News & Opinion

R&A follows the money for British Open

Potential for larger crowds – and their greater receipts – leads the R&A to award the 2023 British Open to Royal Troon in a trend that leaves little room for Scottish sites Muirfield and Turnberry

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Money isn’t just the root of all evil. It’s now the basis for choosing British Open venues.

The R&A’s transition from a private members’ club with governance responsibilities to full-on corporate entity spells bad news for U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to stage a British Open at his eponymous Turnberry course on Scotland’s southwest coast any time soon. It doesn’t bode well for Muirfield, either.

145th Open Championship 2016
Golf fans line the 18th hole at the 2016 British Open at Royal Troon, which will play host to golf’s oldest major championship again in 2023, the R&A announced.

Money is now king for the body that rules the game throughout the world except for the United States and Mexico. That means the R&A is looking to take the game’s oldest championship to courses that can guarantee the biggest crowds. With bigger crowds comes more cash that can be invested back into the game.

Turnberry and Muirfield should have been in the running to stage the 2023 Open but have been passed over in favor of fellow Scottish course Royal Troon. The course which nurtured Colin Montgomerie last staged the Open in 2016 when Henrik Stenson outgunned Phil Mickelson down the stretch to win his first major title.

Muirfield was the expected 2023 site because it would’ve marked 10 years from Mickelson’s 2013 victory. Turnberry last staged the Open in 2009, when Stewart Cink defeated Tom Watson in a playoff. The 59-year-old Watson was chasing a sixth Claret Jug in what would’ve been one of the greatest sports stories of all time.

Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, said Troon is getting the championship on the back of staging this year’s AIG Women’s Open, and the fact that it will be 100 years since Troon first hosted the Open. It will be Troon’s 10th staging of the Open.

While there is no set formula to choosing Open venues other than five-year gaps for St. Andrews’ Old Course, seven years between championships marks a turning point in R&A thinking. Slumbers practically acknowledged that numbers mean more to the R&A than previously.

“We are looking at where we can get larger crowds,” Slumbers said.

“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 [Royal Birkdale] was a record. 2018 [Carnoustie] was a record. 2019 [Royal Portrush] was very special. And we will beat the Royal St. George’s record. [Slumbers expects crowds exceeding 200,000 at Royal St. George’s this year compared with 183,000 in 2011 at the site in Sandwich, England.]

“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 percent 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.”

Turnberry historically attracts the smallest galleries. It’s also in the most remote location of all 10 venues and offers poor infrastructure.

“We need to have much more detailed conversations with the Scottish government and Visit Scotland [the national tourism organization] about infrastructure for Turnberry. It’s difficult to get people there. Crowds the last time there was about 130,000.”

There’s obviously an unwritten reason why Slumbers does not want to take the championship to Turnberry: the 45th president of the United States. The last thing the R&A wants is a Donald Trump media circus during the biggest week of its year.

Muirfield also doesn’t cut it when it comes to attendance. The 2013 Open, which Mickelson won, drew 142,000 fans, some 18,000 fewer than the 2002 Open, won by Ernie Els.

"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?"

Is Slumbers right to make revenue the No. 1 factor in choosing Open venues? I see his point. After all, cash that the R&A makes from the Open is what funds its initiatives around the world.

My worry is the development of a two-tier system by which some courses could get the championship more often than others.

Muirfield and Turnberry are special for different reasons. Muirfield is the world’s best links thanks in part to two nine-hole loops that run in concentric circles. It means the wind comes from every possible direction over the 18 holes. Turnberry is the most scenic course on the rota and has just undergone a fantastic revamp.

I’d hate to see both layouts demoted to bit-part roles because cash is now king.

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