Johann Rupert, the driving force behind the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, reckons it would have been “irresponsible” to hold this year’s event, saying he “loves St Andrews too much” to put it under threat from an outbreak of the coronavirus.
In a rare interview, the South African entrepreneur opened his heart to Scotland on Sunday over the decision to call off the $5 million pro-am tournament in October due to its sheer scale and complexity of being staged at three courses – St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.
It will be the first time since 1985 that an event will not be played under the Dunhill banner on the Old Course and, while no-one is more disappointed about that than Rupert, the chairman of parent company Richemont, is adamant it is the right call with the Covid-19 pandemic still a threat.
He heaped praise on the Scottish Government for its handling of the pandemic and the R&A member is planning to play golf himself in Scotland in the coming few weeks, but he said it would have been wrong to be pushing ahead with the scheduled 20th anniversary of the Dunhill Links, an event featuring 168 professionals and 168 amateurs from all over the world.
“We all feel distraught,” said Rupert, chairman of the event’s championship committee. “All year round we look forward to the Dunhill especially and my wife and I love Scotland. It’s a great pity, but it would have been irresponsible.
“This whole (Covid-19) thing has been devastating globally. Everybody is suffering and the Scottish Government has behaved so responsibly. We tried to postpone it as long as possible hoping it would become clearer, but it had become unfair to the European Tour as well because they could stage another event on those dates if possible.
“I feel perfectly safe playing golf in Scotland and a group of us are planning to come up once or twice this summer. Being in Scotland is fine. Being in the open air is fine. I wouldn’t feel at risk at all in terms of tourism. But, due to the international field, both in terms of amateurs and professionals, and knowing that people can be asymptomatic and still transmit the virus, we just couldn’t go ahead with it this year.
“People could be acting in good faith and just accidentally cause reinfection. If you look at that time of the year in September and October, it’s cool, so people are indoors, they are going to be in pubs. Imagine everything going well and a couple of asymptomatic people come and they restart it. It is not responsible.
“Sorry, I love St Andrews too much and I love the Old Course too much. It is the culture, the space and the people that we love and we are not going to do anything to endanger that.
“My only sadness about the event being called off this year is for the community of St Andrews and also the community of Carnoustie because I know how much this event means to them. Also the caddies. I’ve had the same caddie for 17 years. It is devastating in that respect.”
The event has been held in its current pro-am format since 2001. It was won by Paul Lawrie, Colin Mongtomerie and Stephen Gallacher before Rory McIlroy used it as a springboard to launch his professional career by securing a European Tour card when he finished third in 2007.
Celebrities jump at the chance to take part, with Michael Douglas, Samuel L Jackson and Justin Timberlake among the Hollywood A-listers to have teed up in the event and also enjoyed its legendary social aspect.
“We looked at every scenario but, even holding it at one venue, the risk of people coming in is too great,” added Rupert, a close friend of two-time Open champion Ernie Els. “If you look at the PGA Tour and a number of the positive tests they had, I know two of the players. They had absolutely no idea they were positive. They were asymptomatic. They tested negative before leaving and they must have got it two or three days before and, suddenly, they get to the tournament and they are positive.
“If one can keep it localised somewhere, then fine. But to bring people from all over the world into a community like St Andrews, I’m sorry, and I discussed it at length with my wife, I just felt it would be irresponsible.
“I expected a lot of anger from all my friends that have been there for 15-odd years. But, to a man and a woman, they all said that, as sad as it is, we understand the reason. And I have to say the pros felt the same.
“It is doubly sad because from March onwards everybody had been saying, ‘please don’t cancel the Dunhill, it’s the only thing we are looking forward to after being locked down’.
“We all thought that maybe by the end of the northern hemispherical summer things would lighten up and that we could hold it and have a huge celebration basically coming out of lockdown. But I don’t think this thing is going away until we have a vaccine.”
Despite this year’s disappointment and Rupert having to show incredible patience due to our interview being blighted by technical issues, his passion for the Dunhill Links was evident from start to finish during a 30-minute conversation
“You know, we are the longest continuous sponsor on the European Tour,” he said. “I guess on this calendar we will have to include the Dunhill [Championship] in South Africa this year then make up for it next year by having a really fun event for everybody.
“What I like especially about the Dunhill Links, because the field is quite big, is that you can have sponsors’ invites for pros. For instance, Rory McIlroy got his tour card by coming third and it is interesting how the wheel turns. I got to know Rory’s caddie at the time, JP Fitzgerald, over the years and last year he asked me for a sponsors’ invite for his pro, Victor Perez. I hadn’t heard a lot of him, but he told me he could play and, lo and behold, he wins the Dunhill.
“How many people have either made the breakthrough there or, alternatively, made their comeback? It’s got a big prize at the end of the year and a lot of the pros have used it to launch their careers, which is always fun to see.
“It’s been such a privilege to be involved in the Dunhill. We’ve had so many wonderful memories and the camaraderie that has built up between amateur and pro and between amateurs is fantastic.
“Everyone there is contributing to life and to memories. That’s the way we encourage people to be. They must have fun. The Dunhill will be there next year and it gives us something to look forward to”.
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