ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The 150th Open Championship is going to the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2021. No surprise there. The Home of Golf has hosted the game’s oldest and most historic event more often than any other venue, 29 times since 1873. But, so far at least, there is no hint of the Ailsa course at Turnberry (owned by one Donald J. Trump) justifying its current place on the 10-strong rota. During a meeting with members of the British press held in the R&A’s equipment testing facility at Kingsbarns, chief executive Martin Slumbers was significantly evasive when the possibility of a firm date for what would be Turnberry’s first Open since 2009 was raised.
“Turnberry is a fantastic golf course and will be a great venue when we get there,” Slumbers said. “It would be very complex having an Open at Turnberry at the moment. You’ve got the ownership issue of the course and the staging there. But there are a number of other courses we haven’t been to for a few years and we are looking forward to going back to all of them. Turnberry remains one of the 10 courses, and it will considered every time that we come back to Scotland. What I can say is that because St. Andrews is such a magnetic place for people to come to, it is better to not play in Scotland the year after a St. Andrews Open. So we will be going to England in 2022.”
Where Slumbers was a bit more forthcoming was on the subject of escalating driving distances at the elite level of the game. Following the recent strongly worded comments from USGA executive director Mike Davis, the Englishman gave a strong hint that golf’s rules-making bodies are edging closer to taking action. So far this season, 68 PGA Tour players are averaging more than 300 yards off the tee.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology has made this difficult game just a little bit easier,” Slumbers said. “At a time when we want more people to play the game, I think that’s a good thing. But we do also think that golf is a game of skill and should be reflective of skill. If you look at the data, there has been a significant move up across all tours. We’re looking at the longest on-record average driving distance. Both of those have caused us and our colleagues at the USGA serious concern.
“For a number of years there has been a slow creep upwards, but this is a little bit more than slow creep. It’s actually quite a big jump. Our 2002 joint statement of principles put a line in the sand. But when you look at this data we have probably crossed that line in the sand. A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”
Slumbers acknowledges there are many layers to the issue: “The technology in the drivers is getting better, so the clubhead speed is able to go up. And there are a few more players coming through who have been brought up in a longer-hitting environment. So it’s a whole combination of things. I don’t really want to pre-empt the upcoming Distance Report, but that’s what we’re now thinking.”
Inevitably, the subject of slow play raised its ugly cranium. But, despite recent controversies involving six-hour rounds and four-minute, 10-second approach shots, Slumbers expressed satisfaction with the length of time it takes players to get round an Open Championship course. Last year at Royal Birkdale the field averaged four hours and 45 minutes over the first two days. Then, playing in twosomes, that figure dropped to three hours and 45 minutes at the weekend. Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar, even with the long delay on the 13th hole, got round in four hours and six minutes on the final day.
The Open is the only R&A event where “ready golf” is not encouraged, a concept that has already seen some success in shortening rounds by “at least 10-15 minutes.”
“Pace of play is a significant impediment to people taking up the game,” Slumbers claimed. “There is no doubt about that. There has been a steady increase in the time it’s taken to play for years. We’ve got to change it around, which is why we introduced ready golf into all our stroke play events except the Open. Interestingly, the Ladies’ Amateur picked it up quicker than the Men’s Amateur. But they all embraced it and got on with it.”