It’s an annual affair. The chief executive of the R&A invites members of the media to a “roundtable chat” in what has to be the greatest office in golf.
So there we all were on nice morning recently, gazing out of Martin Slumbers’ window onto the 1st tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews. Not bad, eh?
It started off, as you’d expect within such august walls, very correctly. Mister Slumbers had an announcement. Two, actually. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has a pair of new honorary members: former Curtis Cup player Bridget Jackson and two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal. And the 2020 Open Championship is going to Royal St. Georges. Which also means – although Mister Slumbers was careful not to say so officially - that the game’s oldest major will head to St. Andrews in 2021, when the Open will be played for the 150th time.
Still awake? Good.
When the talk turned to matters raised by the assembled hacks, things initially didn’t get much more exciting. Mister Slumbers is not one for answering straight questions with straight answers. Which is fine, not many of golf’s blazers like to reveal much on subjects viewed as even remotely controversial. It can work against them, though.
When Mister Slumbers was probed on the upcoming vote that will determine whether or not the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield will finally admit women members – and so, likely as not, regain a spot on the rota of Open Championship courses – he immediately launched into what he clearly felt was a safe and politically-correct response.
RIGHT: R&A CEO Martin Slumbers. PHOTO: Getty Images.
“I’m very open in saying that I believe that golf should be open to all, regardless of gender, sex, religion or nationality,” said Mister Slumbers. “The more the game is open, the more the game is looking at families, the more the game is looking at encouraging younger people, the better.”
Fair enough. But there was a follow-up question: “You mention family golf. Does the R&A have children here?”
“In the R&A, in the club here? There is a sort of lower level age limit in here.”
And what is that?
“I think it is 25.”
In other words, the junior membership of the R&A continues to hold steady at zero. Club motto – “Not in My Back Yard.”
There was worse to come, at least for Mister Slumbers. When a particularly annoying member of the Fourth Estate – okay, me – raised the issue of how far leading professionals hit their drives, the former banker turned red. Especially when public criticism of the R&A and their partners in cri…sorry rules-making, the United States Golf Association by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson was mentioned.
“Why are these great names saying something very different from yourselves?”
“Well, I think everybody always has an opinion.”
“Why won’t you work with these people?”
“I think we do work with these people very carefully.”
“You’re not listening to them.”
“We do listen to a lot of people.”
But not to the past greats, if Michael Bonallack, secretary of the R&A for 16 years until 1999, is to be believed.
“I am on Jack Nicklaus’ Captains Club,” says the five-time British Amateur champion.
“We meet at Muirfield Village every year. At one of those we had Jack, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Bill Campbell, myself, Charlie Mecham from the LPGA, all with huge experience in golf. Jack was talking about the ball. We all agreed it was out of control and going too far. It had to be pegged back. So a letter was composed and sent off to the R&A and the USGA, signed by all of us.
RIGHT: Sir Michael Bonallack's appeals, with other golfing legends, to the R&A have fallen on deaf ears. PHOTO: Getty Images.
“The only reaction we got was an acknowledgement. But I happened to see a copy of the memo passed from (then USGA CEO) David Fay to (then R&A chief executive) Peter Dawson. ‘Have you got this?’ it asked. ‘Please note the average age of those who signed it!’ And that was the end of it.”
Slumbers was then pressed on why golf is seemingly the only game that has “protected” its equipment at the expense of its venues (many of the world’s best courses cannot be used for professional events because they are mysteriously deemed “too short”). Baseball, tennis, cricket and the javelin were cited as examples of sports that have modified the equipment in order to preserve the integrity of the venues.
“Look at the quality of running tracks. When I used to run it was on a cinder track, and now it’s a beautiful modern surface.”
I leave you with one last question: is the game of golf in safe hands?