Located on the Northwest coast of England, Royal Birkdale is part of a group of eight courses that hug the Lancashire coastline, two others (Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s and Royal Liverpool) being part of the Open rota. Now measuring at 7,173 yards, it is a par-70 that winds its way through dunes while offering all the traditional vagaries of links golf.
Royal Birkdale was brought up to Open Championship standard in 1935. It was due to host The Open in 1940 which was cancelled due to World War II. It made its debut in 1954 when Australian Peter Thomson won the first of his five Open titles, the final one coming 11 years later at the same venue.
Arnold Palmer won the 1961 event and Lee Trevino 10 years later, but the 1976 version, held during the hottest and driest summer Britain had seen in over a century, marked the emergence of a young Spaniard who changed world golf. People have almost forgotten that Johnny Miller won the Claret Jug, but no one will ever forget the then-19-year-old Seve Ballesteros giving the world its first look at the swashbuckling style that would be admired for the next 20-plus years.
Tom Watson emulated Thomson by winning his fifth Open in 1983 and was followed in 1991 by Ian Baker-Finch, who won his one and only major championship.
1998 was Mark O’Meara’s glory year when the longtime pro, famously described by Jaime Diaz of Sports Illustrated as “King of the Bs” — in reference to him never having won a major title — took both the British Open and The Masters in the same year. He defeated Brian Watts in a playoff with longtime friend Tiger Woods a shot further back.
The British story of the week was a fresh-faced 17-year-old amateur named Justin Rose, who shot an amazing 66 in terrible weather on the second day to move into contention. He finished tied for fourth after holing out from 50 yards on the final hole to deafening applause from the home crowd. Rose turned professional the next day but then missed over 20 consecutive cuts during an ignominious start to his professional career.
Although O’Meara had won two of the three majors that year heading into the U.S. PGA Championship at Sahalee (near Seattle), his fame did not precede him. Arriving early in the week at the clubhouse with Woods, a staffer welcomed Tiger to the venue and offered to cater to his needs during the week. The same staffer then stepped in front of O’Meara, preventing him from following Woods while commenting, “Sorry sir, something I can help you with?”
In 2008, Padraig Harrington successfully defended his title, becoming the first European to do so at The Open since James Braid in 1906. This was a more comfortable occasion than his playoff win at Carnoustie. After an eagle at the 17th, thanks to a stunning 5-wood from 249 yards to three feet, he was able to enjoy a celebratory walk up the 18th fairway on the way to winning by four strokes over Ian Poulter.
“I’m holding on to this,” he said, cradling the Claret Jug. “I had a great year as Open Champion, so much so I didn’t want to give it back.”
53-year old Greg Norman was the other story of the week, taking a two-shot lead into the final round, his first major appearance in three years. He fell back on the Sunday to finish in a tie for third after a final-round 77. Chris Wood won the Silver Medal for the leading amateur, a prelude to the successful pro career that continues today.