Martin Dempster: Strongest field for Dunhill Links needs full backing from Scottish fans

Rory McIlroy tees off on the third at the Old Course in the 2017 Alfred Dunhill Championship. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty
Rory McIlroy tees off on the third at the Old Course in the 2017 Alfred Dunhill Championship. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty
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It’s THAT week of the year on the European Tour – the one you either love or loathe.

Being held for the 19th consecutive year at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, 
the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is one of the circuit’s longest-running current events and, for that reason alone, its standing in the game should never be under-estimated or, equally, be taken for granted.

Richemont, the Swiss-based luxury goods company founded by South African businessman Johann Rupert, has pumped a lot of money into the event in that period – add in the old Dunhill Cup and this, in fact, marks 35 years of it supporting golf in St Andrews – while, at the same time, handing the local area an economy boost as autumn begins to kick in.

The trio of fantastic venues is the main attraction for players, of course, and what a field we’ve got for the 2019 edition. It features three of the world’s top 10, eight of the top 30 and 14 from the top 50. In short, it is the event’s strongest line up and it has never exactly been shabby.

Heading that star-studded cast is world No 2 Rory McIlroy, who has been a fairly regular supporter of the event since using a third-place finish in 2007 as the launchpad for his professional career as that effort gained him a European Tour card. “It’s a very relaxed week,” observed McIlroy, who is teaming up in the pro-am event with his dad, Gerry. “St Andrews is a great town to spend a bit of family time and spending a lot of time with him on the course will be really cool.”

Six-hour rounds will guarantee they do indeed do that on the course and, though someone who likes to play the game at the proper pace, this is one week when McIlroy doesn’t really mind taking a chill pill. “I try not to take it too seriously because, if you take these pro-ams too serious, you start to get frustrated with how long you’re out there and all that sort of stuff,” he added. “So I try to keep it lighthearted and, hopefully, that’s the key to playing some good golf.”

It’s a formula that has certainly worked in the past. After all, you don’t record four second-place finishes, as well as a third and eighth, in seven starts by getting hot under the collar and stand on tees with steam coming out of your ears.

Others joining McIlroy on this occasion include world No 4 Justin Rose, who is partnering US singer and actor Justin Timberlake, sixth-ranked Spaniard Jon Rahm, who is making his first visit to St Andrews, and American Tony Finau, who is back for more after tying for 10th in his debut 12 months ago.

Add in the likes of Open champion Shane Lowry, Ryder Cup star Tommy Fleetwood and the newly-crowned BMW PGA Championship winner, Danny Willett, and there’s no doubt that, just like last week at Wentworth, this event has been handed a boost by the FedEx Cup Play-Offs on the PGA Tour being done and dusted a bit earlier this year.

Joining Rahm in playing in the event for the first time is Scottish No 1 Russell Knox. “It has always been one of those tournaments that, when it comes around each year, I would turn on the TV then wonder to myself ‘why am I not playing in that?’” he admitted.

One of his goals is to try to overcome a strange feeling at St Andrews. “Every time I have stood on the first tee at the Old Course, I have turned into a 20-handicapper,” declared Knox, smiling. “I do like the Old Course, but I just haven’t quite figured out how to play it properly.”

As far as the format and long rounds go, he knows what to expect from playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am on the PGA Tour. “For the first couple of years in that, I went in with the wrong attitude, but the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed it better as you know it’s going to be a very long day out on the golf course. You are also going to eat like a pig all the way around (laughing) given the amount of food on offer.”

Among the a sizeable Scottish contingent hungry for success this weekend in an event won by Paul Lawrie (2001), Stephen Gallacher (2004) and Colin Montgomerie (2005) is Richie Ramsay. “If I wanted to win one, I’d pick the Dunhill or the Scottish Open over this,” he admitted after enjoying one of the best results of his career when finishing joint sixth in the BMW PGA Championship. “To walk up the 18th at 
St Andrews as the winner would be pretty cool.”

At this time of the year, conditions are normally a tad on the cool side when it comes to golf in Scotland and a mixed bag of weather appears to be on the cards on this occasion. Bring it on was Ramsay’s reaction to that. “When it gets cold and a little bit windy, you need to bring that Scottish Boys’ attitude from Murcar or West Kilbride into play and I think some guys don’t like that,” he said, the sparkle in eye showing he’s not one of them.

Where do I stand on this particular event? Well, I can’t deny that I loved the Dunhill Cup and don’t think I’m alone in that respect. I don’t like watching a golf tournament when its so slow that the players almost become statues and I’m not sure that the amateurs should still be involved when it comes down to the business end in a $5 million tournament in the final round.

There can be no denying, though, that mixing some of the world’s top golfers with some 
A-list celebrities can be an attractive proposition in the modern world, as we saw when a crowd of close to 22,000 – more than either the first or second round – turned up at Wentworth last Wednesday for the BMW PGA Championship Pro Am.

To put that into pespective, the corresponding figure in 2013 was fewer than 8,500 and, though the presence of the likes of Timberlake for the first time this week, as well as regulars such as Hollywood legend Bill Murray and a host of sporting greats might not appeal to the traditionalists, it definitely does to others.

Put it this way, more non-golfers are likely to take in this event, especially when they can take advantage of a free admission offer on the first three days, than have attended any other golf tournament held so far this year in Scotland and the game can surely only gain from that.

The Irish would be all over an event like the Dunhill Links like a rash and Scottish golf fans should certainly be giving this week’s event the support it deserves.