- The Open
Eight professional golfers assembled at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860 to determine who would become the Champion Golfer. Prior to his death in 1859, Allan Robertson was the de facto champion, but when Willie Park Senior beat Old Tom Morris by two shots to claim the Challenge Belt the granddaddy of golf championships was born: The Open.
Interestingly, although now named The Open, the inaugural event was somewhat restricted as only the two best professional players from eleven clubs were invited to participate in three rounds of the 12-hole contest. George Brown of Blackheath was the only Englishman to play, along with seven Scotsmen.
In “Carry your bag, sir?” The Story of Golf’s Caddies by David Stirk, the author states: ”In Scotland the professional caddie and the professional players were of the same status and were often the same person. In the first Open it was stipulated that ‘competitors must be honest and respectable cadies’. It was further stipulated that each must have a letter from his club testifying to this. This last stipulation made sure that only the true professional caddies played.”
The following year, 10 professionals and 8 amateurs entered the competition but prize money wasn’t paid until the 4th edition of the tournament in 1863, when players finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th got £5, £3 and £2 respectively – the winner still only received the Challenge Belt!
The Open championship Challenge Belt cost £25
In 1870 at Prestwick, Young Tom Morris won The Open for the third consecutive time and so claimed outright ownership of the Challenge Belt. The Open was not contested in 1871 while the future direction of the tournament was discussed.
Three clubs that were to host The Open — Prestwick, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club – reached agreement in 1872. The Champion would receive a medal and there would be a new trophy, a silver Claret Jug “The Golf Champion Trophy”. Unfortunately the trophy – made by Mackay Cunningham & Company of Edinburgh – wasn’t ready to present to Young Tom Morris, who won The Open for the fourth consecutive time in 1872.
The original trophy has been on display in the R&A clubhouse since 1928, along with the original Challenge Belt which was donated by the Morris family in 1908. The current Claret Jug was awarded to Walter Hagen for winning the 1928 Open, to be returned before the following year’s tournament. Winners every year receive a replica and there are a few others used for exhibition purposes around the world.
Prestwick staged the first twelve championships before Tom Kidd lifted the Claret Jug for the first time at St Andrews in 1873. The Open was then rotated between Musselburgh, Prestwick and St Andrews until 1892 when the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers were able to host the event on their new course, Muirfield.
In 1894, The Open was staged in England for the first time at Royal St George’s and in 1897 at Royal Liverpool. Royal Cinque Ports came onto the rotation in 1909 and Royal Troon in 1923. Bobby Jones won the first Open to be played at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1926, in 1932 Gene Sarazen won the only Open to be hosted at Prince’s, and Henry Cotton won the first Open to be staged at Carnoustie in 1937.
The Claret Jug at Portrush 2019
In 1951 the tournament moved across the Irish Sea for the first time to Royal Portrush and Royal Birkdale joined the rota in 1954 when Peter Thomson won the first of three consecutive Opens. Turnberry was the last venue to join The Open rotation in 1977 and what a tournament in turned out to be in the Ayrshire sunshine between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.
Only fourteen venues have hosted The Open, but you’ll need to play fifteen courses to genuinely say you’ve played them all. That’s because Prince’s is now 27 holes and all three nine-hole loops are routed over the ground on which the 1932 Open was staged.
The Open has always been played on a links course, which ensures it remains close to the origins of the game along the east coastline of Scotland. It’s recognized as one of the four major golfing championships, along with the US Open, The Masters and the PGA Championship (though it’s only in the modern era that the latter two events displaced The Amateur and US Amateur from that roster).
Currently the competition comprises 156 golfers playing 72 holes of stroke play, 18 holes a day over four days. A cut is made after two rounds, with the top 70 and ties progressing to the final 36 holes. If there is a tie for the best score, an aggregate play-off is held, followed by sudden death if no winner emerges. The champion also receives a gold medal and entry to future Opens until the age of 60.
Harry Vardon from Jersey won 6 Opens between 1896 and 1914. Scotland’s James Braid and Englishman J.H. Taylor each won 5 Opens in the same era (between 1894 and 1913) so it’s easy to see why they were collectively referred to as the Great Triumvirate.
Multiple winners in the early years included Old Tom Morris (1861-1867), his son Tom Morris (1868-1872) and Willie Park Sr. (1860-1875) who each claimed 4 victories.
Walter Hagen from the USA also won The Open 4 times during the 1920s then Bobby Locke from South Africa was victorious 4 times between 1949 and 1957.
The list of 3-time winners in the 20th century is a veritable who’s who of golf: Bobby Jones (1926-1930); Henry Cotton (1934-1948); Gary Player (1959-1974); Jack Nicklaus (1966-1978); Seve Ballesteros (1979-1988); and Nick Faldo (1987-1992).
In more recent times, Tiger Woods also won three times between 2000 and 2006 with the only other new millennium multiple winners being Padraig Harrington (2007-2008) and Ernie Els (2002,2012).
And… we almost forgot to mention another two modern era golfing greats who lifted the trophy five times: Peter Thomson (1954-1965) and Tom Watson (1975-1983) – to think that Tom had only to par the 72nd hole at Turnberry in 2009 to win his 6th title at the age of 59… so near and yet so far as he bogied the last then crumbled in the playoff against Stewart Cink.
The Open Top 100 Leaderboard
B-NL Challenge Trophy