The rain rat-a-tatted atop the umbrellas around Royal Liverpool Golf Club’s 17th green one afternoon this past week, the air so chilled that it did not feel like even an English summer. A veil of mist clouded the landscape. Still near enough to peek through, though, was the Welsh coast, a handful of long tee shots across the estuary.
The British Open, scheduled to conclude on Sunday, may never come closer to Wales.
First played when Queen Victoria was on the throne, the Open is a national rite that has encompassed only so much of the nation: Unlike England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales has not hosted it. With sites through 2026 already selected and Wales still left out, the drought will last at least as long as the first 154 Opens. By then, Northern Ireland, which did not welcome a modern Open until 2019, will have had another.
The R&A, the Open’s organizer, has explained Wales’s exclusion as rote matters of infrastructure and capability — no small subjects since the tournament requires temporarily raising a hugely guarded, hospitality-filled and championship-caliber coastal enclave for tens of thousands of people a day. The R&A’s stance, though, has invited years of questions about whether one of the country’s signature sporting events reflects Britain quite as much as it should.
“Not all parts of the U.K. are being touched by the Open, and leaving an entire nation out of it doesn’t ring true to that mantra of golf being open to all,” said Ken Skates, a member of the Welsh Parliament who, when he was economy minister, lobbied the R&A to bring the Open to Wales.
“It’s a little frustrating,” he politely allowed as he stood behind Royal Liverpool’s first green on Friday.
Jockeying for hosting rights is hardly new to sports, and men’s golf is an especially valuable target for the smattering of places with courses challenging enough to test the world’s best. Of the four major tournaments, three are played at different venues each year. (The exception, the Masters Tournament, is always held at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.)
The R&A’s roster of Open-eligible courses effectively numbers just nine these days, from a clutch of Scottish properties along the North Sea to Royal St. George’s in southeast England. After this weekend’s event at Royal Liverpool, in England’s northwest, the tournament is scheduled to return next year to Royal Troon in Scotland, followed by Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland and then England’s Royal Birkdale.
By just about all accounts, the R&A routinely faces a predicament over where the Open can be put on to its customary standard. A handful of past venues are no longer in the mix, including Prestwick, the original Open course that was ultimately judged too small for teeming crowds. More recently, former President Donald J. Trump’s ties to Turnberry have kept the R&A away.
Wales, though, has never had a turn at all. Indeed, one of the biggest problems for Wales is that the R&A has stopped staging Opens at more courses than the country has contenders to host one. Only Royal Porthcawl is considered a possibility, and even its cheerleaders acknowledge its shortcomings.
The exclusion nevertheless stings.
“We have an inferiority complex,” John Hopkins, a golf writer who has been a Royal Porthcawl member since the late 1990s, said of the Welsh people, smilingly adding that they were principally renowned “for our ability to play rugby and our ability to sing.”
But hosting a British Open, he said, “would show that we punched our weight in golf.”
Some believe forces beyond tournament logistics are at work to keep the Open elsewhere, perhaps historical inertia or an innate tendency for the St. Andrews-based R&A to favor England and Scotland. In 2019, The Telegraph urged the R&A to “cut out the politics” and “ignore the concerns about ‘infrastructure’ and the strength of the links because they are mere smoke screens.”
There is little doubt that the R&A has been warming to Royal Porthcawl for other important events, an approach some have regarded as a consolation prize. Next weekend, the Senior Open will be decided there, and the Women’s Open is scheduled to make its Royal Porthcawl debut in 2025. Although there are concerns about whether Royal Porthcawl is long enough for the powerful men’s players of today, the course itself is seen as largely suitable 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 bone-dry: The ball was running 100 yards on the fairway,” Langer, who also won two Masters Tournaments, said in an interview. “And one was wet and windy and just as miserable as can be, and that’s links golf.”
Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, said on Wednesday that the course was “absolutely world class.”
“But we need a lot of land,” he added quickly. “We need a lot of infrastructure. We need a lot of facilities for a championship of this size. At present, that is just not possible in that part of the country.”
Founded in 1891, Royal Porthcawl has a hemmed-in footprint, with relatively little space to erect gates, grandstands, premium seating, scoring tents and all of the other temporary facilities required for a major. This year’s Open was expected to attract 260,000 spectators, a showing second only to the 290,000 fans who filled the Old Course at St. Andrews last year. The last time the British Open reported attendance below 150,000 was a decade ago, at Muirfield.
When Langer last played a Senior Open at Royal Porthcawl, in 2017, the tournament drew about 32,000, though poor weather stalked the event.
Although the course is a drive of roughly 45 minutes from Cardiff, the Welsh capital, the area around the club has few of the restaurants, hotels and transit links that make the Open among the smoothest events in international sports. During this tournament at Royal Liverpool, many restaurants and rental homes in Hoylake have hosted legions of visitors. Still more have made the short journey to and from Liverpool, a city of about a half-million people, often using a train service running every 10 minutes.
Langer, who had no doubts that Royal Porthcawl could prove an adequate Open host from a golf perspective, appeared far more reluctant to say that it could manage the other challenges of a tournament he played 31 times.
“It’s hard,” he said, “to build new roads and highways and 100 hotels and create the room for a tented village and 50,000 spectators.”
Welsh leaders have signaled a willingness to pursue public investments in exchange for the Open going to Royal Porthcawl, and some Royal Porthcawl members have tried to buy nearby farmland that, if vacated, could make an Open far more feasible. But their yearslong efforts have not yet yielded the kind of breakthrough that could overcome the R&A’s misgivings.
The ascendance of Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, though, has given Welsh officials something of a strategy, or at least a dose of confidence, ultimately misplaced or not.
Skates predicted the R&A could bend within a decade.
Then he wandered off to find his brother, Wales rising in the distance.