What had to be addressed before the Open could go back to Turnberry?
We had some traffic delays in 1994 that weren’t really acceptable, so we were very keen to get those resolved. A road has gone in that runs just south of Ayr to Alloway, which opens up two north-to-south routes to us both to and from Turnberry. That was the key to unlocking it. Turnberry has been played as a resort course by and large ever since that last Open, so we’ve also felt it advisable to do some course strengthening and enhancement. In the middle of all this, Leisurecorp acquired the resort from Starwood, and embarked on a major upgrade of the facilities and the hotel in particular. We’re very satisfied it’s going to be a great improvement. Turnberry was always good, but this is going to be pretty special. They’re on schedule and should have us in there in plenty of time for the Championship.
So there’s no truth in the rumour that work has fallen behind and Troon has been put on standby?
That was never even discussed. It came from the media, but I don’t know where it started. It’s certainly running and some even printed it. It’s astonishing what they put in the papers.
The weather wasn’t great at the last two Opens. How did that impact gate receipts and the running of the event?
It did affect us to an extent at Carnoustie, but it didn’t seem to affect numbers at Birkdale – 200,000 in total is what you’d expect there in good weather. I don’t think wind matters so much, but if you get persistent rain like we had at Carnoustie, viewing golf is never that easy, with umbrellas and so on. The last morning was terrible, but it cleared up at lunchtime and we had a good afternoon. As for managing the event, you just have to work with it. One of the difficulties at the seaside is getting precise weather forecasts. You can get general forecasts for the area, but it’s often a bit different right by the sea with the tide changes and wind movement. So you rely on weather forecasts at your peril a bit. You must allow some margin for safety, and we got pretty close to the edge at Birkdale last year in terms of wind strength.
Could you talk us through the key changes to the course since 1994?
It needed a bit of lengthening, but the changes are more about tightening up tee shots and tightening bunkers into greens. One of the most significant changes is to the 3rd where the tee has gone back to make it a really formidable par 4, especially wind against. The par-5 7th is very interesting; we’ve cut the crater on the left into the fairway a few more yards, and created a run-off left of the green, which was always there but never properly mown out. If you hit it onto the right-hand bank off the tee, the ball will be above your feet from where there’s a tendency to drag it low and left. So there’s now much more chance of going down that crater. The 10th is a big change, both scenically and strategically. The idea of a tee out near the lighthouse has been a number of peoples’ dreams for a while so we’ve turned that one into reality. On the 14th, new bunkering and mounding on the left makes that a much more demanding tee shot. And 16 is the biggest change. We’ve re-routed that hole and lengthened it – it makes the burn around that green a strong lateral hazard now as well as one you have to get over. That’s allowed 17 to be lengthened by taking the tee back up the old 16th fairway. At just over 7,200 yards I think it’s now a tough par 70.
Are you confident it won’t be ripped apart in benign conditions?
Turnberry has been a low-scoring venue in the past and if the weather’s great, the scoring could be low this time. But you might argue that our best ever Open was like that at Turnberry in 1977 with Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.
Would The R&A consider tinkering with set-up and tee locations to encourage attacking play, as happened at last year’s US Open and this year’s Masters?
I think a big part of what happened at Augusta was the weather. Since the course was lengthened, they’ve had some pretty hostile weather the last couple of years. This year they didn’t. How difficult Open courses play also tends to be weather-dependent more than anything. We did move tees up at Birkdale last year, but for survival reasons really to allow players to reach the fairways. We are looking to set a Major Championship-level examination, so if the weather’s hostile scoring will be high, and if it’s great scoring will be low. The weather overrides pin positions and everything else by a big margin.
The 1st at Turnberry could be drivable in certain conditions…
Yes, which is why we’ve changed the risk-reward relationship by putting some bunkers in further down on the left. In The Amateur Championship last year, the weather was such that it probably wasn’t drivable, so many players hit irons off that tee. Some years earlier, when we had the St Andrews Trophy there, they were blasting drivers all the time because it was wind behind.
What is the prevailing wind at Turnberry?
What was that great saying? Derek Green, the head greenkeeper at Hoylake who tragically died before the 2006 event, used to say, ‘the prevailing wind’s from the west, but it never comes from there’. You get your normal westerlies and south-westerlies here, but you can get anything, as I’ve seen on my visits.
In terms of visits, how long has The R&A been involved at Turnberry?
I would say four or five years with the course changes going in over two winters. The course is in great shape as it hasn’t been played this winter. But this is new ground in many ways – what happens to a golf course that’s not being played? Will it go very soft? But no, it’s doing very well and benefiting from the rest.
Did you consider reducing ticket prices in response to the economic climate?
I don’t think we were up for a reduction, but we are always trying to compare ourselves to other sports – not just ticket prices, but catering prices as well. We’ve got to keep the Championship competitive, yet at the same time commercially successful too. Compared with what you pay at certain other big sporting events, you do get a lot more for your money.
I understand there are one or two credit crunch-busting initiatives this year though – VAT refunds for example?
The VAT change came after we’d announced our prices, and after a number of people had already bought tickets. So it was only fair to refund the difference, which we’re doing in the form of catering vouchers. We’d rightly have got a lot criticism if we’d pocketed the 2.5%. We want to maximise numbers as much as we can in these difficult times, so we also set up an initiative to help golf club groups of 30 or more wanting to attend, with £250 towards their coach hire cost plus a free coach parking pass.
Turnberry‘s not that far from Ireland either, is it?
No, and the Irish dimension is an interesting one. Padraig‘s going for three in a row, then there’s Rory McIlroy plus all the usual Irish contingent. Irish spectator numbers might be pretty good, and we have good arrangements in place with the ferry companies. I hear from them that they’re getting the bookings in.
Has the exhibition marquee gone for good?
No, we’re looking to see what we can do to revive or enhance that or some other spectator facility in the future. When we’re at St Andrews for The Open’s 150th anniversary next year, we may incorporate something into the British Golf Museum rather than an exhibition marquee. But from 2011 we’re looking to see what we might be able to do. This year, because we won’t have the exhibition, we thought a cinema re-running old Open Championships and other films about golf might be interesting. So we’ll have that at Turnberry this year.
Lesser-known players have been making it through International Final Qualifying (IFQ). Is the system working as you’d hoped?
We’re very happy that it’s taking the Championship closer to international players in those far-off lands. That’s been a great success. But we are getting players from more established golfing countries entering The Open through these IFQs and getting in, whereas they were originally targeted more at local players. I guess that was inevitable. We have got it under review, but we’re certainly nowhere near thinking of changing it. The Open is a balance between exemptions and keeping the dream alive through qualification. I think it would be a pretty sad day if we just went to the top 156 in the world.
Are most fans aware of the mobile ban?
We hope so. We’re carrying on with the same policy, which has gone through more smoothly than one might have feared. It all began when phones became cameras, and we do now have the slight anomaly of cameras being allowed on practice days while mobiles aren’t. But we’ve taken the view that if we relaxed things on practice days it would be harder to enforce on Championship days.
Are there plans afoot to celebrate next year’s 150th anniversary in style?
There’s nothing to announce just yet, but we’re not going to let it pass as if it were just another Championship. I know Prestwick is planning an event the weekend before, because the early Championships were there. We’ll have our usual Champions’ dinner, which we have at every St Andrews Open, and we’ll do one or two other things which will be announced when finalised.