'Tiger factor' to swell Sandwich crowds

Record ticket sales mean the Open's rare visit to the south-east should benefit Kent by over £15m

As hard as it tries, the Open Championship does not manage to get out round the country as much as it might. You could be forgiven for thinking the Open rota is a bit of a closed shop. But given the constraints of tradition - it is always held on a links - and space - to accommodate all the grandstands, marquees and parking that go with a modern major sporting event - and, of course, a lay-out that will still test the best players of the day, the options are limited.

So it is in Scotland that the Open most often stays, sometimes on the east coast, at other times on the west. There are frequent trips to Lancashire but only rarely does it make the longer journey all the way to the south-east. The 132nd Open Championship will begin on Thursday at Royal St George's in Sandwich, a rare appearance for top-class sport in East Kent.

The cyclists on the Tour de France flashed by a few years ago during a detour on the wrong side of the Channel Tunnel, while Steve Waugh, the Australian Test cricket captain, made a few brief but compelling appearances for Kent at the delightful St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury last summer. But the prospect of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and the rest competing in the Open appears to have captured the imagination of the locals.

"The advance ticket sales are better than for any other venue on the rota," said David Hill, the championship secretary for the Royal and Ancient, who organise the Open. "They are way ahead of our expectations. There have been quite a few last-minute changes to ensure we have extra car parking and extra catering. London and the south-east are definitely supporting the Open."

Tiger, even though he is currently without a major title, must be one of the factors. The world No 1 has never played at St George's. He has only once played near London, at the World Match Play at Wentworth in 1998. Apart from the Ryder Cup at The Belfry - an all-ticket affair - his next most southerly appearance was in the Open at Royal Birkdale, also in 1998.

"There will be a factor in the attendance that people in the south have not seen Tiger play," said Hill. There may be other trends at play, such as people now realising that tickets can now be bought on the internet. Hill also wonders if there is a perception in the south-east that you have to have a ticket in advance for a sporting event.

The Open, in fact, may be one of the last remaining high-profile events where tickets can be purchased at the gate on the day. It has remained largely immune from the "eventisation" of sport. "We don't want to go all-ticket because that creates a different type of sporting person who goes to an event," said Hill. "Whereas we like our crowd, it covers all socio-economic groups, all income brackets and ages, all the way down to kids.

"I was at Wimbledon the other day and I don't think I saw any youngsters on Centre Court. We like to think we keep our prices at an affordable level and offer discounted season tickets for those who book early."

Though the Open might travel round the country, it retains its own unique atmosphere. "Wherever you had it, you would still see the same faces every year," said one veteran Open attender. A large proportion probably play the game themselves.

Hill estimates the weekly attendance this year could be 170,000 spectators, compared to 140,000 when the Open was last at St George's 10 years ago. "It could be as high as 180,000 if the weather is good and it's an exciting championship," said Hill. "That would put it right up there with Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham." St Andrews is clearly the most popular venue, with 230,000 catching millennial and Tiger fevers in 2000.

"There are always doubting Thomases who say we won't go back to a venue if there is a low attendance, so this year's figures are good news for Kent," Hill said. Why the numbers have been lower for St George's in the past may suggest that London does not have a great effect on the Open. Commercially, sponsors are on long-term contracts of three or four years, while corporate hospitality remains at a similar level to other venues.

Ironically, it was a Scotsman living in London who created the St George's course. Dr Laidlaw Purves, a consultant ophthalmologist at Guy's Hospital, who spotted the stretch of duneland from the tower of St Clements Church in Sandwich. His idea was to create a "St Andrews of the south" that his friends living in London could play at the weekend. The tradition of London members remains strong at the club, as well as at the neighbouring Royal Cinque Ports in Deal.

For Hill, the man who oversees the construction of all the infrastructure that make s the Open possible, there is little difference what part of the country it goes to. At 220 hectares, the site is actually one of the biggest he deals with. "You take the show, and the footprint of the show, and fit it into whatever course you are at. St George's is one of the biggest courses we go to so there is a lot of space. The only difference here is that, as we are based in St Andrews, someone has to be on site from the spring onwards." One problem has been an outbreak of moles, and not just restricted to the media centre.

It may be apocryphal, but feels true, that the train journey time from London to Sandwich has not changed in 100 years. But at least the road system has improved, with a new dual carriageway from the A2, and a park-and-ride scheme for the first time at the venue. The aim is to keep the disruption to the local community to a minimum.

One problem was found by the University of Kent at Canterbury when relatives coming down for graduation day could not get accommodation. The University's traditional date had to be moved forward, leading to the little matter of cancelling and rebooking Canterbury Cathedral.

The good news is that a study undertaken at Muirfield last year revealed the local area benefited to the tune of £15m. Tim Ingleton, the project manager for Dover District Council, expects an increase on that figure this year. "The rate of interest has been phenomenal," he said. "It bears comparison with nothing we have ever done.

"In terms of visitor attendance and media interest, the Open is one of the biggest events in the country. We have been planning this for two years, not just letting people know the Open is on, but making sure everyone who visits knows we have a number of top-class golf courses in the area as well as other great attractions."

Today the Final Qualifying will conclude on some of those courses, at North Foreland, Prince's, Royal Cinque Ports and Littlestone. St George's became the first English course to stage the Open in 1894 and the event was held in Kent 11 times between then and 1938. Cinque Ports played host to two Opens, and Prince's one. Both the county council and the local district council would like the Open to return more often than once every 10 years.

But with, at present, only St George's in the running, Hill feels that is about right given the disruption it causes. While members are prevented from playing their course for two weeks before and the week of the Open itself, a round of golf during the fortnight either side of that period is not a particular pleasant experience either. "Once every 10 years we are welcomed back," said Hill, "but if we went back every five or six years I think there would not be quite the same enthusiasm."

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