Martin Slumbers interview: Golf chief on cancelling last year’s Open, the return of fans and how the Claret Jug got dented

Even on a video call, there was no hiding the sparkle in his eyes. “It’s nice to be here at last,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, the day after arriving at Royal St George’s in preparation for the 149th Open Championship.

Martin Slumbers speaks to the media at the R&A press conference prior to the 148th Open at Royal Portrush. Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
Martin Slumbers speaks to the media at the R&A press conference prior to the 148th Open at Royal Portrush. Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

That event was due to be held in the same week last July but, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was cancelled and pushed back 12 months. It was the first time the tournament hadn’t been held since a 1940-45 gap due to the Second World War.

“On reflection, it was probably one of the easiest decisions I had to make because it became very black and white,” insisted Slumbers of the impact of the pandemic when the call was made in early April last year.

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“But it was emotionally and intellectually the hardest decision that I’ve had for many a year and I would probably have said ever but who would have envisaged what we’ve also had to go through the last 15 months? It’s been amongst the toughest of my corporate life.”

Martin Slumbers, the R&A's chief executive since 2015, pictured outside the historic R&A Clubhouse in St Andrews. Picture: The R&A

Some eyebrows were raised about The Open, the game’s oldest major, being the only one not to take place in 2020 after The Masters, US PGA Championship and US Open were all held later in the year after a schedule reshuffle.

Cancelling the Open was the right decision

While admitting at the time that the decision had been made with a “heavy heart”, Slumbers remains adamant that cancellation was the right call, even though it left him feeling strange along with lots of others when Open week actually came around.

“I went on holiday,” he said. “It was very difficult. It was much harder than I thought it was going to be. It left a big hole. I got lots of really lovely messages from many people in that week saying, ‘gosh, I know where I’d much rather be’.

Crail member Martin Slumbers in action during the pro-am event prior to the 2019 AIG Women's British Open at Woburn. Picture: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images.

“But it wasn’t to be. It was the right decision. We were in a very difficult time for this country and it would have been impossible to stage The Open. I have a fantastic team around me, but we tried to be responsible and it would not have been responsible to stage last year.”

In an update in early February, Slumbers announced that the event would definitely be taking place this year. He was hopeful at that time about fans being in attendance at Sandwich, where Sandy Lyle, of course, got his hands on the Claret Jug in 1985, but confirmation about that - 32,000 spectators are being allowed on the four championship days - only came in the middle of last month.

“We had to make the final decision that it was going ahead in March because we had to make decisions around the infrastructure to build and it’s a complex build, there are 1500 people working out there at the moment,” said Slumbers.

“But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that we had the final agreement with the Government that we could stage it with fans and that was very concerning and worrying period for us because we want to make sure The Open looks great and is a great experience for everyone and nothing would have been worse than having built all these grandstands and having no one in them.”

The scene is set for the 149th Open at Royal St George's, where the Claret Jug event is being held for the first time since 2011. Picture: David Rickman

Keeping the players separate from the spectators

For the event’s first visit to the Kent coast since Darren Clarke held off Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnston to claim the prize in 2011, that daily attendance is a lot bigger than most people had perhaps anticipated, even as the UK attempts to regain some normality in life and sport.

“Let’s not forget it’s 32,000 on a 500-acre site,” observed Slumbers. “This is not like being in a stadium. It’s a very big platform, but we are having to manage and build processes that we didn’t even need to think about before.

“The most important part of that is that we keep the players separate from the spectators and that’s very much part of the whole protocols that we’ve built. But there’s a lot of talk about society trying to move on and hopefully the research programme that we are part of will allow the Government to keep adding to its research information to allow us to go back to larger stadiums and larger outdoor events.”

Shane Lowry with the Claret Jug after his win in the last staging in 2019. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFPvia Getty Images.

Why Open is important for ‘UK plc’

As has been the case with European Tour and LET/LPGA events on British soil since the pandemic hit, players will be in a strict “bubble” environment throughout the tournament. American Rickie Fowler, the 2015 Scottish Open champion, has expressed “concerns” about some of the protocols in place for players only to then find themselves among more than 30,000 spectators. “It seems like us as players, we’re jumping through some hurdles and dodging bullets,” he said.

Responding to that, Slumbers was both calm and measured. “I have said to the players who have asked and I will say to all the players when they get here, we have worked really closely with the Government to get this championship underway,” he said. “We’ve received a lot of exemptions from regulations as it is recognised as being important for UK plc.

“However, the one thing we can’t get exemption from is contact tracing and, in this country, if you are caught as part of test and trace, it is an automatic 10-day quarantine and you can’t test out of it.

“Therefore, the thing we had to do was to make sure we had done everything possible to make sure that the player is given an absolute fair chance to be able to have a good crack at winning next Sunday.

“That was the No 1 risk that we had to manage. Really, when you boil down all the restrictions we are asking the players to comply with, it’s all because of contact tracing to make sure they don’t get contact traced out of the championship.”

Retired at 53 to play golf

Slumbers succeeded Peter Dawson in 2015, taking up one of the top posts in golf after bringing down the curtain on a stellar career in the financial world, where he was initially a chartered accountant with Price Waterhouse before switching to investment banking with Salomon Brothers International then Deutsche Bank.

“I retired from banking when I was 53 to play full-time golf,” said the Crail and Worplesdon in Surrey member. “I wasn’t able to do that when I was a young man as I was more interested in my career, so this was my last chance.

“I realised after six months, though, that I actually wasn’t cut out to hit golf balls every day and I think what attracted me to this job is that you don’t often get an opportunity to work in a sport you love. I’d done the commercial stuff and the corporate world and I loved it, it has given me so much in life, but I’d done it.

“I had no real interest in another corporate role, but the attraction of working in a sport I care about and enjoy playing but, at the same time a business that has a serious commercial and global perspective, I don’t think there are many jobs like that around. That was my driver and it’s quite nice to be able to be a little part of history.”

Before taking up the reins of the St Andrews-based organisation, Brighton-born Slumbers shadowed Dawson for six months, which included the 2015 Open on the Old Course. “Oh, I think it was critical,” said Slumbers of how that week had allowed him to quickly find his feet when it comes to one of the biggest events on the golfing calendar

“I think it would be very tough to come into this job in terms of The Open. You can cope with all the other stuff, but watching the complexity of putting on this championship and managing the various pieces of it is different.

“More importantly, though, that week allowed me to think about what I was going to do when it was my turn to have the hot seat. What was I going to care about because you can’t work 24 hours a day. You have to have a team in place. You have to major in something and I very much focused on the experience.

“I felt what we needed to create for The Open was great golf courses - and, yes, I can tinker and get involved in how they are developed and my own philosophy - but, for me, it was all about how do we turn the experience for the players, the fans, the officials, the media into something that is world class and get that consistency of the brand at The Open.

“I think the brand is really important. The Open is a world-class sporting event and when someone around the world turns over a page and sees this little badge (pointing to The Open logo on his top), I want them to go, ‘that’s The Open’ and when they see the colour, I want them to go, ‘that’s The Open’.

“That, to me, is what I learned from shadowing Peter and have spent a lot of the last five years doing. I think you see that logo a lot more on people’s clothing now than you used to and I think it makes us all feel rather proud that it’s our championship.”

Making golf more modern

In his relatively short time at the helm, Slumbers has achieved a lot. He has been the driving force behind a five-year strategic plan for the organisation while a series of exciting new initiatives have included the launch of the Women in Golf Charter in 2018.

“A bit more grey hair and probably even white now. It’s gone fast,” he said, smiling, of the last six years. “When I joined, in my own mind I wanted to do two things. I wanted to really focus on how the game can be developed and also felt very strongly about participation. I felt the R&A could do a lot more.

“I wanted to continue to build on the past and modernise the organisation to be able to present it as a world-class global governing body and sports championship. I often use a phrase that we are trying to reflect history in a modern way and I hope when my time is done, I hope people think that’s what I’ve done.

“The reality is that you can only do what the time you are living in and working in allows you to do. Before my time at the R&A, there was a sense that bringing the organisation and our game to be more modern and relevant to today’s society was something I was able to do and I absolutely believed in it. It was one of the reasons I was delighted to take this job and push that forward.”

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It was revealed recently that the number of on-course adult golfers participating in the sport in Great Britain and Ireland last year had increased by a staggering 2.3 million last year. As part of a bid to entice more people into the game in Scotland the R&A submitted plans earlier this year for a new community golf facility as part of a redevelopment of an existing public course at Lethamhill in Glasgow.

“It’s something that I have been working on for three years,” said Slumbers. “I think it is very important for the game to remember that it started as a game for the people and was part of a community.

“I am absolutely passionate that we have to get the number of people playing our game growing, not just for the sport but for the whole ecosystem around the sport. I also had the view, which was backed up by research, that families and shorter forms of the game were going to be the key to it.

“I can remember in my office in 2015 at my first media roundtable, you asked me the question at that time, ‘what do you care about?’ and I talked about participation. You then asked what I was going to do about it and I replied, ‘well, there’s no single silver bullet’. As we’ve learnt more, that concept of family and community life is, I think, the key.

Community golf in Glasgow

“I was very keen to do the first R&A community facility in Scotland. Scotland is our home and it’s where the game started. By definition because of the population and demographics, it was either going to be Edinburgh or Glasgow.

“We have gone with Lethamhill. It will open in the second quarter of 2023 and I am really excited about it. It will showcase golf differently and hopefully create a bigger attraction for people who don’t currently play our sport and a pathway to club golf. If I can achieve that, I will be very pleased.

“If we can make it work, we would like to replicate it in a number of areas around the country because, at its heart, we are trying to create a different impression of our sport.”

The dent in the Claret Jug

One of the first tasks for Slumbers at the start of Open week will be greeting defending champion Shane Lowry as the Irishman finally hands back the Claret Jug after being in his possession for the past 24 months.

“He has admitted that he has dented it,” said Slumbers, laughing, of the game’s most iconic trophy, confessing he’d spent a large part of his journey down to Kent feeling more and more excited about that first ball being hit on Thursday morning at The Open being back.

“There’s a little sense of the unreal, actually, in my own mind,” he said. “After what all of society has gone through in the last 15 months, the thought of being able to see that moment doesn’t feel real and I will be quietly emotional about watching it all happening again and remind us why we love The Open.

“When you work in the R&A, you realise how important The Open, which is just one week of the year, is to the other 51 weeks. We staged what I thought was an astonishing AIG Women’s Open last year at Troon, which helped, but The Open not being staged really hurt and it hurt because this is our chance to showcase the original game - links golf - to the world.

“It hurt not being there last year and I can see the look on people’s faces, I can see the light in people’s eyes and they are buzzing again and that’s lovely. I think most of us know that there are going to be challenges in the next few days, but we are ready and capable of dealing with pretty much anything that is thrown at us.”

With that sparkle in his eye burning bright, he concluded: “It’s going to happen, even if I have to hit the first tee shot at 6.30!”

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