It’s a pool, not a rota, of Open Championship venues, we’re always told by the R&A, and there’s still ten courses in it.
The quality of the course is, sadly, no longer the chief determining factor for an Open venue. 200,000 spectators for the week is the benchmark if not a hard and fast target, and chief executive Martin Slumbers believes every venue can get there.
Better ticketing – creating a demand by going all-ticket and selling early – does make 200k possible for all but one of the ten on the rota/pool, in my opinion.
Let’s do a stock-take of them then, and using Jack Nicklaus’ old adage that the Open courses get worse the further south you go, let’s start at the northmost.
CARNOUSTIE: A record crowd (for Carnoustie) of near 180,000 came in 2018, and the course held up to modern rigours, especially on the last day. Slumbers has said he’s confident they can get up to 200k, and good luck with that. But at the moment, Carnoustie looks fine for another Open in the next 12 years or so.
OLD COURSE, ST ANDREWS: The local, non-golfy community grumble incessantly about the Open’s quinquennial visit (after the 150th Open in 2021, it will revert back in 2025). But the biggest threat is to the Old Course itself, and whether it might be overwhelmed.
It already has been, to many eyes – a 59 or even lower in tournament play can’t be far away. New tees are already on the New, the Eden, the driving range and the Himalayas putting green.
The Distance Insights Report published last month has more bearing on the Old Course than anywhere else. Perhaps the “local rule” included in the proposals allowing championship committees to insist on distance limiting equipment is aimed at the 150th Open?
MUIRFIELD: Now that the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers has women as members, shouldn’t Muirfield be right back on the rota? Not quite.
The R&A were spooked by the big reduction in the gate in 2013. It was actually easily explained – the day ticket price had gone up to £75 and for the first time, OAP concessions were dropped.
The R&A’s new ticketing policies should get Muirfield up to 170,000-180,000. Next time – 2027 at the earliest now – will be crucial, but I’d be shocked if this great course didn’t get another Open.
ROYAL TROON: The award of 2023 is a huge vote of confidence for the Ayrshire venue, not the most loved of links but it has the magnificent Postage Stamp and lots of room. The all-male enclave now ended, the only thing they have to do is add 25,000 to the 2016 gate, which they should manage.
TURNBERRY: It’s not the owner that’s the issue here, although he doesn’t help. Turnberry was always the most difficult for the R&A given the site’s small footprint, isolation, the one road in and out and just one major hotel.
Just 123,000 attended there in 2009, the lowest gate since 1981. There’s no hope of getting near 200,000; the R&A would need the Scottish Government to dual the A77 to get close.
The Scottish Government spending millions to get a lucrative event to Donald Trump’s hotel? Not happening.
ROYAL PORTRUSH: It took them a while, but the return to Royal Portrush was a masterstroke – so much so they’re likely to go back in 2024. Second biggest gate ever (after the 2000 Open) and merchandising sales went stratospheric.
As such, it’s now an Open fixture.
ROYAL LYTHAM AND ST ANNES: A huge history as an Open venue, but the constrained site is a problem. The R&A say “heavy lifting” Lytham did in hosting other championships meant they needed a rest – but try telling that to the hotel operators along the Blackpool and St Annes seafront.
Hard to see how they can get 200,000 in this site, but they seem to want to try.
ROYAL BIRKDALE: The R&A’s favourite venue outside St Andrews. Great course, 200,000 fans even if the weather’s horrible, masses of room, that stylish art deco clubhouse. A no-doubter.
ROYAL LIVERPOOL, HOYLAKE: Maybe not up to lofty standards as a course but they come out in their thousands. The R&A will be back here at least once every 10 years.
ROYAL ST GEORGE’S, SANDWICH: Sandwich is hard to get into, with few places to stay, and arguably the most mundane on the rota/pool.
But meh to all that: London is just 82 miles away, and this is the only viable southerly venue. A gate of 200,000 plus is expected this July.
Slumbers says they aren’t looking at other venues, but they said that just before they returned to Carnoustie, Hoylake and Portrush in recent times.
The rumours about Royal Porthcawl continue, although there are various infrastructure issues there.
But after the runaway success at Portrush, why not Royal County Down or even Portmarnock? The R&A represent all of Britain AND Ireland, after all.