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Huggan column: Here is what is wrong with The R&A

Shameless perversion: The Road Hole at St Andrews found itself with a new tee position (photo by Getty Images)

Shameless perversion: The Road Hole at St Andrews found itself with a new tee position (photo by Getty Images)

by John Huggan

Have to be honest here –   I lost patience with The R&A and their seemingly terminal procrastinations a long time ago. The final straw for me was the sanctioning of new tees beyond the boundaries of the Old Course at St  Andrews. Instead of doing something – anything – about the increasingly extraordinary distances leading professionals are able to propel their turbo-charged golf balls when wielding frying pan-sized metal woods, the game’s ruling body outside the United States and Mexico resorted to a shameless perversion of golf’s ultimate monument.

If The R&A and their rules-making counterparts across the pond, the United States Golf Association, had been awake at the wheel over the last 20 years or so, then the game’s most iconic venue and countless other great tracks would not have been stretched to within an inch of their lives.

Back in 2010, when The Open was last played at St Andrews, the course was extended to its physical limits and beyond, the players hitting from as many as five tees not actually on the premises. The Championship was, in fact, played on multiple courses – the Old, the New, the Eden, the Himalayas putting course and, most infamously, golf’s most high-profile par-4, the 17th or ‘Road Hole’ was played from a new tee, one 50 yards behind the previous incumbent and located over the boundary fence in an adjacent field.

The R&A’s shameful abdication of responsibility is one that continues to this day. So far this year, for example, driving distances on the PGA Tour are 1.7 yards ahead of record-breaking pace and the next Open Championship at St Andrews will again be played on a course “boasting” new bunkers and a radically altered 11th green.

“At some point someone needs to fix where we are right now,” says former European Tour player Mike Clayton, now one of the game’s most innovative course designers. “The solution is simple: roll back the ball. I ask myself why that has not been done and my conclusion is that the administrators are idiots.

“That’s unfair, I know. But they have cowered before the threat of lawsuits from the equipment manufacturers, who have no right to dictate how the game is played. Their aim is to create a ball Adam Scott can fly onto the first green at St Andrews. That’s why they exist. At some point, though, the game has to create boundaries for these people. No one has yet.”

Action in the area of distance would certainly be more appropriate than the relatively insignificant matter of “anchoring” when putting. While anything that limits the effectiveness of long and belly putters is to be welcomed, the impact those admittedly dreadful implements have had on the game – at any level – is negligible when measured against the untold and frightening amounts of cash spent unnecessarily on “toughening” courses. (Good luck, by the way, to rules officials everywhere when they are asked to determine whether or not Bernhard Langer et al are “intending” to anchor their putters).

Truly, the order of things on the “to-do” list at The R&A is strange indeed. Take last week’s Press gathering ahead of the upcoming Open at Royal Troon. Despite knowing what is surely going to occur this July when the game’s oldest and most important Championship goes – yet again – to an all-male club, the R&A chose to basically ignore that issue amid announcements regarding camp sites, wire cameras and starters. Clearly, a repeat of the media storm that accompanied The 2013 Open at Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, is something The R&A regard  as a mere inconvenience rather than just another indication that golf is played by a sad collection of out-of-touch misogynists.

Following on from his stumbling performance and vague responses to the question of “Trump Turnberry” hosting another Open in the wake of its owner’s inflammatory remarks about, well just about anyone and everyone, The R&A’s still-new chief executive, Martin Slumbers, was equally undistinguished when asked about Royal Troon’s lack of women members. All he had to offer on the subject was that the club should be “given the respect and the freedom to consult with their members as they wish”.

“It takes time to work through this,” he continued. “I look forward to the outcome whenever that is. We will listen to that outcome. I keep going back to my general view, that we want golf to be open to all. That’s important on the way I think about life.”

Really? Open to all? From the public representative of a club where the number of junior members is holding steady at zero? And what about putting some pressure on Royal Troon? What about telling them that they will lose The Open unless this nonsense is fixed before July? What about exerting some authority?

This is important stuff. While many women argue that a lack of female members at Royal Troon makes no difference to their daily lives, there is, again, a symbolic aspect to this sad affair. What are young girls watching The Open on telly supposed to think when they are told that yes, golf is a great game to play, but no, you cannot join that club because you use the “wrong” toilets?

To be fair, The R&A are hardly alone in the casual arrogance that characterises so much of their actions within the game. The PGA Tour and their diminutive commissioner, Tim Finchem, are just as bad and often even worse. That the likes of Rory McIlroy have to make a choice between the French Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational – well done Rory for opting to play in the former – is solely down to the intransigence of wee Timmy and his blazered brethren. Postpone a US event because it would be the right thing to do and, in the process, help the European Tour? Not a chance.

The bottom-line? If golf were starting over tomorrow, would we choose these same people to run things? Never in a million years.

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