Dunhill Links: What Does It Take to Internationalize Pro Golf?


This post started as some background research for a conversation about the Dunhill Links Championship that’s scheduled for the St Andrews’ Golf Magazine Tuesday Tee Time Hangout.  Because I spend more time following women’s pro golf than men’s I felt the need for a bit of preparation.  I began with the basic questions: Who’s playing?  Who’s the defending champion?  Who are the strongest contenders?  Then I began reflecting on the South Africans who seem ready to dominate the Dunhill.

Ells, Grace, Schwartzel, Oosthuizen, & Goosen

The question of who’s leading the field morphed almost immediately into: Why are 5 of the top 10 pro golfers playing in the Dunhill Links Championship from South Africa?  Then the next question rolled out:  What do Ernie Ells, Brandon Grace, Charl Schwartzel, Louie Oosthuizen, and Reteif Goosen have in common?  Well, yes, they’re all South Africans.

Gary Player came immediately into focus.  The supremely skilled master of the links, the extraordinarily conscientious mentor of young South African golfers, is watching the fruits of his labor ripen and replicate and grow yet another generation of outstanding South African golfers.

Gary Player, Karrie Webb & Se Ri Pak

In his 60th year of a professional golf career, The Black Knight remains unarguably the driving force behind the internationalization of pro golf.  At the 2013 Masters Player, designated “Golf’s Greatest Global Ambassador” by Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne, took time to play a practice round with South African Masters’ rookies Branden Grace and George Coetzee.  What a way to get some course management tips before they teed off at their first Masters!  Player always has time for a chat or a practice round with young golfers, and the rich crop of South Africans who are playing at the top of the leaderboards are testimony to his capacity to inspire and mentor.

What do Gary Player, Karrie Webb, and Se Ri Pak have in common?  All three of them have expanded the geographic scope of pro golf, not just through their personal athletic excellence but also through their active efforts to encourage and guide younger golfers.

Australian Karrie Webb is in her 20th year as a professional golfer.  She plays internationally and has won more tournaments than any other active player on the LPGA Tour.  She’s at the peak of her career, and she is also a constant presence in the lives of young Australian golfers.  Webb often takes younger players with her to international tournaments, provides the off-course guidance and encouragement and support that inspires young athletes.  Like Gary Player, her love of the game is infectious and her generosity of spirit is legend.

The result?  Australian women are always a presence at pro events.  Rebecca Artis just won the Helsingborg Open in Sweden.  Stacey Keating is defending her title at the Lacosta Ladies Open de France this weekend.  Karrie Webb is their role model and their mentor.

Today, 40% of the top 100 players in the LPGA are South Korean.  Nine-year old Inbee Park watched Pak seize that victory on a television in her family home, then told her parents she wanted to do that too.  Park has been on the top of the Rolex Rankings now for 24 consecutive weeks.

Discussions about merging the European and American tours aside, professional golf has been internationalizing for the past 2 decades.  The formal apparatus isn’t breaking any paths.  The players, themselves, have embraced a global perspective, and a sport that was once exclusively dominated by European and American players has been transformed by the sheer diversity of athletic excellence combined with a passionate love of the Game of Golf.  Gary Play and Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak have led this transformative movement.

Who will lead the next wave?  Lydia Ko, perhaps, and Tianlang Guan.