CHANGES to the exemption list for this year’s Open Championship will mean that only the winner of the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart the previous week can earn a place at Muirfield.
A review of the exemption process for the world’s oldest major was undertaken by the R&A after it suffered a “fright” when last year’s event at Royal Lytham looked as though it was going to be oversubscribed.
In recent years, both the Scottish Open and French Open, the two events immediately before the Open Championship, have offered spots in the Claret Jug joust and they went to a player finishing in the top five not otherwise exempt.
That situation was mirrored on the PGA Tour in America at the two corresponding events - the Greenbrier Classic and the John Deere Classic.
Two years ago, Scott Jamieson secured his place in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s after finishing third in the Scottish Open in Inverness, but nothing less than a win will be good enough for the Castle Stuart hopefuls this year.
If the winner is already exempt, no-one will secure a last-gasp spot. It will be the same at the John Deere Classic, with neither the French Open nor the Greenbrier Classic now offering a carrot for the Open.
In other changes, the number of spots up for grabs in the European International Final qualifier at Sunningdale has been trimmed from ten to nine while only the top two on the Japan Tour money-list, instead of the top two who were already exempt, will secure spots.
“Last year at Lytham we were given something of a fright because the way the exemptions fell at one point we had 161 competitors but because of scratching and injuries we got back down to our usual field of 156,” reported R&A chief executive Peter Dawson at Muirfield yesterday.
“We could see it coming some weeks out and we’d just have had to play with a bigger field. What we didn’t want to do was cut back the number of spots available at Local Final Qualifying. If we’d done that, I think we would have let down the thousands of people who enter the championship.
“Playing with a bigger field would have been difficult but, fortunately, we got away with it. It would have been a strain on getting finished, but we’d have done it somehow. What happened last year has caused us to look at our exemptions and cut them back this year because we wanted to maintain the number of qualifying places through International Final Qualifying and Local Final Qualifying that we had committed to.
“It’s always impossible to estimate with accuracy how many exempt players you will end up with as it depends on how many joint exemptions a player receives, but we feel a little safer with that number.
“If there are vacant spots, our criteria allows us to go into the world rankings to fill the field and that’s what will happen if we are short of exempt players.”
Asked if he felt the change to the Scottish Open would have a negative effect on one of the European Tour’s biggest events by discouraging players to tee up in it, Dawson added: “I don’t think players enter the Scottish Open with the Open Championship directly in mind.
“It is a nice side benefit for sure, but the Scottish Open is a very strong event in its own right. Some players use it to prepare for the Open Championship, but I think players who go to the Scottish Open are concentrating on that, not the Open Championship.”
A number of new innovations for The Open will include the use of electronic scoreboards, though these are only being introduced on a trial basis and will be in addition to the traditonal Open scoreboards, including the giant iconic yellow one at the 18th green.
“For the first time at the Open Championship, we’re going to have LED scoreboards,” said Johnnie Cole-Hamilton, the R&A’s executive director of championships. “They will be in place at the seventh, 13th, 16th and 17th holes.
“We will still have our traditional scoreboards as well but it’s a big move away and an enhancement for spectators. They will have video capability, so we’ll be able to produce plenty of championship information, scoring and stats.
“We will be able to show live footage and great moments that have happened in the championship already. We believe they will look fantastic and be a great addition to the championship and the spectators.”
Similar electronic scoreboards have already been used at events like the Ryder Cup and Players’ Championship and the R&A is confident spectator reaction to footage on them will not lead to players being put off shots.
“We will have complete control of the new boards and will be able to freeze or switch them off,” added Cole-Hamilton. “Players’ concentration will absolutely be the key element. We will ensure that the players will not be disrupted.
“At the Players, they have one of these on every hole, so there is a precedent with these, but we’ll be careful with them.”
Jim McArthur, chairman of the championship committee, said the R&A would “err on the side of caution” with the new scoreboards. “We want to strike a balance between spectator information without disrupting players,” he insisted.
Having been happy with the response to a mobile phone ban being lifted at last year’s event at Royal Lytham, they will be permitted again at Muirfield, where, in a first for the event, a temporary wi-fi mesh is being built around the course.
“It didn’t go completely without incident, but we strongly marshalled it and we learned lessons,” said Cole-Hamilton on the use of mobile phones. “We didn’t get any complaints from players about it, which was very important. We’re happy with the way it went.”
Admitting the R&A had taken a “big risk” by lifting a ban that had been imposed after player complaints at Hoylake in 2006, McArthur said: “We had some belief in the golf spectators’ respect for the game and I think generally we were delighted at that.”
Hole-by-hole changes at Muirfield
Changes to Muirfield since its last Open Championship in 2002 have been made by Martin Hawtree. Here, Russell Talley, a member of the design team involved in the work, explains the alterations to The Scotsman...
1st, 447 yards Par 4
The drive here has to be one of the most scary shots in golf due to the hay on either side of the fairway and an old bunker that had become a small depression has been restored. The left side of the green was banal and flat and there’s now a roll-off area there while the green has also been brought back to where it used to end to allow a pin position further back.
2nd, 364 yards, Par 4
A new championship tee has been built against the wall by Colin Irvine and his team. Up at the green, a couple of bunkers that were well away from the putting surface have been taken away but there are now three bunkers close to the green on the right while the green itself has been squared off as it used to be at the back and that will create an exciting pin position.
3rd, 377 yards, Par 4
Apart from some cosmetic stuff on the fairway, the changes here are up at the green. We’ve peeled back a bit of the dune on the right near the green, for instance, so that players can see into that side of the green a bit better. We’ve also moved two bunkers closer to the green while on the left the ridge has been dropped to allow balls to fall into the bunker there. Some slight mounding has been introduced back and side right of green.
4th, 226 yards, Par 3
This is the only short hole that has been altered. There’s a new championship tee slightly to the left of the old one, while a cross bunker has also been filled in. The front approach of the bunker on the left has been slightly lowered so that weak shots to that part of the green see the ball inch its way into the bunker.
5th, 559 yards, Par 5
This involved only a cosmetic change. The back tee was not quite aligned so we twisted it a little bit. The greenside bunker front left has been brought across about 1.5m.
6th, 461 yards, Par 4
The tee has been widened and levelled. The front left approach of the green used to be flat so we’ve made that into ‘broken ground’ while this is another green that has been extended to make it more how it looked in old photographs. The front right bunker has been brought across to the green about 4m left and closer to the green.
7th, 184 yards, Par 3
8th, 441 yards, Par 4
We’ve taken out two of the bunkers in the nest of them on the right of the fairway. This is also the only green that had a small portion of unpinnable slope slightly worked to allow a pin position by a newly-created bunker side back right.
9th, 554 yards, Par 5
A new championship tee has been built here, adding around 50 yards to the hole. There’s also a new fairway bunker on the right landing area, while one has been created front side right of the green. Two of the last two approach bunkers on the right fairway edge have been replaced by a single approach bunker placed about 10m to the left of them.
10th, 469 yards, Par 4
To try and move the hole away from the practice area, this has been realigned to create more of a dog-leg to the right. A new fairway bunker has been added on the right of the fairway, after two present fairway bunkers that were moved to the left, while the green has been extended on the front right towards the two greenside bunkers right.
11th, 387 yards, Par 4
The left fairway bunker has been brought forward towards the tee about 20m as well as a new one being added on the right past the present fairway bunker, while there has also been some tweaking out at the green.
12th, 379 yards, Par 4
An approach bunker has been filled in here on the left while on the same side the catchment area of the greenside bunker right has been increased and brought forward to influence an off-stuck second shot. The front right bunker has been brought across the left by about 3m.
13th, 190 yards, Par 3
14th, 475 yards, Par 4
This has a new tee a bit further back while an area of banal ground on the left has been broken up. A small greenside bunker right has been enlarged and brought across to the left.
15th, 448 yards, Par 4
Another new tee, this one has made the dog-leg fractionally sharper while a bunker at the green has been moved across to the right to bring it more into play. Another bunker at the back has been widened out a bit as it was just a slivver of sand.
17th, 575 yards, Par 5
There’s a new back tee here.
18th, 470 yards, Par 4
A new back tee has been built slightly to the right and behind the old one by about 20m while a bunker on the right side of the green which has an island of grass in it has been widened out, again because it was just a sliver of sand before.