In a media briefing for the Claret Jug event, which was cancelled at the Kent venue last summer due to the pandemic, chief executive Martin Slumbers revealed his team is effectively working on three different set-up scenarios.
He said the range for the number of spectators within those was between 25-75 per cent of full capacity, which would have been 40,000 per day at the Kent venue, where Shane Lowry will be the defending champion after his title triumph at Royal Portrush in 2019.
Though still to be confirmed, Slumbers said he “fully expected” that fans will need to wear masks, something that wasn’t required for the US PGA at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, while players and officials will be in a “bubble” during the event.
“We are thoroughly excited about July. It is beginning to take shape,” said Slumbers. “Whilst we would really like to provide certainty to everybody on how The Open will work, the inevitable is that there remains great uncertainty.
“One thing I am clear about is that we will play the 149th Open at Royal St George’s in the third week of July, not that many days from now. But the uncertainty is about what the environment will be that we need to operate in.
“We have been working very closely with the UK Government and public health to understand what we can do and what we can’t do and there is no doubt this is extremely complex and very challenging indeed.
“There are multiple plans and multiple options. I feel very much for Johnnie (Cole-Hamilton, the director of championships) and the team who not only have to plan one but they are probably planning three separate Opens.
“But we are approaching the point in mid-June which we believe is the key date that we will have a greater understanding of what rules will apply.
“What we are optimistic about, though, is of a significant attendance and we are looking to have an attendance at Royal St George’s of up to about 75 per cent of capacity. The scope is from 25 to 75 per cent; that shows you the uncertainty we’re having to work with.
“The reason why we don’t want to talk about the actual number is because we’ve got to move the crowds in safely in accordance with public health.
“As everyone who is trying to put on big sporting events is, we are being very careful and very responsible. We do not want to get ahead of public health and related Government policy and the safety of the players, officials, media, spectators is paramount as we think this through.
“We are retaining as much optionality as we can until the rules become clear and we will start to lock in and communicate on what options we are going to go forward with.”
While golf events in the UK have been staged behind closed doors throughout the pandemic, fans have started to return in the US this year, though there was little evidence of social-distancing at either the Wells Fargo Championship or US PGA Championship in recent weeks.
“There’s no doubt different parts of the US are working under different restrictions,” said Slumbers. “Every country has dealt with the situation in their own way.
“I have been to America for the Walker Cup recently and it is more advanced in terms of opening up restrictions. It felt rather unusual. Each country must do what it feels best to do for itself in this situation.
“The big uncertainty for us is clarity with government and public health around social distancing. That will determine what the atmosphere will be like at The Open.
“We are building the infrastructure as we’d normally do for a normal year but in a way we can adapt for physical distancing depending on what the rules are.
“I’m optimistic but we need to be patient. We will get notification in the middle of June. I’m keen to get as many spectators in as possible, that’s what creates the atmosphere and makes the players play a little bit better.”
As was the case for last year’s AIG Women’s Open, another event run by the R&A, and all the European Tour events held in the UK in the Covid-19 world, a strict “bubble” will be in place as players arrive in Kent from all corners of the world, with some Americans making their first trip across the Atlantic since the pandemic took its grip.
“That’s the way it’s got to work at the moment,” insisted Slumbers. “Bringing the players in internationally, particularly those from red list countries, keeping them in the bubble with the guidance of the government. It’s what’s making this very challenging. Anyone who has been to a tournament in the last eight-nine months knows it’s not been the same.”
On the US players in particular, he added: “I’d have more concerns if we were not communicating with them and explaining the environment we’re in. That’s part of playing internationally.
“Many of them won’t have played outside the US since the pandemic. We’re talking to them and explaining how it will work. Communication lies at the centre of that.”
Twelve months later than scheduled, the 150th Open is set to take place at St Andrews next July, with Slumbers hopeful that it will be marked in fitting style.
“The anticipation and excitement is growing; the demand for tickets and hospitality is extraordinary,” he said of that special occasion. “We will be putting out announcements in the next couple of weeks around the 150th. I think it will be an opportunity for all of us to celebrate this great championship.”