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Remembering the World Cup of Yesterday

By John M. Ross,
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One world, one cup. (.)

They'll be playing the World Cup of Golf down in Buenos Aires in a few weeks, and the very thought of it seems to envelope my head in a large cloud of gloom. Oh, I'm sure it will earn the attention of the 200 million who are expected to watch it on TV, and live up to the unique excitement it has stirred for almost half a century. But for me, it will not be the same.

And it isn't the same! It is now the EMC World Cup, one of the four world golf championships organized by the International Federation of PGA Tours, and it has been turned upside down. It has a new format for play, a complex method for selecting teams, and prize money that World Cuppers of old didn't dare to dream about. The organizers think it will make it a better event and will produce better numbers on the TV ratings and a big spin at the gate. Perhaps.

I had watched the World cup mostly from afar until Fred Corcoran, who took over the Cup when it was in swaddling clothes, persuaded me I should cover the 1963 event in Paris, Well, Paris is a nice port of call for any reason, but this one was especially memorable.

My first day on the grounds of Ste. Nome-la-Breteche, a new course that had the refurbished old stables of Louis IV as its clubhouse, I spotted a familiar figure approaching on the path - the Duke of Windsor. Even more interesting was the magazine he had rolled up in the pocket of his tweed jacket - my own meal ticket, Golf Magazine!

Taking advantage of his friendly nod, I asked him if I might take his picture. He smiled, "Of course," and I hurried to get my camera into action. Needless to say, I positioned myself to make sure I got the logo on the magazine's cover properly framed. I resisted the temptation to tell him that I admired his obvious good taste in golf reading, but my thoughts jumped ahead to how this picture would dress up the next issue. The former King of the British Empire reads Golf Magazine! Wow!

In all honesty I should admit that the Duke got his copy free. My office had sent over a few hundred copies of the magazine to be placed in the lobby of the clubhouse as samples, and obviously the Duke had helped himself.

The bottom line of this exciting tale is not a happy one. In my haste to get the shot, I had failed to check the camera's exposure, and the print was quite blurred. The Duke was somewhat recognizable; the magazine logo was not.

I never had luck picking winners at the track either!

But in Paris I did have the good fortune of sampling the fellowship created by the World Cup play among players from 40-odd countries from the four corners of the earth. And that was exactly what the Canadian industrialist John J. Hopkins had in mind when he launched the event in 1953. He thought golf was uniquely structured to bring people closer together and create better understanding, and he dedicated the event to "International good will through golf."

The Paris event attracted the last remnants of European royalty, show business celebrities, and even Richard Nixon, who had stopped off to play in the pro-am, and deliver the keynote speech at the kickoff dinner. The frosting on the cake was the play of the U.S. team of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who went on to win the first of four Cup victories as a team. But the '63 Cup probably is best remembered for its bizarre finish when dense fog limited play to 63 holes with the help of automobile headlights encircling the last four greens.

The event was designed to attract the two best players - pros mostly from each country, playing as a team and with total strokes providing the score. And it attracted the best players in the world, including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson and the like, all playing mostly for the honor of representing their country. They received traveling expenses, room and meals, and a modest honorarium. And the prize money was even less than modest - $1,000 to the winning team, to be split, of course. But they played as if this was the match of their lives.

The next time I attended a World Cup match I was in a different role; I was in charge of the event. My old friend Fred Corcoran had died unexpectedly in the middle of 1977, and the International Golf Association, which conducted Cup play, asked me to fill his boots. And they were big boots, as I quickly found out when I jumped in to take over the next Cup, the 25th anniversary event, no less, in Manila.

I knew nothing about running a golf tournament. Indeed, my own club had never even suggested that I serve on a committee. But that was only one part of the job description. I also had to have some working knowledge of international politics and protocol, and how things were going at the UN; finger-tip identification of the capitals, flags and key contacts of our 67-member nations; and a selection of the best prayers for holding off rain.

And one more thing - perhaps the most important - was how to keep our corporate sponsors in the fold. We had about a half dozen from time to time, including American Express, Xerox, Time, Inc., Pan Am, Rothman's International and ITT. They were all international companies and very sensitive to anything we did or said that might affect image or reputation. And from the time I was just settling into my new chair, it seemed as if there was always one sponsor on the verge of abandoning our ship and in need of some handholding.

Of all my Cup memories of eight years packed with crises and, of ten, high drama, perhaps the most vivid focuses on events in Athens in 1979. At the time, the two political issues we had to be concerned with were the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa and the matter of the "two Chinas." Thus, in my negotiations with Greece's foreign affairs minister I asked if all our World Cup nations could play in Athens, and he assured me Greece had no problems with South Africa or China. The contract was completed and the names of the participating nations spelled out.

Before a ball was struck in Cup play, however, we had a problem. I was on the course during the play of the pro-am when I was summoned to the telephone. It was an urgent call from the foreign minister telling me we would have to withdraw the South African team from the field. He said that a group within the UN was pushing for a boycott of South Africa's teams from all international sporting events, and topped it off with: "If we let them play, Greece will be banned from the next Olympics."

Momentarily stunned, I finally replied: "How could they ban Greece from the Olympics. Your fellows invented the Olympics."

He didn't respond, and I then reminded him of our earlier discussion of the matter and the specifics of our contract. He didn't budge. South Africa had to go.

I had two members of our board in Athens, and after a thorough discussion and some hurried calls to other board members, we decided we would not withdraw South Africa from the field. We seriously considered canceling the entire event, but realized that would have been a terrible penalty to place on all the players. Finally, we told the Greek minister if he wanted South Africa out, Greece would have to lift their visas. That's what he did.

What the Greeks didn't know was that golf was the first sport in South Africa to permit the blacks to compete in tournaments, or that a black had served as an alternate on some South Africa Cup teams of the past.

I made sure the media knew all the details, and the Greeks came off looking like something less than Olympians.

Still nursing my wounds, I was now confronted by a group from the People's Republic of China - which most of us called "Red China" at the time, demanding that we take down the flag of the Republic of China, which was flying with all the others. "That country no longer exists," they said.

We told them we had given permission to the team representing Taiwan to fly their old ROC flag until a new one was ready for use. And since Red China had not entered a team, there was no conflict. Our complainants didn't back off.

I explained further that this was a decision that could be made only by my board, and since they were scattered I couldn't reach them until the following Monday.

"But the tournament will be over then," one observed.

I agreed, and then I ordered two officers to stand guard at the base of the ROC flagpole to prevent an incident. It worked.

No, this will not be the same World Cup I knew. But it's alive. And that's good.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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