Mike Tate: "Portrush isn’t on the Open agenda"

The R&A director on the Open rota, qualifying for the championship and his own golfing pedigree

OF anywhere in the world you would be hard pushed to find a better venue for an interview. 

We are on the top floor of the R&A clubhouse with a view down the 1st and 18th fairways of the most famous links in the world – the Old Course at St Andrews.

Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, is abroad, so we are free to use his spacious office.

Across the table is Mike Tate, a former Northumberland county player whose game is described by Dawson as “possibly the worst 2-handicap I have ever seen”.

Tate, who grew up playing at Alnmouth Village, just outside Alnwick, attended the University of Dundee, where he studied English Law.

He was doing his bar exams when he saw an advert for a job as referee on the European Tour. He progressed from that to directing tournaments, including the 1993 Ryder Cup at The Belfry.

He then worked for Volvo Event Management, primarily in China, before joining the R&A. He had previously served on the Rules and Championships Committees of the R&A. 

Starting with the make up of the Open field, how effective do you think the qualifying system is with the balance of local pros and tour players?

We introduced the new system at Royal St George’s last time so, to that extent, we have come full circle. And I noticed then that we had 128 exempt players out of 156 in the field, the year after we had 95 so that was what we were trying to address. The exemptions had crept up and up. 

The figure last year was 116 as anyone who dropped out is replaced by someone on the world rankings, we don’t go down the reserve lists from the qualifying.

As far as the international tour players are concerned we feel that we’ve got the balance about right, we tweak it each year and we moved the numbers that were qualifying in the International Final Qualifying (IFQ) in America down to 78 from a field of 120. There is always a debate as 2,000 players enter the Open and we’ve got to get it down to 156 somehow and ever since the year dot the committee has altered the qualification and entry conditions to try and reflect the current balance of strength around the world but still having the Open open and keeping the dream which is a huge part of things.

Do you monitor those players who come through IFQs to see if it’s worth having more or fewer places available?

Absolutely, we also do the same with the regional qualifiers. Only three made it into the championship last year and none of them made the cut so you cannot just analyse on one year, you have to do that over a period of time to get a flow. 

The growth of the Asian game is particularly interesting, we had a field of 76 in Thailand this year from a maximum field of 78 – there were two late entries who we couldn’t accept – that would have been the first time we would have had a full field in Asia to qualify. And it wasn’t backing on to another tournament so they all had to fly to Thailand to play. When we started we would get 30 or 40. You also look more at Australia and South Africa as their numbers have remained static, we used to give them four, now it’s three.

Peter Dawson said at last year’s press conference there are as many as nine courses good enough to play host. What are the chances of extending the rota in the coming years?

There hasn’t been any serious suggestion of adding another venue since Hoylake was added in 2006. You need to analyse if the course is good enough, can it take the crowds, does it have hotels among many other things and if you made a check list of 10 you can dismiss some immediately.

What about the championship returning to Northern Ireland?

I don’t think there is anything seriously on any agenda. From time to time we get interested parties coming forward but there is nothing happening there.
We very much think of the Open as a worldwide product rather than a particularly British product. It is shown on satellite channels around the world. Will St Andrews continue to host every five years?
It is by historic accident we were here in 2000 and for the 150th anniversary last year. The next big anniversary is in 2021 for the 150th playing of the championship so something needs to give there. 

Is that your favourite Open?
Convenience wise obviously, but the buzz in the town is great fun. Is there a danger of staleness given that the other venues have an Open roughly once a decade?
I don’t think the galleries would tell us that, and the town is always buzzing. It is certainly going to be used more regularly as it is the Home of Golf. We can’t impose on the local members too much – you have the Women’s Open and lots of amateur events too – and we are conscious we have to take our turn but we love coming here.

Was it not an option to have Royal St George’s in 2012 given the London Olympics is a few weeks later?
We considered it but thought we didn’t want to be so close to the Olympics, golf was not an Olympic sport then and had it been the Open wasn’t part of the Olympics. You could go the year before or after and, after talking with local authorities we went the year before as they could test some plans. The  Commonwealth Games is in Scotland in 2014, as is the Ryder Cup, so we need to keep away from those events.

This year we saw the Masters being covered on Sky, is the Open any nearer to joining it?
Not in the UK no but we very much think of the Open as a worldwide product rather than a particularly British product. It is shown on satellite channels around the world but happens to be on the BBC in the UK. We’ve signed another deal with the BBC to 2017 as we like longevity. 
Our BBC contract began in 1955, and I note that CBS have been broadcasting the Masters since 1956 so, in essence, they have had only one host broadcaster as we have. 
What they, and we, have done from time to time is change overseas licencees, which may explain their move to Sky. 
In a similar vein, we moved from ABC/Turner to ESPN last year in the USA. 
So we seem to be adapting along the lines of the same model as they are. 
Part of our remit has been to promote the game and one way of doing it is on a free-to-air channel. We are always delighted with their coverage, they throw a huge amount of resources at it and they also do a world feed for those countries that don’t send crews. 
What additional coverage will you be providing?
The same as last year, there will be a three-hole live streaming on the website, there is an Open app which was downloaded 200,000 times and received a 4.5/5 rating.
It was the most downloaded sports app last year. That will be there again and we will also broadcast an ‘outside the ropes’ channel.

How did ticket sales go at Sandwich?
Pretty good, it is the first time we’ve been back to a venue when we have had internet sales on a full cycle. 
There are more daily tickets but the high-speed train from St Pancras stopped at Ashford and then at Sandwich. The accommodation isn’t that easy so you had to travel in.
All venues have their problems, the roads are narrow so we spent an inordinate amount of time on planning and one-way systems. The ticket prices were held because of the economic situation.

How do you think the R&A are perceived?
We try our best to promote the game, the profits that are made from the Open don’t come back into club funds and the money is distributed in the UK and around the world to promote golf.
Padraig Harrington is now an R&A ambassador and his management company asked if there was anything they could do and our golf development committee jumped on it. If you look back at his two winning speeches he was very complimentary at the help he had been given on his way up, whether at the Walker Cup or in coaching, and it is nice to be recognised. 

During the Open are there certain players you ask about the set-up of the course?
Yes, usually the more senior ones as they have seen it before. Some are very frank and forthright and usually we speak to them during the practice rounds. 
Tate chaired the sub-committee that suggested International Final Qualifying, and was asked to join the staff as Assistant Secretary to Dawson in 2004.

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