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Future Opens should look to the past

It wos Merion wot done it. Grammatically, that sentence isn’t right but it’s the sentiment I am concerned with rather than the grammar.

When the dust had settled on Justin Rose’s US Open victory at Merion in June, it became clear that technological advances in clubs and balls had not left Merion there to be plundered by the pros and thus unusable for current and future championships. Far from there being scores in the low 60s, as some had suggested could happen over the 6,950 yards of pesky Pennsylvania turf, the course had defended herself spectacularly against the best golfers in the world so well that not one competitor finished under par.

Merion had proved that golf courses of relatively short yardages, with small clubhouses and far less space than had been thought to be essential for the staging of a major championship, as well as far from ideal access, not to mention practice facilities that were one mile from the course, could actually hold a US Open. And not just hold it but stage one of the best in the past quarter of a century.

This success for the USGA has relevance to the R&A and its staging of the Open, because it suggests that a number of British courses that have been ruled out on the grounds of age, history, length, clubhouse and spectator facilities might now come back into the reckoning. There are four courses that could be considered for addition to the R&A’s existing Open venues.

Two of them are Royal Portrush and Royal Cinque Ports, aka Deal, two clubs that have held Opens. The Northern Irish club, where Max Faulkner won the Open in 1951, staged an emphatic claim for reconsideration for an Open when it held a successful Irish Open in 2012. At this year’s Open Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said investigations into staging the Open there were ongoing.

Within the past decade, Deal has conducted a campaign to reclaim some of its former glories. It started with improvements to the condition of the course. An expert said the links had lost so many of its traditional characteristics that it resembled not a links in trouble but an inland course in trouble. Since then Deal has held local final qualifying for the Open and from next year will become one of the semi-permanent local final qualifying courses throughout the country. In June it held the Amateur Championship, after which Jim McArthur, chairman of the R&A’s Championship Committee, went out of his way to praise the club’s organisation, cooperation and suitability. In 2020 it will be 100 years since Deal held its last Open. Wouldn’t it be good to try and take the Open back there then?

Members of Royal Porthcawl were recently balloted for their approval or otherwise of the idea that the club was considering applying to stage a future Open. Porthcawl, Wales’s premier club, has held the home internationals, the Amateur, a Walker Cup, European Tour events and in July next year it will host the Seniors British Open. How natural for this atmospheric club with its historic and character-filled clubhouse to stage the Open and show its wonderful course, from which the sea is visible on every hole, to a wide audience.

Which leaves Prestwick, which held the first 12 Opens and a further 12 up to and including its last, in 1925. How wonderful for the game it would be to return to a venue like that one, one of the most historic in golf?

The attractions of staging an Open, whether in northern Ireland, Scotland, England or Wales, are various. First comes the facility fee paid to the host club. This may not be as large as some might think; but nor is it so small. It is a figure that most clubs would welcome because few these days can afford to do without a sudden injection of cash. There is added green-fee income both before and after the event from golfers who want to play an Open venue. There is the pleasure of seeing the world’s best golfers attack your course. And there is the boost to the local economy, estimated at £40 million.

All these clubs have drawbacks. Porthcawl and Prestwick might lack space for everything required by an Open these days. How good is the access to and egress from these courses?

Portrush presents problems in getting spectators around some parts of the course. Porthcawl probably needs a new road to be built from the M4, but this is one way in which the Welsh Assembly Government might be prepared to help, as it did Newport in the build-up to the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.

Spectator numbers might have to be limited. The USGA did that at Merion and Bethpage Black, the municipal course on Long Island that is situated in a public park. At Shinnecock Hills they even drafted in staff members to help run the event because the club had very few volunteers.

But Bethpage, Shinnecock and Merion have shown that if there is a will, there is a way. If the R&A can take a leaf out of the USGA’s book and occasionally stage the Open at one of our venerable courses, perhaps at a cost in terms of loss of income, then how far away is the day when one or more of those courses could stage the Open on a more regular basis?

Not as far as it seemed before June 2013, that’s for sure.

August 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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