Thursday 23 January 2020

Dermot Gilleece: 'Echoes of Waterville's World Cup ban in McIlroy's Saudi Arabia stand'

Rory McIlroy has declined an invitation to the Saudi International, despite a reported inducement of $2.5m in appearance money. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy has declined an invitation to the Saudi International, despite a reported inducement of $2.5m in appearance money. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Those of us associated with the royal and ancient game in this fair land, are largely a pretty decent bunch. And we've been fortunate that as ambassadors for this country our leading players have tended generally to steer clear of controversy, especially where personal behaviour is concerned.

Saudi Arabia has sprung back into the news with the announcement of details for the second staging of the Saudi International tournament in late January. Shane Lowry is playing it as the fourth in a run of tournaments in the New Year, which includes the defence of the Abu Dhabi Championship, but Rory McIlroy has declined an invitation, despite a reported inducement of $2.5m in appearance money.

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These are personal decisions made by individual traders. Saudi Arabia's current record on human rights, however, is not a lot different from the circumstances which led to our Government's decision to pull the plug on the World Cup of Golf at Waterville in 1981.

That was an occasion which projected Ireland in a very different light internationally from the carefree, fun-loving image which David Feherty likes to promote. Indeed the Bangor man has painted some particularly amusing pictures of his homeland from pro-am experiences.

He described them as circumstances where "the amateurs were die-hard golf idiots who dressed like the crew of a Norwegian prawn trawler." And he went on to describe seeing one particular pro-am partner "in the days when penalty drops were taken over the shoulder, drop his ball into the hood of an anorak. It took him five minutes to find it."

Feherty added: "The rest of us couldn't resist the opportunity to help him look, all the time paralysed with laughter. 'Damned if I know where it went, Frank. It must have got a hell of a bounce.'"

When the decision was taken to bring the World Cup to Waterville, it was considered no more than a worthy honour for an outstanding links which had been host to the Kerrygold International from 1974 to 1977. The mood changed somewhat, however, when the Greek government banned South Africa from the 1979 World Cup in Athens.

Though South Africa were welcomed back for the 1980 event in Bogota, our Government came under increasing pressure from anti-apartheid protesters. This led ultimately to an official banning of the Waterville staging. So, there was no World Cup in 1981 and South Africa didn't reappear in the event until 1992.

It was only when I travelled to the new South Africa to cover the 1996 staging at Erinvale, Cape Town, that I could fully appreciate what 1981 had been all about. That was when I saw Andrew Mlangeni, once a keen 12-handicap golfer who had languished for 26 years as a political prisoner in Robben Island, play alongside Ernie Els in the World Cup pro-am.

"Less than three years ago, he wouldn't have been allowed inside the gates here," a white spectator remarked of the 71-year-old black politician. "Amazing, isn't it?"

It surely was. Not only was the ANC member of parliament competing in the same team as the country's foremost tournament professional; he had leading industrialist, Johan Rupert, and merchant banker, Nick Padgen, as playing colleagues. And from my observations, he acquitted himself admirably.

Tired but smiling happily, Mlangeni had a baseball cap covering his receding hairline as he walked off the 18th green. "It was my first time on the course and I had a few pars," he told me cheerfully. "It was also my first time to play with Ernie, which I consider to be a great honour."

On hearing that last comment as he watched us in conversation, Els immediately interjected: "It was more of an honour for me to play with this man, when I think of him held in a place for as long as my age." Then the 1994 US Open champion added with a smile: "He made a good contribution to our team score."

We can't know the extent to which Ireland's decision in 1981 impacted on those historic scenes, but it would be nice to think it did matter. Just as McIlroy's decision to turn down Saudi Arabia's blandishments, could one day lead to a more caring regime there.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has also had interesting comments on the rules breach by Patrick Reed, who was found guilty of improving his lie in a waste area during last weekend's Hero Challenge in The Bahamas.

Which prompted memories of Bernhard Langer from the World Cup at Erinvale. That was where it came as something of a surprise to observers that the winner of two Masters along with countless other international titles, was unaware that he couldn't use a towel to sweep loose impediments from the line of a putt. On being penalised two strokes, Langer claimed afterwards with wide-eyed innocence never to have heard of such a rule.

Three years later, he was again in conflict with the rules, this time with a breach remarkably similar to the one of which Reed was guilty. Which is where McIlroy comes in. Without pointing at any other player, the Holywood star sympathetically suggested of the Reed incident: "You try and give the player the benefit of the doubt." He then added: "It's almost like a hobby to kick Patrick when he's down. If it wasn't Patrick Reed, I don't think it would be such a big deal."

I couldn't agree more, given what I observed from Langer during the second round of the 1999 Masters.

From a decidedly poor second shot on the long eighth, Langer's ball landed in a hazard (penalty area), dominated by trees, marshy soil and pine cones. With a rules official at hand, he confronted the problem of hitting a cut-up lob-wedge, despite having a pine cone almost directly behind his ball. Upon asking the official if he could remove the cone, he was told he could not. But he was permitted to touch it on his backswing.

"I suspect I moved it," he said after a fine recovery shot. To my eyes he most certainly did. Which meant that had he taken his action without the rules official's permission, he would have incurred a two-stroke penalty, just as Reed did. As it happened, the German made perfect contact with the ball and sent it soaring over pine trees to finish 20 feet from the pin. And the putt went down for a most improbable birdie four which led ultimately to a splendid 66.

Concerned with what I'd witnessed, especially the ignorance of the on-site rules official, I reported the matter to Will Nicholson, chairman of the Augusta National Competition Committee. He later responded: "We were wrong. And it is our style to admit it when we're wrong. But there was no breach of rules by Bernhard in that he did as instructed."

To my knowledge, that was the end of the matter. Which, I imagine, was influenced by the perception of Langer as a man of integrity, whereas Reed's troubled past was highlighted in the wake of his 2018 Masters triumph. Quite reasonably, McIlroy considered such discrimination to be unfair.

Another Masters winner, Doug Ford, once offered the well-intentioned advice: "You don't hit anything with your backswing, so don't rush it." In the light of the experiences I've just noted, he would have to take a somewhat different view these days. As Peter Alliss liked to remind us, it's a funny old game.

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