When is the British Open not the British Open? When it's The Open

The Open Leaderboard

If the last 18 months has taught us anything, it’s to resist hyperbole and demonstrate a greater degree of caution when defining something as a crisis.

To that end, the issue of identity that manifests every time golf’s oldest professional championship takes place shouldn’t really be such a 'thing'.

But because it is, here we are.

The Open or the British Open – what’s in a name?

Is it true that “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or do monikers matter?

The battle lines appear to be drawn along Atlantic lines. If you are from the United States, it’s routinely the “British Open” or, more colloquially, “the British”. In some cases Stateside, "the Open" is used as shorthand for the US Open, which feels like an unnecessary complication. 

If you are from the UK, meanwhile, you are more likely to drop the geographical distinction, refer to the championship as “The Open” and insist (quite adamantly) that everybody else does likewise.

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If it seems an inconsequential matter, that’s because, in the grand scheme of things, it is. And yet it provokes a depth of feeling amongst golfers that makes the Mariana Trench look like a rock pool. Use the wrong name in the wrong company and you'll incur a wrath not unlike God's own fury. 

Phil Mickelson stoked the fires shortly after touching down in the UK earlier this week. “Every year I come over here, there’s a debate on if it’s the Open or British Open,” observed the now six-time major champion. “The Earl of Airlie referred to it as the British Open when awarding Bobby Jones the Claret Jug in 1930 at Hoylake. Both are acceptable.”

More than 300 replies later – the majority of them spewing apoplexy in caps lock – the 51-year-old must have wondered (a) why he bothered tweeting in the first place, and (b) why such a seemingly innocent, immaterial observation prompted such outrage.

As former Masters champion Trevor Immelman advised: “Oh boy, may want to turn off your replies for this one.”

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To some degree, Mickelson has a point. Whilst it was not the Earl of Airlie who presented the trophy to Jones in 1930, there is video footage of the gentleman who did so making reference to the event as “the British Open championship” during the prizegiving. A similar clip exists of the Earl of Airlie presenting the trophy to Tommy Armour at Carnoustie in 1931 – perhaps this is where Mickelson is confused – in which he calls the tournament the “British Open golf championship”.  

You can therefore see why Phil and his fellows might choose to distinguish the championship in such a specific way. 

And yet there is an indulgent hypocrisy, isn’t there?

Heaven help anybody who deigns to define the Masters Tournament as the ‘US Masters’ or the PGA Championship as the ‘US PGA’. All of which is to say nothing of the Americans' questionable application of geographical identifiers when it comes to sport.

Baseball’s so-called ‘World Series’, for example, is held exclusively in the US. The Super Bowl, meantime, is referred to in official circles as the AFL–NFL World Championship Game, which would be fine if any of 32 participating American football franchises were headquartered outside of the 50 states. Similar deal in basketball. Between 1950 and 1985, the exclusive-to-North-America NBA Finals were titled the NBA World Championship Series.

So, location clearly matters to the US - if only to a questionable degree of specificity. 

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In any case, the R&A has, in the last decade, invested millions of pounds in a re-brand of The Open, unveiling a striking new livery for the event in time for the 2015 edition at St Andrews.

Its identity is unmistakable: The Open. Capital ‘T’, Capital ‘O’. British by location rather than name.

Holding court amongst the assembled media at Royal St George’s this morning, Martin Slumbers, the organisation’s chief executive, motioned to the branded backdrop behind him as he settled the debate in unambiguous, succinct fashion. 

“I think it says so behind me, doesn’t it?” he said. “It’s The Open.”

And with a thump of his right hand on his left – presumably in lieu of a gavel – that was that.

Case closed.

Sorry, Phil.

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