Michael Alexander looks back on 35 consecutive years of Alfred Dunhill golf events in St Andrews.
There’s an autumnal, almost rimy, nip in the air at the Old Course in St Andrews as the sun rises above the spires of the ‘auld grey toun’.
The roar of waves carries in on a stiff easterly breeze from the nearby West Sands as seagulls wheel across the sky and a sea salt tang fills the air.
There’s a couple of hours to go until the first players are due to tee off in that day’s play of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Yet the links have already been a hive of activity with green keeping staff up before the crack of dawn to make sure the course is perfect with tournament organisers also up before first light to ensure the day’s proceedings run, as far as possible, without a hitch.
From Open Championships to the British Women’s Open, some of golf’s most memorable dramas have played out on the Old Course over the centuries.
But for 35 unbroken years, the name Dunhill has also been synonymous with the Home of Golf – from the original team format of the Dunhill Cup first played at St Andrews in 1985 to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship which has been played in its current format over the Old Course (St Andrews), the Championship Course (Carnoustie) and Kingsbarns Golf Links since 2001.
Recognised as the only major professional tournament played every year at St Andrews, the championship has a unique format, incorporating two separate competitions – an individual professional tournament for the world’s leading golfers with a US$5 million prize fund, and a team competition which features some of the most celebrated amateur golfers playing alongside the professionals.
Many of the greatest players such as Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Sir Nick Faldo, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Colin Montgomerie, Louis Oosthuizen and Vijay Singh have played in the championship.
Amateurs have included entertainment stars such as Michael Douglas, Samuel L Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Hugh Grant and Jamie Dornan.
They have shared the fairways with sporting greats like Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Ian Botham, Boris Becker, Ruud Gullit and Michael Phelps.
One man with an unrivalled knowledge of the Dunhill tournaments from the inside out is tournament director Peter German, senior vice president of IMG, who has been involved since that very first Dunhill tournament at St Andrews in 1985.
With more than 35 years of golf tournament experience, he has organised more than 230 golf events in 41 countries and in his own words is “pretty experienced”.
What makes the Dunhill special, he says, is that golfers and spectators alike head home remembering the camaraderie, spectacular settings and unique nature of the event.
“The big thing about the (Alfred Dunhill) Links is that it’s totally different from any other tournament,” he said in an interview with The Courier.
“The professionals really kind of enjoy having something that’s out of the ordinary.
“I wouldn’t say they get bored being ‘on the tour’ throughout the year. But when you play medal play every single week, it does get a bit samey for them.
“I think this one, because of the difference in the format, makes it very different.
“My experience of the attitude of the players is that they all enjoy playing with the amateurs.
“In a normal event, most have a pro-am on the Wednesday and it’s one pro and three amateurs.
“The chances are in a lot of cases they hardly even ever speak because the amateurs are playing off their tee and the pros are playing off their tee.
“But this tournament because they are playing one pro and one amateur together, the amateur is much more important to the pro because his or her performance can contribute a lot of prize money to the pro.
“They work very well together as a team, and it’s amazing the number of friendships that have developed over the years.”
Inevitably big celebrity names like Justin Timberlake can attract a different sort of audience to your average 72-hole European golf tour event.
Mr German insists he doesn’t have time to meet celebrities during the Dunhill.
The “biggest person” he has ever met was the late South African leader Nelson Mandela during a southern hemisphere Dunhill tournament held in Johannesburg in the 1990s.
But Mr German said the key thing from an organisational perspective was to ensure that good pros take part with an underlying aim to increase the popularity of golf at a time when the game is struggling at club level.
Originally conceived as a Dunhill-sponsored version of an international team tournament run by the World Cup Federation, the unique medal match-play format of the original 1985 Dunhill Cup became an immediate success with flag waving golf fans getting behind their countries at a time when there were limited team competitions apart from the Ryder Cup.
Mr German has great memories of that first Dunhill Cup team event at St Andrews when the Australian team of David Graham, Graham Marsh and Greg Norman beat the American team of Raymond Floyd, Mark O’Meara and Curtis Strange in the final – a time when local school children would chase players around the course hunting for autographs.
It was the decision of the European Tour to start a world cup event in competition with the Dunhill Cup that led to the tournament being changed to its current more corporate three-course pro-am format in 2001.
In general, Mr German, who no longer plays golf following a knee replacement, says the tournament now runs like a “well-oiled machine”.
However, little unexpected things can always go wrong whether that be the weather, a lost child or a player not turning up at the right course when they are supposed to – especially if traffic is heavy on the Tay Road Bridge!
Mr German said it’ll ultimately be a commercial decision as to how long the Dunhill continues in Courier Country.
Event sponsor Alfred Dunhill is owned by Richemont – a Switzerland-based luxury goods holding company founded in 1988 by South African businessman and golf lover Johann Rupert.
However, he said the company is very aware of the importance that St Andrews plays in their marketing, adding: “I think it’ll carry on. I hope it goes on and on. It’s so unique that it deserves a place in the calendar.”
With golf tourism worth an estimated £325 million per annum to Scotland, support for the Dunhill is echoed by Fife Chamber of Commerce chief executive Alan Mitchell.
He was introduced to the tournament while serving as chief executive of Dundee and Angus Chamber of Commerce between 2007 and 2012.
The annual business breakfast the Fife Chamber holds with Dunhill organisers is one of the Chamber’s “showcase events” and, while not as big as the Open Championship, the event is a brilliant showcase for the golf trade in Fife – particularly ahead of the massive 150th Open Championship that will be staged in St Andrews in 2021.
“The Dunhill is a really important part of the overall tapestry of golf events and activities,” he said, “which, along with the history of golf, and St Andrews being the Home of Golf, makes it so important to Fife, to St Andrews and to Scotland in terms of the income it generates, visitors and of course the global branding it gives Scotland.
“The Dunhill is a prestigious event. You only have to look at the quality of the golfers and the quality of the celebrities who want to be part of it to know this is a big event. And a big event means a lot of publicity for Scotland and a lot of income.”
Some of Perth-raised former golf professional Liam Barn’s first childhood golfing memories were braving all weathers at the original Dunhill Cup at St Andrews in the October school holidays.
The 42-year-old, who is back living in Perth with his young family, has been project manager with the Fife Golf Partnership since 2012.
The not-for-profit organisation was set up in late 2011 to push the “fantastic and varied” golf product across Fife – not just focussing on St Andrews.
From a sponsorship perspective having the “big global brand” of the Dunhill aligned with St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns is hugely advantageous for the whole area.
“We are massively fortunate to have St Andrews and the Old Course and being the Home of Golf is an enormous thing,” he said.
“But what we try and do is get peoples’ interest through the St Andrews message and push that down to the other golf options available like your Leven links, your Lundin Links your Scotscraig, your Ladybanks, and also through the west of Fife as well – the courses at Dunfermline and down round about Aberdour and Burntisland.
“What we do is use a wide variety of different promotional channels to send these messages.
“Having the Dunhill is also a massively beneficial event to have. It’s one of the main European Tour events by the fact of the prize fund that’s available meaning that some of the bigger players come and play in it. The whole atmosphere in the town is fantastic during that week.
“You’ve also got the celebrities. They’ve got their own stories, especially nowadays using their social media channels to talk about their time in the town.
“It’s always a fantastic late season event. Every time the European Tour comes to a region, it can only benefit the area.”