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Organising an Open

Dermot Talks to Sir Michael Bonallack about preparing an Open

Posted Jul 08, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

st andrews open

With the return of the Open Championship to St Andrews, I'm reminded of how the 1984 staging marked Sir Michael Bonallack's first involvement in the event as secretary of the Royal and Ancient.  But his appointment had a charming and quite humorous preamble at Royal Birkdale the previous year.

On joining the R and A in June 1983, Sir Michael was effectively thrown in at the deep end, with final preparations for the Birkdale Open in full swing by that stage.  As it happened, he stayed at the Lancashire venue for the duration of the championship before heading back to St. Andrews.

"That was when I was understudy to Keith Mackenzie in a very skilled team," he recalled.  "For me, it took the form of a dry run for what I would later experience, though not where one specific detail was concerned.  Keith had a new plan at Birkdale for the prize presentation.  It involved having a mobile stage made, which could be dismantled in sections. Rising to about two or three feet off the ground, there were steps onto it.

"It was an enormous thing, very heavy.  And the idea was that it would be erected quickly on the fairway, 50 yards short of the 18th green, after the last putt had dropped. Given its prime position out there on the course, everybody in the stand would be able to see the presentation."

Sir Michael went on: "So, four little dots were placed on the fairway to mark exactly where it had got to go.  And they had a rehearsal with people rushing out from the side of the stage and putting it up there.  Which, of course, was fine when there was nobody else around.
"When the big moment arrived, Keith took me out to the back of the 18th green to watch his plan go smoothly into action. But he hadn't bargained for one of the most traditional happenings on the final day of the Open. Horrified, he saw the crowd do their usual breakthrough before coming straight down the middle of the fairway, where the stage was meant to be.  He then grabbed me by the shoulder and said 'They can't do that. Go and stop them.'  With that, he turned round and went straight back into his office.

"Well, there was clearly nothing that I or any of the marshals could do in the face of a formidable charge of 3,000 people, coming down the middle of the fairway.  And the people who were waiting by the sides of the 18th, ready with the sections of Keith's stage, were fully aware of this. Still, out of a sense of duty I suppose, they eventually struggled out there and assembled it as best they could where it was originally planned to go. With that, a section of the crowd went and stood on it to get a better view.
While all this was going on, the presentation was set up at the back of the green, in front of the clubhouse window."

The next morning, when the usual post-Open press conference was held, one particularly observant scribe asked Mackenzie what the odd-looking platform erected on the 18th fairway was for.  Without batting an eyelid, the soon-to-retire secretary said he was concerned that the spectators coming down the final hole didn't really get a proper view of the presentation ceremony.  So, the idea was that with this easily-assembled platform, the problem would be overcome.

Sir Michael remembers thinking that Mackenzie got out of it very well.  Two months later he had retired and nobody was any the wiser about his special plans for the Royal Birkdale victory ceremony. Which, come to think of it, was as it should have been.

Moving forward to 1984, Sir Michael said: "My first Open as R and A secretary obviously remains special to me.  Being at the Home of Golf and with absolutely magnificent weather, added to its appeal.  Still, I was as I would be prior to any championship, wondering how it was going to work out.  However, everything seemed to go like clockwork and, of course, we had a wonderful finish with Seve (Ballesteros) holing his nine-footer on the 18th green and punching the air like a matador.  And afterwards, there was the party that went on in the whole of St Andrews that evening, making it probably a bit like Paris must have been like after the (1998) World Cup, except on a smaller scale."

He concluded: "Though I had actually taken over the reins the previous September, that became a wonderful introduction to my secretaryship as far as the Open was concerned. Obviously Seve was a very exciting golfer to watch and, of course, he beat Tom Watson who was a very great favourite. And a lasting memory is of Seve coming up to my office where photographs were taken of him drinking champagne with me."

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