Jordan Spieth’s astonishing victory at Royal Birkdale in July brought increased attention to an issue that has been percolating: What do we call the tournament that just crowned him “champion golfer of the year”? To many of us Americans, it is the “British Open.” To the R&A—golf’s international rule-making body and the organizers of golf’s original major—and to most people on the other side of the Atlantic, it is “The Open Championship.” Recently, however, the R&A—in a manner more subtle than that of Muhammad Ali in 1967 battering Ernie Terrell while yelling “What’s my name?”—has become more insistent that the tournament be referred to by its proper name, much to the consternation of long-time golf pundits such as NBC’s Johnny Miller and the great Dan Jenkins.
My take on this controversy is simple. The people who run the tournament, and have since 1860, should be able to call it whatever they want. If we were calling it the wrong thing for decades, we should be willing to correct ourselves. Plus, since three of golf’s majors are on U.S. soil, the only one that isn’t deserves some deference.
The debate seems to be centered on the proposition that it is too bold to call any one tournament, even a major, “The Open Championship.” However, at the time it was created, it was The Open Championship. That’s also why British soccer’s governing body is The Football Association and the tennis major in England is “The Championships, Wimbledon,” usually shortened to “Wimbledon.” Perhaps allowing these concessions is a fair trade since, even after the musical British invasion of the early 1960s (Beatles, Rolling Stones), a Canadian-American band dared to claim the name “The Band.”
It is not as if the organizers of golf majors in the United States don’t also make parlance-related demands in their broadcasting contracts. The Masters, for instance, insists that the people lining the fairways and circling the greens be referred to as “patrons” rather than fans.
The R&A’s efforts to recapture the tournament’s original brand come as the game of golf gets an ever richer international flavor. When golf returned to the Olympics in 2016, the six available medals were claimed by golfers from six different countries. In this year’s Open Championship, China’s Li Haotong, age 22, came out of nowhere to shoot a 63 on Sunday and finish third—a fact seemingly lost in the extraordinary battle between Americans Spieth and Matt Kuchar (the Olympic bronze medalist).
The Open Championship is without question the most international of all the majors, and it wants to celebrate that fact. If “The Open Championship” seems overstated, maybe that is counterbalanced by the fact that the Claret Jug, awarded to the champion, is very understated—though Spieth and other champions have proven it to be a fine drinking vessel. So I for one am happy to drink the Kool-Aid out of the Claret Jug and refer to it as the trophy of “The Open Championship.”
Bob Latham is a partner at the law firm Jackson Walker, L.L.P., and a World Rugby board member. A compilation of his best columns titled “Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs and Reflections on the World of Sports,” is available for purchase at amazon.com.