Cigar Aficionado

Confessions of a Weekend Golfer: Playing with Ernie Els, Gary Player and Johann Rupert

(Editor's note. Three issues ago, I wrote about my experience of playing golf with Tiger Woods at the Buick Open, entitled "My Day with Tiger." The article struck a chord with readers of Cigar Aficionado, many of whom are avid weekend golfers. The idea of an average golfer playing with the world's greatest pros is a welcome fantasy to many. With this article, I share another one of these cherished experiences. This time I played with two great players who have won a total of 12 majors, Ernie Els and Gary Player. I hope you enjoy the second installment of this series. —MRS)

When the e-mail arrives confirming I have a date to play with Ernie Els, one of the world's greatest golfers, at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida, one of America's most prestigious golf courses, well, naturally, I am pleased. Are you kidding? I am in seventh heaven. My feet don't touch the ground. To put it simply, I am euphoric.

(From left) Johann Rupert, Gary Player, Marvin R. Shanken and Ernie Els

As the day approaches the field is set. I am in a daze. Ernie Els (formerly number one in the world and the winner of three majors) and Marvin R. Shanken are playing a match against Gary Player and Johann Rupert. Gary, as any golf fan knows, is truly one of the greatest to ever play the game and is the winner of nine majors, including a career Grand Slam. Johann I would describe as a quasi-pro golf nut, more passionate than even I am and that's saying a lot. On workdays, his title is officially the CEO of Richemont, an internationally known luxury goods company with multiple brands, led by Cartier.

Thursday, March 9

Johann Rupert

The night before the big match, a group of us meet for dinner at Café Chardonnay, a wonderful restaurant 10 minutes from The Bear's Club, where I had a practice round earlier that day with a good friend to help get the winter cobwebs out.

During dinner, Ernie and I sit politely getting to know each other. We have met briefly the past winter at the Wine Spectator's New York Wine Experience, which he was attending as the producer of a fine South African wine called Engelbrecht-Els. Ernie and I are shocked to hear rumblings from one of tomorrow's opponents, Johann Rupert, about the outcome of our pending match. It is the first evidence of what is commonly known in the sports world as "trash talking." Spirits are high and getting higher as we wash down magnums of Gaja Barbaresco, Sori Tilden, 1993.

But Ernie and I are committed to acting like gentlemen no matter how hard Johann (a good friend of Ernie's for many years) tries to taunt us. I am comforted when Ernie whispers in my ear, "Don't worry, Marvin, tomorrow will be ours." I turn to Ernie and say, "Ernie, I have my faith in you." The trash talking continues throughout the dinner. We have many belly laughs.

My fear for tomorrow's match is not unfounded. My round with Tiger at the Buick Open had been the worst golf of my life. I was overcome by the pressure of the moment as I was being watched by more than 5,000 spectators—an experience I was not prepared for.

I say to Ernie, "My hope is tomorrow I can win at least one hole to say I helped our team." (God, please, one hole?) Ernie reassures me that everything will be fine.

Friday, March 10

We all arrive at the Seminole Golf Club designed by Donald Ross (one of the top 10 golf courses in America) about 9:15 a.m. and head to the practice range. Stealthily, I sneak off to the last position on the far right side where nobody can see my warm up swings.

About 20 minutes later, we are asked to move to the putting green. It is fast. Very fast. While at the putting green, Ernie's eyes make contact with mine. He smiles and says, "Marvin, don't worry." I feel better. Yes, I am a good sport. Yes, I want it to be a good day. I want to laugh and make good shots, and have fun and "contribute," but if the truth must be told, most of all I want to win. Badly.

Here I meet Gary Player, or as he's commonly known, The Black Knight. He is as nice and gracious a man as I have ever met. And at 70, he has the physique of a 35-year-old. Johann, whom I first met in London 15 years ago, is the consummate amateur having played many of the great courses around the world. He is also the owner of the famous Leopard Creek golf course in South Africa, as well as founder of the Dunhill Links tournament in Scotland. It is clear that Player and Rupert want to win, too. Johann smiles as we reach the first tee and wishes me luck. It is insincere! I know that he is as fierce a competitor as I am and wants to win as badly as I do. By now, we have become pretty good drinking and smoking buddies. In fact, Johann was kind enough after dinner Friday night to bring out a humidor filled with pre-Castro Cubans—that was a very generous gesture. I smoked three! We start the match on the back nine. Ernie Els and Gary Player off the tips. Johann Rupert and Marvin off the Blue tees. I ask, "How many strokes do I get?" and Johann says, "We'll discuss it after we tee off." This is not a good sign. To add to the drama of the day, it is very windy, with gusts of 20 to 30 miles per hour. Scores will be high!

We start the round at Seminole's 10th hole, a par 4, 390 yards, uphill, with water on the left, into the wind. Ernie and Gary drill shots of 280 and 260 yards, Johann puts it out dead center 230, Marvin hits his tee shot into a sand trap, 180 yards out on the right. "Is this the beginning of another long day?" I ask myself. Ernie's second shot, over water, lands on the green 25 feet from the pin. Gary hits his on the green 40 feet away. Johann's shot falls just off. Marvin is in the high grass at the bottom of the hill. Gary putts beautifully to less than a foot from the hole. Ernie lines up and drills the 25-footer into the cup. A birdie. I smile. We're one up, after one.

On the next hole, Gary putts a magnificent 30-footer to tie the score. All even. Ernie comes back with a birdie and so it goes. Through seven, I have not made my move yet!

Marvin R. Shanken

We come to our eighth hole (actually the 17th at Seminole), a par 3 on the back nine, all even. It has a very difficult green perched high on a hill surrounded by multiple traps below. The surface has a steep slope, making the putting extremely dangerous, especially with the swirling winds! No one makes the green, but they all chip on. My first shot goes far right behind some kind of thick fruit bush. My ball is only two to three feet behind so I have no shot except through the bush. Nonetheless, I take a whack at it with my sand wedge; hit it through the bush into a sand trap 15 feet below the green. My third shot gets me onto the green, about 15 feet above the cup. Ernie scores a four. Johann scores a four. Gary makes a spectacular 20-foot uphill putt for par. I am lying three with an impossible downhill putt. Since I get a stroke, if I make this putt, we will push. Gary tells me if I miss the hole it will roll 30 to 40 feet below the green; nothing can stop it. He then gives me the line (yes, my opponent helps me) and speed. I set up, and then tap the ball gently. It rolls steadily down the hill and—swish—it goes into the heart of the cup. Everyone roars with laughter. Ernie gives me a huge high-five. We push. My day is complete. I have helped Ernie on one hole! The pressure is now off.

Is this the true turning point for me? Am I now finally in the zone?

On the next hole (our ninth, but Seminole's number 18), a par 4, Gary makes several stunning shots and pars the hole. Ernie has a chance to tie with a difficult 15-foot uphill putt, but misses. I am out of the hole. We now are one down at the turn.

But stop, I have an idea. I look at Rupert and tell him I want to offer him a deal. "What, Marvin?" he asks. "Let me try Ernie's putt. If I miss the putt, I'll give you a free page of advertising worth $20,000. If I make the putt, we push the hole." Johann, always the businessman, says, "You think you can make the putt that Ernie just missed? Gary, I think we should accept the deal. He'll never make it," says Johann. "Marvin" (he laughs), "we accept your offer." Ernie shakes his head in disbelief. I tell Ernie, "Have faith; I'm The Shotmaker" (the name given to me six years ago by my first golf teacher and friend, Jack McGown).

I study the line. It's uphill about one ball out on the left. Take several practice swings while two of the world's greatest golfers study my form, then I hit it. The ball moves up the hill. It seems like an hour passes. Then it slows down in front of the hole. And on its final rotation, just drops in. Ernie gives me a hug. Gary laughs. Johann realizes he made a shitty deal.

At the end of nine, we are now "all even"!

We reach the 16th hole, a par 4, all even, when Johann hits a spectacular sand shot that lands six inches from the pin. He wins the hole. Two holes to go and Els/Shanken are down one.

Ernie, The Big Easy, again looks at me, this time with more concern in his eyes and says, "Shotmaker, we have work to do." On our 17th, Ernie pars and wins the 235-yard par 3. We are all even going into the last hole.

I now feel the pressure of the moment. The trash talking has become fairly harsh! The last hole is a par 5, 500 yards, dead into a strong wind. All four of us hit our tee shots into the fairway. Mine is about 80 yards behind the others.

I'm up to hit my second shot. I drill it (my best shot of the day) to about 140 yards from the green. Johann and I are sharing a cart and he goes ballistic, saying it was a perfect golf shot—"with a draw." The winds are gusting and swirling when Johann hits his second shot. It lands behind a wall of tall trees. Gary hits into a sand trap in the fairway. Ernie hits a huge second shot that lands just off the green in a sand trap.

It's my turn again. I take out my 6 iron and visualize hitting it on the green. The winds are swirling wildly now. I pause then I hit the ball toward the pin, but the wind grabs it. It still lands on the green and rolls to the far left, settling on the green 50 feet from the pin. Everyone applauds in amazement. On this very difficult par 5, Marvin is on the green in three. Ernie smiles and softly says, "The Shotmaker." Gary hits his third shot into the same bunker as Ernie next to the green. Johann's third shot flies over the green into the first cut on the left. Gary then hits his second sand shot onto the green, on in four. Gary then putts out for a par 5. Johann chips onto the green, then two-putts for six. Ernie chips on about 25 feet past the hole, then two-putts for five.

Only one player left. Shanken studies the long putt across the green. If I two-putt I am in for a par 5, and I get to subtract a stroke for a net 4. This is by far my most important shot of the day.

Ernie and I study the line and discuss the speed. The tension is huge. Johann is beside himself with anxiety. His caddy privately tells Johann, "No way. Shanken's putt will roll into the bunker."

The match is on the line. Can Shotmaker show up? I concentrate on the putt and hit the ball. The line is perfect. The ball comes to rest about 18 inches from the hole. Gary says "Great putt, Marvin, that's good." Johann looks at Gary and says, "No way, he must putt out." I do putt out. Dead center.

Els (73) and Shanken (96) win one up in dramatic fashion. And Shanken actually helped Ernie.

Player (75) and Rupert (86) played brilliantly in stormy winds. But it wasn't enough.