R&A chief Martin Slumbers defends Open course changes

Sir Michael Bonallack believes modern golf balls travel too far. Picture: David Cannon/Getty Images
Sir Michael Bonallack believes modern golf balls travel too far. Picture: David Cannon/Getty Images
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Widespread lengthening of the courses on the Open Championship rota has been defended by the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, despite one of his predecessors claiming it wouldn’t have been necessary if steps had been taken to control the distance a golf ball can travel.

Sir Michael Bonallack has revealed that an attempt by some of the game’s greatest players, including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, to get golf balls “pegged back” had been dismissed by the R&A and the USGA, the game’s two ruling bodies.

“I am on Jack Nicklaus’ ‘Captains Club’,” Bonallack, a five-time Amateur champion, told Golf Digest. “We meet at Muirfield Village every year. At one of those we had Jack, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Bill Campbell, myself, Charlie Mechem from the LPGA, all with huge experience in golf. Jack was talking about the ball. We all agreed it was out of control and going too far. It had to be pegged back. So a letter was composed and sent off to the R&A and the USGA, signed by all of us.

“The only reaction we got was an acknowledgement. But I happened to see a copy of the memo that was passed from [then USGA chief] David Fay to Peter Dawson [then R&A secretary]. ‘Have you got this?’ it asked. ‘Please note the average age of those who signed it!’ And that was the end of it.”

Bonallack, who was the R&A secretary before Dawson, added: “Like so many people I lament the demise of the shotmakers, people like Seve [Ballesteros] and Lee Trevino. It’s gone. I was having an argument with someone the other day about the ridiculous distances the ball is going. The other person maintained that it isn’t going any farther than it did 15 years ago. But it does. Which is why they are lengthening all these great courses.”

During Dawson’s reign, just about every course on the Open Championship rota was stretched, including a new championship tee at the 17th on the Old Course at St Andrews being built outside the boundary of the course, and his successor has no problems with that work.

Asked if he was comfortable about how much money had been spent to protect courses from the advancement in club technology, Slumbers answered: “There are other sports where they’ve also invested hugely. In athletics, for example. When I used to run, it was a cinder track and now it’s a beautiful modern surface. In golf, these courses have improved as they have been updated.”

Last year’s Open Championship at Royal Troon was won by Henrik Stenson with a record 20-under-par total as he edged out Phil Mickelson. Slumbers said he’d been pleased with how the Ayrshire course had been set up on that occasion and is looking for Royal Birkdale to similarly reward good play when it hosts the Championship this summer. “Our job is to create
a platform where the very best can perform,” he said. “To me, making it impossible is not a good thing. Making it challenging is the way to go. At Troon, lots of thought went into how the rough was prepared, as well as how the hole was meant to be played. The rough was appropriate.

“The golf course was not easy, it was just played brilliantly by two people who were probably playing the best golf of their life. There was a way to play that course, and if you played that way, it was set up in a way that you could score.

“We are applying the same philosophy down at Birkdale, including some shorter par-3s. Last year the Postage Stamp played at 100 yards, which was fantastic, and I think the average score was 3.4. I think that showed the real skill of the players in being able to get that ball close to the hole, and I liked that. I personally prefer that to really long par-3s and we’ve got one of those coming up at Birkdale.”