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Springbok Blues
You will not find Johann Rupert's name in the pantheon of South African golf. His name is far from being a household word, yet it must be circulating in the Belfry like a whirlwind for he is threatening to take the biggest annual pot out of the orbit of the European Tour.

Mr Rupert is the Chairman of the Richemont Corporation, the parent company of Dunhill - a name familiar to many with a smoker's cough or a penchant for glittery dress accessories and a love of links golf. Mr Rupert is himself a keen devotee of the links game and it is almost solely through his efforts that the Dunhill name has become synonymous with all that is best about links play at the highest level. For 16 years Rupert and his fellow directors sponsored the Dunhill Nations Cup which initially brought together the best players in the world in national teams of three to compete over the Old Course at St Andrews. For 16 years it carried the highest prize money on the Tour and was probably the most interesting and exciting event of the year outside of the Open Championship.

The Dunhill Cup suffered from two important niggling problems, however, and because of these it never captured the popular interest that the World Matchplay did. The first of these was the format. It is generally held that someone in IMG (Mark McCormack's sporting agency, International Management Group) conceived of the medal-matchplay format by which the competition used to be staged, and that he was the only person who understood it. Certainly it required lengthy discussion and a long time at the bar to work out which team had actually won a match. Irritatingly, one's conclusion was not unusually at odds with the official result.

The second problem with the event was its timing in the golfing calendar. Played in October, the golfing year was over as far as the average punter was concerned. Also, October weather on the east coast of Scotland is hardly conducive to spectating. Players clad from head to toe in designer knitwear and wet-weather clothing are barely distinguishable from one another and far from looking at their best. The timing of the event was, needless to say, not popular with the pros hardened to the sunshine of the south and softened on the zephyrs of resorts that rarely experience anything more demanding than winds that reach mere puff velocities. The Americans increasingly took the view that golf in the fall at St Andrews was something to be avoided - no matter what the inducements in the hospitality tent.

It is not cynical to suggest that the Dunhill board of directors must have perceived of another problem not immediately obvious in IMG's corporate headquarters. The event persisted in being won by teams from nation states in which the Dunhill name was not exactly a household word. The Irish, for instance, are not given to lighting a cigarette with anything more complicated than a box of matches and the Canadians rarely wear mohair under their parkas.

No one was surprised when Mr Rupert changed the Dunhill format this year and turned his sponsorship into the Dunhill Links Championship. But, in keeping with everything that had gone before, it was conceived of in the most complicated format imaginable. Played over three great links courses on successive days and as a pro-am to boot!

Doubtless the idea was to bring out a broader spectrum of punters to ogle celebrities while watching the best in the game. Not a good idea in Scotland. The purists did not want to watch the best lumbered with golfing jokers, even though some were formidably able players.

Celebrity gawpers are in the main not the sort of folk who would take their rubbernecking much further than a supermarket opening ceremony.

Fewer spectators were ever likely to appear and even fewer actually appeared. Hit by weather so appalling that having teeth extracted would have been preferable to playing golf, the event stuttered on-and-off for five days with players finishing their rounds on one course and starting their rounds on another on the same day.

Yet, despite the elements and the best efforts of a few non-golfing scribes who ventured little further than celebrity sniffing in the hospitality lounge, the event was a success. Pros clearly enjoyed it and the celebrity amateurs all found it a great do. Getting wet seemed to many to be a novelty and jolly good fun.

All very refreshing from many different standpoints - not the least of which was watching the big boys play really tough golf. But not refreshing enough in the boardrooms of corporate business for we are about to see the last of the Dunhill on the links lands of Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews.

Despite the fact that this years event was simply unlucky - it should not be forgotten that one event aside, when Faldo refused to play in a slight harr (sea fog), every Dunhill has been blessed with near perfect weather - Mr Rupert is threatening to pull the plug on the event. Next year's do, that will run over the week following the Ryder Cup, is to be the last.

Mr Rupert would like the event to be held in early September at a time when the Old Course is the provenance of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club for its autumn meeting, an event almost as old as the links itself and just as inviolate. Mr Rupert may be larger than life itself in the Belfry but there are things in Fife that are certainly outwith his control.

©    30 - OCTOBER 2001

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