Veteran golf writer Grant Winter remembers some Dunhill Cup magic from John Bland, who died this week Tuesday aged 77 after a stellar career on the fairways of the world.
After 11 years of isolation, South Africa returned to international team golf in the 1991 edition of the 16-nation Dunhill Cup at St Andrews. Gary Player, John Bland and David Frost were chosen to represent South Africa with the United States dream team of Curtis Strange, Fred Couples and Steve Pate the top seeds.
I was the Argus Group’s golf writer at the time and, super excited, I was sent over to Scotland to cover the tournament – a momentous occasion in the history of South African golf. However, my excitement turned to gloom as early as the first round on day one when it looked like our boys were about to be sent packing back home by lowly Switzerland.
Then Bland, we called him the Old Fox because he was such a shrewd shot-maker, holed two of the biggest putts of his long career to keep South Africa alive on a chilly, wet day with the Grand Old Course enveloped in mist. Playing against Paulo Quirici, who had achieved little of note on the big stage, Bland had to knock in a pressure-packed, slippery 12-footer at the fiendishly difficult Road Hole (No 17) to save par. If he had missed that putt South Africa would have lost the tie against the Swiss, who had to pre-qualify just to get into the tournament.
The two players then went on to complete their rounds in two-over-par 74s, which meant the tie going into extra time as Player had lost his match and Frost won his to leave the score riding on a knife-edge at 1-1.
The first sudden-death hole was halved in par-4s, as was the second – and it was here that Bland became the day’s hero. Facing a monstrous 35-footer with a big break to again keep the match alive, South Africa’s chances looked decidedly dim. I was watching at greenside. Surely he couldn’t hole this one, I thought to myself. This was a bridge too far and our long-awaited return to international team golf appeared to be ending in deep disappointment as early as round one.
But the wily Old Fox, with the touch of a magician with putter in hand, had other ideas. After confidently asking caddie Michael Clough to remove the flagstick he rolled in the difficult putt amid near-hysteria from a small, cheering band of South African supporters, including teammates Player and Frost. When Quirici bogeyed the next, the golfing Boks were home and dry.
The next day Bland continued his heroics, as South Africa faced the hot-shot, top-seeded Americans in the morning quarter-finals. In better weather Couples eased past SA captain Player 67-74 under the medal match play format, and Frost edged out Pate 70-71. That was 1-1 and meant that Bland’s superb 68-69 victory over two-time US Open champion Strange, a giant of the game in those days, saw South Africa home by a 2-1 margin. In the afternoon semi-finals Player’s men rolled over a powerful Scottish line-up comprising Gordon Brand Jnr, Sam Torrance and Colin Montgomerie. Gary beat Brand Jnr 70-74, Frost crushed Sam Torrance 64-70 and Bland downed sweet-swinging Monty 69-72.
South Africa had reached the final of the Dunhill Cup on their long-awaited return to team golf and the fans from our country over there for the tournament (including this reporter) were pretty festive in the ancient old town’s pubs that night. It was a case of “You’re the man Blandie!”
Next day South Africa lost 2-1 to Sweden in a closely-fought affair but their return to the fold had still been a pretty satisfying one and Bland with his magic wand of a putter had undoubtedly been the key.
South Africa, incidentally, would go on to twice win the Dunhill Cup – in 1997 and 1998 – before it was last held in 2000.
Written by Randpark member Grant Winter.