Troon's Tee in the Park gives shot in the arm to 'a slow boring game'
Published 14/07/2016 | 02:30
Forty-three years ago this week, a young golf fan travelled up from Hertfordshire to Troon and pitched his tent in a field just outside town.
He was a few days short of his 16th birthday and as a present, his father was taking him to see his first Open Championship. He stood at the practice range, watched his idols Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, tried to mimic their swings. He went home more determined than ever that, one day, he would join them. The year was 1973, and the child's name was Nick Faldo.
Four decades on, a sea of tents greets the eye as you tramp down a narrow wooded lane about a mile from the course. For the first time, an official camping village has been installed to attract young golf fans attending the Open. The age limit is 25, the ground is flat and firm, and best of all, it is completely free. As Richard III almost put it: now is the summer of our discount tent.
The initiative has already been a stunning success before a ball has even been hit: organisers say that all 500 places for tomorrow and Saturday night have been taken. Everything from clean water to inflatable mattresses to the tents themselves has been provided free of charge. All you have to do is buy a ticket to the golf (just £30 for 16 to 21-year-olds), rock up and move straight in.
The intention is evidently to channel the vigour of the modern music festival on a sporting scale - a sort of golfing Glastonbury, if you will, or Tee in the Park. There is an indoor bar serving food and drink; a chipping challenge for those who have brought their clubs; a football pitch in the centre of the site. All that is missing is Billy Bragg playing protest songs and strangely dressed ladies walking around dishing out henna tattoos.
Simply put, it is a bold and breathtaking move by the R&A, and a much-needed shot in the arm for a sport that has no problem generating revenue, but quietly worries about where its next generation of fans is coming from.
"Coming to the Open can be a really expensive week if you're staying in a hotel," says Tom Foster, a 19-year-old from Edinburgh.
"We were looking at an Airbnb in Lanark and it would have been about £30 or £40 a night to stay in someone's house. This is much, much nicer."
Of course, this is all part of the wider existential problem currently facing golf. In Britain, the number of people playing at least once a month has declined by more than a quarter since 2006. Two years ago, the Golf Foundation commissioned research into young people's perceptions of the sport. The verdict was scathing.
"A slow, boring game." "A game for older men." "Too time-consuming." So, how do you sell golf to a society enamoured with football, YouTube and chasing imaginary Pokemon characters through the streets? How do you convince the most time-poor, cash-poor generation in living memory to try a sport that takes four hours to play, four days to watch and costs as much as a package holiday? And for all the ambient buzz generated by the sport's new stars, can golf ever really be cool?
"I feel like if your parents are into golf, you're into golf," says Becca Dixon, a student at Durham University and another campsite resident.
"I don't think I'd be into it if it wasn't for my dad. I'm not sure that it's uncool; it's just that we don't have time to put aside. When you choose which sport you want to specialise in, you're going to choose a 40-minute game over something that takes a whole morning."
"I've played since I was young," her boyfriend James Wass adds. "But my friends who don't play don't watch it. Only the people who play golf care about the Open."
With golf gradually disappearing from terrestrial television, the need for solutions is more pressing than ever. Organisations like the Golf Foundation are working tirelessly to promote the junior game and get golf into schools. For its part, the R&A has gone out of its way to appeal to the young: pumping money into student golf, infiltrating social networks like Instagram and Snapchat, letting U-16s into the Open for free.
So perhaps there is some light on the horizon. And indeed, looking out over the hundreds of tents, it is hard not to feel a little uplifted. There may or may not be another Faldo lurking under the canvas roofs. But the sense of adventure that first entranced Britain's greatest golfer is more in evidence than ever.