No Liv Golf 'animosity' at Dunhill Links but Johann Rupert calls for talks

Johann Rupert is delighted that his beloved Alfred Dunhill Links Championship has not been blighted by bad blood in the build up to this week’s event, having witnessed with his own eyes that players are not at each other’s throat over golf’s widely-publicised civil war.

Johann Rupert in action at Carnoustie in last year's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Picture: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images.
Johann Rupert in action at Carnoustie in last year's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Picture: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images.

“I think the fascinating thing is that I haven’t seen any animosity between LIV and non-LiV here,” Rupert, the chairman of Richemont, the title sponsor’s parent company, and driving force behind the event, told The Scotsman in an exclusive interview in St Andrews.

“Yesterday, two of the major protagonists who were having a go at each other on Twitter recently were playing as partners in front of me,” added the South African entrepreneur as he sat looking out on the Old Course.

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“The best of friends and they were having a go at each other in the papers, but yesterday they were partners and I said to them, ‘what’s going on here?’ and they said ‘no, we are still friends’.”

Rupert nodded his head in agreement when it was suggested that the Dunhill Links, which brings professionals together with amateurs, embodied what friendships in golf was all about, having provided a platform for people to enjoy themselves on and off the course at either St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.

The man who has ploughed more than £90 million into the sport during a near 40-year association is determined that continues to be the case, but, along with many others, he is deeply concerned about how the game is being ripped apart.

The likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka have all been banned from playing on the PGA Tour since they signed up for LIV Golf, which is being fronted by former world No 1 Greg Norman with funding from Saudi Arabia.

That has led to a lawsuit being filed by LIV Golf in the US while a separate court case on this side of the Atlantic in February will determine if the DP World Tour can take similar action against Ryder Cup legends Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer among others.

“I’m old enough that I counted Kerry Packer as a good friend and Mark McCormack,” said Rupert, a respected figure in the game and long-time friend of two-time Open champion and fellow South African Ernie Els.

“When Kerry Packer couldn’t get the television rights for his cricket, he started the one-day cricket and exactly the same as is now happening with LIV, the players all got banned and they weren’t allowed to play at the MCG etc.

“Now we’ve banned all of these people (in golf) and I’m concerned that, in a time of economic hardship for the majority of the people and it’s not going to be easy for the next five years, we are seeing the icons of the sport squabbling shout who is going to get richer faster.

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“At a time when people might not be able to pay their heating bills, it’s not very good for the sport and I just hope that they sit round the table and start talking. But I don’t see too many off ramps.

“I spoke to both sides. I was asked to speak to both sides. But I said to everyone involved that I would not say to either side what the other one said or to anybody in general. But I have a friend who taught me years ago that there are always two sides to the story and then there’s the truth. Both sides have got fair points. But I think things could have been handled better.”

A number of South Africans, led by major winners Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel as well as 2012 Dunhill Links winner Branden Grace, are among 16 LIV Golf players in this week’s field, which also includes FedEx Cup winner Rory McIlroy and US Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick in the non-LIV camp.

Oosthuizen, who is partnering Rupert on this occasion, was praised recently by DP World Tour chief executive Keith Pelley for handing his departure in a “professional and classy manner”, which was music to Rupert’s ears.

“They all came to me, not to ask my advice or blessing as I said that I am not getting involved either way,” he said. “But I said, ‘do not burn bridges, go and open cards, tell them exactly where you are at’.”

According to the LIV Golf players, one of the main benefits of being part of the breakaway circuit is a vastly-reduced playing schedule. “All three of them - Charl, Louis and Branden - said to me, ‘it’s fantastic; I get to see my children grow up’.

“Let’s say we have 48 weeks in golf and, in order to satisfy sponsors, you had to play a certain number etc and they never got a break - ever. But it’s not only golf. It’s rugby and cricket. It’s as if we treat the rugby players as disposable. Overplay them, hurt them and get new ones.

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“I think you have the longevity in tennis. For instance, Roger [Federer] could pick his tournaments. He didn’t have to play every week. I don’t have the solution (for golf); I am just concerned.”

What will happen in 12 months’ time if the likes of Oosthuizen, Schwartzel and Grace are indeed banned from playing on the DP World Tour as well? “Now you are being a very good journalist,” said Rupert with a smile. “I am not commenting on that one, sorry (laughing).

"I would hope that we never get to that stage. It depends how quickly people are prepared to just swallow, breathe deeply and just listen to the other side. And actually just talk.”

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