Kicking-off the now traditional -- and annual -- round-table chat with members of the golf media, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers had a couple of brief announcements. The Open Championship will return to Royal St. George's in 2020 and, more immediately, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews is to have two new honorary members: former Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and three-time Great Britain & Ireland Curtis Cup player Bridget Jackson.
The first of those proclamations also means that the Open will almost certainly return to the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2021, when the game’s oldest and most important event will be played for the 150th time.
Where the 2022 championship will be played has still to be decided, but Slumbers was at pains to suggest that the refurbished Ailsa Course at Turnberry -- owned by US president Donald Trump -- is still very much a part of the rota of Open venues.
“We are focused on Turnberry as a golf course,” he said. “There has been nothing that has happened in the last year to change its status on the rota. It remains absolutely as one of our nine courses. Turnberry wasn’t involved in the discussions for 2020 and 2021 and we won’t be thinking about 2022 for at least another year. It is very important that we are clear about what out business is, which is making sure the Open is one of the world’s greatest sporting events and that it should stay out of politics.”
Again more immediately, while the result of the vote on women members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers will not be known until next month, Muirfield -- widely regarded as the best course on said rota -- will also make its return should the majority vote for a mixed membership going forward. Why else would Slumbers have met “recently and regularly” with member of the HCEG committee?
“I’m very pleased that they are having a second vote,” said Slumbers. “Muirfield is a wonderful course and it is a great Open venue. We will make an announcement very quickly after the result of the vote is known. We believe that golf should be open to all, regardless of gender, skin colour, religion or nationality. This is however a matter for the club and is really none of my business. So I don’t want to pre-judge the result. But the more the game looks at encouraging families and younger people the better.”
A noble aim indeed, but one that does sound a little hollow when -- as Slumbers admitted -- the Royal & Ancient GC has no members under the age of 25.
Elsewhere, Slumbers again stumbled onto less stable ground, particularly when it came to the ever-thorny subject of driving distances at the highest level of the game. Responding to a question pointing out the the R&A’s recent claim that goal balls hit by leading professionals were not travelling significantly further, the Englishman said that he “worked every carefully” with high-profile critics of the modern ball like Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Gary Player. This, however, directly contradicted the testimony of Michael Bonallack, a former secretary of the R&A.
“I am on Jack Nicklaus’ ‘Captains Club,’” said the five-time British Amateur champion. “We meet at Muirfield Village every year. At one of those we had Jack, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Bill Campbell, myself, Charlie Mechem from the LPGA, all with huge experience in golf. Jack was talking about the ball. We all agreed it was out of control and going too far. It had to be pegged back. So a letter was composed and sent off to the R&A and the USGA, signed by all of us.
“The only reaction we got was an acknowledgement. But I happened to see a copy of the memo that was passed from David Fay to Peter Dawson. “Have you got this?” it asked. “Please note the average age of those who signed it!” And that was the end of it.
“Like so many people I lament the demise of the shotmakers, people like Seve and Lee Trevino. It’s gone. I was having an argument with someone the other day about the ridiculous distances the ball is going. The other person maintained that it isn’t going any farther than it did 15 years ago. But it does. Which is why they are lengthening all these great courses. But my friend said the ball wasn’t going any farther, it was just that the players hit it farther. It’s all about fitness and physique. But that is hard to believe.”
Slumbers also took exception with the growing tendency for tournament golfers not to shout “fore” in the immediate aftermath of a wayward shot.
“The safety of spectators is a key part of the etiquette of our game,” he said. “I wouldn’t think twice about shouting if my ball was heading towards another player and I think that’s a standard that should be adopted at all levels of the game.”