Jeremy Ellwood asks R&A Chief Executive, Martin Slumbers, about his early months in the job, preparations for Royal Troon and new Open initiatives that are being trialled on the Ayrshire coast this July
Martin Slumbers Q&A
How have your first few months in charge been?
It’s been very enjoyable. I suppose I’ve been somewhat surprised just how much is going on, but that’s a good surprise, as I’m much happier being busier than not. There is a lot that The R&A is responsible for, and it’s a challenge to make sure we discharge those responsibilities appropriately.
How big a part of your job is preparation for The Open Championship?
It’s a pretty big role. I was privileged to have a six-month handover with Peter Dawson, and he gave me some wonderful advice, stressing the importance of making sure we have a good Open. The Open drives everything else that we want to do. It’s the showcase not just for The R&A, but more importantly for golf over here, so staging it to world-class standards is number one on my job specification.
What are the most significant changes to Royal Troon since the 2004 Open?
The changes are not major at all. We will play the course at an official yardage of 7,190, which is just 15 yards longer, so we’ve not added length. There are a number of bunkers that have been changed or moved and a couple of new tees, but the most material change is to the 15th, where we’ve moved the tee to the left. It now plays essentially as a straight hole as it was originally designed, whereas before it was played as a left-to-right dogleg where the challenge was being able to keep it on the fairway.
So you’ve made the renowned back nine a bit easier?
No, I wouldn’t say so. We’ve tried to get the course balanced. The first six holes provide opportunities for the players to score, as the prevailing wind should be with them. The 7th, 8th and 9th are in a loop of their own, with the glorious Postage Stamp 8th, one of the best par 3s in the world of golf. Then you turn, and holes 10 to 13 will be very important. They played hard last time and will play just as hard this time. Once you get through 13, the end is about as good as it gets in links golf.
How are things shaping up on the ground?
It was a very wet winter. Most of the locals told us it was as wet as they could remember. A number of fairways had substantial areas under water, but the greenkeepers have done a tremendous job. They were pumping continuously and preserving it as best they could, and the weather is now turning in our favour. The agronomy report I received recently is looking good, so let’s hope we don’t get any more really wet weather and can get the firm and fast conditions we like.
What is the rationale for this year’s new nine-hole amateur event?
That came out of discussions as we were preparing for our Time for Golf conference last year. We felt that although nine-hole golf has been around a long time, it’s a way of playing the game that maybe is not used as much as it could be. It would be great to see more nine-hole competitions on club calendars, and what better way for The R&A to say nine-hole golf is a great option than by creating a competition that ends up being played on the Open Championship course the week before the event.
This year we’re running it as a pilot with our Regional Qualifying courses involved. If successful, it will run as a national qualifying competition across GB&I in 2017. We’ve had some excellent conversations with the home unions who are very keen to run those qualifying events.
Is this part of a wider plan to promote nine-hole golf?
Yes, I think it is. Whatever we do it’s important that we are modern and relevant to today’s society. I think we have to understand that in today’s society a lot of people who would traditionally have had time to play 18 holes now have less time, so getting nine-hole golf on to club calendars and as part of handicapping is really important.
Is this bypassing the thorny issue of slow play?
We’re absolutely not bypassing pace of play. We’re pushing very hard on that as well and our new pace of play manual is just going out to every golf club.
How did this year’s Camping Village initiative for young people come about?
The Open Championship is a world-class golf event and we want to encourage young people to come and enjoy it. The feedback we were getting was that the cost of getting to and from The Open and staying somewhere was proving potentially prohibitive for them. What we are trying this year is a Camping Village with 500 beds set up in tents.
If you are under 25 and have bought a ticket, you will get that bed for the night for free. Bookings are pretty good and I fully expect us to be sold out soon, which is very positive. The feedback from the industry is that it’s a great initiative from The R&A, and if successful, we will continue to do it each year.
What other new initiatives are there for 2016?
We’re looking at a couple of other things. We’ve introduced twilight tickets on Thursday and Friday, which will be priced at £25 for entry to the course after 4pm. That will give you a good five hours of golf, weather permitting, with some big names still out there. We’re also looking at a dedicated autograph area at the practice ground, and some new technology and viewing opportunities out on the course.
How is Sky’s Open debut shaping up?
A lot of work has gone on since I’ve been here, including weekly meetings with the Sky team and monthly meetings with senior management. I think you will see a different experience on holes like the 8th. There will be bunker-cams in all the bunkers around the Postage Stamp. There’s going to be a wire camera down the side of that hole, which will provide images that we’ve never seen before, plus a lot of additional camera angles and coverage all around the course.
Is the move not a backward step in terms of exposure?
The world has changed in the way people consume TV. I was watching the rugby the other day with my younger son who’s in his 20s, and he was watching rugby on the TV, football on his laptop and covering something else on Twitter! Younger people consume information in a very different way.
We’re delighted with our partnership with Sky, which is very conscious of the modern world and the use of technology and digital. There will still be multiple ways to view The Open this year – not just Sky, but also the BBC highlights, Now TV and our own digital channels.
Looking ahead to 2019, how are things shaping up at Royal Portrush?
The two new holes are largely finished. I was there recently and they are spectacular, so we look forward to other people coming to see them at some point. The work is bedding in, and will be open for play next year. I think Royal Portrush will be a fantastic setting. There are lots of tweaks all the way around the course – changes everywhere to toughen it up and make it really relevant to the modern player.
Photography: Getty Images