Why has the British Open never been played in Wales?

Why has the British Open never been played in Wales?

The rain pounded down on the umbrellas around the 17th pitch of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club one afternoon last week, the air so cold it hardly felt like an English summer. A veil of mist clouded the landscape. Still close enough to peep out, however, was the Welsh coast, a handful of long tee shots across the estuary.

The British Open, scheduled to end on Sunday, may never come close to Wales.

First played when Queen Victoria was on the throne, the Open is a national rite that spanned only one part of the nation: unlike England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales did not host it. With the 2026 venues already selected and Wales still out, the drought will last at least as long as the first 154 Opens. By then Northern Ireland, which didn’t host a modern Open until 2019, will have another.

Open organizers R&A explained Wales’ exclusion as routine infrastructure and capacity issues – not insignificant matters as the tournament requires the temporary creation of an extremely protected coastal enclave full of hospitality and championship caliber for tens of thousands of people a day. The R&A’s stance, however, has sparked years of questioning whether one of the country’s signature sporting events reflects Britain as much as it should.

“Not every part of the UK is being touched by the Open, and leaving a whole nation out doesn’t ring true to the mantra of golf being open to all,” said Ken Skates, a Welsh Member of Parliament who, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, lobbied the R&A to bring the Open to Wales.

“It’s a bit frustrating,” he admitted politely as he stood behind Royal Liverpool’s first turf on Friday.

Fighting over hosting rights is nothing new in sports, and men’s golf is an especially valuable target for the handful of places with courses challenging enough to test the world’s best. Of the four major tournaments, three are played at different locations each year. (The exception, the Masters Tournament, is always held at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.)

The R&A Open’s list of eligible courses currently stands at just nine, ranging from a handful of Scottish estates along the North Sea to the Royal St. George’s in south east England. Following this weekend’s event at Royal Liverpool in northwest England, the tournament is set to return next year to Royal Troon in Scotland, followed by Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland and then Royal Birkdale in England.

By almost all accounts, the R&A routinely faces a difficult situation as to where the Open can be placed in its usual pattern. A handful of former venues are no longer in the mix, including Prestwick, the original open ground that was eventually deemed too small for crowds. More recently, former President Donald J. Trump’s ties to Turnberry have kept R&A at bay.

Wales, though, never had an upset. Indeed, one of the biggest problems for Wales is that the R&A have stopped staging the Open at more grounds than the country has candidates to host one. Only Royal Porthcawl is considered a possibility, and even its cheerleaders acknowledge its shortcomings.

Exclusion, however, hurts.

“We have an inferiority complex,” said John Hopkins, a golf writer who has been a member of Royal Porthcawl since the late 1990s, of the Welsh people, adding with a smile that they were mainly known “for our ability to play rugby and our ability to sing.”

But hosting a British Open, he said, “would show we’ve beaten our weight in golf.”

Some believe that forces beyond tournament logistics are working to keep the Open elsewhere, perhaps a historical inertia or an innate tendency of St. Louis R&A. Andrews to favor England and Scotland. In 2019, The Telegraph urged the R&A to “cut the policy” and “ignore concerns about ‘infrastructure’ and link strength because they are mere smokescreens”.

There is little doubt that the R&A have been moving closer to Royal Porthcawl for other major events, an approach that some see as a consolation prize. Next weekend the Senior Open will be decided there, and the Women’s Open is scheduled to make its debut at the Royal Porthcawl in 2025. While there are concerns about whether the Royal Porthcawl is long enough for today’s powerful men’s players, the course itself is seen as amply suited for an Open, in part because it is especially vulnerable to the wild weather that can define the tournament, as Bernhard Langer saw during the two Senior Opens he won there.

“One was dry: the ball was running 100 yards down the field,” Langer, who has also won two Masters tournaments, said in an interview. “And one was wet and windy and as miserable as can be, and that’s links golf.”

Martin Slumbers, chief executive of R&A, said on Wednesday that the course was “absolutely world class”.

“But we need a lot of land,” he quickly added. “We need a lot of infrastructure. We need a lot of facilities for a championship of this size. At the moment, that is simply not possible in that part of the country.”

Established in 1891, the Royal Porthcawl has a restricted area, with relatively little space to erect gates, grandstands, premium seats, scoring tents and all other temporary facilities necessary for a major. This year’s Open was expected to draw 260,000 spectators, second only to the 290,000 fans who packed the Old Course in St. Louis. Andrews last year. The last time the British Open drew below 150,000 was a decade ago at Muirfield.

When Langer last played a Senior Open at Royal Porthcawl in 2017, the tournament attracted around 32,000, although bad weather marred the event.

Although the route is around a 45-minute drive from Cardiff, the Welsh capital, the area around the club has few of the restaurants, hotels and transit connections that make the Open one of the smoothest events in international sport. During this tournament at Royal Liverpool, many restaurants and rental houses in Hoylake welcomed legions of visitors. Even more made the short journey to and from Liverpool, a city of around half a million people, often using a train service that runs every 10 minutes.

Langer, who had no doubts that Royal Porthcawl could be a suitable host of the Open from a golfing point of view, seemed far more reluctant to say he could rise to the other challenges of a tournament he has played 31 times.

“It’s difficult,” he said, “to build new roads and highways and 100 hotels and create space for a tent village and 50,000 spectators.”

Welsh leaders have signaled a willingness to seek public investment in return for the Open going to Royal Porthcawl, and some Royal Porthcawl members have attempted to buy nearby farmland which, if vacated, could make an Open much more viable. But their years-long efforts have yet to yield the kind of breakthrough that could overcome the R&A’s misgivings.

The rise of Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, however, gave the Welsh authorities a strategy of sorts, or at least a dose of confidence, ultimately misguided or not.

Skates predicted that R&A could double within a decade.

Then he walked away to find his brother, Wales looming in the distance.

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