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Strongman
Michael Bamberger
September 23, 1996
John Bredenkamp, a rich and powerful former arms dealer, has muscled his way into golf
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September 23, 1996

Strongman

John Bredenkamp, a rich and powerful former arms dealer, has muscled his way into golf

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The most mysterious man in golf, John Bredenkamp, began to emerge from the shadows last week. Bredenkamp—a man who has amassed, according to credible reports, a $350 million fortune as a tobacco merchant and arms dealer—visited Las Vegas for three days for the PGA International Golf Show, and from there he flew to Gainesville, Va., for the Presidents Cup. Bredenkamp apparently has left tobacco and weapons and devoted himself to a game he seldom plays. His two-year-old sports-management company, Masters International, which has 60 employees and offices in Jupiter, Fla., as well as in Johannesburg, London, Moscow, Singapore and Tokyo, represents, among others, two players who competed in the Presidents Cup, Nick Price and Robert Allenby. He also represents Michael Campbell, the lavishly talented New Zealander, and David Leadbetter, the most prominent teacher in the game. Earlier this year Bredenkamp nearly bought a struggling equipment manufacturer, Founders Club, but abandoned the deal when he decided the terms were unfavorable to him. He's looking at other golf companies and other golfers. Someday he might want to manage golf tournaments, run golf schools and build courses. In the meantime people in the golf business are watching and waiting and whispering, even the high and the mighty. Mark McCormack, the founder of the International Management Group, has been inquiring about Bredenkamp's intentions. "He's a man of incredible resolve," a fellow golf mogul told McCormack. "Bredenkamp could lose $100 million in golf and still not give up."

Bredenkamp was raised in Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia, and has lived in Holland, Belgium and England. He lives now in a mansion on a golf course in Sunningdale, outside London. On a 1996 Times of London list of the richest people in Great Britain, Bredenkamp ranked 76th. But Bredenkamp, who became a Dutch citizen in 1970, is little known in Europe and even less known in the U.S. That is likely to change. The business cultures of tobacco and armaments are secretive by nature, but golf is out in the open. Bredenkamp does not work the practice tee pressing flesh and making friends. His reputation, though, precedes him. In the tight circle that comprises the American golf industry, word of a tape of the British investigative news show Dispatches is going around. First aired on British television on Nov. 9, 1994, the documentary describes, in the kind of detail that is hard to fabricate, Bredenkamp's immensely profitable night job as a sanctions-breaking arms salesman, a middleman between manufacturers and warring countries. The program details, for instance, how a company owned by Bredenkamp sold land mines to Iran and antiaircraft guns to Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war in the mid-1980s, and how those mines killed British soldiers in the gulf war in 1991.

On a weekday afternoon last month, Bredenkamp sat in the living room of his vacation home in Jupiter, which is on the ocean and down the road from Price's house. There were ashtrays everywhere. Bredenkamp, 56, is white-haired, unpretentious and uncomfortable without a cigar or pipe in his mouth. He had been answering questions directly and simply for more than two hours. He had already acknowledged his miscalculations in a mammoth equipment deal he negotiated for Price in 1995 with a company called Atrigon—then fledgling, currently out of business—doomed in part by the heft of Price's contract. Now Bredenkamp was being asked about his history as an arms merchant. He was not happy. "You said you weren't going to get into this," Bredenkamp said. Nothing of the kind had been said. "I can tell you right now I made all my money in [tobacco]," said Bredenkamp, who sold Casalee A.G., the tobacco company that he owned, for $100 million in 1993. "Tell me something: If I had broken sanctions and done all the things that have been reported, do you not think some official would come to the office for a discussion? I have never had anybody come to me and say, 'You've made one dollar illegally.' "

But Bredenkamp's rhetorical question supposes that war is a logical business with open books, and it is not. The British news program implies that the reason charges were never brought against Bredenkamp is that he operated with the tacit approval of British and American intelligence organizations. Moreover, Bredenkamp. in the interview in his Jupiter house, acknowledged that he has broken sanctions. He admitted to violating United Nations economic sanctions against Rhodesia in 1972. in the days when Ian Smith was the president of the country, by buying aircraft for the white-run Rhodesian government that was then waging a brutal civil war with black Rhodesians. Finally, even tobacco executives who worked for Bredenkamp routinely heard him speak of arms deals. "He's always been an arms dealer," says Brian Murphy of Harare, Zimbabwe, who worked as an executive at Casalee from 1980 to 1988. Any suggestion to the contrary, says Murphy, "is a very big lie."

For a brief period Masters International represented two of the best players in the world: Price, who was also raised in Zimbabwe, and Ernie Els, the South African who won the 1994 U.S. Open. Els became part of Masters International when his business manager, Nic Frangos, and Bredenkamp launched the company as 50-50 partners. Bredenkamp and Frangos had known each other as schoolboys; they attended the Prince Edward School in Harare in the late 1950s, the same school that Price went to in the mid-1970s. Their joint business venture, which began in May 1994, ended six months later. Frangos refuses to discuss the relationship. Els speaks for his manager. "They broke up when that deal came up about John being an arms dealer," Els says, referring to the Dispatches report.

The list of people who will not speak about Bredenkamp is long. Says Frangos, "I have no comment whatsoever, but even that, I suppose, tells you something." Sam Feldman, a South African sports agent who worked briefly with Bredenkamp, says, "John Bredenkamp is a gentleman, on the outside. Aside from that, I've nothing to say."

Even Price is careful when he speaks about Bredenkamp, whom he joined in 1994 after ending a 17-year relationship with IMG. "He's done a good job for me in respect to negotiating contracts," Price says, "but he's still learning about the game."

One could argue that Bredenkamp has mismanaged Price more than managed him. After dominating golf in 1993 and '94—playing Ram irons—Price, on Bredenkamp's advice, made a move that was supposed to ensure that Price and his family would be wealthy for generations. He signed a 10-year deal for $25 million plus about a 10% equity interest with Atrigon, a two-year-old California company that had a single product, a one-piece driver. The idea was that Price would develop a line of irons, play successfully with them and that Atrigon would take off. Price's close friend, Greg Norman, had done something similar with Cobra clubs.

But the company never produced irons, or even a driver, to Price's satisfaction. Atrigon has ceased operations, and the deal has been terminated. Bredenkamp and Price say mismanagement on Atrigon's part led to the failure of the company. But Bredenkamp acknowledges that he did not advise Price well. "I certainly wouldn't do the same thing again," Bredenkamp says. "What I learned from the experience is that I wouldn't just want to hear what a company was going to do; I'd want evidence of it."

As the 1994 season came to a close, Ram wanted, naturally, to retain Price. Jim Hansberger, the company's president, negotiated with Bredenkamp, and the sessions went poorly. "Bredenkamp and his people were shooting for the moon—all or nothing," Hansberger says. "It was very, very difficult to know where I stood with Bredenkamp. I like to have nice, open discussions. If one side wins, it's bad. He wanted to win and to have us lose."

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