Almost 30 years before the first golf ball was ever struck in the United States, Englishmen were playing the Open Championship in 1860. It would have begun even earlier except for the presence of Allan Robertson.
The first so-called professional, Robertson was without rival for about a quarter century. In the wake of Robertson’s passing in 1859, the Prestwick Golf Club decided to stage an “Open” contest to determine Scotland’s new champion golfer.
The Very First Open
All in all, eight professionals showed up for that first Open in Scotland. It was a 36-hole affair with two clear favorites: 1) Willie Park, and 2) Old Tom Morris. In the end, Willie Park won in a two-stroke upset over Old Tom Morris. The win was quite an upset considering Morris’ position at the Club; the losing contender was not only Prestwick’s “Keeper of the Green, Ball and Club Maker,” but also designed and built the golf course. To say Morris lost on home turf would be an absolute understatement.
A clear rivalry had formed, but Old Tom would bounce back to win the next two Opens – and four times overall. Never far behind, Park would also go on to win two more Opens of his own. Since that first Open, the two gentlemen have, without a doubt, become legendary golfers in their own right.
In the second year of play, the tournament admitted amateurs to compete for the championship, and up stepped Young Tom Morris to the scene. He won the tournament three straight times and was awarded the Challenge Belt to keep. The belt was not quite as flashy (or heavy) as the Claret Jug, but an undeniable grand prize still.
The tournament was actually cancelled in 1871, but would play again in 1872. A force to be reckoned with, Young Tom won the Open again. This time he was given a medal instead of a belt.
The now-famous Claret Jug was purchased for the 1873 event and with it came the decision to make the Open an annual competition. However, Young Tom Morris would never have his name engraved on the trophy. After finishing tied for third and second in the next two Opens, his wife died during childbirth and he passed away four months later at the age of 24 – supposedly from his broken heart.
For the first decade, all the Opens were held at Prestwick. In 1871, however, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and Muirfield’s Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers got in on the fun. Since that time, the Open has been staged on a set rotation of those three historic courses.
In 1894, Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, Kent, England became the first place to host an Open outside of Scotland. Today, England has four active courses in the championship rotation:
- Royal Birkdale – Southport, Merseyside
- Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s – Lytham St. Anne’s, Lancashire
- Royal St. George’s – Sandwich, Kent
- Royal Liverpool Golf Club, host of the upcoming 2014 event – Hoylake, Merseyside
Today’s world-renowned Scottish active Open courses include the following:
- Old Course at St. Andrews – St. Andrews, Fife
- Carnoustie Golf Links – Carnoustie, Angus
- Muirfield – Gullane, East Lothian
- Turnberry Resort, Ailsa Course – Turnberry, South Ayrshire
- Royal Troon Golf Club –Troon, South Ayrshire
The Open even moved to Northern Ireland once in 1951, when it was held at the magnificent Royal Portrush Golf Club. However, for a number of reasons, it hasn’t returned there since.
Early British Power Players
John Ball was the first non-Scot and amateur to become Open champion in 1890 when he won at Prestwick. After that, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the game of golf was dominated by three men: Harry Vardon of Jersey, John Henry Taylor of England and James Braid of Scotland.
The trio was known as The Great Triumvirate and split 16 Open titles among them; Vardon took home a record six Jugs, while Braid and Taylor collected five each.
The Americans Make a Stand
Then, in 1921, things began to change and Americans were let into the field of competition. The first American to sail to Great Britain and win the Open Championship was Scottish-born Jock Hutchinson, who reigned victorious at the 36-hole playoff at St. Andrews’ Old Course.
The following year, the flamboyant New York pro, Walter Hagen became the first American-born golfer to triumph at the Open. Hagen hoisted the Claret Jug four times in the 1920s, while fellow American, Bobby Jones won three times.
In the 1930 Championship, Jones became the last amateur to claim the Claret Jug – he left the measly £100 first prize for American professionals Leo Diegel and Macdonald Smith to split.
A Short Fall from Grace
As the PGA Tour formed in the US in the 1930s, American professionals found competing in the Open was not worth the time it took to sail to Great Britain – especially for paltry prizes.
For instance, golfing-great Sam Snead only competed twice, winning once at St. Andrews in 1946. Ben Hogan only tried once and strafed the field by four strokes to win at Carnoustie in 1953. Byron Nelson played twice, finishing fifth in 1937, and in the 1950s for a mostly ceremonial appearance after he had retired. Needless to say, things looked bleak for the Open.
Without the American stars in the field, the Open dwindled in prestige and was dominated in the 1950s by South African Bobby Locke (four wins) and Australian Peter Thomson (five wins).
Leave it to The King
In 1960, Arnold Palmer went to St. Andrews to compete for the Claret Jug. He lost by a stroke to Kel Nagle that year, but once Palmer started competing, American pros followed suit and the reputation of the Open was freshly polished.
In typical fashion, the King would go on to win the next two Championships at Royal Birkdale and Troon. The utter importance of the Open would not be counted out just yet.
The Modern Game
Jack Nicklaus became the first golfer to talk about the primary importance of “major championships” to the game –the British Open being the oldest one around.
While it gained steam, the Open was also regarded as the ‘quirky’ member of the Grand Slam. For example, until 1966, the final two rounds were played on Friday; after that the competition was spread across four days, ending on the next Saturday. No Sunday finish? This was relatively unheard of.
Then in 1980, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club moved the Open’s schedule to a more traditional, television-friendly Sunday ending. In the 90s, the R&A also began pumping up the prize money and the tournament finally became an official event on the PGA Tour.
After decades of being called the “British” Open to distinguish it from the more ‘prestigious’ U.S. Open, it is today simply known as the Open Championship. With the inevitable modern recognition, the luster of the world’s oldest golf tournament returned completely. So much so that it is now widely considered the most important tournament in the world – even by many American golfers.