Crunch time should not be far away for the Open. The Royal St George’s event is one of precious few remaining on Britain’s traditional summer sporting schedule. Should it fall victim to coronavirus – and the chances are strong – the R&A will face a multi-layered problem: next year’s Open is already earmarked for St Andrews, marking the 150th staging of golf’s oldest major.
Such decisions will follow a natural course. This enforced break in play, though, is a reminder of what the Open once was and has slipped away from as sport merged with high commerce.
Just last week, Sky Sports filled time with wonderful reruns of Opens gone by that would reel off the tongue of any golf historian. Tom Watson at Royal Troon, 1982. Seve Ballesteros, St Andrews 1984 and four years later at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s. Greg Norman, Turnberry, 1986. Nick Faldo, Muirfield, 1987. Through unforeseen circumstance came an endearing visit to memory lane for viewers.
The entirety of this sporting hiatus could be spent debating whether golf was better back then. Instantly noticeable was that Open venues did not have to be pristine. The vagaries of links golf were all left alone rather than micro-managed to the point of minimal impact.
Frankly, this looked as if it was fun and authentic to thousands walking the fairways. There were grandstands, eventually, but not towering ones. The backdrop to the 18th green at Royal Portrush last summer, of stands holding more than 4,000 spectators, resembled another planet when compared with Opens in the 1980’s when the champions were generally illustrious.
Portrush’s aggregate attendance of more than 235,000 means the R&A will sprint back to Northern Ireland as soon as the club’s membership will tolerate the inconvenience. Last summer’s was a decent Open that featured a runaway winner. That Portrush had not hosted the tournament since 1951 added gold dust that will be absent next time. Royal St George’s in Sandwich has seen ticket sales to further have the R&A salivating.
“I have said a number of times that I think that a big-time sport needs a big-time crowd,” insisted Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, last month. The benchmark has become 200,000 spectators. Slumbers is not prone to crass comment but by emphasising ticket sales as so significant he is subtly nudging esteemed venues into the background. That is a crying shame.
The R&A does plenty of good work for grassroots golf via funding, but accelerating the cases of clubs on the Open pool on the basis of any ‘Project 200,000’ looks tawdry.
It is plausible both to recognise Muirfield’s pre-historic approach to women, which was annulled only last year, and its place as arguably the finest golf course on the planet. On review of its membership policies, the East Lothian links was welcomed back into the Open fold, but the wait will run from 2013 until at least 2024.
Even that year feels a stretch if Portrush earns a swift second bite, before St Andrews reverts to five-year cycles in 2025. Muirfield was actually dealt a poor hand seven years ago, in what was the first instance of the R&A refusing to offer concession tickets to senior citizens.
“What we are spending a lot of our time on is, how do we get 200,000 people around Muirfield?” said Slumbers. “How do we get Muirfield to be Edinburgh’s Open? How do we get Edinburgh city to embrace it and do that?”
A matter of weeks before the world’s biggest arts festival, Edinburgh has other things on its mind, odd though it feels to link a city to the Open. The Masters does not run marketing campaigns in Augusta. Less is more, too, in terms of the spectator experience in Georgia.
Muirfield is an outstanding venue, as recognised by anyone with a keen knowledge of golf and, pertinently, the membership of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. It is sad for the R&A’s corporate wing to accentuate ticket sales. Similar applies to Lytham, kicked into the long grass despite Ernie Els’s sensational success of 2012. Slumbers has previously branded the terrific Lancashire links as “a bit tight”, emphasising back-to-front logic.
It is surely incumbent on the R&A to utilise the finest courses, and regularly, whatever the infrastructure challenges. A glimmer of hope for Lytham resonates in consistency: 2026 will be the 100th anniversary of Bobby Jones’s glory there, his first of three in a row. Americans will go wild for the historical reference point of Lytham’s Open debut. Given Troon got the nod for 2023 because it marked 100 years since the Open first visited, Lytham should be treated on identical terms.
Taking the R&A at its word, Turnberry suffers by virtue of access and spectator figures; the broader picture there has never been appropriately addressed. Suffice to say, when the renowned architect Martin Ebert oversaw fantastic changes to the venue now owned by the president of the United States, an Open return was the carrot. Slumbers admitted “a key issue” with Turnberry is relatively low crowd numbers, which belies Watson’s incredible brush with glory in 2009 and, much earlier, the duel in the sun.
The R&A should be robust enough to manage reduced crowds when venues are so stellar. This even applies, should it become a deciding point, at St George’s this July. Otherwise, golf in the corporate age really is removed from its roots.