Johann Rupert, golf’s fairy godmother

2014-10-11 00:00

LAST weekend was one of those that contained so much watchable sport that it was almost a relief to have been invited to a wedding. No choices needed to be made. No need to channel hop in the manner that infuriates those of the household that attach little value to this singular skill of multi-tasking. It just required a girding of the loins to refrain from grousing at missing an All Black rugby Test match that the Boks might just win.

As it turned out, the hosts of the wedding had thoughtfully arranged for a television screen to show the rugby. This during those dead hours when the happy couple and their families submit themselves to standing in front of a camera for several thousand shots, most of which are never seen more than once and few of which see the light of day once the kids are born.

Yet it was a brave decision even when the Springboks are playing the All Blacks in Johannesburg. The risk of the wedding reception being thrown into a pall of gloom after another heart-breaking defeat seemed a gamble too great to take. Fortune, however, shone on Ellis Park, the Springboks, most of South Africa and, at least, the male members of the wedding party. In deference to the buoyant mood of the post-match nuptial celebrations, the bridegroom began his speech by saying, “Thank you … Patrick Lambie.”

In doing so, he echoed the thoughts of all South African rugby supporters for whom another close defeat by this marvellous All Black team would have been hard to take. I do not wish to add much to the forest of print that has been devoted to a wonderful rugby Test match and welcome victory against New Zealand other than to say how pleasing it is to realise that the Springboks should go into the 2015 World Cup with a justified degree of confidence and two clever, talented flyhalves.

Much as we all enjoyed the rugby, last weekend threw up one of those heart-warming tales that sport occasionally throws our way. This took place on the Old Course at St Andrews when Oliver Wilson won the Dunhill Links championship after spending several years in the doldrums. Johann Rupert may not be the most fetching of fairy godmothers, but few are as effective.

Rupert gave Wilson an invitation to play in the Dunhill event notwithstanding the wretched time he has been having since he lost his playing card for the European tour. In 2008 Wilson was a member of the last European team to lose a Ryder Cup match. As a nine times runner-up on that tour he had earned a place in the European team but subsequently lost his swing and all confidence.

Sadly for Wilson, his game fell away to such an extent that this year he has been unable to make a living even on the minor Challenge tour. He had earned just € 20 000 (R279 000) when Rupert’s invitation fell through his post box. On this tour he has had just one top-20 finish all year and missed many cuts. He had fallen from a top-50 ranking to 793 in the world. He was in real danger of becoming one of golf’s disappeared who do well for a time and then suffer such a breakdown in confidence that they are permanently lost to the sport.

Rupert, who keeps remarkably well informed, will have known that Wilson, who was runner-up alongside Rory McIlroy in the Dunhill just a few years ago, was battling to survive as a professional golfer. Rarely can his gift of an invitation to play in the Dunhill been turned to such good account.

In fact, Wilson’s game had shown a recent glimmer of light when he shot 63 in a recent Khazakstan tournament. A new driver and some hard work under the eye of fellow professional Robert Rock had begun to convince Wilson that his best game was close. Accordingly he arrived at St Andrews with the expectation that he might just make the cut.

He opened with a 64 at Carnoustie, faltered slightly at Kingsbarns but then brought it home in 65 on the Old Course to be three shots ahead in a tournament with the biggest purse on the European tour.

He admits that he slept “awful” (for some reason golfers do not use adverbs) as the implications of what could be percolated round his restless mind. Foremost in his thoughts was the possibility that if he finished third or better he would earn enough to secure his playing card for next year. That alone would change his prospects from poor to pleasant but all night the gremlins of doubt worried that he was not ready to withstand the pressures of a pack that included a red-hot Rory McIlroy.

On the final day, the birdies he needed would not come. After nine holes, thoughts that he might not play well enough to secure his card troubled those who knew his story. A pair of birdies at 10 and 11 kept him in the race and steadied his mind. As the pack turned into the wind, their birdies dried up, shots were dropped.

As Wilson stood over his approach on the 16th he was in contention to win but he was faced with a devilish shot 200 yards into a stiff, cold wind. He drilled a three iron off the back foot and stuffed “the shot of his life” within four feet. He nailed the birdie. As Wilson waited on the tee of the famous road hole, McIlroy putted into its infamous bunker to drop a shot.

The tournament became Wilson’s to lose. A brave, if not miraculous, four on the road hole, a missed putt on the last by Tommy Fleetwood, and Wilson’s 11-year wait for a title was over. More importantly, he has a rare chance of redemption. At a stroke he has emerged from golf’s wilderness — a desperate place from which few return.

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