It has become an annual early-season event on the golf writers’ calendar. Over the past few years, Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, has invited a group of scribes into his office in St Andrews overlooking the first tee on the Old Course, but, on this occasion, our round-table chat was held in another of the governing body’s properties.
The Allan Robertson House, which is located up at Kingsbarns Links, is where the R&A does all its equipment and ball-testing. For obvious reasons – the manufacturers send stuff there in the strictest of confidence – what the man in charge there, Professor Steve Otto, had to say during a tour of the fascinating facility was off the record. However, the recording equipment was on when Slumbers, who has now been at the helm for around two and a half years as Peter Dawson’s successor, fielded our questions and here’s a flavour of the some of the topics he discussed:
TURNBERRY STILL IN LIMBO The Open Championship was last staged at the Ayrshire venue in 2009, since when it has been bought by Donald Trump. He tasked Martin Ebert to carry out spectacular changes to the Ailsa Course, but it doesn’t seem they will get the chance to be showcased until at least the end of Trump’s US presidency. “Turnberry is a fantastic golf course and will be a great venue when we get there. They’d love to host the Open Championship and it will be considered every time that we come back to Scotland,” insisted Slumbers. “[But] we have criteria about which course we want to go to, and part of that is clearly macroeconomic impacts and clearly part of that is a little bit about politics. It would be very complex having an Open at Turnberry at the moment.”
No readmissions at Open This new policy was introduced last year at Royal Birkdale in a bid to crack down on unofficial hospitality around the event. It will be in force again this year but won’t, as had been feared, affect the Carnoustie golf clubs. “At Carnoustie, the clubs are so important to our staging of the Open,” said Slumbers, pictured right. “Many of them are volunteering to work. They’re important to the ambiance and actually the clubs are, in effect, inside for this no-readmission, so you’ll be able to go in and out of the club if you’re a member of the club.” On unofficial hospitality, he added: It is a real issue for us. It degrades the Open. It undermines that fan experience, and we have decided that the no-readmission policy is a very core way to reduce unofficial hospitality.”
Membership matters at MUIRFIELD AND TROON Two Open Championship venues, Muirfield and Royal Troon, have both voted in favour of admitting women members, but, as yet, the clubs remain men-only establishments. “What clubs do and their membership policies is up to the club. We were very clear about that two years ago,” said Slumbers. “From our perspective, we said that we only want to stage our events at clubs which are mixed and have a quality. I think Muirfield and Troon are working through that process in a way that fits with their club membership policy. I clearly do talk to them, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on what they’ve said. [But] there’s an element of substance over form, and we will certainly be looking for that.”
Birkdale out of bounds Eyebrows were raised over the driving range at last year’s Open Championship not having been deemed out of bounds after Jordan Spieth found it with a wayward tee shot at the 14th yet was able to salvage a bogey as he went on to claim the Claret Jug. “It’s certainly been a topic of conversation, as you can imagine,” admitted Slumbers. “I think it made for captivating television in many ways. I thought it showed wonderful presence of mind by the Champion Golfer of the Year and a real measure of what golf is – you have to use your brain as well as your skill. But, when we go back, we might think about it as being out of bounds.”
PORTMARNOCK PROBLEM Next year’s Amateur Championship, one of the R&A’s biggest events, is being held at Portmarnock, a male-only club at a time when it now has a policy of only taking tournaments to clubs with a mixed membership. Why? “We had already agreed with Royal Aberdeen (this year’s venue and now set to admit women members after a successful vote last week) and Portmarnock and I think it’s important that one honours one’s contracts. I think there’s a lot of things one can wish for in life, but I think it’s important to the values of the R&A that we honour the points of law.”
PACE OF PLAY The R&A introduced “ready golf” in all of its stroke-play events last year except the Open Championship and has been encouraged by that lead having been followed by organisations such as Scottish Golf and also at club level. “We saw rounds at our elite levels somewhere around ten to 15 minutes quicker, and that’s about right,” said Slumbers. As for last year’s Open, the average time in the first two rounds was four and three-quarter hours and three hours and 45 minutes for the last two rounds. “I’m quite happy with those numbers for the Open, considering the difficulty of the golf course,” he added. “As long as we can keep to these times, I don’t see the need for draconian changes. Referring to the new Shot Clock Masters on the European Tour in Austria this year, he said: “I’m going to be quite interested to see what happens. I think it’s a very bold move. I think it’s a terrific move.”