A mission to ensure golf can thrive for the next 50 years

Golf is both a job and a lifelong passion for Johnnie Cole-Hamilton, the R&A’s executive director of championships

Lee U-Wen
Published Sat, Aug 13, 2022 · 05:50 AM

TO BETTER appreciate the difficulty of organising the British Open in Scotland last month would be to look at the sheer number of people that visited the Old Course in St Andrews to watch the golf tournament.

Organisers received over 1.3 million requests for tickets, with 292,000 general admission tickets - a record for the final men’s Major of the year - issued in the end. To put those numbers into context, the entire population of St Andrews - a town on the east coast of Fife - is a little over 18,000.

A stone’s throw away from the action, the suites and lounges were bustling with activity, with many of golf’s longstanding partners - including Swiss watch manufacturer Rolex, a Patron of the 150th Open Championship - making use of their hospitality venues to entertain and provide guests with a VIP experience.

Not long after Australian Cameron Smith lifted the Claret Jug, one could understand if Johnnie Cole-Hamilton - the executive director of championships at the R&A - felt a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

The 52-year-old has run more than 20 Open Championships over the last 2 decades, but perhaps none has been as challenging as managing the team in charge of putting together the historic 150th edition of the world’s oldest and most prestigious golf tournament.

The R&A is a group of companies formed in 2004 to take on The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews’ responsibilities of governing the rules of golf. It also stages the British Open each year and has programmes to make the sport more accessible, appealing and inclusive.

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This is an edited excerpt of an interview with Cole-Hamilton, who began his career in golf administration with the PGA back in 1995 and eventually rose to become one of the most influential executives in the sport today.

What was the significance of having the 150th Open at St Andrews, which is also where the R&A is based?

If someone had said to me as a young boy that I would one day play a senior role at the 150th Open, I would have never believed them. To be able to do so is a huge privilege.

The Open Championship started in 1860 with 10 golfers. This year’s event features 156 players from all over the world (including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy) and 292,000 fans, many from overseas.

I’ve lived in St Andrews for over 20 years and brought up my family here. St Andrews is the “Home of Golf”, it’s almost like it’s the cradle of the game. (The Old Course) is world-renowned and it’s a course that transcends golf. Each time I go out there and play, even on a cold day in December when I’m standing on the first tee, I always feel like I’m somewhere very special. 

For those who are unfamiliar, how would you describe the R&A’s role in golf?

The R&A is the governing body for golf outside the United States and Mexico. We run lots of championships besides The Open, such as the AIG Women’s Open, the Senior Open Championship, the Amateur Championship, the Walker Cup, the Curtis Cup, and many more. We have a rules division as part of our governance of golf, and we are responsible for the rules of the game, the rules of equipment and equipment standards, as well as handicapping.

What’s your assessment of the state of golf in 2022?

Golf is in a very good place today. Everything that the R&A does is to ensure that golf is thriving 50 years from now. We have partners like Rolex, which is very much signed up to that message too. There are 3 big things for us, and these are Rolex traits as well - we want to be courageous in doing this, it has to be inclusive, and it has to be done with integrity. If we do all these correctly, then we think golf will still be thriving in 50 years’ time.

Rolex has many Testimonees in golf, and they have “The Big Three” - Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Can you sum up their importance to the sport?

They have been instrumental to how golf has evolved. If a brand was going to have partners, then Rolex couldn’t have picked a trio better than them. I attended a dinner for past champions at the Royal & Ancient Golf Clubhouse with Nicklaus and Player there, and when we heard them speak, we know why they both love the game. 

What Palmer did for The Open Championship by coming over when he did and then persuading his American colleagues to do the same, you can trace back the Open taking a big step forward to that point. Golf and The Open Championship owe a huge debt of gratitude to all 3 players and I’m sure Rolex would say the same.

Are you still able to find time to enjoy golf as a fan?

I grew up loving golf so much. I have a wife and 2 daughters who keep my feet very firmly on the ground, and they don’t let me talk about golf all night when I’m at home. I have many other interests, but golf is my job and it’s also my passion. This really helps me because I understand what tournaments like The Open can do for the game, and we want the R&A to be a force for good for the game and allow us to help develop it further.



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