South African Johann Rupert, 61, is the executive chairman and CEO of Richemont, the luxury goods group, and the man who started the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour, which combines his enthusiasm for links golf, and his approval of amateur golfers. Said to be the second-richest man in South Africa, he founded the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which operates in 34 countries, and he serves on the investment committee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. He loves opera, nature and conservation, and in sport, particularly cricket, rugby and golf. He owns of two of South Africa’s leading vineyards and Leopard Creek Golf Club in Nelspruit, 200 miles east of Johannesburg. He is chairman of the South African PGA Tour, a.k.a. the Sunshine Tour, and is an honorary life vice-president of the European Tour. On the eve of the Open Championship at Lytham his Q&A is more than appropriate
GGP: How did you start in golf?
JR: In 1978, we were living in New York. I watched The Masters and saw Gary (Player) win. I will never forget Seve (Ballesteros) was wearing a blue shirt as he hugged Gary. I thought to myself: this is a cool sport. Up to then I had played cricket and, when younger, rugby. I am not as good a cricketer as I thought I was. When I returned to South Africa, I started playing golf. I was 30. And then I got involved in the South African Tour because of my friendship with Gary.
GGP: How did that come about?
JR: Even then I could see that our tour was not being run properly and so they asked me and a bunch of my friends to form a board. It was a “four Saturday mornings a year” job. The problem was that at the first board meeting we discovered we were bankrupt. The second horrific discovery was that the commissioner had a deal whereby he would take 20 percent of all sponsorship. When I asked him about it he replied: “What do you think the ‘commission’ in commissioner stands for?” So instead of it being a four Saturdays a year it became a rescue. We formed a Section 21, a public benefit organisation. It is owned by the players. Nobody who is on the board is allowed to take one penny, not even travel expenses. Every year, we stand for re-election and the players vote.
GP: Why did you start Laureus?
JR: I had a friend in the U.S., a top baseball player, a black guy, who always signed autographs for white kids. I asked him why he did this. He said: If a white kid has my poster behind his door, he is not going to hate the black kid in his class. With our problems in South Africa and having been against apartheid from high school or university days, I thought sport could be a unifier. We started a Sports Science Institute, then a cricket academy and then Laureus to use athletes to create harmony. We don’t have political or church leaders that unify. So using sportsmen was good.
GGP: How often do you play and where?
JR: I play twice a month. We’ve got a place near Cape Town and when Ernie (Els) comes to stay we play four times a week. Then I go to the Hamptons in July and we’ll play every day for two weeks, and then for a month or six weeks, nothing. You just think you’ve got it and then a month or six weeks without golf and you’re gone.
GGP: What is your handicap?
JR: It is 11 now and that is thanks to Ernie. He got me a clubfitting with Callaway and I have got an extra 40 yards. So my handicap has gone from 14 to 13 to 12 to 11. I was a 5. That was my lowest. Then it went up to 14 because the South African handicapping system changed.
GGP: What is your best gross round?
JR: A 70 at Santa Ponsa in Majorca. It was going to be a 67 until my big buddy said to me on the last tee: You do realise you’re 5-under par? I promptly snapped it out of bounds.
GGP: Why are amateur golf and amateurs so important to you. Most people with largesse to put on a big golf tournament would want the best pros, yet a considerable part of your success has been made with the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which involves amateurs.
JR: It is the only sport that aging guys who love the competitive spirit of sport can still play. If kids see Samuel Jackson play golf or Sir Stephen Redgrave then they think golf is cool and aspirational. We have to highlight that other athletes love golf. I started a development programme in South Africa 16 years ago and we now have had 16,000 kids who have learned to play. It is wonderful to see these kids coming through and the talent in the townships. We work with the schools. The kids have to be tidy. No earrings, nose studs, funny hair. Second, they have to attend school and their marks must be up to scratch. Their headmasters like it because the kids are doing better at school. It teaches them values outside the game. Golf is a maker of friends.
GGP: How proud are you to see the South Africans like Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel come through?
JR: People ask me why I do it? My wife breeds race horses. She has to pay the trainer, pay vet bills, the food. I talked her into it. I said I’ve got the golfers. I don’t pay their food. I don’t pay their vet bills but I have as much fun when I see them win. I didn’t expect Louis to thank me in his acceptance speech (at the 2010 Open) at St Andrews but I cried when he did. I cried when Tom Watson didn’t win (the 2009 Open) at Turnberry. There is nothing I would like more than to see Ernie win again. He is too nice an individual not to get something back. People don’t know how hard he works at his game. Maybe he does it at Lytham. He blew it there in 1996. After that, he went into the locker room and cursed blue murder. After a while an amateur stuck his head around the corner and said: Can I ask you something? Ernie said: If you fetch us two beers. The guy got them and then asked Ernie: Do you think I am ready for the pro game? Ernie said he then made one of the biggest mistakes of his career. He said yes. He should have said no. It was Tiger Woods.
GGP: Journalists sometimes write that Ernie has been distracted for years by Ben, his son, who is autistic. Is that accurate?
JR: It is very difficult to describe the whole thing because I went through it with the family. Ernie has totally reconciled himself to the fact and I would not say that he was distracted because of Ben. That would be unfair to the fantastic relationship they have. Ben is highly intelligent. See him on an iPad. Autistic people think differently and they can’t verbalise it. They have gone through some tough things and have worked them out.
GGP: Who will be the next South African winner of a major championship?
JR: George Coetzee. The kid can flat out play.
GGP: Do you approve of all the technological advances being made in golf?
JR: I am worried about technology. It is making courses obsolete. I have a simple suggestion. The kids of today are not fearful of a driver. If you want to let them play with exactly the same balls, then give them a maximum height of tee peg. Then the bombers are not going to be able to hit the drives they do. You’ll have swingers of the club again. Somebody said ban the tee peg. You can’t do that but you can say that the tee peg should be no longer than half an inch. Suddenly you are not going to be able to hit the ball so far because you can’t control the trajectory. The courses are getting ridiculously long. I fully buy Barney Adams’s idea of Play it Forward. We are trying to get that going in South Africa. I was introduced to the idea by a friend when we played Shinnecock Hills. He said it is no fun playing off the back. Let’s play it one tee forward. For the first time I loved Shinnecock. If I had my way, I would ban wedges over 55 degrees. It has taken the Seve-like skill out of the game. Anyone can hit a lob wedge out of knee-deep rough. Now, they have 64-degree wedges and they are going to go 70-degree wedges.
They have to ban the belly putter, especially now that they are wedging it under their arms. I actually thought about banning them at Leopard Creek but then I saw the chairman of Augusta National and Michael (Bonallack) using them so I shut up immediately. I’m like Ernie. Whilst it’s legal, I’ll cheat as well.
We have to pull the ball back because it is making golf take too long and too expensive. It needs somebody like The Masters to say right, here is The Masters ball and if you don’t like it then don’t come. No pro is not going to show up at Augusta but you need to be as powerful as Augusta National to say it.
GGP: What about increasing the size of the hole?
JR: The good putters are still going to out-putt me. I would do something about the speed of play. The problem is its selfish. I don’t watch golf live unless it is the Open or The Masters. The others I record and fast forward through. Especially when you get someone like Jason Day, who last year proudly said in the World Match Play that he was going to slow play someone. They were like two holes or 1½ behind and he doesn’t get fined? Why don’t they fine these guys or penalise them two shots? We all know who they are. To me the technology must be used and the slow play must be stopped.
GGP: How well do you get on with Tim Finchem?
JR: I think he has done a remarkable job for his constituents. But his constituency is number 25 to 150 on the tour. He has to increase their purses. The better he is at that the worse it is for our golf (in South Africa). He arranged The Presidents Cup to kill the one thing that we had created, which was Australasia playing South Africa. He said he didn’t want to give Mark McCormack another date. I admire what he has done for the U.S. tour and the U.S. pros but he mortally wounded the Australian tour. I cannot develop golf in South Africa without the kids seeing Ernie and Retief and these guys live but ultimately there is a conflict and it is called dates. Asia has to play in their winter, which is our summer. In the end there will have to be some form of world tour.
GGP: You could say that Tim Finchem is doing what he is paid to do.
JR: That is what I am saying. In doing it, he wrecks our business, our tour.
GP: What are your favourite courses?
JR: The Old Course. I thought I had played a pretty good round, a 74 or 75, and I said to Michael (Bonallack, the R&A secretary) this is bloody unfair and Michael looked at me and said: Johann, golf is not meant to be fair. It is meant to be a test. Golf is supposed to reflect life. It is how you deal with what is given to you. Royal County Down is spectacular. Sunningdale Old and New. There are so many great courses in the UK.
GGP: You haven’t mentioned one in the U.S.?
JR: Seminole is where I am a member and because it’s a links Ernie and I can have a heckuva match because he can’t hit driver on every hole. It’s a second-shot golf course. Pebble Beach and Cypress are spectacular. The atmosphere at Augusta is something else. Shinnecock. The National. I have never played Royal Melbourne but Ernie has threatened me with it. That is on my bucket list.
GGP: All the courses in the U.S. you have mentioned were built before 1930. You sound as though old golf courses are absolutely your thing.
JR: They are. As one wise guy said: We used to have golf courses designed by Donald Ross. Now we have golf courses designed by Donald Trump. If you ask your friends to name their favourite golf hole it is never a par 3 over 200 yards and it is never a par 4 that is 480 or 500 yards. It is always a par 3 under 160 yards or a reachable par 5 or a little dogleg par 4.
GGP: Why is the locker room at Seminole so good?
JR: It is the best locker room in the world. It’s the size of a basketball court but you have all these boards with the names of past winners. It is just the nicest locker room in the world.
GGP: Do you like team events in golf?
JR: What I like about the Walker Cup and what I detested about the (1999) Ryder Cup at Brookline is jingoism. It started with the War on the Shore nonsense at Kiawah Island (the 1991 Ryder Cup). Europe did not behave properly at Valderrama (in 1997). When people get this whipped up, it can interfere with golf. When spectators came to George (South Africa) for the 2003 Presidents Cup, I, as the host, asked the home spectators to treat the U.S. team the way our players would like to be treated when they play abroad. Afterwards, Tiger Woods came to me and said that of all the team events he had been to anywhere in the world it was the best he had been treated. Spectators behaved.
GGP: Will Tiger get to 18 major championship victories? Will he get to 19? Will he win another major championship?
JR: When he had eight major championships a group took bets whether Tiger gets past Jack or not? I was one of the guys who said no. I thought his back would give in. I didn’t know that he had already had knee operations. I think that is why he left Butch Harmon. Butch’s swing took too much of a toll on his body. For Tiger to get to 18, he will have to have the career that is better than Phil Mickelson’s.
GGP: Do you like Tiger?
JR: I don’t know him well enough. He has always been very nice and civil to me. I had the opportunity to play with him at the Dunhill but gave it to a friend. What I can say is that people like him. The players like him. I wish Tiger well in his golf career. Perhaps there are more really good players today but when Jack (Nicklaus) was in his prime there were more great players. (Lee) Trevino never backed down. Gary never backed down. With Tiger, somebody said it was if his rivals were chocolate men in the sun. Ernie told me the shots Tiger played against him were not natural. Tiger scarred a lot of people. I am not sure the kids today are as scarred mentally.
GGP: A couple of years ago you made a famous speech at the European Tour’s annual dinner suggesting the players were not all they thought they were. Do you think they’re spoiled?
JR: No, but I said to them: You’re incredibly fortunate. You are playing for vast sums of money. The economy is in trouble. Please realise that a pro-am is not root canal work. Give a bit back to the game because without sponsors you are not going to have a tour. Be loyal to sponsors who give you a sponsor’s invite. It used to be that if you won a tournament, you defended that tournament. That has gone by the wayside. It was an impassioned plea for reality. That is what I was trying to say and why I went on far too long.