Why has the British Open never been played in Wales?

Rain rattled on top of the umbrellas around Royal Liverpool Golf Club’s 17th green one afternoon last week, the air so chilled it didn’t even feel like an English summer. A veil of fog clouded the landscape. Still close enough to look through was the Welsh coast, a handful of long tee shots across the estuary.

The British Open, scheduled to finish on Sunday, may never get any closer to Wales.

First played when Queen Victoria was on the throne, the Open is a national ritual that has only encompassed so much of the nation: unlike England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales has not hosted it. With venues until 2026 already selected and Wales still left out, the drought will last at least as long as the first 154 openers. By then, Northern Ireland, which did not welcome a modern Open until 2019, will have had another.

The R&A, the Open’s organiser, has explained Wales’ exclusion as a matter of rote infrastructure and capacity – no small matter as the tournament temporarily requires a hugely guarded, hospitality-filled and championship-caliber coastal enclave for tens of thousands of people to travel a day. However, the R&A’s stance has prompted years of questioning over whether one of the country’s signature sporting events reflects Britain quite as much as it should.

“Not every part of the UK is touched by the Open and to leave a whole nation out of it doesn’t fit the mantra that golf is open to everyone,” said Ken Skates, a member of the Welsh Parliament who, when he was finance minister, 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 green on Friday.

Jockeying for hosting rights is hardly new to sports, and men’s golf is a particularly valuable target for the many venues with courses challenging enough to test the world’s best. Of the four major tournaments, three are played in different locations each year. (The exception, the Masters Tournament, is always held at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.)

The R&A’s list of open-eligible courses actually numbers just nine these days, from a string of Scottish properties along the North Sea to Royal St. George’s in South East England. After this weekend’s event at Royal Liverpool, in north-west England, 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.

After almost everything, the R&A routinely faces a difficulty as to where the Open can be set at its usual standard. A handful of former venues are no longer in the mix, including Prestwick, the original Open course that was ultimately deemed too small for teeming crowds. More recently, former President Donald J. Trump’s ties to Turnberry have kept the R&A away.

However, Wales have never had a turn at all. In fact, one of the biggest problems for Wales is that the R&A has stopped holding Opens at more courses than the country has candidates to host one. Only Royal Porthcawl is considered a possibility and even its cheerleaders acknowledge its shortcomings.

The exclusion still stings.

“We have an inferiority complex,” John Hopkins, a golf writer who has been a member of Royal Porthcawl since the late 1990s, said of the Welsh people, adding with a smile that they were known primarily “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 that forces beyond tournament logistics are at work to hold the Open elsewhere, perhaps historical inertia or an innate tendency of 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 connections because they are just smokescreens.”

There is little doubt that the R&A has warmed 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 debut at Royal Porthcawl in 2025. Although there are concerns about whether Royal Porthcawl is long enough for today’s powerful men’s players, the course itself is seen as highly suitable for an Open, in part because it is particularly vulnerable to the wild weather that could define the two Bernhard Langna tournaments he won there at Bernhard.

“One was bone dry: The ball went 100 yards down the fairway,” Langer, who 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, the R&A’s chief executive, said on Wednesday 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 it’s just not possible in that part of the country.”

Founded in 1891, Royal Porthcawl has an enclosed footprint with relatively little space to erect gates, grandstands, premium seats, scoring tents and all the other temporary facilities required for a major. This year’s Open was expected to attract 260,000 spectators, a performance second only to the 290,000 fans who packed the Old Course at St. Andrews last year. The last time the British Open reported attendances below 150,000 was a decade ago, at Muirfield.

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

Although the course is about a 45-minute drive from Cardiff, the Welsh capital, the area around the club has few of the restaurants, hotels and transit links that make the Open the smoothest event in international sport. During this Royal Liverpool tournament, many restaurants and rental properties in Hoylake have hosted legions of visitors. More and more have made the short journey to and from Liverpool, a city of around half a million people, who often use a train service that runs every 10 minutes.

Langer, who had no doubt that Royal Porthcawl could prove a suitable Open host from a golfing perspective, seemed far more reluctant to say it could handle the other challenges of a tournament he played 31 times.

“It is difficult,” he said, “to build new roads and highways and 100 hotels and make room for a tent village and 50,000 spectators.”

Welsh leaders have signaled a willingness to pursue public investment in exchange for the Open going to Royal Porthcawl, and some Royal Porthcawl members have sought to buy nearby farmland that, if vacated, could make an Open far more feasible. But their years of effort have yet to produce the kind of breakthrough that could overcome the R&A’s misgivings.

However, the rise of Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush 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 bow out within a decade.

Then he wandered off to find his brother, Wales, rising in the distance.

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