Turnberry – or, more specifically, its owner, Donald Trump – may have been by far the main topic but Royal Troon looking as though it will still be a men-only club when it hosts the Open Championship this summer and the R&A’s reluctance for courses on the rota to stage events other than the Claret Jug joust were equally interesting headline points to come out of the R&A’s annual chinwag with members of the golfing media in St Andrews.
Close to 13 months ago, in the countdown to it staging the world’s oldest major for the first time since American Todd Hamilton sprang a major surprise by winning there in 2004, Royal Troon appeared to be taking a meaningful step towards admitting female members by announcing it would “shortly undertake a comprehensive review” of the Ayrshire club’s current policy.
“The recommendations from this review will be presented to the membership for their consideration,” said a statement, which also revealed that the ninth Open Championship to be staged at Troon would be the first in the event’s history to be staged jointly by two clubs, Royal Troon and the Ladies’ Golf Club, Troon.
“We are delighted with the way the joint-championship committee is working,” reported Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, of the latter, adding: “It’s a great pleasure to see Royal Troon and Troon Ladies working together. We’ll keep focused on that.”
By the looks of things, however, what appeared to be an attempt to have a men-only policy in place in time for the 145th Open Championship is not going to be successful, meaning the event can probably expect the same wave of negative publicity that cast a shadow over the 2013 visit to Muirfield and left Slumbers’ predecessor, Peter Dawson, close to tearing out his hair in frustration on the eve of the event.
“Troon are undertaking a process to review their membership.It’s well underway,” said Slumbers in providing an update, before admitting “it’s highly unlikely” in reply to being asked if there was a possibility that Royal Troon could follow the R&A’s own lead before the opening tee shot is struck on 14 July.
Not necessarily because he was heading to the Ayrshire venue straight afterwards and would have been fearful of upsetting the Royal Troon members, Slumbers, however, refused to be critical of what can only be seen as an apparent delay in the process, one that is also currently being undertaken at Muirfield – the only other men-only club left on the Open Championship rota.
“It’s my view that we need to give them the respect and the freedom to consult with their members as they wish,” he insisted. “It takes time to work through this. I look forward to the outcome whenever that is. We will listen to that outcome. We have two clubs that are men only. Both are consulting. I keep going back to my general view, that we want golf to be open to all. That’s important on the way I think about life.”
This year’s Open will be the first time many of the game’s current leading players, including top-ranked trio Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, have played at Royal Troon. That, according to Slumbers, is one of the reasons why the courses used for the R&A’s flagship event shouldn’t be utilised for tournaments such as the European Tour. While the Old Course at St Andrews and Carnoustie host the Dunhill Links Championship each year along with Kingsbarns, it’s no secret that the R&A showed little encouragement to the European Tour when it started to look for links courses to stage the Scottish Open after it embarked on a tour round the home of golf.
“There’s a rarity value,” insisted Slumbers of courses being on the R&A’s rota or, as he prefers to describe it, pool of courses. “For example, there are quite a few players in July who have never seen Troon before. They have never seen the challenge of that course before and I think that adds to the myth.” He added that he felt the Open Championship would be “diluted” by other events being held at the venues that most people associate with that tournament. “We don’t want to be associated with that – The Open is too important for that to happen,” he insisted.
For this year’s event, a new twilight ticket – it offers entry to the course from 4pm onwards at a cost of £25 compared to £80 at the gate – is selling “reasonably well” while a decision to extend the date of an early-bird offer that reduces the cost of a day ticket to £60 is also expected to have a positive effect on the attendance figures.
They are expected to be huge when the 2019 event is held at Royal Portrush, where the Irish Open was a sell-out in 2012. “One of the beauties of the Open Championship is that you can turn up on the day and buy tickets,” said Slumbers. “But we may move to a hybrid model and Portrush is important in that regard. There will still be tickets on the gate but maybe less than we would normally have had in previous years.”
Despite an exhausting grilling on Turnberry in particular, Slumbers handled his first major appointment with the golfing press extremely well indeed, admitting that he is enjoying the challenge of filling his predecessor’s big boots. “It’s been a bit of a surprise,” he admitted of the challenges of the role. “If I’m being honest, I didn’t realise how many issues there are [in golf] and also the complexities of what is going on.
“I’m putting in a lot more hours than I did in my previous job and it is completely different and completely different people. But I am excited about the quality of the team I am working with as it is outstanding. It is important that we stay relevant to the game so we need to keep coming up with new ideas.”
One area that is certain to happen for this year’s event is with the television coverage as Sky Sports prepares to put its stamp on the tournament as the host broadcaster for the first time. “We are really moving forward in that partnership and they have some interesting ideas,” said Slumbers, smiling.