Johannesburg – Sunday, October 11, 1998: The Old Course at St Andrews and David Frost is standing behind the 18th green on the steps leading up to the iconic Royal & Ancient clubhouse. He gazes down the broad expanse of fairway that doubles for both the first and 18th holes, focuses his eyes on the renowned Swilken Bridge in the distance and remarks: “I think we’ve just shown the world that South Africa are not only good at rugby and cricket. We can play golf as well.”
His reasoning couldn’t have been truer as the three-man SA golf team – Ernie Els and Retief Goosen were the other members – had just beaten Spain 3-0 in the final of the 16-nation Dunhill Cup. The Old Course – the Grand Old Lady of world golf, the home of golf – had been in a mean mood that day with the players having to deal with a cold, biting wind. But SA team captain ‘Frostie’ weathered the difficult conditions to dispatch Miguel Angel Jimenez, Els edged home against Jose Maria Olazabal and the Goose played the best golf of the day to down Santiago Luna to ensure a clean sweep.
The victory completed a remarkable hat-trick inside three years for South Africa in team golf, as Els and Wayne Westner had won the World Cup in 1996, and this same little trio – Ernie, Retief and Frost – had also captured the 1997 Dunhill Cup 12 months earlier, defeating Sweden 2-1 in the final.
In rugby, of course, South Africa had won the 1995 World Cup while our cricketers in the 1990s captured the inaugural Champions Trophy and were a very fine Test side. And, in soccer, we had won the African Nations Cup. But, yes, Frost was right: South Africa could play team golf remarkably well, as well as starring at individual level, Els winning two US Opens in the 1990s.
South Africa’s heroics in the 10 years that they played the Dunhill Cup (they also reached the final in 1991, losing to the Swedes but beating the mighty United States in the second round, and made the semi-finals in 1994 and 2000) were certainly impressive. And particularly memorable was the golf played by Goosen in those 1997 and 1998 triumphs. He won all five of his medal matchplay clashes in ’97, and did the same in ’98 for a phenomenal 10 out of 10 record.
As it turned out, 2000 was the last year of the Dunhill Cup and in its stead, that great benefactor of golf, Johann Rupert, initiated the 72-hole Alfred Dunhill Links Championship from 2001, with a round each at Carnoustie and Kingsbarns and two rounds, including the final round, on the iconic Old Course.
And for the first 11 years, South Africa failed to reproduce their superb Dunhill Cup form at the home of golf. But 12 months ago, Branden Grace shot a European Tour record-equalling 60 at Kingsbarns en route to victory. He therefore re-established a proud record that SA golfers have enjoyed at St Andrews, remembering that Bobby Locke won the British Open there in 1957 and Louis Oosthuizen the 2010 edition of the world’s oldest and most famous Major.
Next week sees the 13th Alfred Dunhill Links Championship taking place and the “old firm” of Els and Goosen, as well as Grace, Oosthuizen and a whole bunch of other South Africans will be taking part. It’s become a very special tournament and from a personal point of view, I was able to witness first-hand those memorable victories in 1997 and 1998, as well as Grace’s sub-par blitz last year. And once again, I’ll be inside the ropes next week, hopefully watching one of our boys claiming the title. Being a golf writer does have its perks. And you know what, you never miss the cut.