SURREY, ENGLAND | The food was of the highest order at the European Tour’s dinner on the eve of last week’s BMW championship. Rather less palatable – at least for some of the players – were the home truths served up by South Africa’s Johann Rupert, the main speaker and the multi-millionaire behind the sponsorship of the Dunhill Links championship.
Rupert’s message was loud and clear – and all the more penetrating in that it was not diluted by anything in the way of politically correct niceties.
He warned the players they needed to “get real” about the tough economic conditions, which were likely to prevail, and that it was about time they recognised that professional golfers were entirely expendable. Regardless of what happened to them, amateurs would carry on playing as per normal.
Ernie Els at one point had his head in his hands on a night when Rupert painted a picture of an earlier generation of South African professionals “urinating into fountains” and making off with their hosts’ wives. As for George O’Grady, the CEO of the European Tour, he leapt to his feet when Rupert made cheerful reference to how he thought the Tour “must be in trouble” when they asked him to speak. “We are now!” came O’Grady’s wry interjection.
Rupert gave the impression that the European playing contingent would need to take heed of how the Americans had put too many of their eggs in the corporate basket. “If,” he roared, “you want us, as sponsors, to continue to back you, it’s a little bit about giving. Don’t duck and chase the dollar. Be loyal to even your smallest sponsors and pay back.”
Rupert wondered if the players were oblivious to how they came across on television. “You call rules officials across because you see a white or a yellow line and you don’t know where to drop the ball. You need to get a life. You’re losing viewers.”
At the same time, he suggested that their pace of play was hardly calculated to add to the entertainment factor. Having noted how he and a couple of friends could whip round St. Andrews in 4 hours and 15 minutes at worst, he demanded to know why the professionals should take hours longer when they were hitting fewer shots.
He was not wrong on that score, though there were plenty to argue that his words would have carried more weight had he not been in the throes of a speech which was at least twice as long as anyone would have wished. “I had been looking forward to having a half-early night,” said Ian Poulter the next day. “He kept me up quite late.”
Yet Poulter conceded that Rupert had said “some interesting things,” even if he did not believe they applied to him. For his part, he played in the pro-ams and he made sure that he entertained the sponsors and guests he was there to entertain. But he pointed to how he could not begin to play every week simply to keep everyone happy. “That’s not possible. I’d love to please everybody and play every tournament in the year, but that’s never going to happen.”
Lee Westwood said that nothing had made him sit up more than what Rupert said about the precarious nature of sponsorships. “Sponsors do have options,” he agreed. “If they have to choose between laying people off and sponsoring a golf tournament, of course they should put their own people first.
“A lot of players,” continued the world No. 3, “tend to take sponsors for granted. They don’t understand how it works. They do need to do more.”
Paul McGinley, who thought Rupert’s had been “a great speech,” said the most alarming line to him was the one about how golf could get by on amateurs alone. “We’ve got to remember that professionals are not the proverbial ‘be all and the end all,’ ” he admitted.
On to O’Grady who, at the end of the week, told how he had fielded several messages from people who felt he had been “brave” to ask Rupert to speak. That said, he cheerfully admitted to not being entirely sure whether “brave” was a euphemism for “foolish.”
The CEO added that Rupert, with his 45 years of experience in the game, had every right to say what he wanted – and that he fully respected his opinions. As much as anything, he thought that someone who called the recession long before it happened was perfectly placed to play his part in keeping the professional on their toes.
“It was a friend talking to friends,” he said diplomatically.
When one startled dinner guest asked one of Rupert’s old pals what the South African was really like, the friend in question gave a delicious little insight into this larger-than-life gentleman’s character.
“When Johann asks you to come and have a chat, you listen.”