Competitive but civilised as professionals team up with amateurs at home of golf
Next step is another team event at an altogether different venue at Muirfield Village in Ohio
Caddy Colin Byrne with Ernie Els of South Africa during the final round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the Old Course, at St Andrews last weekend. Photograph: Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Playing in the Dunhill Links Championship last week was probably the ideal warm-up for the Team Challenge this week in Jack Nicklaus’s domain at Muirfield Village in Ohio this week.
Not that the traditional links terrain of the Old Course at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns resemble anything of the type of golf that Jack’s course demands but the idea of playing for more than yourself is where the similarity lies.
The Dunhill Links is one of those rare breeds of professional events that includes amateurs for the entire tournament. It is a unique opportunity for part-timers to get in the thick of it with the pros down to the very last putt on Sunday. Hugh Grant the actor played with the eventual winner, David Howell, all the way up to the play-off after 72 holes. I heard him gasp as David holed a three-foot putt on the last to remain tied for the lead. He was nervous for his professional playing partner.
They are not the rank-and-file amateurs, they are a chosen brigade of relatives, celebrities, sportsmen, businessmen and golfing socialites who gather each year in east Fife for an event that has become a very welcome tradition on the European Tour.
Looking at the prize fund for last week’s event and the tournaments that have preceded the Dunhill I didn’t hear too much complaint from the professionals at having to play with amateurs for the week. There was an air of gratitude to be playing for such a healthy purse.
You can see how the years of experience gained by the regular amateurs has brought a maturity to their behaviour on the course around the sometimes fussy pros and likewise, the professionals loosen their belts in deference to their amateur partners. Let’s say an understanding has developed over the years between the amateurs and professionals on the links. I didn’t hear any pro complaining when an amateur suggested he finish out his putt in order to hopefully assist with a line on the greens. The atmosphere was competitive but with a very civilised air about it.
South African connection
Given the South African connection with Johan Rupert, the lifeline of the Dunhill Links Challenge, there were four of this week’s International Presidents Cup team competing. We arrived on the range at St Andrews on Saturday morning last, another mystical unseasonably warm autumn day, amid Africaans banter on the near side of the practice tee, none of which I understood but the laughter suggested this was the type of warm-up you would expect before you go out at home for a casual game with your mates. My player, Ernie Els, went out and shot 64 after his very low key warm-up session which involved more words than shots. Ernie was playing with his father Neels, who has accompanied his son on eight occasions in the pro-am event. It was easy to see Ernie was not forced into golf as a teenager by his father like quite a few younger players seem to have been. If his behaviour during last week’s event is any indication of the early days he gave passive support to his son.
Of course this week is another test of compromise for the traditional isolationist professionals who only have to cater for themselves 98 per cent of their careers. So Ernie, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuisen and Richard Sterne have all had a quiet introduction to the art of compromise with their amateur partners in Scotland last week.
The team spirit moved west on Monday, some in a seamless hop from the local RAF airport of Leuchars in private jets directly to Columbus, to take that spirit to its limit with a team bus departure at 8am on Tuesday for the team photo-shoot and the first practice round. Its been a long time since these players have endured a 40-minute bus trip to a course. The spirits were buoyant but I cannot see the mode of transport lasting all week for people who are more accustomed to being chauffeured and not bounced about en masse in a bus.
This year’s International strategic team has a very southern African blend to it with Nick Price as captain and his vice-captains are Tony Johnstone and Mark McNulty. It also has a very relaxed air about it with encouraging words from the captain on the way to and from the course, inviting everyone to make suggestions if they felt they were appropriate.
On the course players got used to each other and those who were likely to be paired together figured out who was going to use who’s type of golf ball during the foursomes matches. Already the uniform was being mentioned as not quite suiting certain players’ requirements. Golfers are an extremely sensitive bunch who like things to be generally the way they always are week to week.
When we got back to the hotel in downtown Columbus on Tuesday evening after a drawn out bus trip our captain Nick Price had arranged a gift for us all which was neatly placed in our rooms. He understands the challenge of a team compromise for the week and will do everything he can to create a homogenous atmosphere in which us underdogs, the International team, can gel in order to upset the much more favoured home team.