Letter from St. Andrews: A Closed Open

I’m not sure why—maybe I haven’t fully and truly expatriated, or maybe it’s just that I’m a congenital jackass—but I get uncommon pleasure from tweaking my fellow St. Andreans with a question. When the 19th-hole conversation turns to the game’s majors, I ask, “So who do you like in the LCSE?”

“What?” they say.

“The Links Championship of Scotland and England,” I say. “Do you think Tiger can defend this year at Royal Liverpool?”

“Oh, you mean the Open Championship,” they reply testily.

“No, you guys call it the Open Championship,” I say, “and the rest of the world calls it the British Open, but let’s get real. Open Championship implies it’s the championship of the world, which implies it’s played all over the globe. British Open implies it’s played all over Great Britain, which includes Northern Ireland and Wales. But except for one wander to Portrush, your tournament has never left the coasts of Scotland and England.”

Now don’t get me wrong. The major championship I have always regarded as the best of them all is the one staged outside the United States. I love this tournament—I just take issue with its name.

At least the founders showed some restraint. In 1853 members of Prestwick Golf Club proposed “A General Golf Tournament for Scotland.” Other clubs showed interest, including a few from England, but there arose such disagreement over logistics that the Prestwick men kept the event for themselves and in 1860 staged “A Great Match of Golf,” with eight players going 36 holes (three trips around 12-hole Prestwick).

The first and last GMG was won by Willie Park. The following year, it suddenly became The Open Golf Championship. Over its first 12 years, however, it never left Prestwick and during that span, it might as well have been called The Morris Family Classic, as Old and Young Tom combined to take eight of 11 titles.

Photo by Graylyn Loomis

There were only 11 events in 12 years because tournament administration was a bit lax. In 1870, when Young Tom won his third straight title, the prize—a red leather belt with a hand-tooled silver buckle worthy of professional wrestling—became his to keep, which so flummoxed the Prestwickers that there was no tournament in 1871 because they were unable to come up with a replacement trophy.

In 1873 the competitive arena expanded to include St. Andrews and Musselburgh along with Prestwick, and the three of them rotated as hosts for two decades. In 1892 Muirfield replaced Musselburgh and the tournament expanded to 72 holes. An entry fee was imposed the same year and the prize money increased from 28 to 100 pounds. The latter move was made of necessity—a competing event on the same dates had begun to attract the top players.

The following year the Prestwick fathers, feeling the pinch on their purse, mused whether it might be prudent to place the competition “on a new and wider basis, more commensurate with its importance [and grandiloquent name!].” An Association of Clubs was formed—including England’s Royal St. George’s and Royal Liverpool—and the Links Championship of Scotland and England assumed more or less its present form. Since 1893, the championship has been staged 101 times over 13 different courses—six in Scotland, six in England, one in Northern Ireland. (During the same period the U.S. Open has visited 51 courses.)

Scotland has played host more than twice as often as England, and the current pattern calls for three visits north for every two south, the rotation coming in an S-S-E-S-E pattern anchored by St. Andrews in the second spot every five years. There are nine courses on the unofficial roster—St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Royal Troon and Turnberry in Scotland, and Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal St. George’s and Royal Liverpool in England.

Will those nine ever be joined by a 10th course? It seems unlikely. The field of contenders is limited because only links courses qualify, eliminating Gleneagles and Loch Lomond in Scotland, Wentworth in England and the K Club in Ireland, all experienced hosts of professional events.

Several highly regarded links courses would seem to be strong candidates, notably Ireland’s Portmarnock, Wales’ Royal Porthcawl and Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, which hosted the championship in 1951. But each is hampered by the lack of easy access, championship yardage or space for parking, tents, TV towers and the other exigencies of 21st-century tournament golf.

Indeed, these days the site has become as important as the course. During the 1994 championship at Turnberry, the traffic was so severe that the R&A let it be known they would not return until the logistics improved. Local authorities complied and Turnberry is back on the docket for 2009.

Then there’s the matter of tradition. The average age of the courses on the rota is well over a century. That augurs against courses like widely esteemed Kingsbarns, opened in 2000. And recently a megadeveloper floated a proposal to the R&A: He would acquire a magnificent tract of Scottish linksland, work hand-in-glove with the R&A on the course design, embed all the necessary cables under the fairways and set aside hundreds of acres for the panoply of tournament trappings. If he did all that, would he have a chance of hosting an Open anytime soon? The answer was a polite no. This is one championship that cannot be bought.

And so the courses on the current rotation surely will expand—adding yardage to keep pace with the ever-longer-hitting pros—but the list of venues almost surely will not. The championship, it seems, will remain exclusively on the Anglo/Caledonian coasts.

That’s just fine with me. After all, it allows me to continue ribbing my pals.