Golf's alternative Hall of Fame (and knitwear shame)
For Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, the Dunhill Links is serious business. For Bill Murray, Samuel L Jackson and friends, it's the best fun they have all year
Thursday 07 October 2010
On Monday, while the Ryder Cup was heading towards its historic day-four crescendo at Celtic Manor, some of the world's most famous golfers were to be found several hundred miles north, at St Andrews. The reason: golf is not their main area of expertise. These players are not the Westwoods and Poulters, they're Samuel L Jackson, Hugh Grant, Ian Botham, Bobby Charlton and friends.
There are two sides to the Dunhill Links Championship. For the professionals, this is serious business – a tournament with a top prize of £502,000 and with enough influence on the world rankings to catapult Lee Westwood ahead of Tiger Woods to the position of World No 1 should he finish in the top two. For keen and influential amateurs – millionaire chief executives of blue chip companies, Hollywood icons, rock stars and more than a few sporting legends – it is a chance to play, and drink, with the European tour's finest professionals and recent Ryder Cup heroes. As one regular, Hugh Grant, puts it, "the experience is a cocktail of one third terror, one third excitement and one third lager".
The attraction is clear: the week is fantasy golf, only for real. Played on three of the world's most revered courses (the event also takes in Kingsbarns and Carnoustie), this event allows enthusiastic amateurs to dream that they're playing for the Open.
Kyle MacLachlan, the 51-year-old star of Blue Velvet, Dune, Twin Peaks, Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, is among those getting a taste of big-time golf this week. "You really do feel you are walking on hallowed ground here," MacLachlan says of St Andrews.
MacLachlan's idea of happiness is standing on a driving range with a bucket of balls. Preferably at St Andrews. And with a beer waiting for him at the Jigger Inn, the tiny pub overlooking the 17th green of the Old Course. He is a nine-handicapper and is regular partner to Ryder Cup legend Paul McGinley, favourite to captain Europe at Gleneagles in 2014.
"I'm a perfect partner in a pro-am," MacLachlan says. "I can play three or four holes really well and make some birdies. And then disaster strikes."
This is the 10th anniversary of the Links Championship and the 26th year that Dunhill has sponsored a tournament at the back end of the year. Even Tiger Woods played for the US in the old Dunhill Cup in 1998 when it was an international team event. Since 2001, though, the event has been pro-am – all the way. Despite the significance of the tournament – as Westwood could testify – the top 20 amateurs join the pros for the final round on Sunday.
The points system reflects this. While the pros are playing for pounds, they are also accumulating points based on the handicaps for the pro-amateur prize (three points for a birdie, two points for par, one for bogey, dented ego and pick the ball up for anything worse).
Golf, of course, has long enjoyed a cosy relationship with celebrities, especially in the United States, where Jack Nicklaus can swap stories with Jack Nicholson and Bing Crosby started the Crosby Clambake, which has evolved into the AT&T National Pro-Am in February.
But it's not just celebrities, of course. Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell should have a particularly close relationship with their partners this week – then again, they are playing with their fathers, Gerry and Kenny. A nice relaxing few days for them, except that their sons are fighting for half a million pounds and crucial world ranking points.
The intensity this creates is something that MacLachlan has come to appreciate since he played with McGinley in 2001 was the first time. "I saw what it is like to strike the ball properly," he reveals of that first experience. "Rhythm is their thing. McGinley and I made the final cut. He was actually leading the tournament after three rounds, so he and I were in the final group off the first tee on the Old Course in the final round.
"It's something I'll never forget. I had been away from golf for about 25 years and I had only played once or twice a year but the Dunhill Links brought me back in a big way to the game. It was a magical experience."
The Ryder Cup legend Darren Clarke looks forward to this week each year. "We catch up with friends and it's a lot of fun," Clarke said. "I never get tired of coming back to the Home of Golf. I normally meet up with Arthur early in the week before the serious business of golf takes over." Arthur, it turns out, is Arthur Guinness. No time for that this week. Clarke was in Wales, of course, as one of Colin Montgomerie's victorious vice-captains.
A friend who will be missing this time is Dennis Hopper, who died in May. The star of Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now became such good mates with his regular partner Ian Poulter that he jetted in to Woburn Abbey to attend the Englishman's wedding a couple of years ago. On his last visit to the championship a few years ago, Hopper summed up the unique relationship between golf and celebrities. "There are so many actors and rock musicians that have indulged in every kind of narcotic and alcohol," he said. "And when they get sober, they seem to end up on a golf course. Willie Nelson took me out for a game and once I'd hit one good ball, I was addicted. And it's a great addiction to have."
Grant always attracts a gallery and is paired with the defending champion Simon Dyson. Grant doesn't venture into the town these days. The students at the university are back for freshers' week. Grant was invited to a party a few years back and found himself splashed all over the newspapers. He turned 50 last month and stays close to the Old Course hotel. Probably best, and it doesn't reduce the allure, he says, of a unique tournament. "I love this event," he says. "I try never to miss it."
The event's best amateurs
Tim Henman (Handicap: 0)
So good that he influenced the R&A to lengthen one of the world's most iconic holes. Henman reduced the Road Hole 17th to a drive and a wedge at last year's Dunhill Links Championship.
Ian Botham (Handicap: 6)
"Making the final day is the dream of every amateur golfer and I've been lucky to do it twice: with my great buddy Woosie [Ian Woosnam] and David Howell."
Samuel L Jackson (Handicap: 3)
"I went to a golf celebrity tournament soon after I started playing and the organiser asked who'd had the worst score of the day. Nobody put their hand up. So I did. The prize was five golf lessons. I got better than my buddies. Now they won't play me for money."
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