Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, wants to talk about 150 years of the Open. He wants to tell you all about the four years they’ve spent planning their sesquicentennial celebrations, the million-plus ticket applications, the record crowd of 290,000 and the 20,000 free tickets for kids. He would really like to let you know all about how much the R&A invests into the grassroots of the game, the latest participation figures and the surge in popularity after the end of the pandemic. The one thing he doesn’t want to talk about is the one thing everyone else does. LIV.
On Wednesday, Slumbers explained why the R&A had refused to invite the LIV Series’ ringman Greg Norman to take part in this week’s ceremonies even though Norman, who was presumably listed as officially “NFI” on the start list for the little four-hole Celebration of Champions tournament they held here on Monday, won the Open in 1986 and 1993. “This is a very important week for golf. This is the oldest championship. It’s the original championship,” Slumbers said. “We decided that we didn’t want the distraction.”
Which makes the R&A come across just a little bit Caddyshack. Slumbers is playing Judge Smails, so presumably Norman is about to show up any minute now in his best Rodney Dangerfield sports jacket and slacks to explain that he never wanted to be a member here anyway and the whole thing is part of his grand plan to redevelop the Old Course. “Condos over there, plenty of parking, we’ll make a fortune, believe me.”
The hard part for Slumbers is that he isn’t really able to explain why the R&A is so dead set against LIV. The obvious answer is that they don’t really want the competition. But that won’t wash. And the other is Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which is a tricky proposition too, given that the national golf federation is an affiliate member of the R&A and has received development grants from the body in the past. The Saudi International was part of the European Tour circuit just last year. It wasn’t so long ago the authorities were encouraging the players to go.
Which is maybe why Slumbers needed a couple of mulligans to try to nail his position on the morality of it all. “Let me be very clear: abuses of human rights, acts of terrorism cannot be condoned in my mind in any shape or form.” Helpful as it was to have it clarified that the R&A does not approve of murder, the effect was somewhat undercut when Slumbers then attached a “but”. “We have a responsibility to work with many countries around the world that are affiliated to the R&A and are responsible for golf in their country.”
That isn’t about money, he said, but “golf as a force for good” and bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice one birdie at a time.
Slumbers’ argument was all about how the nouveau riche arrivistes simply don’t appreciate the “values” of the game. You guess there are a lot of lawyers behind the scenes on both sides of this divide, which is why some of the language used is so very specific (Slumbers deferred to the “UK companies act” when he was asked whether it was a conflict of interest that he also sits on the Official Golf World Ranking board which is about to decide on LIV’s request for formal recognition). But the public relations battle is being fought with vaguer terms like “integrity, personal responsibility, and respect”.
Slumbers argued that LIV “undermines the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition” whereas he “can look in the eye of any boy or any parent of that boy and know that if he comes into the game and wants to get to the top, wants to play this game, that there is a pathway to the top totally based on his ability and his willingness to work hard”. That, he said, is a principle “worth fighting for”.
His idea of the future of the game “is about mothers, fathers, children, grandchildren all playing golf together,” he said. “It’s about short-course facilities, public facilities, open to the public, relatively low cost, and introducing people to the game. Because all the research that we do shows that our problem is getting people to try out our sport often because of perception and often because of cost. But once they try it out, the hit rate on them staying with the game is huge.”
Which is all very admirable. But again, would have been even more so if Slumbers hadn’t also been busy defending the R&A’s decision to sell all the live broadcasting rights to subscription TV rather than keep at least some of it on free-to-air, where they would be readily available to everyone. “I don’t think free-to-air is as important as it was 25 years ago,” he explained. His own sons “have got at least three devices on their lap when they’re watching any sport”. The game is certainly perfectly accessible if you can afford a tablet, a laptop and a phone to go along with it. It helps if your father is the CEO of the R&A too.
Anyway. If you are following the action on one of your four devices this week, don’t be too alarmed if you see an explosion go off somewhere in the background. It will only be Bill Murray trying to catch that stray gopher.