R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers would love nothing more than to be focusing solely on the playing of the 150th Open Championship this week at St Andrews. It’s a celebration that has been years in the planning, one that had to wait a year to happen thanks to the COVID 19 pandemic. But given the raging conflict in men’s pro golf between the PGA Tour and the insurgent LIV Golf circuit, that was never going to be the case when he met with the media for his pre-championship press conference on Wednesday.
Rather than wait for questions, Slumbers addressed the Saudi-backed series directly in his opening remarks and did so in the most strongly worded statement of any leader of an organisation overseeing a men’s Major championship.
“Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prizemoney that’s offered to them. I have absolutely no problem with that at all,” Slumbers said. “But there is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe the model we have seen at Centurion and at Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interest of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money. We believe it undermines the merit-based nature and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special.”
Slumbers continued by stating he took exception with the notion cited by LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman and several players that the upstart circuit would help grow the sport.
“I would also like to say that in my opinion the continued commentary that this is about growing the game is just not credible and if anything is harming the perception of our sport that we are working so hard to improve.”
A total of 23 players who have competed a LIV Golf’s two initial events or have announced they’re planning to join in the future are playing at St Andrews this week. Earlier in the month, the R&A released a statement saying that given the qualifying criteria had been published since the start of the year, it would be unfair to have restricted any LIV players from competing in the championship. The R&A did, however, ask LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, a two-time Open champion, not to attend ceremonial events that several past winners have participated in out of concern he would be a distraction.
Slumbers said that there would be no banning of players in the future from the Open, but that the R&A would consider changes with its qualifying.
“Looking ahead to The Open next year, we have been asked quite frequently about banning players. Let me be very clear that’s not on our agenda,” Slumbers said. “But what is on our agenda is that we will review our exemptions and qualifications criteria for The Open. And whilst we do that every year, we absolutely reserve the right to make changes as our Open Championships Committee deems appropriate. Players have to earn their place in The Open, and that is fundamental to its ethos and its unique global appeal.”
The PGA Tour has taken a firmer stance, indefinitely suspending players who have competed in LIV events from playing on the PGA Tour. The DP World Tour suspended a handful of players who played as well for three tournaments and fined them £100,000.
Slumbers is a member of the board for the Official World Golf Ranking. On Tuesday, that body met and began the discussion about LIV Golf events being able to receive World Ranking points in the future. OWGR chairman Peter Dawson (former R&A CEO) released a statement saying that LIV Golf’s formal application was received July 6 and is under review.
The World Rankings are used by not only the R&A at the Open Championship, but Augusta National, the PGA of America and the USGA to help fill the fields for the Masters, PGA Championship and US Open respectively. The potential for all four of the organisations exists where they could limit the number of players from the World Rankings that compete in their Majors.
Anxious for the championship to begin on Thursday, Slumbers was asked whether a LIV Golf player winning the tournament might be the R&A’s “worst nightmare.” Slumbers was diplomatic with his answer.
“I think if … whoever wins on Sunday is going to have their name carved in history,” Slumbers said. “And I’ll welcome them onto the 18th green. This is a golf tournament. The Open is about having the best players in the world playing, and I want to see who shoots the lowest score come Sunday night.”