A bit like the Old Course that sits directly below his office window, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers’ annual sit-down with members of the UK media typically offers up all kinds of angles. But there is always a bit of hard news before any interrogating begins. And this time – Slumber’s fifth in his hosting role – was no exception. Seven years after its 10th and most recent visit to the Ayrshire links in 2016, the 152nd Open Championship will be played over Royal Troon in 2023.
Which was a bit of a surprise. For long enough it was easy to predict which of the courses on the Open rota would take its place in the 10-strong line-up. By that measure, Muirfield – which last saw an Open in 2013 – was the short-priced favourite for three years hence. But Royal Troon it is, at least partly because 2023 is the centenary of the first Open held there, Englishman Arthur Havers beating Walter Hagen by a single shot to claim the claret jug.
Just as significant in that decision, however, is the increasing emphasis the R&A puts on the commercial and economic aspects of golf’s oldest Major. In other words, money’s voice is getting ever-louder within the game’s most famous clubhouse. And there are consequences of that fact. With the obvious exception of St Andrews, courses in Scotland have historically attracted the lowest crowds. Which does not augur well for the likes of Muirfield, Carnoustie and, in particular, Turnberry, where the narrow approach road makes access difficult, never mind any of the continuing politics that come with President Trump’s ownership of the picturesque resort.
“It’s not a rota, it’s a pool of 10 courses,” began Slumbers by way of explanation. “Plus, the 100th anniversary of the Open at Royal Troon is an important landmark. We do like to celebrate such points. But the Open is growing. The size of crowds is growing. We’re heading to Royal St George’s in five months, where the previous record for crowd attendance is 183,000. But we will be through 200,000 come July. We’re fully sold out for the Saturday and Friday, and Thursday is getting pretty full as well. So we are looking where we can get larger crowds.”
Fair enough. Last year Slumbers was asked if the ever-increasing pressure on the level of prizemoney was putting pressure on the R&A’s historic ability to invest in the game worldwide. And it surely is, especially as the game’s ruling body has pledged to donate twice as much in the next 10 years as it did in the decade just ended.
“There is an absolute demand for us to be able to invest more,” concluded Slumbers.
Moving right along, there was inevitably talk of golf’s current hot-button issues, in no particular order the driving distances achieved by many of the modern professionals, the potential rise of the Premier Golf League and the behaviour of Patrick Reed.
Not surprisingly, Slumbers was cagey when pressed on all three. On the first, he was quick to remind his audience that we are currently in the middle of a period of what might be termed quiet contemplation after the recent publication of the Distance Insights Project.
“What I’m passionate about here is to make sure we have a collaborative discussion with all stakeholders,” he said. “We have been quiet since February 4. We’ve been allowing the dialogue to evolve. This is a complex issue. Not everyone is on the same side of it – and that’s fine. But what we will have is collaborative conversation for the future of the game. We’re working together and we will get this right together. So I am not going to jump to any preconceived outcomes because I think that would be not good for the dialogue.”
On the PGL, Slumbers claimed to be watching from afar as more comes out on the proposed circuit. But his emphasis of the “strong relationships” the R&A enjoy with both the PGA Tour and European Tour was perhaps a hint that his historically conservative organisation are happy enough with the status quo.
“I’m not the only one who loves seeing the best players playing together more often,” he said. “But I think if you look at professional golf at the moment on the men’s side, it’s very healthy. There’s a great pathway from amateur golf into professional golf. There’s a continual stream of new players coming up. There’s plenty of playing opportunities. Prizemoney is going up. The quality of play is going up. The professional game is in a good place at the moment.”
When it came to the ongoing saga that is Reed, Slumbers was at his most circumspect. At first he took refuge in the old line that golf is a game of honour, one played by generally honest souls reeking of integrity and ever-vigilant on master of etiquette. Then there was support for the referees who made the decision to add two strokes to Reed’s score following his now infamous altercation with the sand behind his ball at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in December. But asked outright if Reed should have been banned for his indiscretion – “many people think he should have been,” said his questioner – Slumbers immediately took the opposite view.
“And there’s a lot of people who don’t think that,” Slumbers said. “I think you underestimate how much goes on behind closed doors with players, with referees, and the senior leaders of the game in assessing what actually happened. We live in a world now where everything is seen and everything is talked about. Did the great players of 30 years ago lose their temper on the golf course? I’m sure they did. It just wasn’t reported upon. I think the young players today are on the whole great ambassadors for our sport – and they’re great company to be around. Certain things should be behind closed doors and private.”
Indeed, which sounds a lot like the R&A really.