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That Blank Line in the Record Book

By John M. Ross,
Kiawah Island Ocean Course
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The UBS Warburg Cup Matches, held this year on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, don't merit the "silly season" moniker. (Courtesy www.kiawahresort.com)

This is called golf's "silly season." I suppose it's intended to stress that the serious championship season is over and what follows is just for laughs and a few extra bucks to tide the boys over the winter. I don't think the name fits.

True, it is that time of year when an array of unusual events are played - like the Senior Slam, the UBS Warburg Cup Matches, the Father/Son Challenge, the Women's World Cup and the WGC EMC World Cup. But over the years these events have produced great golf entertainment. Indeed, last week's Warburg Cup matches, organized in a unique format, kept me peering at the tube for three afternoons and enjoying every minute of it.

It was like Old Home Week. The format brought together the superstars in the over-50 age group and another array of those in the 40-49 bracket. They lined them up on two 12-man teams - the U.S. versus the Rest of the World - and they went at it in Ryder Cup style. There were eight World Golf Hall of Fame members on the rosters and, collectively, they had won 66 professional major championships. It was fascinating stuff, and the fellows in the club's Grill Room talked about it for days.

The other ingredient that made it special was the track selected for the classic meeting, also right on target - the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. The memorable 1991 Ryder Cup - "the War by the Shore - was played there, as was the 1997 World Cup of Golf, and it is a Pete Dye course that is tailor-made for match play. Even without the tantalizing wind blowing in from the ocean it is a test that made most of these talented veterans wince.

The Warburg Cup doesn't deserve any identification whatsoever with the "silly season."

The World Cup of Golf, also on last week's menu, runs the risk of being painted with that same brush at this time of the year, but it shouldn't. Of course, my views here could be slanted since I spent a chunk of my life guiding the event through troublesome seas. As a matter of fact, the return of the World Cup to a venue in Japan this year also made it a special time for me and stirred memories I had hoped I had forgotten.

The World Cup of Golf, which started out as the Canada Cup in 1953, was a team event featuring the two best pros from various countries and it was dedicated to "international goodwill through golf." As the event grew and involved more countries, it was renamed the World Cup in 1967. Its page in the record book will show that 67 events have been played and that only one year - 1981 - is blank. No event was held that year and, regrettably, I was a prime witness to this minor disaster.

Part of my time as the World Cup's director was spent selecting and inspecting courses where we wanted to play the event and then negotiating with the club or association involved to pin down the details. For the 1981 event we had decided to return to Japan for our third visit. Our initial match there in 1957 had been won by an underdog Japanese team and this touched off an incredible golf explosion in the island nation.

We had been there again in 1966, and they had asked to be considered for 1981 after we had played in Bogota, Colombia. It fit our scheme for rotating our sites around the world and we agreed to talk. It was about this time of the year in 1980 when we started our discussions in Tokyo. We had selected one of Japan's finest courses as the site, and a major Japanese automobile maker was bidding to be the sponsor. We also had the bright prospect of getting the Cup match on Japanese television, with pickups on other outlets in golf markets around the world, including the United States. I was in high spirits when we got started. We had had trouble getting coverage in the '70s.

Past experience had told me, however, that when things run smoothly in the beginning, there was sure to be a bump in the road before long. During my first visit, one of the negotiators asked if they could put the sponsor's name on the event, like "The So-and-So World Cup." I turned that down promptly, explaining that we insisted on holding commercial tie-ins to a minimum - no advertising signs on the golf course, and only subdued sponsor identification on the main scoreboard. We followed the example of the Olympics at the time.

My Japanese friends, still smiling, pointed out that an increasing number of tournaments on the U. S. and British tours were using sponsors' names in the title of the events. I simply replied "This is the World Cup."

We moved on to other matters, but when I was leaving, they brought it up again. One suggested: "See if your directors might make an exception this time." I told them I'd run it past them but they shouldn't be optimistic.

The Japanese were good hosts, courteous and generous. The took me to the "Best Sushi Bar" in Tokyo and other fine dining spots and clubs, but they were hard negotiators - aiming to get the most for their money. I always had the feeling they felt they had to be hard-nosed with a Yank. That's the way it was done in "Corporate America."

I advised them by mail that our International Golf Association directors, who were officers of American Express, Time, Inc., Xerox and Rothman's International, the World Cup's basic sponsors at the time, had confirmed that the request could not be granted. All other details had been satisfactorily worked out and when I returned to Tokyo for further meetings, I brought a contract with me.

The issue didn't come up again during our sessions - until the very end. After initialing various key paragraphs, signifying agreement, the trap was sprung. "We would be happy to have our name in smaller type than the World Cup if that would help." Again, I told them that our board was firm on the matter. When I left, I felt we had covered all the details and were in agreement. The Japanese were still smiling and warmly shaking my hand and bowing. I felt sure we were going to have another great event in Tokyo.

I'd like to think that the Japanese negotiators didn't plan it that way, but on Thanksgiving Day, with the turkey just out of the oven a few minutes earlier, the telephone at my home rang. It was the Japanese. Now the main man was telling me that they had decided that they must have their sponsor's name on the event. Our stand was unreasonable, he said, and as a result they were withdrawing their sponsorship.

When I carved the turkey a little later, I had the feeling I was attacking it.

There was no time to start negotiations from square one with another site for 1981, and that's why the listing in the record book is blank for that year. But it's nice to see that the World Cup finally got back to Japan - 20 years later!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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