ORGANISERS of the Open Championship at Muirfield last night defended poor attendance figures at the competition amid complaints that high ticket prices had driven away fans.
Attendance was down by almost a quarter on the first day of the competition compared with the same stage when the Open was last played at the East Lothian course in 2002.
Fans were last night able to snap up a cut-price ticket on the internet for less than half the original price – some sites had £75 tickets on special offer at just £34.
Local estate agents also admitted they had a glut of unoccupied holiday rental properties on their books in the Gullane area, near the course, despite the Open and the warm weather.
Official figures show the number of people at the event on the first day of the Open, Thursday, was 23,393. This is compared to 30,620 in 2002.
Attendance at the practice rounds held earlier in the week – with entrance costs between £15 and £40 a ticket – stood marginally higher than 11 years ago. The days attracted an average 500 more people than in 2002.
Local business owners last night said they believed potential visitors had been put off by the high ticket prices for the Open, which attracts the biggest names in golf.
“There is no doubt that it is not cheap to go to the Open this year, nor is it cheap to eat and drink when you get there,” said Gavin Wallace, who runs the Village Coffee House in Gullane – just half a mile from the historic Championship course.
“It is a lot of money and I would imagine it has put a lot of people off.”
The standard official ticket price is more than double that charged 11 years ago although it is on a par with the cost of a ticket for last year’s event at Lytham & St Annes. The senior citizen concession price was also scrapped for this year’s event.
Tickets for Sunday’s final round were available on the internet for less than half the original price as fans reported empty stands at Muirfield.
Website Viagogo, which acts as a third-party seller for people looking to offload unwanted event tickets, had day passes for Sunday’s play on offer for just £34, which is £41 less than the full price gate cost of £75.
However, Mike Woodcock, spokesman for golf’s ruling body, the R&A, which runs the event, said it was too early to estimate attendance figures for the full event.
He said: “We wouldn’t speculate at the moment. It is quite common for numbers of ticket sales to fluctuate. We are still expecting a good weekend ahead.”
Holiday rental properties are also lying empty. Graham Currie of the Bass Rock Letting Agency in North Berwick said: “We have rented out around 150 and there are probably another hundred which haven’t made it.”
Professor John Lennon, tourism expert at Glasgow Caledonian University, said high ticket prices, combined with the poor economic climate could deter visitors.
“People are watching their budgets,” he said. “There is also likely to be a major reduction in corporate hospitality from 2002, when things were economically very different.”