EIGHT years ago, when around 230,000 spectators welcomed the Open Championship back to Royal Liverpool for the first time since 1967, complaints from players about spectators using mobile phones led to them being banned for five years at the world’s oldest major.
With or without Tiger Woods, the winner on that occasion, in the field, the R&A are expecting another bumper crowd for this year’s event on the Wirral, where fans will be actively encouraged to use their phones to enjoy the “ultimate spectator experience”.
Two years after the ban was lifted at Royal Lytham, the event’s organisers are ploughing on with a policy that is in total contrast to the one implemented by their Green Jacket counterparts at Augusta National for The Masters.
At the season’s opening major, patrons are not allowed to take mobile phones anywhere on the premises, never mind use them. There are no giant screens for them to watch, either, out on the course or on-course radio commentary.
When a massive cheer echoes around the trees, the only way fans can discover who has done something significant is by watching the handful of giant scoreboards and seeing what changes. That’s what also used to be the case at the Open Championship, but not any more. It’s now an event that is a cocktail of tradition and technology. In last year’s tournament at Muirfield, four LED screens around the course provided spectators with up-to-date information. This year, when the 143rd Open Championship takes place on Merseyside from 17-20 July, they will be placed on 17 holes, the exception being the last. Tradition will remain there in the shape of the iconic yellow scoreboard.
There will, however, also be innovation. The hole will be made into an “arena” by a horse-shoe shaped grandstand. It’s not possible at any of the other courses on the Open rota due to the close proximity of clubhouses to the 18th green and means the winner will hole out hidden from the view of the Royal Liverpool clubhouse. “We think it is a great opportunity to create a great 72nd-hole atmosphere,” said Rhodri Price, the R&A’s director of operations, at a media briefing yesterday at the Hoylake venue.
In total, there will be seating for 20,000 spectators around the course. Without moving, they will be able to enjoy the same BBC TV coverage of the event as armchair viewers. A free phone app trialed at last year’s event is being rolled out in full.
“The Open Championship is a very traditional event, but we also intend to lead the way moving forward in terms of technology and we are proud to be doing that in golf and, in some ways, sport in general,” said Malcolm Booth, the R&A’s director of communications. “The cost for this is a six-figure sum but we think that is justified as this is going to change the viewing experience for spectators.”
Whether or not the spectators for this year’s event will be watching Woods remains to be seen. He is currently recovering after back surgery, having been forced to miss The Masters for the first time since 1995. The world No 1 was undoubtedly the star attraction in 2006, when he justified that billing by making a successful defence of the title.
The attendance that week was the highest for an Open Championship in England and second only to the millennium event at St Andrews. The R&A don’t expect this year’s figure to be quite so high, but still reckon it will break the 200,000-mark as visits to the North-West of England have traditionally attracted healthy crowd figures.
“I think we saw huge excitement and a novelty factor when the championship came back in 2006. It had been quite some time since we’d been here previously in 1967, so that created a huge amount of excitement that led to a very high crowd,” noted Booth. “We don’t anticipate crowds of that size this time but tickets are going well and we would be reasonably confident of having an attendance of about 200,000.
“At this stage, the tickets are going much better than Muirfield last year but they always go very well in the north-west of England. Hoylake, Birkdale and Lytham all do very well from a ticket sales perspective. I think they are currently running slightly ahead of Lytham in 2012 and on a par with Birkdale in 2008.”
Asked about the “Woods effect”, he added: “We’ve had a couple of Opens without Tiger, at Birkdale in 2008 and Royal St George’s in 2011. It’s very hard to directly attribute television numbers or spectator numbers to one player but there’s no doubt that Tiger’s impact on the game of golf is huge.
“He is still a massive draw, but the Open has always drawn a good crowd and great television numbers and I’m sure it will be the same again this year. Corporate hospitality has gone very well this year, we are completely sold out for the Thursday and Friday so we are happy with the growth we are seeing.”
Since 2006, when Woods won by two shots with a total of 270, the course has been stretched by a meagre 54 yards, taking it to 7,312 yards. Most of that has been due to the addition of 30 yards at the par-4 seventh that has increased it to 480 yards.
As was the case eight years ago, the club’s 17th hole will be the first for the Open Championship, with Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, predicting it to prove a fearsome test straight away for the world’s top players. “I believe it is probably the hardest opening hole on the Open rota and the hardest in the whole of this championship,” he said.