It all began, it seems, like many things in sport, in the USA, the link between golf, show-biz, big business and even presidential politics came to the fore soon after the second world war.
Whilst some pre-war presidents had enjoyed private down time on the links, it was the 34th President of the United States of America, Dwight D Eisenhower who took the link between the White House and the clubhouse to an altogether different level, a mid-handicapper who, it is said, played over 800 rounds of golf during his two-term, eight-year tenure in office between 1953 and 1961.
Enjoying a 21-year association with Augusta National, Mr President even had a tree on the fabled course’s 17th fairway named after him after he tried, and failed to have it removed because he believed it hampered his game.
Most US Commanders in Chief have followed suit, John F Kennedy, George Bush, father-and-son, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, who was said to be quite liberal with the rules, Barack Obama, roundly criticised for the time he spent playing golf, although his predilection for the game was minor compared to the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Donald J Trump, not only plays golf – frequently – he also owns a host of golf resorts around the world, two in Scotland, two in Dubai, 12 in the USA and one in Asia; Trump is never shy in issuing invitations to the current greats of men’s golf, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy amongst those who have teed-off with the 44th President of the USA.
But there is more than just golf involved when it comes to US Presidents and the PGA Tour; the ‘Big 3,’ egged-on by their agent and ‘Master Manipulator’ Mark H McCormack pressed the flesh with successive Presidents, the eponymous Presidents Cup a lucrative and politically-astute outcome which continues to this day.
Consequently, soft political power has enabled the PGA Tour to create, and maintain arguably the most generous and lucrative tax-lite regime in world sport, all part and parcel of its astute collaboration, some might say, ‘Connivance.’
Meanwhile, over in Hollywood, US comedian/movie star Bob Hope was also alert to the benefits golf could bring to his career as a performer; the co-star, with Bing Crosby of the award-winning, Road to… movie franchise caught-on to what golf could do for him and what he could do for golf, hosting the Bob Hope Classic on the PGA Tour from 1965 to 2015, well after his death in 2003, followed by a European Tour spin-off.
A glitzy, part golf, part show-biz charity-orientated tournament became a fixture on the PGA Tour, something a bit different, more relaxed and less formal than the stock-in-trade, week-in, week-out fare served up stateside, and it is said to have been the genesis of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship going into its 20th year.
Over its 19-years and counting, the, ‘Dunhill Links’ as it is widely known has attracted many a Hollywood star – not to mention the one from the Northern Ireland version of ‘Tinseltown,’ Rory McIlroy – with quintessential English fop, Hugh Grant, US actor Bill Murray, who played Carl Spackler in the ultimate golf movie Caddyshack, Samuel L Jackson and Michael Douglas are virtual ever-presents at St Andrews each October.
Playing with tournament champion D.A Points, Murray, a regular on the pro-celebrity golf circuit on both sides of the Atlantic won the Pro-Am championship at the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Douglas, who reportedly plays off 14.7 and is regularly to be spotted on the links in Bermuda with his Hollywood wife Catherine Zeta-Jones who has a hefty 24 handicap is also a regular at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship
“It’s such a treat. It’s magical,” says Fatal Attraction and Wall Street star Michael Douglas, adding, “I can’t think of really any other sport that allows you to play with the best players in the world as an amateur, so that’s what’s beautiful about the handicap system and golf in general.”
And It’s not just the guys from the movies who have turned to golf to keep some balance in contrast to film sets and red carpets; as well as Ms Zeta-Jones, Charlie’s Angel star Cheryl Ladd plays off 18, Australian icon Nicole Kidman (Batman Forever / Moulin Rouge!) made a guest appearance at the glitzy Mission Hills Celebrity Pro-am, as has chart-topping singer Celine Dion when she’s not performing sell-out residencies at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, earning a reported US$500,000 per show, nice work if you can get it.
So rewarding is her singing career, and so passionate is she about her golf that Canadian songstress Ms Dion actually bought her own golf course, Club de Golf Le Mirage in Quebec for US$15m, where she regularly hosts fellow A-listers including seven-handicapper Samuel L Jackson, Sylvester (Rambo) Stallone and Die Hard star Bruce Willis, who play off 11.4 and 36 respectively.
Pop stars, male and female are increasingly attracted to the game of golf as a means of chilling-out from their often hectic and occasionally hedonistic lifestyles. Perhaps one of the least likely to be found in the somewhat genteel surroundings of a golf and country club, dressed in sweater and slacks are Rock ‘n’ Roll bad boy Alice Cooper, normally clad in leather and wearing make-up.
Now 70-plus, Cooper, who is known to produce snakes and spiders on stage and was once a self-confessed alcoholic now plays off a very tidy nine and says, “I took up the game over 35-years-ago and once played 36 holes every day for a year.
“I got my handicap down to five back then and now play off around nine,” adding, “I still play most days, even when I’m on the road, we get up early and tee off around 7.30am [and] I must play 250 rounds a year on average,” concluding, “golf probably saved my life.”
Another unlikely golfer is US rapper Snoop Dogg (aka Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr.), relatively new to the game, he currently plays off 18 and
plays his golf in the Augusta, Georgia area and has formed an unlikely relationship with the uber-conservative US Masters at the exclusive Augusta National.
“It’s hard to play golf,” said Snoop, who cites Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as his favourite golfers. “It looks easy on TV, but it’s not that easy, it’s a real sport, requires real coordination, real timing,” forgetting to add that he occasionally refreshes himself mid-round with a stiff gin-and-tonic.
Another, more conventional pop star turned golf addict is US singer-songwriter Justin Timberlake, who plays off six, mainly at the swanky Lakeside Golf Club in Burbank near Hollywood, where veteran actor Jack Nicholson also gets in the swing.
‘JT’ as he is known, who turns 40 next January has formed a close friendship and playing partnership with English ‘Major’ winner Justin Rose, teaming-up at both the Dunhill Links and the PGA Tour equivalent, the AT&T National Pro-am, and for many years, his charitable foundation hosted his own tournament on the circuit, the Shiners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas.
Timberlake learned his golf from his father at home at Big Creek near Memphis, Tennessee, USA and, reportedly, when the course he regularly played was in danger of being shut down and turned into a housing development, he and his father halted proceedings by stepping in and buying the golf course themselves, spending a reported US$25m on an upgrade before selling it in 2014.
“Seeing some of the work that the Shriners have done over the years, it’s just really mind blowing, and such a worthy cause, and it makes you proud to be a part of what we’re doing out here at TPC Summerlin,” says the man with 20 Top 10 hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 Charts, adding, following his round with Rose over the Old Course at St Andrews, “I love it. We’re having a blast. I’ll put on a show either way. Could be either really bad or really good.”
Intriguingly, Irish ‘Boy Band’ members seem to have developed a habit of migrating towards the royal and ancient game, coincidentally or by design as their hair turns grey, their waistband expands and their allure to former Tik Tok teens fade, you decide.
That said, their charitable work is always helpful and, just possibly, they might just take golf to a previously untapped and hitherto disinterested demographics.
Ex Boyzone front man Ronan Keating said recently, “I have now been playing for 30 years and have a handicap of 14, which I guess is pretty respectable,” adding, insightfully, “These days most of my friends are golfers.
“It’s such a relaxing and sociable sport and being on the golf course is always a pleasure as they are such beautiful places,” he concludes, whilst his compatriot Brian McFadden, whose former band Westlife sold over 50m records worldwide and plays off 12 is another aficionado of an autumnal excursion to the Kingdom of Fife.
The third member of the Holy Trinity of Irish popular culture, Niall Horan, late of One Direction fame commands a handicap of nine, but more pertinently, a close friendship with former world number one and fellow-Irishman Rory McIlroy, which has even seen the ex-OD singer caddie on occasions for the man tipped long ago to become the new Tiger Woods.
And the appeal of a round over each of the three finest links courses in the UK, and amongst the best in the world, is invariably too much for relatives of the world’s top players, Rory McIlroy’s father, Gerry, a two-handicapper who introduced and tutored his son from the age of three and Neels Els, father of the ‘Big Easy’ who goes one better, playing off one.
A trilogy of courses, a celebration of links golf and a star-studded celebrity occasion, the jewel in the crown, the iconic Old Course, St Andrews, the infamous Carnoustie Links and one of the best new courses in the world, the Kyle Phillips creation, Kingsbarns, now in its 20th year and maturing to perfection are often irrepressible for many captains of industry.
Amongst them, Irish billionaires JP McManus and Dermot Desmond, who invariably compete with each other to team up with three-time ‘Major’ champion Pádraig Harrington, the added cache of the 2021 Ryder Cup captain’s Open Championship triumph at Carnoustie in 2007.
Ex-professional footballers, many of who were on the golf course within hours of finishing training with their clubs traditionally make good golfers. Jamie Redknapp, who played 239 times for Liverpool and 17 times for England, now a TV star and football pundit – plays off four – and is one of a host of former top-flight players who routinely head north to the Kingdom of Fife each October. His Liverpool predecessor Alan Hansen, who once played off scratch and club icon, ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish have all graced the Scottish links in recent years, as have Dutch legend Ruud Gullit and Spanish star Luis Figo, both single-figure players.
Another star sportsman – arguably the most famous and certainly the wealthiest of them all – Michael Jordan, for all his 6ft 6in (1.98 m) height is also a handy – and it is said, still improving – golfer; currently playing off one, the greatest basketball player of all time and still, 23-years after retiring, the face of Nike is said to be a member of 12 private member’s clubs and owns 40 sets of – no doubt Nike – golf clubs!
Now 57-years-old, the Brooklyn-born shooting-guard basketball legend, who now owns the Charlotte Hornets and is worth an estimated US$1.6bn (Approx. €1.35bn) – twice that of Tiger Woods – is also said to play 36 holes most days and practices his putting on a purpose-built 3,500 sq. ft. putting green at his multi-million-dollar home in Highland Park, Illinois.
But two sportsmen stand out as packing the biggest punch on the links, two-time World Heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, despite playing off 18, routinely drives the golf ball 250-yards-plus, whilst giant US Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, a rookie golfer playing off 26 holds the record for the longest putt ever holed at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Making his debut back in 2012, Phelps, who has 18 Olympic gold medals to his name drained a 159ft (48.5m), a fraction short of an Olympic swimming pool, breaking the tournament’s previous record of 99ft (30.2m) set by the late Irish-born TV star Sir Terry Wogan.
But, of course, with so many egos on public show at one of golf’s most unique high-profile annual events, it’s unsurprising that things can go wrong, and they have; back in 2012, Chris Evans, once the highest-paid Radio DJ in the UK was prevented from defending the Dunhill Links Team Championship title he won in 2011 with Nick Dougherty after officials discovered the man they call ‘Ginger’ has been less than candid about his 10-handicap.
Earlier in 2004, this time for what was described politely as, ‘Inappropriate behaviour,’ in the official Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, which overlooks the most famous piece of golfing real estate on earth, Dances With Wolves and Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves leading man Kevin Costner found himself unlikely ever to be invited back to the celeb-fest following a complaint from a masseuse in the 5-star Hotel.
Interestingly, while there is no shortage of celebrities who cross over to become keen and sometimes competent golfers in their own right, the reverse is very rarely the case.
Indeed, the only mark ex-professional golfers to make it in the world of stage or screen is in golf broadcasting, where Irishman David Feherty, a five-time winner on the European Tour is now considered to be a ‘Star’ on the Golf Channel then NBC Sports, whilst Sir Nick Faldo, six-time ‘Major’ champion is a regular on-air analyst on both CBS Sports and BBC Sport.
But, wait a minute, golf has but one superstar, one single giant-sized A-list celebrity and he goes by the name of Eldrick Tont ‘Tiger Woods, but what an eminence he is, a crossover performer in everything but name, still, the most sought-after and successful golfer ever to play the game, he’s back page, front page, inside pages, box office, big time.
One suspects that, whatever he chooses to do, both with the time his weary body permits him in golf, and, irrespective of his life after golf, the Tiger Woods star is unlikely to be in decline any time soon, and, surely, if he allows such an intrusion into his fiercely-protected privacy, a biopic, the story of a truly remarkable life must be a movie screaming out to be made.