PORTRUSH, Ireland — Royal & Ancient chief Martin Slumbers is fond of saying that a big-time sport needs a big-time crowd. That won’t be an issue for the British Open’s return to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951.
Slumbers said Wednesday that a record 61,000 people have attended the practice rounds of the British Open this week, breaking the previous mark of 52,000 in 2006 when the Open returned to Hoylake after a 38-year absence.
Royal Portrush marked the first time in Open history that all tickets had to be sold in advance for competition days, meaning there were no walk-up sales. Demand was so high that an additional allotment was released in April, and the “all tickets” policy was extended to Tuesday and Wednesday practice rounds.
Add it up and the R&A says 237,500 people will have come through the gates at Royal Portrush, a record for all Opens except for St. Andrews.
“On another sign of the growth of this championship, our initial sales at Royal St. George’s for next year have been even faster than they were this time last year for Royal Portrush,” Slumbers said.
Royal Birkdale in the populous northwest of England attracted 235,000 fans two years ago when Jordan Spieth won. Slumbers also said 30,000 fans are under 25, including 21,000 fans under 16 who can attend for free with an adult who has a ticket.
Slumbers said attendance often depends on the location of the links. He said the smallest crowd typically is Turnberry, which has limited access with roads on the southwestern coast of Scotland.
WOMEN’S BRITISH OPEN
It’s strange to hear the chief executive of the Royal & Ancient use “British” when describing the Open, but that’s what it’s called.
Of course, Martin Slumbers was referring to the Women’s British Open, and that’s what it has been called since it began 1975, when it became part of the LPGA Tour schedule in 1994 and was designated an LPGA major in 2001.
The R&A, which joined forces with the Ladies Golf Union, takes full control of the tournament next year.
And then what will it be called? Slumbers smiled.
“That’s something we are considering very carefully,” Slumbers said. “We’ll be announcing something in due course.”
Slumbers said the R&A was bullish on the women’s game, and his hope was for it to grow. The R&A increased the prize money for this year’s championship to $4.5 million, with the winner taking home $675,000, the second-highest payoff on the LPGA Tour schedule.
He was asked if he could foresee the men’s and women’s British Open champion receiving equal prize money (the British Open purse is $10.75 million, an increase of $250,000 from last year).
“To build the economics of the Women’s British Open, to be able to keep raising the prize money, we need to do it as a sustainable business model,” Slumbers said. “It needs to be a long-term business model. And that is what we are spending a long time doing. How do we build a better model to have a more financially successful Women’s British Open that will then flow down into the prize money?
“Where it ends up, I don’t know,” he said. “But my ambition is to keep growing the overall performance of it and keep enhancing the status of the event.”
THE 700 CLUB
Miguel Angel Jimenez joins an exclusive club when he tees off Thursday in the British Open. Jimenez, eligible from winning the Senior British Open last year, will be only the second player in European Tour history to play 700 events.
The other was Sam Torrance.
The 55-year-old Spaniard, who turned pro in 1982, earned a European Tour card in 1988. A 21-time winner, Jimenez already holds the record as the oldest winner on the European Tour. He was 50 when he won the Spanish Open.
“This is a very proud moment for myself and my family, and to reach the milestone of 700 events on the European Tour at the Open Championship makes it even more enjoyable,” Jimenez said. “Of course, I am now only six tournaments away from tying, and seven away from beating, the record held by my great friend Sam Torrance. I don’t know exactly when that will happen, but the record is definitely in my sights.”
Jimenez plays the opening two rounds with 60-year-old Tom Lehman and 20-year-old Joaquin Niemann.
EYE ON TOYKO
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland chose not to play in the Olympics when golf returned to the program in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro. He cited concerns over the Zika virus but later told the Sunday Independent in Ireland that he resented how the Olympics forced him to decide whether to play for Ireland or the United Kingdom, and that it reached a point that it “wasn’t worth the hassle.”
Now he reaffirmed that he wants a chance to play in Tokyo next year.
“I think I let other people’s opinions of me weigh on that decision,” McIlroy said. “And at the end of the day, it’s my decision. I can’t please everyone. The only people that really care about who I play for, who I represent, don’t mean anything to me. I don’t care about them. So at the end of the day, with where golf is, with it being part of the Olympic movement, I think if I had to look back on my career and not played in one, I probably would have regretted it.
“So that was part of the reason I wanted to go,” he said. “It’s a wonderful experience. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
ON THE COURSE AND OUT OF PLAY
More unusual than the change in elevation at Royal Portrush is the out-of-bounds stakes inside the boundaries of the golf course. Those are found left of the first hole, and left of the 18th hole coming back in an opposite direction.
For the last British Open at Royal Portrush, the club didn’t own the tiny piece of land between the first and 18th fairways. While the club owns it now, it wanted to keep to the tradition of that area being out-of-bounds.
“As the course has developed they’ve always kept that historically as out-of-bounds,” R&A chief Martin Slumbers said. “And we felt that was highly appropriate to do so this year as we’ve rebuilt the course. We try to stay true to how the course is played.”
The 18th hole previously was the 16th until the last two holes were eliminated to make room for the spectator’s village, and two new holes (Nos. 7 and 8) were built.
Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press