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Dear Americans, The Open is not ‘The British’

A former chairman of the R&A defends the proper name of golf’s oldest major.
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Jerry Cooke

July 11, 2023

American friends—“The winner of the gold medal and the Champion Golfer of the Year is ...”

These are the words used by the chief executive of the R&A to introduce the new Open Champion each July, just before the claret jug is presented. The winner of “The Open” is so declared!

Strange as this may seem, both history and logic explain what many Americans may feel is a quaint, even archaic, idiosyncratic and . . . er, British ritual. But please don’t call our championship “the British Open” or worse still, “the British” because it’s just plain wrong. Why? Let’s start at the beginning.

First, the words engraved on the outer lip of the claret jug simply read: “The Golf Champion Trophy.” Hence the winner, as the recipient of that trophy, is announced as the “Champion Golfer.”

Second, let’s remember that the first playing of the championship in 1860 was 35 years before the first U.S. Open, 56 years before the first PGA Championship and 74 years before the first Masters Tournament. The expression “major” in its current meaning had not been minted, and so in 1860, the competition for the original “challenge belt” was the only championship around and was known simply as “the Championship.” The next year, organizers declared that the event should “be open to the whole world,” but not until 1872—when the claret jug replaced the belt given to Young Tom Morris for his three straight wins—did the Royal and Ancient first make a reference to “the Open Championship.”

The expression “British Open” is not historically, geographically or politically accurate. You see, “British” just means “relating to Great Britain,” but Great Britain is a grand name we invented for a small island (comprising England, Scotland and Wales) in the north Atlantic ocean, off the northwest coast of mainland Europe. Northern Ireland (which has hosted two great Opens and is due another in 2025) is part of the island of Ireland, and although N.I. is part of the United Kingdom, it is actually not part of Great Britain. By referring to our championship as the “British Open,” the contribution of Northern Ireland is inadvertently obliterated. Please do not be tempted to call it “the U.K. Open!” If there is an analogy, think about implying Alaska or Hawaii are not part of the United States. That wouldn’t be polite!

However subtle this may all seem, golf fans in Great Britain and Northern Ireland remain mystified as to why some Americans insist on incorrectly name-checking The Open as the “British Open” or even “the British.” Neither the owners of the claret jug (the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) nor the R&A (which now runs the championship) have ever called it by either name.

Consider this: No true golf fan would ever consider referring to “the American Open” or “the U.S. Masters” (worse still, the “Masters Championship”) or even the “American PGA Championship,” as each of these great majors has another relatable but distinctively different name by which it is properly known. Why does the same not apply to the oldest major of them all?

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Prestwick Golf Club, as the originally dominant venue, hosted the first 12 Opens, but a good starting point around the styling of the Open is 1919, when a meeting of the Associated Clubs then involved in staging the Championship concluded that the “Royal and Ancient Golf Club be asked to accept the management of the Championship and the custody of the Challenge Cup.”

By March 1920, the newly formed Royal and Ancient Championship Committee met to lay out the conditions for “the Competition for the Championship Challenge Trophy,” and in other parts of the minutes of that meeting, reference was made to “the Championship” and “the Open Championship.”

Clearly in the minds of the leaders of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the event, which they now owned, was the “Open Championship.” It was not, never had been (and never would be) “the British Open,” a title neither contemplated nor even mentioned.

By 1927, the official program designated the event as the “Open Golf Championship.” By 1933, it was “The Open Championship,” and a post-championship booklet in 1946 was simply entitled “Open Reflections.” (Interestingly, there were 28 entries from overseas, including 10 from the United States, one of whom, Sam Snead, prevailed over the Old Course in his only appearance.) In the post-World War II years, the field gradually became more international, and perhaps this contributed to Americans using “British” to differentiate the championship from their own. Of course, no one did more for the Open than Arnold Palmer, who, to secure his place in the pantheon of the greats, gave it special attention from the era beginning in 1960. As one of only four Americans in the field, he was just beaten into second place by the Centenary Open Champion, Australian Kel Nagle, before winning the next two Opens himself.

‘British Open’ is not historically, geographically or politically accurate.

Not only did this spark more interest in the Open from other U.S. professionals with international aspirations, it raised the profile and cemented the reputation of the Open as, well, more “open” at a time when securing entry to the U.S. Open was not as easy for non-American players as it is today. In the 40 years to 2000, more than twice as many nations are represented in the list of Open winners than in the list of U.S. Open winners. Even allowing for American strength in depth of field, that statistic is significant.

Around the time of the 1966 Open—the first to be televised live in the United States—the Royal and Ancient Golf Club asked Mark McCormack to negotiate its TV rights, which within 10 years would include Japan. He understood the commercial potential for registering the Open Championship name and negotiated a worldwide agency of a trademark using—for the first time—the expression “British Open” for use in some limited overseas markets. However, the realization that such a name might suit overseas TV but not the United Kingdom was emphatic. Successive championship committees have been resolute in keeping faith with the original brand, even when some great American winners did not. Contrastingly, golfers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland have always correctly referred to their championship as “the Open.”

It’s true that the name on the cover of printed souvenir programs has changed over the years. It moved from “The Open Golf Championship” to “The Open Championship” in 1995, before arriving at “The Open” in 2003. But misnamings by recent Champion Golfers, including Collin Morikawa (2021) and Cameron Smith (2022), have ensured the discussion continues.

In not one minute of any relevant committee meeting of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, nor its successor as organizer, the R&A, does the adjective “British” ever appear when describing the championship.

So come on, Americans. We will always name your three majors properly and respectfully; in exchange all we ask is the same for our Open, the Open. We may once have invaded your country, but you eventually repelled us and rightly so. Surely we all have gotten over that spot of local difficulty? Just remember that our nation invented golf, and we shared it with you. That must mean something!

IAN PATTINSON is a former chairman of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the R&A.