History of The Open

Raindrops are seen on an "Open Championship" sign at the Royal Birkdale Golf Course ahead of the British Golf Open starting next week, Southport, England, Wednesday July 9, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Thomas).
AP Photo/Paul Thomas

Outside of Great Britain, golfers naturally regard this event as the “British Open” so as not to confuse it with the U.S. version. But around the hallowed links of the courses that host the oldest major, it is simply “The Open.”

The first winner of The Open in 1860 received not one penny in prize money. The prestige of being crowned Champion Golfer of the Year was considered sufficient reward.

Willie Park was the first to claim the title, and he was briefly allowed to handle the symbol of his success – a wide, red leather belt lavishly adorned with silver decorations that included a golfing scene on the exquisitely carved buckle and the Burgh of Prestwick coat of arms on the back.

When Young Tom Morris won his third straight Open in 1870, he was allowed to keep the belt, and a replacement trophy was commissioned, the famous Claret Jug that remains the prize to this day.

The original Golf Champion Trophy is on permanent display in The Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. It sits beside the Challenge Belt, which was donated to the Club in 1908 by the grandchildren of Tom Morris Sr.

At one point during his five Open victories, Tom Watson was presented with the original trophy rather than the replica. The mix-up was only discovered when he returned the trophy with a small dent and it was fully examined by silversmiths before the repair was made.

Courses on the Open rotation
There are currently nine courses that host the Open, seven of the others, and their most recent events, being Royal Troon (2016), St Andrews (2015), Royal Liverpool (2014), Muirfield (2013), Royal Lytham & St Annes (2012), Royal St. George’s (2011) and Carnoustie (2007).

Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland was given the 2019 Open, some 68 years after the R&A took the event across the Irish Sea. Carnoustie will host in 2018, Royal St. George’s in 2020 and the 150th Open in 2021 is expected to be given to the iconic St Andrews Links.

One course that is currently missing is Turnberry, which hosted the event in 2009 when Tom Watson came so close to winning at the age of 59. The venue was bought by Donald Trump in 2014 and has undergone major renovation, leaving it ranked as the No.1 course in Great Britain by Golf Monthly magazine. Whether it returns to the Open rotation could depend as much on its enigmatic owner as anything else.

What is links golf?
The word “links” comes via the Scots language from the Old English word hlinc : “rising ground, ridge,” and refers to an area of coastal sand dunes, and sometimes to open parkland. Being close to the sea, the wind is the primary defense of such a course, and combined with the often inclement weather that Great Britain is known for, can lead to some truly horrendous conditions for professional golfers to compete in.

Bumpy fairways and penal rough can often lead to an unfair course, as the 1999 Open at Carnoustie produced when the best players in the world were left littered around the course looking for balls. When the sun shines and the wind dies, scoring can be incredibly low, as the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus provided in 1977.

A year ago
At first glance, a winning score of 20-under par by Henrik Stenson would indicate that Royal Troon played as an easy venue, but this was anything but the truth. Stenson and Phil Mickelson were simply in a class of their own all week, with the third-place finisher JB Holmes posting a score of 6 under.

Mickelson opened with a 63 and was one back going into the final round, where he shot a 65, a score any realistic pundit would expect him to have earned the Claret Jug. Stenson merely finished with a 63 of his own, the duo playing what became known as “High Noon at Troon” in an air of sportsmanship and respect that the game of golf will always remember.

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