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  • Alistair Tait

Does money now rule the Open Championship?

ST ANDREWS, Scotland – Money now seems to the driving force for staging Open Championships, with the danger of the R&A creating a two-tier system that favours some courses on the pool of Open venues over others.

That appeared to be the message today from R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers (pictured) in his annual round-table discussion with journalists in his office above the first tee of the Old Course at St Andrews. Muirfield and Turnberry seem to be slipping down the hierarchy because, for various reasons, they cannot generate the same amount of money as venues that can draw large crowds.

Royal St George’s will attract crowds over 200,000 for this year’s Open Championship. Royal Troon has been announced as venue for the 2023 Open just seven years after it staged the 2016 Open featuring a dramatic final round battle between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson, which the Swede won.

Many expected Muirfield to stage the 2023 Open Championship. However, Slumbers said the R&A chose Troon because it is the 100th anniversary since the first Open was staged there in 1923 when Arthur Havers defeated Walter Hagen by a shot. It will be the 10th Open over the Ayrshire course.

Could the real reason be that Troon can deliver more fans than Muirfield and Turnberry? Exactly 173,134 people turned up at Troon four years ago compared to the 142,000 who attended Muirfield in 2013. Turnberry delivered 123,000 fans for the 2009 Open Championship.

“We’re looking at the Open,” Slumbers said. “It’s growing. The size of crowds is growing. We’re heading into Royal St George’s in just five months now. The previous record for size of crowds at Royal St George’s was 183,000. We will be through 200,000 come July.
“We are looking at where we can get larger crowds.
“We internally have this desire for the Open to be one of the world’s greatest sporting events, and I have said a number of times that big time sports need big time crowds.
“We’ve delivered that. Royal Troon was a learning point for me in 2016. 2017 was a record. 2018 was a record. 2019 was very special. And we will beat the Royal St George’s record.
“All of this with the infrastructure, the hotels and everything we’re working towards is all trying to make the Open truly one of the world’s greatest sporting events.”

Bigger crowds mean bigger gate purses and that means the R&A can pour more money back into growing and governing the game.

That dynamic doesn’t bode well for Turnberry and its owner, 45th U.S. President Donald Trump. It historically has the lowest attendance because of its remote location and a poor road system around the venue.

“We need to have much more detailed conversations with the Scottish government and Visit Scotland about infrastructure for Turnberry. It’s difficult to get people there. Crowds the last time there was about 130,000.
“There is no doubt that we have great aspirations for the game. The R&A needs to invest more and more into our sport. We have committed in this decade to doubling what we invested in the last decade. The game needs investment at the amateur level.
"We talk about money in golf but most of that is at the 1% of the professional game and we are one of the largest providers of it. So there is an absolute demand for us to invest more.
“All of this is putting pressure on making sure we drive up the revenues of the Open.”

Muirfield's attendance was down by 18,000 in 2013 compared to 2002. The course should be a great draw with its proximity to the Scottish capital, and Slumbers is trying to get his head around the fact it isn't.

"What we're spending a lot of our time on is how do we get 200,000 people around Muirfield? How do we get Muirfield to be Edinburgh's Open? How do we get Edinburgh city to embrace it?"

Turnberry and Muirfield may have to wait a wee while to stage the game greatest championship because they can’t deliver the revenues other venues can.

In other words, money rules.

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