Portrush, Northern 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.
Where: Royal Portrush (7,344 yards, par 71), Portrush, Northern Ireland
TV (all times EDT): Thursday-Friday, 1:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 5-7 a.m. (Golf Channel), 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (NBC); Sunday, 4-7 a.m. (Golf Channel), 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (NBC).
Playoff (if necessary): Three holes, aggregate score
2018 winner: Francesco Molinari at Carnoustie