The R&A chief sits down to talk about the biggest issues facing golf, from grass roots participation numbers to the distance debate, gender equality, slow play and the Home of Golf, St Andrews.
You’ve been in this job a wee while now. What have you made of it so far?
We could be here for an hour just on that question alone. I quite often go back and think about my interview five years ago. I’ve played golf all my life. Club golf. I love the game. But my interests were my family and business. I took from the game more than I gave. But I’ve always known there is something different about golf too. It was a huge surprise when I was asked to interview.
You didn’t apply?
No, I didn’t. If I’m honest, I didn’t even know it was open. I got a phone call asking if I wanted to interview and I didn’t even know Peter (Dawson) had retired. So it was a bit of a shock.
I’m hoping you are a bit more on top of things these days.
(laughs) Yes. I had finished working (for Deutsche Bank) and was actually playing golf full-time. But I didn’t enjoy playing every day as much as I thought I would. I really missed being with people.
So, four years in, I have realised that the great thing about this job is that it blends my passion for the very best sport with being there to see the very best perform. I have been slightly surprised by how passionate I have become about getting more people playing.
My sons both play. I wanted them to play team sports when they were younger. But now I am passionate about the future of the game.
Too much time is spent talking about the best players, which is enjoyable. But only one percent play golf for money; 99 percent play for love. I want that 99 percent to grow.
There are lots of very good and talented commercial people in the golf business. I hadn’t met any of them five years ago, but today I would put them up there alongside anyone in any of the industries I have worked in previously. We are sometimes very critical of our leaders. But we should be thankful for them. They are pretty damn good at what they do.
If I can interrupt, is the golf club system still fit for purpose? Is it really the best way to grow the game in the modern world? If Joe Golfer has, say, $1,000 to spend on his game annually, he seems to be spending more and more of it on playing a variety of courses rather than joining a club.
I look at this through the lens of being relevant to the consumer. And commercially. The traditional way of measuring the health of the game – if we can stick to Great Britain & Ireland for the moment, but I’m sure it is similar in Australia – is to add up golf club members. It’s about one million right now. That’s still a lot of people. But that figure completely misses what golf is about today.
With the European Tour, we have done a different market survey. We asked how many people “consume” golf. That mean 18-holes, nine-holes, driving ranges, par-3 courses, pitch-and putt courses, Top Golf (which is not that big here yet but is coming). When you put that number together it comes to about 12 million.
So, the golf club is increasingly out-of-date?
Take out ‘elite’ clubs from this. They will be fine. They always will be. And the very simple clubs will be fine too. They are not the issue. The issue is the middle. I am convinced that you have to ask the question: if there are 12 million people out there, why are 11 million of them not buying into golf clubs?
The reason for that, in my opinion, is that too many of the clubs that are struggling are trying to sell a product people don’t want to buy. It could be that they are not family-friendly. It could be that it is not open. It could be too restrictive on dress-code. It could be not inclusive enough. It could be that they don’t have wi-fi. It could be any of those.
If you go to a driving range now – and I do a lot because I and my senior staff have a responsibility to play golf just to see what is going on out there – and if they don’t have wi-fi or you can’t get a proper cup of coffee, you don’t go back. My challenge to golf clubs is to ask themselves: are they selling a product enough people want to buy?
The days are long gone when youngsters adjusted to the golf club. That world is gone. The world is full of choice now. And I think golf clubs have a fantastic opportunity to evolve their product. I’m not a fan of the phrase “nomad golfers;” they are people who pay and play. But the majority of them pay and play at the same two or three courses.
How many of those clubs have digital information on those people? How many are talking to those people and asking what type of membership would they like? What could we do to help you?
Say a 15-round per annum membership….
Whatever. Go and look at clubs in this country who have embraced this. Go and look at Royal Norwich Golf Club. Go and look and look at Goodwood Golf, where they have very cleverly dropped the word “golf.” They have a flexible, family-oriented membership. And it is full, with a waiting-list. They are selling a product people want to buy.
There is a driving range near where I live in Kirkcaldy, called Wellsgreen. I go in there as a “secret shopper.” And it’s full. The car park is full. The bays are full. And what I see is people having fun and being with their friends. The game started in Scotland as a game for the people. But more importantly, it was part of community life. And we have lost our way there. We need to be more egalitarian. That is where the future is.
Let’s move onto the new rules that were introduced a year ago. I’m sure you have had plenty of feedback. What has worked well and what hasn’t?
A few months ago, I said the first few months had perhaps not gone as well as we would have hoped. But we had imposed a huge amount of change. And that has played out a bit since I spoke. The new rules are becoming more accepted. They are bedding-in.
We are especially pleased to see that time to play has improved a lot. There is lots of evidence of that. The three-minute rule makes a difference.
Has putting with the pin-in helped too? Pace of play was really why you did that right?
Without a doubt. The sole reason was to speed up play. Particularly on courses with big greens, that has made a significant impact. In the professional game we have seen some strong leadership from Keith (Pelley) and Jay (Monahan). Mike (Whan) too, although the LPGA adopted it much more easily.
We went through the majors season without any really contentious issues. So, we’re in a good place. But we’re still watching. There was quite a lot of talk, for example, about the knee-high drop.
Does it need to be that specific?
You need to have some sort of black-and-white in place. But the intent was to get the ball back in play as quickly and as simply as possible. And that has been the case. We are seeing a lot less re-dropping and placing, which is what we intended. But we are keeping our eye on it all.
Is there anything that does need tweaking?
We have heard from greenskeepers. There is the potential for damage as people remove the ball and leave the flagstick in. It’s not universal, more on courses where the greens are less firm. On links courses it is less of an issue. And I’m sure it is the same on many in Australia. But we are looking at that.
We have had a lot more applications for equipment standards on flagsticks. And we are thinking about that.
Let’s talk about the course outside your office window. I had a walk around the Old Course and figured out you have to walk over 2,000 yards to go nowhere between green, next tee and back again. And there is a lot more long grass out there than I can ever remember. Are there reasons for that? Should there be any long grass out there?
The great thing about the Old Course is that it has never been the same for long since it was originally built. Or laid-out. Another great thing is that there are plenty of people out there who are very knowledgeable about it and have opinions about it. It’s like the economy though. Economists tend to have a range of views. I think that is healthy.
We have the 2021 Open coming up. I’ve been responsible for four Opens and when I am finished working my time, doing that will go down as one of the top-five experiences of my life. It is a wonderful thing to do. But it’s also a huge responsibility. To history. The whole game is underpinned by the history of the Open. And I feel that sense of history.
I also feel a responsibility towards making the game more modern and relevant to today’s society. The Open is the only major – for the men – played outside America. It’s different for the players. It’s not like anything they play week-in and week-out and we have to get it right. So already what is going to happen in 2021 on the course is on my mind.
The guy, who has played golf better than anyone ever has, is still out there.
Yes. I’m a huge Nicklaus fan. But I’m also a huge Seve fan. There are more pictures of him in this office than there has ever been. I love watching Tiger. I love watching Rory. I think Brooks Koepka is a wonderful player. And I could go on and on. It will be a wonderful experience watching them play here in 2021.
A huge part of our responsibility is how we set-up the course. And I know everyone has a different view on that. My biggest worry at Portrush last year wasn’t the golf course though. Nobody of that standard had played that course off the back tees with a card in their hands.
The set-up team here are as good as anyone in the world at what they do. Particularly a links.
The best compliment I can ever pay Grant Moir (R&A Director of Rules and course set-up) is that no one knows who he is.
I agree with that. But if you look at our philosophy. What we try to do is set-up a course so that it is fair. That is true to the course management – which is really true here. And is tough. The one thing we can all agree on is that we like to see good shots rewarded. And bad shots not rewarded.
That is getting difficult to do here.
Then let them play. Let them show us how good they are. My emotions memories of our game is when the very best played. And scored. In the last four Opens we have done that - let them play.
My issue has never been with the scoring. If a great player at the top of his game doesn’t shoot a great score there is something wrong with the course.
I was one of the first people to congratulate Branden Grace when he shot 62 at Birkdale in 2017. I don’t worry about the score.
But I worry about how it is achieved.
Yup. But the real defence of a links is the weather. Grant spends three years getting a course ready for an Open. But the only one we have delivered as firm and fast as we would like is Carnoustie in 2018. And even that softened up during the week. But it was wonderful. Every player I met that week had a smile on his face. They were enjoying the challenge.
If we look at the Old Course, one defence is the weather. But it could go the other way. If it is calm…
That’s what I worry about. If the weather is really good players are going to break 60.
If it is calm – or if it rains heavily – every links is at risk from these great players. Because of the way they play today. We will do everything we can to get the course firm and fast. If you went out there now it is already beginning to firm-up, which is how this course should play.
But some of the bunkers are in the rough now.
Only on one hole.
There was more than that. The sixth is just the most egregious example. There’s a few of them.
What I am really looking forward to in 2021 is seeing the pin positions.
That is your biggest defence.
Yes. The pin positions are the real defence of this course. Has been for years and years.
But aren’t they going to have to be ridiculous to keep the scoring manageable? If the weather is good.
I do not believe that any course should be tricked-up. I think they should be fair and tough. But the more I learn about course set-up, the more I realise how good these players are. They can spin the ball on a downslope if you give them half a chance.
The anarchist in me does feel that the 2021 Open might be the tipping point in terms of controlling how far the top players can hit the ball. If the scoring does get to the point where it is a bit silly, could it be the place where that does happen?
I know we will set-up the course tough and fair and let them show us how good they are.
So, you’re not worried about them breaking 60?
As I said, I was first to shake Branden Grace’s hand after his 62. If someone breaks 60 they will have played phenomenal golf.
They will have holed a few putts for sure. But they will have holed them after hitting a lot of wedge approach shots.
Looking at statistics over the last few years, I hadn’t realised how well these guys putt. I’ve been amazed by that.
The improvements in agronomy must have a lot to do with that.
If you look at the scoring. I think I looked at Birkdale last time. I looked at the players who played all four rounds on greens running no faster than 10.5 on the stimpmeter. Over 40 percent of the field averaged 29.something or less in putts. When people talk about how good the best are, not enough attention is paid to how well they putt. Yes, the greens are way better…
Couldn’t you give them a fright by having really slow greens?
(laughs) We come in at maybe 9.5 to 10 on the weekend. We have to be careful in case it gets really windy. And don’t forget, on the Saturday morning of my first Open at Troon in 2016 we didn’t mow the greens. That was a baptism of fire for me. We did nothing with them. We just let the players play.
What is the bigger issue for you moving forward – slow play or distance?
That’s a very good question. But, in many ways, it is a bit too simplistic. What do I really care about? I care about the top end of the game being excellent. Whether that is the professional game or the elite. We want to make sure that we provide pathways that allow people to develop their games. That is really important.
Without that, a young Rory McIlroy would not have been on the putting green at Holywood thinking to himself, “this one for the Open.” So, we have to create that pathway. And we have to grow participation. I would love more people to love the game that you and I love. That’s the big picture.
“What do I really care about? I care about the top end of the game being excellent.” – Martin Slumbers
How we achieve that is nuanced. Whenever I talk to young people about how they play more golf – or any golf – time to play, more than pace, is up there number one, two or three. Therefore, we must focus on that. We need more people playing the game.
I know some in the media don’t like what I am about to say, but you have to look at the professional and amateur games differently. The time to play is driving how many amateurs play. But the pace of the amateur game is pretty good. There are some clubs that are poor. But if we look at the elite end, they play at a reasonably good pace.
I hear bad things about US college golf.
I think college golf is slowing down. But when you look at the professional game two things are relevant. One is that the Tours are players organisations. So, they need to make the decision. But I do believe that the very best are role models for youngsters.
I love the way Rory and Dustin play ready golf. They get on with it. More of that will help in the club game. And that will help participation, and that helps the big picture.
Okay, let’s turn to distance. Let me read you a list I made in less than 10 minutes. I could have gone on and on.
Jack Nicklaus. Gary Player. Tom Watson. Hale Irwin. Arnold Palmer. Lee Trevino. Graham Marsh. Tom Weiskopf. Ian Woosnam. Seve Ballesteros. Peter Thomson. Kel Nagle. Tony Jacklin, Deane Beman. Tiger Woods. Geoff Ogilvy. Michael Bonallack. Bill Campbell. Tom Doak. Bill Coore. They all say that the ball is going too far. If you’re not listening to them, who are you listening to?
I’ve heard from most of them, not all of them. I am very clear on this. We are in the final stages of the research where we have spent alot more than 10 minutes on what is going on. We have talked to professional golfers, men and women. We’ve talked to amateur golfers. We’ve talked to architects. Golf course owners. Equipment manufacturers. Everyone in the game.
We are pulling it all together. And that report, together with a statement of conclusions, will be published by February 4th. Out of that we will come up with a balanced view along with our partners in America. Of next steps.
I’ve been very consistent on this. I believe there is a balance between skill and technology. And that balance is different at different skill levels. We need to ensure though, that golf remains a game of skill. I think that is where we are going. We have to be cognoscente of historic courses. We have discussed the Old Course today. But we could have talked about Merion. We have been listening to all of that. And researching. We’re not looking at anything anecdotally.
I was an outsider five years ago. And I’ve got to know a lot of people since then, many of whom are responsible for the game. I’ve spoken with leading manufacturers. Leading architects. And I have great confidence that the industry and the manufacturers will work collaboratively with us.
My message to you on this is that this is a time for serious thinking. The game is very important to me. But we need to follow the process. And I think we will be together on this. On issues that really matter to the future of the game, we do all work together.
There is no fear of legal action after this, if you decide to, say, roll back the ball?
We have an agreed protocol with the equipment manufacturers. It is called the Vancouver Protocol. It is on our website. It is an agreement from 2001-02. It recognises that the R&A and the USGA will always conduct research, but when that research turns into potential equipment standards, a protocol comes into play as to how that is proceeded.
I have said to all the manufacturers – and publicly – that we will 100 percent respect that protocol. This is a time for serious people and there are some of those in this game, who will work together to create leadership in a collaborative way.
My friend, Mike Clayton, put it best. He said that, back in the day, the courses were winning the battle with the players and the equipment. There followed a long period of parity. But now the courses are outgunned. The players at the top level are just too powerful. Would you subscribe to that? Are you worried that that the way Brooks Koepka plays – great as he is – is going to be the only way to play and be successful going forward?
I’ve heard that argument. And others have made it equally eloquently. But a wedge today is not really what a wedge was in the past. They are more like 8-irons, a two-club difference. And that is a key part of what our research is about. We need to move beyond anecdotes and find the facts.
But the likes of Sunningdale and the Kings Course at Gleneagles – to name but two – have been lost to the professional game. I’d be amazed if Merion hosts another US Open as things stand.
But what a great win by Justin (Rose).
And look what they had to do to the golf course. Goodness me.
There is a real balance between the world moving on and the game. There isn’t a sport that hasn’t moved on a lot in the last 20 years or so.
It’s still happening. I read this week that Matt Kuchar has gained 10 yards off the tee just by using a different ball.
There are limits on the ball. And I can’t comment on that specific case. But every sport has changed with technology. It’s more acute for us because we have been able to expand the course space. They can’t do that in tennis.
But golf is the only game that has messed around with the venues to protect the equipment. Every other sport – tennis, cricket, baseball, the javelin – has done exactly the opposite.
There is an element of truth in that. And again, that is one of the topics in the research document.
The courses are the victims in all of this.
But on the other side of it, let’s go back to what I think is the bigger picture. I learned with persimmon drivers and golf was a very hard game. You had to be pretty talented to be able to play the game well. Modern technology has made the game somewhere between a little bit and quite a lot easier. I think that is a really good thing.
Of course. For the vast majority.
I’m not going to lose focus on the big picture, which is actually getting more people playing. I don’t think anyone wants to restrict anything for the punters who need help. Only for the top level. If you think about what I am saying I think you will get a sense about where we need to go.
How far would too far be though? Cameron Champ is just the latest “outlier.” If history tells us anything, there will soon be someone even longer than him coming off the college circuit. And so it goes on.
I talk a fair amount to men who coach the top players. I have asked them about that. And they confirmed that we are seeing, both in the men’s and women’s games, better athletes. Better trained. Better equipped and better matched to their games.
There’s a lot of really good stuff in all of that. Better coaching. Here is what I would really like to see before I finish. I’d like to see us get away from discussing how far the ball gets hit. Not to put aside the arguments you have made. But we need to get back to what golf is really about.
Golf is really about what you score. Or did you win your match? I don’t think we’ve done the game enough good. I hear more people asking someone else if they got on the par-5 15th in two. But they still shot 95 or 100. I don’t hear enough about ‘did you break par today?’
I get that. But it’s a complete switch from when I was growing up. We never talked about distance, or who outdrove who. We talked about who won and who had the best score. I don’t recall ever bragging about hitting it 20-yards past one of my friends. That was never an issue.
I know. And I think the game would be better if we went back to talking about what we scored. One of the great privileges of my job is standing there at the Open prize-giving and saying, “and the winner with a score of.” I don’t say, “and with the longest drive on the 15th, the winner of the gold medal is.” Golf is all about what we score. And we all have a responsibility to get back to what we score.
I was with a random person recently. He was talking about the course where his son had played. It was too short apparently. Because he hits it so far. I thought this young man must be a really good player. But he doesn’t even have a single-digit handicap.
I told him the game is more about what you score. And to ask his son why he isn’t shooting level par if he has the talent to hit the ball so far.
Also, part of the mix has to be the joy of hitting different shots. It doesn’t have to just be about score. America is way too obsessed with that. They have lost the ability to just have fun hitting the ball. Of course, the modern ball doesn’t go sideways enough either.
Unless your name is Bubba Watson.
I try to imagine how he could play if you did fix the ball. He’d be bending it far too much.
If you look at the breadth of the game you have to ask yourself: did I ever get a bigger thrill as a golf lover, than from watching Jordan Spieth get up-and-down from the right side of the 13th green en route to winning the Open in 2017?
That pin was cut three paces from the bunker. That’s real golf. And you can say whatever you like about the ball, but there was a man who went on to be the champion golfer playing the most exquisite little shot. Tommy Fleetwood played a similar shot to the 18th green in the DP World event in Dubai last November.
That’s the sort of thing I remember too. More than the score. What did Tommy shoot that day?
I don’t know.
Neither do I. Which is my point.
Was it 64? Was he 17-under? (laughs)
Anyway, when we get around to talking about equipment, I’d like us to not forget the positive side of it, which is that the skill needed to play those little shots is still there. And they are very, very good at it. Putting is still the most important of the “strokes gained” I believe.
This is a slightly facetious question. Do you know who Niall Horan is?
Tell me how important he is to golf.
He is really beginning to make a mark on the player-management side. He has a huge social media appeal.
He has something like 32 million followers.
And I think he epitomises this younger generation. If you talk to a 15-year-old he or she will know who Niall Horan is. But they won’t know who Mark McCormack was. Niall is highly important.
If we think about the world of media, it has changed beyond all recognition in the last 10 years. We can’t stop it. It will change even faster in the next 10 years. And people like Niall play a massive role in helping us be more modern and relevant in today’s society. I’d love to spend some time with him. I’ve never met him.
The R&A’s image is a lot better than it used to be. Certainly, your staff is a lot younger than it used to be. But is the wider world as aware of that as they might be? I still hear that we live in a world where everyone looks like you and me.
History and our background and this wonderful place where we are based, shapes the R&A. A lot of what I have been trying to do involves taking us from where we were to where we are today. Absolutely we are trying to modernise. But we are a little bit shy of it.
“There is a real balance between the world moving on and the game. There isn’t a sport that hasn’t moved on a lot in the last 20 years or so. – Martin Slumbers
A phrase I have started using is that we need to reflect history in a modern way. Golf is a lot about history. But we are aware that we need to keep modernising. We have done a huge amount. We need to be less shy, but this is not the finished product. We think the R&A has a very important role to play in the leadership of the game and we intend to play it.
What can we look forward to?
We are going to be more and more involved in participation. And being more vocal in that area. I talk about changing the brand of golf and going from being predominately male, middle-aged and unhealthy to diverse, athletic and healthy – both physically and mentally.
Let me tell you a story on that, one I have told to a couple of sponsors we would like to work with. We’ve done a lot of research into the health benefits of golf. That has led us to look at the mental side of that. The golf foundation did a project where they took 40 eight to 13-year-olds. They put them through a mental toughness test. They all got a score.
They then had them play golf for 10 weeks. They taught them how to play, how to prepare to play and gave them exercises to control their nerves. They told them about nutrition. And at the end of those 10 weeks they put them all through the same mental test.
The average score increase was 20 percent. If we can change the brand image to something that is good for you, that makes you healthier both physically and mentally, just imagine the power that would give to the sport we all love.
I’m sure we as youngsters derived these benefits without even knowing about it.
Without even knowing about it. I am passionate about that.