- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

MEDINAH, ILL. (AP) - 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.

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