Golf: R&A chief thrilled with pre-Open changes

Muirfield has undergone a programme of alterations ahead of the Open. ''Picture: Ian Rutherford
Muirfield has undergone a programme of alterations ahead of the Open. ''Picture: Ian Rutherford
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OPEN Championship chiefs are confident the world’s leading golfers will give a massive thumbs up to course changes at Muirfield for this year’s event.

A programme of alterations has been carried out on the revered East Lothian links with the approval of its members. New tees have been added on seven of the holes, taking the overall distance of the course from 7,034 yards when Ernie Els won in 2002 to 7,192 yards this summer.

The biggest difference is on the ninth, where a land swap with neighbours The Renaissance Club has enabled the tee to be moved back almost 50 yards. That has extended the par-5 to 554 yards while a new bunker has also been added on the right of the fairway and bunkers moved closer to the green.

The R&A, which organises the event, has made alterations to all nine courses on the Open rota to make them more challenging in the modern-day game. Changes to the Old Course at St Andrews have proved controversial, with a number of people, including past Open champion Peter Thomson, strongly criticising them. But, according to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, he envisages no such problems at Muirfield when it stages the world’s oldest major for the 16th time on July 18-21.

“The R&A and the (host) club strategise about the course’s strengths and weaknesses, based on history and viewing previous championships,” said Dawson. “We used Martin Hawtree to come up with plans, discussed them with the R&A and the club and then presented to the members at a meeting in Edinburgh I attended with Martin and club officials.

“Members sanctioned the changes and we’ve gone along on that method at all the other courses where we’ve made alterations. The changes we have made here have sharpened up the strategy of the golf course. This course has produced some fantastic quality of champions in the past and we envisage that continuing.”

In terms of economic impact, the event is worth £70 million in direct and marketing benefit to the East Lothian area. Ernie Els claimed the Claret Jug the last time Muirfield hosted it – in 2002 – and the South African will be returning as the defending champion after winning the event for a second time at Lytham last summer. “The players love it,” added Dawson of this year’s venue. “It’s immensely popular and it’s always in fantastic condition. I always say we could hold an Open here any year at three weeks’ notice.

“We will be setting the course up to challenge the golfers. The rough has been cut down over the winter but it will regenerate depending on the weather we get. You will see the rough up and you’re unlikely to win an Open at Muirfield from the rough.”

Corporate sales are going well and so, too, are general ticket sales, with the man in charge of that side of the event confident the total attendance of 160,000 in 2002 being matched, if not beaten. “At this stage we’re 11 per cent up on hospitality sales and we’re very pleased about that,” said R&A executive director of championships Johnnie Cole-Hamilton. “Regarding ticket sales, our latest tracking is showing that we’re heading for that similar number with still a big marketing push to come.”

In a bid to increase interest in the event locally, a festival of golf has been planned in Edinburgh city centre the week before Tiger Woods & Co roll into the Lothians. On 11-13 July, in St Andrews Square, members of the public will have the opportunity to try the game, receive some tips from PGA golf professionals and get their picture taken with the Claret Jug.

“The Open will attract tens of thousands of people to Edinburgh and East Lothian for the week of the Championship,” said Michael Tate, the R&A’s executive director of business affairs. “But we wanted to bring a little bit of The Open into the City of Edinburgh and celebrate its status as Britain’s biggest festival of golf.

“The Open in the Square will showcase golf and let the people of Edinburgh interact directly with the world’s oldest major championship.”