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Reading between the lines, the R&A isn't easily swayed

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Looking very smart in their matching grey Ralph Lauren Polo sweaters, those bastions of golf's amateur ethos, the R&A, made it through their annual Open Championship press conference Wednesday morning at Royal Lytham. All the usual buttons were pressed by the assembled scribes -- slow play, the "brutal" rough, the width of the fairways, the weather, whether the championship will go back to Royal Portrush -- and, thankfully, everything in R&A land is, as usual, just peachy.

What a relief.

Portrush first. As was reported recently in Golf World, the chances of golf's oldest event ever returning to the western side of the Irish Sea continue to hover between slim and none. Despite the success of the recent Irish Open, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson's response to the "Portrush question" was one littered with negatives and not many positives.

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Photo by Stuart Little/Getty Images

"If you were at the Irish Open and compared it with what we're doing here, we're talking 20,000 grandstand seats, and there I doubt they had 2,000," he said. "You're talking about a tented village here I would estimate ten or more times the size it was at the Irish Open. And the crowd size at Portrush, whilst it was very good, was only as good as perhaps the lowest crowd we expect at an Open venue, at Turnberry.

Related: Get to know your British Open courses

"Where would you have the 72nd hole?  Where would you put the big grandstand complex? The practice ground would need a lot of work at Portrush in my own estimation. And as I say, we don't have a finishing hole that would have the grandstands around it. So there would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush."

In other words, forget it folks.

Moving right along, the always-vexed subject of slow play got its annual airing. According to Jim McArthur, chairman of the R&A's championship committee, the slow play rules in place will be followed "stringently" over the next four days. Of course, this would be something of a first. McArthur was only one of many in the room who could not recall the last time a player suffered a slow-play penalty in an Open.
 
"This year we are making slow play a priority," he said. "At the Amateur Championship we applied the policy and we will do the same at the Boys Championship. At the rules briefing this morning, we instructed the rovers and the walking rules officials along the same lines. As far as the time to play is concerned, on Thursday and Friday three-balls will be expected to get round in four hours and 30 minutes and the two-balls on Saturday and Sunday, three hours and 45 minutes."

Still, despite those assurances, it would be best not to hold one's breath too tightly on that one, especially if a well-known face falls foul of the regulations while in contention come Sunday. McArthur was quick -- oh the irony -- to give himself some wiggle room as far as imposing penalties was concerned. The words "mitigating" and "circumstances" were mentioned.

"We give each group a time schedule for each hole, and we monitor that very stringently," he continued. "And if a group is out of position with the game in front or over the time schedule, we initially start with words of encouragement to communicate with them and tell them that they are over the schedule or out of position. If they don't respond to that, we then put them on to the clock and deal with them that way."

Uh-huh.

Related: 10 Burning Questions about the Open

As far as the all-but saturated Lytham course is concerned, Dawson did express some concern over the level of the water table. Flooding in bunkers on the 2nd, 16th and 17th holes are apparently causing some concern. But otherwise, the course -- as ever at an Open -- is just wonderful, one that officials are confident will provide the ideal test for the world's best golfers, even those who have already expressed doubts about their ability to move balls more than a few feet from the fearsome rough. Certainly, the mere suggestion that the fairways here may be narrower than in 2001, when the Open last paid a visit, was briskly swatted away.

"I don't believe it's factual that fairways have been narrowed since last time, I just don't think that's the case," said Dawson. "I don't know where that comes from. We have not narrowed any fairways here that I can think of in the setup of the golf course."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
 
-- John Huggan
 
 
 

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