Ropes will be set further back from the greens and marshals from the army are set to patrol the tee boxes as the Open prepares to welcome back crowds and protect its players at Royal St George’s.
Some 32,000 spectators will be allowed on the course for each of the four days of competition this week. It will be the biggest crowd at a major since Portrush in 2019, after the Open was included in the third stage of the government’s events research programme (ERP).
The relaxation of pandemic rules presents a number of opportunities for the R&A, but challenges too in terms of Covid and security more broadly. Last week, an intruder burst into Rory McIlroy’s group at the Scottish Open and stole a club from his bag. On Sunday night many more unsavoury scenes played out before the Euro 2020 final at Wembley. Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, was keen to allay concerns over the possibility for more disorder at the Kent course.
“We are deeply conscious all the time of the health and safety of the players, particularly the safety,” Slumbers said. “Even more so this year than in previous years. But we’re not changing any of the procedures around the tee. As a spectator you can’t get on to it. We have enough marshals around our tees to prevent that, including a number of army marshals.
“We understand the environment we’re all operating in. There’s very strict conditions for all the spectators looking to get into the grounds and they will all be held further back from the players than we would normally do. If you go out, you’ll see the ropes are further back. But I think the spectators play a massive part in the sport and it’s no different at the Open.”
Slumbers said the R&A had worked hard with the government to get the largest crowd possible into the Open, with outdoor sports events that are not part of the ERP currently limited to crowds of 10,500.
“All along getting the spectators here was really important,” Slumbers said. “When I think about the Open and where I want to be positioned in terms of a world-class sporting event, then big-time events need big-time crowds. Wait and see what the 18th is like on Sunday afternoon when the winner is coming down and the crowds are in the grandstand. That’s what the Open is about for us.”
With all tickets carried over from last year, when the Open was one of the first major sporting events to be cancelled in the face of Covid-19, there is a sense of expectation and excitement in the temporary village that has grown up around the links.
Sisters Alison Morgan and Julie Flood had travelled from Southampton to attend the championship for two days. For Morgan it had been the first time she had left home since a visit to Brighton in February of 2020.
“We like to follow our sports and everything we booked last year got cancelled,” said Flood. “You can’t beat being up close and seeing it in real life, how quickly the players swing and how far the ball travels. Plus being in the fresh air makes a difference.”
Supporters are expected to provide proof of double vaccination or negative lateral flow tests in the previous 48 hours to gain entry. Morgan said this part of the process had been relatively easy to fulfil, with Covid status being checked some distance away from the site. “The only difficulty was in finding the car park,” she said.
The R&A will hope that the process is as smooth for the 156 players from 27 different countries. Covid protocols tougher than those of the American majors played this year will confine players to a bubble of no more than four people for the week, with that number including caddies and trainers. This means that a trip to a restaurant could see a player disqualified.
“I think he would be at risk of being disqualified, yes,” Slumbers confirmed. “We would want to understand the circumstances, but I don’t think it will be an issue. The players know the risks, they know the impact, they’re all responsible. They don’t want to put their fellow players at risk and I’d like to treat them as professionals in that regard.”