Martin Dempster: Portrush success signals danger to Muirfield and Lytham

The huge crowd which watched Shane Lowry win this year's Open Championship at Royal Portrush may lead the R&A to consider dropping venues which have attracted lower attendances. Picture: Getty.
The huge crowd which watched Shane Lowry win this year's Open Championship at Royal Portrush may lead the R&A to consider dropping venues which have attracted lower attendances. Picture: Getty.
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C an the R&A really be thinking about returning to Royal Portrush as early as 2024 after the Antrim venue lay dormant to major golf for 68 years before staging the 148th Open Championship?

“Why not?” would have to be the answer to that, based on the resounding success of its much-anticipated return to the global sporting spotlight, on the course in particular – and what a bonus for it to throw up a home winner in Shane Lowry – but also off it.

However, the worry if that is indeed the case is that one of the other venues on the R&A’s pool of courses for the event could be about to miss out on a “turn” to host it, with Royal Lytham looking as though it might lose out to Royal Portrush.

The Lancashire venue is landlocked and, though that awkward scenario has been overcome in the past, having staged 11 Open Championships, the scale of the event in terms of infrastructure has grown considerably in recent years.

Last year at Carnoustie and this year, it was impossible to walk around the venues without thinking the tournament has become a huge commercial beast and fair play to the R&A for upping their game in that respect. The Open is one of the biggest events in sport, and, both on and off the course, it certainly lives up to that tag.

Trying to fit in all the infrastructure from Carnoustie and Portrush, where, incidentally, it included a swanky new players’ facility, at Lytham would give Johnnie Cole-Hamilton the biggest headache he has ever faced as the R&A’s director of championships.

His boss, Martin Slumbers, spoke earlier in the year about how Lytham had done some “heavy lifting” for the R&A in recent years, having hosted the Walker Cup in 2015 and the Women’s British Open last year. This week, it is hosting another of the R&A’s events, the Senior Open.

Which begs the question: Are these the level of events – ie not on the same scale as the Open Championship – that Slumbers and his team see Lytham hosting in the future, rather than the Claret Jug joust? Possibly, but that would be a pity because, as a golf course, it deserves to continue playing host to the men’s major.

Next year, of course, the R&A caravan will roll into Royal St George’s in Kent before St Andrews stages the 150th edition in 2021 then on to Royal Liverpool. Having opened its doors to women members, Muirfield is the favourite for 2023 and it will be very interesting indeed to see the spectator numbers that week.

Even before it produced one of the most popular winners ever, the Portrush event had attracted a sell-out attendance of 237,750 – the second biggest after St Andrews getting 239,000 in 2000. In comparison, the last visit to Muirfield in 2013 was just over 142,000 and, for the one before that in 2002, it was 161,000.

The figure six years ago was definitely affected by the fact that was the first year the R&A did away with concessions, but that can’t be offered up as an excuse by anyone when that next time does indeed come around.

Make no mistake, the R&A is trying to squeeze every pound it possibly can out of its prized asset to then play its part in supporting the game around the world and, though it won’t be considered until the owner is no longer the US President, Turnberry is a real concern in that respect.

An attendance of 123,000 there in 2009 was the lowest since Royal St George’s in 1981 and you only have to compare that to the masses at Portrush and, of course, the huge figures each and every visit to St Andrews throw up to realise that certain venues may well be in danger of dropping out of that aforementioned pool.