Dunhill returns to Old Course as town braces itself for A-list visitors

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Since 2001, the annual Alfred Dunhill Links Championship has lit up East Fife and Tayside as some of golf’s finest talents line up alongside big-name celebrities and sportsmen to compete in its unique Pro-Am format across three of the region’s most acclaimed courses – Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and The Old Course here in St Andrews.

The competition, now one of the European Tour’s flagship events, gets underway today at each of the three famous venues with red-hot World number one Rory McIlroy heading a formidable field of golf’s top players who are hunting for personal glory at the Home of Golf. The A-list amateur contingent includes actors Hugh Grant (yet again) and Greg Kinnear, British sporting knights Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Ian Botham and a host of other familiar faces from across the globe. Each will be paired up with a professional player to contest the team doubles prize.

With its 2014 prize-purse of five-million dollars, ‘the Dunhill’, as it is commonly known, is now the most lucrative golf event in Europe outside of the Open Championship (£5.4 million) and the PGA Championship at Wentworth (£3.6 million). This week’s leading professional will walk away with a modest $800,000 cheque as well as earning the priceless right to pose victorious on St Andrews’ distinguished golfing podium: the Swilcan Bridge.

However, in spite of its current eye-watering, sponsorship-fuelled wealth, the Dunhill tournament certainly has a history more rich in character than in cash. Beginning in 1985 as The Alfred Dunhill Cup, it was established as a rival and replacement for the faltering Golf World Cup which had lost the backing of the International Golf Association and was even cancelled in 1981 and ’86.

The Dunhill Cup, also called the World Team Championships, originally saw trios of professionals representing their nations in a 16 team knock-out tournament and was played solely on the Old Course, giving the quirky competition added status in the golfing world. This enabled the tournament to attract the gods of the game, with Sir Nick Faldo and Greg Norman amongst the early champions with their English and Australian teams respectfully.

After switching to a round-robin group format in 1992, the Cup was won for the first time by a Scottish team (Montgomerie, Torrance and Coltart) in 1995 before back to back victories for both South Africa and then Spain, but with the new millennium came much bigger change.

The Golf World Cup was absorbed into the World Golf Championships series, which today includes the highly regarded Accenture Matchplay and Bridgestone Invitational tournaments. This revitalised an event that had once captured spectators’ hearts in the 1950s and 60s and gave the Dunhill’s prospects of continuing a rather sorry outlook.

Forced to refurbish the entire competition or face dropping off the golfing calendar altogether, tournament organisers, powered by the loyal sponsorship of London-based luxury goods manufacturer Alfred Dunhill Ltd., created the Links Championship as we know it today. The inspiration for inviting amateur celebrities to take part came from the long running Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on the PGA Tour.

Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Murray and Michael Phelps are among many idols who have participated in the last 2 years in what is an extremely spectator-friendly occasion: a free-entry policy on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of play mean even those of a non-golfing persuasion will add to the large crowds of fans. Students can go for free from Thursday until Sunday so there is no reason to miss out on the exclusive buzz that the Dunhill brings to St Andrews, nor the world-class golf that is certain to be showcased.

This season, the buzz in the world of Golf has been all about the aforementioned Rory McIlroy, who will be favourite to add to his four titles and two Major Championships with victory on the Links. The Northern Irishman, who will be partnered by his father in the doubles event, was runner-up in 2011 and is aiming for glory both with and without his team-mate.

“I’m looking forward to playing the Dunhill again as it’s been a couple of years, and maybe this time my dad will have a higher handicap and we have the chance to take out the team prize,” he told reporters.

Temperamental German Martin Kaymer looks to be the biggest threat to McIlroy out of an impressive pack of past major winners containing the likes of the South African trio Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel and 2010 Open Champion at St Andrews Louis Oosthuizen. Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington will also feature but a truly dominant US Open triumph earlier this year only further proved that Kaymer is certainly the pick of the trailing bunch.

Ignoring the untouchable Rory McIlroy, one could make a reasoned argument for double senior major winner Colin Montgomerie being the world’s form player. The veteran Scottish nearly man has a new-found belief in his game and thinks playing on firm Links courses will aid his challenge against the “young guys”, making him my dark horse for the 2014 title.“I’ve got my confidence back again and I’m holing putts. I think the iron shots, the putting, the chipping is as good as it ever was; in fact I think it’s almost better. We all know at this level if we are holing putts, we have a chance of winning,” stated the 2005 Dunhill champion.

“I will go into it thinking I can win. On links courses, going up against these young guys, length tends to fade in importance. We feel that we can compete against the best players in the world on a links course compared to a softer, American-style
‘8,000-yard’ golf course.”

For any celeb-spotters and paparazzi amongst the readership, look out for amateur competitors such as Huey Lewis and Tico Torres from the world of music as well as football legends Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola, to name but a few of the famous faces that will be around town this weekend.

Whilst lacking the drama of the Ryder Cup and the history of the Open Champonship, the Dunhill is a showcase of talent, diversity – and at times comedy – but best of all, it’s right on your doorstep!

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