuous.”
Those cousins will no doubt be watching the play at Celtic Manor this weekend with special interest. And Jones is naturally disappointed they won’t see the venue at its best after the torrential rain of Friday. But he’s quick to point out that the last time a Ryder Cup lost playing time was at Valderrama in 1997.
"Almost every Ryder Cup has had its weather problems,” he says. “But it was really bad luck for the rain to hit us when it did. It obviously fuelled the stereotype of Wales's weather, but people have also seen the other dimensions of our country - the beauty, history, music and friendliness.”
In fact, Jones’s best moment of the event so far came when the players went to Cardiff Castle for a dinner hosted by Prince Charles.
“When the US team walked in and saw the Norman keep, the reaction was superb. They were amazed at that. For us in Wales, it’s just another castle and sometimes we forget how much our history amazes people from other countries, particularly the United States.
“I think Wales has brought a new flavour to The Ryder Cup.”