[PHOTO: Richard Heathcote/R&A]

Just in time for the 152nd Open Championship at Royal Troon later this month, the R&A has a new chief executive and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club has a new secretary. In waiting, that is. When Martin Slumbers, the present incumbent of both positions, leaves the spectacular office that overlooks the first tee on the Old Course at St Andrews later this year, Mark Darbon will take over the running of golf’s governing body outside the United States and Mexico.

A 45-year-old Englishman, Darbon was formerly a senior member of the team leading the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in 2012 and an “expert adviser” to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 2013 to 2018. He will leave his current role as chief executive of Northampton Saints, the Premiership Rugby club, to take up his new jobs. While leading the Saints to their first Premiership title since 2014 last month, Darbon implemented a commercial strategy that enabled the club to bounce back from the pandemic to achieve record revenues in consecutive seasons.

“I am thrilled and honoured to be taking up these positions with the R&A and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and to be moving into golf, a sport I have always loved,” said Darbon, whose varied curriculum vitae also includes spells as a management consultant at Marakon Associates, a number of strategic and commercial roles at Diageo plc, a senior vice-presidency at Tough Mudder Inc. in New York and a spell as chief executive of Madison Sports Group, a sports events and content company that created an award-winning international series of professional track cycling events.

“The R&A is a globally renowned organisation and does so much to ensure that golf prospers from grassroots through to the professional game. I am looking forward to working with a hugely talented team of staff, the club membership and such an impressive array of partner organisations to achieve even more success in the years to come.”

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A graduate Oxford University’s Worcester College, where he read geography, Darbon was a former under-21 England field hockey international team member. He currently plays to a handicap of 3.1 at Northamptonshire County Golf Club and Saunton Golf Club. In those other sporting realms, he is a non-executive director of England Hockey and Women’s Premiership Rugby.

“We were greatly impressed with Mark’s knowledge and experience of the global sport industry and his ability to develop successful teams and deliver fantastic events,” said R&A chairman Niall Farquharson. “We believe he will be an excellent leader for the R&A and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and will play a key role in helping us to achieve our goal of ensuring a prosperous and sustainable future for golf.”

Darbon comes to golf at an interesting time, the men’s professional game upended with the launch LIV Golf and the uncertainty of a potential future deal between the Saudi-backed upstart, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour. Additionally, the R&A and USGA announced last year that they are embarking on equipment rules changes that will rollback the distance on golf balls for both elite golfers and recreational players alike, a decision that has met resistance from the PGA Tour and PGA of America.

The appointment of Darbon, who will officially take over his new role in November, follows a recent trend at the R&A. Both Slumbers, in the job since 2015, and his predecessor, Peter Dawson, were similarly well qualified in the business world, and both play to low handicaps.

Martin Slumbers to step down as R&A chief executive by the end of 2024