We have been left to guess what, precisely, the Royal & Ancient is limping towards. This huge golfing institution, presiding over one of the staples of the British sporting summer, felt compelled to react to a report claiming the 149th Open is set for cancellation. The missive from the office of Martin Slumbers didn’t actually mention the c-word at all.
“We are continuing to work through our options for the Open this year, including postponement,” said the R&A’s chief executive. “Due to a range of external factors, that process is taking some time to resolve. We are well aware of the importance of being able to give clear guidance to fans, players and everyone involved and are working to resolve this as soon as we can. We will give a further update as soon as we are in a position to do so.”
Being kind, this could be labelled a holding statement. If “external factors” are key, one is left to ponder how much control the R&A has of its golden goose. It was reported days earlier that postponement of the tournament, scheduled for Royal St George’s in mid-July, was borderline inevitable. Forensic detective work was hardly required to deduce that much. The suggestion of cancellation, somewhat curiously, rattled Slumbers or those close to him sufficiently to deliver an example of words that say nothing at all.
If the R&A doesn’t know precisely what to do about this year’s Open, something is seriously amiss. Sport has been paralysed by coronavirus, with events and seasons dropping from billboards one by one. It is fanciful to suggest the Kent coast can – or should, in respect of public services – host 200,000 visitors and global competitors in a golf event in little over three months’ time. The R&A, for its many faults, cannot be ignorant over a pandemic.
At the very least, if not providing a full explanation of contingency, the R&A should have put a public line through Sandwich in its standard slot long before now; spectators alone deserve that much. Augusta National is still to issue detail of a 2020 Masters alternative but it was swift in postponing when coronavirus took hold. That the United States Golf Association hasn’t ditched plans for the US Open in New York in June catapults golf into territory beyond Clubhouse Cuckoo Land. They and the R&A set the rules for this game, you know.
Which isn’t, of course, to suggest complications don’t exist. The R&A is just glacial in dealing with them. In professional golf, not uniquely, key deliberations relate to a word starting with “m” and rhyming with honey.
There has been speculation regarding the R&A’s insurance provision, say, which may ensure a fiscal gulf between cancellation or postponement. The new date window itself is small; September is realistically the latest month in which the Open could be held, with even that subject to daylight restrictions either curtailing the field or triggering two-tee starts.
With every body in professional golf – the R&A, USGA, PGA of America, Augusta National, PGA Tour and European Tour – fighting to play their tournaments, negotiations will be inevitably messy. Television companies, bereft of material yet heavy investors in golf, will have a seat at the table.
Royal St George’s will not readily give up their first Open since 2011. Nor will the local economy; it brings an estimated £100m worth of benefits. Yet the notion of just bumping Sandwich into 2021 is an uneasy one. St Andrews, Royal Liverpool and Royal Troon are already set in stone as venues for the three following years.
The R&A has a weird obsession with anniversaries; St Andrews was to stage the 150th playing of the Open, with 2023 marking 100 years since Troon’s first one. The calendar can of course be shuffled around but it’s messy, including in respect of Hoylake, where vast ticket sales send the R&A’s bean counters into a state of delirium.
We assume that, by next weekend, overdue clarity will have been provided by the R&A. The Open in July will bite the dust in slow, clunking, ultra-serious form. Twas ever thus. The solution will be far more interesting than the inevitable.