The Open Championship is not only golf’s oldest and most prestigious major; it’s also golf’s oldest tournament. The Open Championship is also known as the British Open or simply The Open.
The Open Championship was founded in 1860, with the tournament being held annually at the Prestwick Golf club located in Scotland. Soon after, though, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, or the R&A as it’s known, started to rotate the tournament to different links-style venues throughout the United Kingdom.
The British Open is one of golf’s four majors:
- The Masters (April)
- The PGA Championships (May)
- The US Open (June)
- The Open Championship (July)
In 2019 the PGA Championship moved from August to May, meaning the Open Championship is now golf’s final major of the calendar year. The Open is generally held in mid-July, with this year’s tournament taking place from July 14th to July 17th. Prizemoney for the 2022 Open Championship is $11.5 million.
You might wonder why it’s called “The Open”? well, the answer is quite simple; the tournament is “open” to all players, whether professional or amateur.
Every year the world’s top amateurs tee it up alongside legendary names of the game like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Rory McIlroy. The amateurs have to go through a pressure-packed qualifying process, but we’ll get into that a bit later.
The Open Championship has spawned 1000s of tournaments worldwide that have also adopted the Open format.
Colin Morikawa won last year’s Open Championship and, in doing so, became the first golfer in history to take home more than $2million in prize money from a single event. The 2021 Open was played at Royal St. Georges G.C. in England. The 2022 Open Championship will be held at St Andrew’s to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
The Open Championships; the early years
Willie Park Sr was the inaugural winner of the event, and back then, was crowned “champion golfer of the year.” The winning golfer was presented with a Challenge Belt up until 1870. The inaugural British Open took place on the 17th of October in 1860 and was held at the Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. Prestwick was a 12-hole links-style golf course, and the event was contested over three days.
Golf was very expensive in the mid to late 19th century and was primarily played by wealthy elites who could afford the handcrafted clubs and balls. Back in the early days, professionals used to make their living by caddying, placing bets between one another, and even making clubs, balls, and other equipment. The most prominent professional golfer of his day was Allan Robertson, who dominated the game from 1843 right up to his death in 1859.
Following Robertson’s death, James Ogilvie Fairlie formed the Open Champion to decide who was the best player now that Robertson has passed. Fairlie sent invitations to five clubs, Perth, Blackheath, St Andrews, Musselburgh, and Bruntsfield, and asked each of the clubs to send their best three players. Interestingly enough, pro golfers were known as “respectable caddies.”
The winner of the event was awarded the Challenge Belt, which was red leather and included a large silver buckle valued at £25. The Earl of Eglinton donated the silver buckle. He was a collector of medieval belts and trophies, which were primarily used in jousting or archery competitions.
One of the first rules that the Open Championship constituted was the winner must leave the winning challenge belt with the club’s treasurer; the rules stated;
“The player winning the belt must always leave the belt with the treasurer of the club until he delivers a promise to the fulfillment of the above commission that the belt shall be safely preserved and spread on the table at the next gathering to contest for it until it becomes the belongings of the champion by being won successfully three times in a row.”
Eight professionals ventured to the event, which was won by Willie Park Sr, who beat the legendary course designer, Old Tom Morris, by two strokes. Park was then named “the victorious golfer of the year.” The following year the Open Championship welcomed amateurs and professionals alike.
In 1863 the prize money for the Open was £10, and it was shared between the top four placed finishers; only the winner was awarded the Challenge Belt. To compensate the golfers, the organizers scheduled the Open to coincide with the Prestwick Local club tournament; the reason for this was that the golfers would be able to make a considerable amount of money caddying for wealthy local businessmen.
Mr. Willie Park Sr went on to capture the Open Championships on two occasions, with Old Tom Morris winning the event three times. Not to be outdone, Young Tom Morris topped his father’s feat by winning the Open Championships on three consecutive occasions. Because of this, Young Tom Morris was the first professional golfer to be able to keep the Challenge Belt; remarkably, no trophy could be found in 1871, which resulted in the cancellation of the tournament.
Course Rotation and the Claret jug
In 1872 Prestwick, St Andrews, and the Honourable Company Of Edinburgh Golfers agreed to contribute £10 to purchase a new trophy. The trophy decided upon was a silver claret jug, which was later known as the Champion Golf Trophy.
The parties also agreed that moving forward, the Open Championship would rotate annually between the three clubs. Unfortunately, these arrangements and agreements were too late in the year and couldn’t be applied to the 1872 Open Championship tournament. Instead, the winner would receive a silver medal with the inscription “Golf Champion Trophy.” Young Tom Morris took home the medal with another sterling win, and although he did not receive the claret jug, his name is the first to be engraved on it.
Following the death of Young Tom Morris in 1875, every winner of the Open Championship was awarded with a silver medal. Scottish players continued to dominate the Open, which was played over 36 holes and rotated between the three clubs up until 1889.
The great triumvirate
As the tournament headed into the 1890s, the English dominated the event with four wins, two of which were won by amateurs. The legendary and iconic Muirfield Golf Course came into the rotation in 1892 and replaced the previous course, Musselburgh, used by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Royal Liverpool and St George’s were also included in the Open rotation. In 1892 one of the most significant changes in format occurred as the Open moved to four 18-hole rounds to be played over two days. From 1898 to 1925, the Open Championship had “no-cut,” which resulted in fields of over 200 players, and instead of being played over two days, the tournament was extended to four.
However, the pre-war era saw one of the most remarkable streaks in golfing history; the great triumvirate. James Braid, Hary Vardon, and John Henry Taylor monopolized the Open Championship, winning the claret jug 16 times between them. Their dominance from 1894 to 1914 is one of the most talked-about and penned moments in golfing history; the trio became known as the great triumvirate.
In that time, Harry Vardon hoisted the claret jug six times which is a record yet to be surpassed. Braid and Taylor weren’t to be outdone, claiming the Open Championship five times. Of the five tournaments the trio didn’t win, at least one of them placed second. Golf was increasing in popularity because of the trio, but with the start of World War I, the Open was not played for six years until again 1920.
The great triumvirate never captured another claret jug again, with the passing of the torch going to Walter Hagan, who became the first winner from outside of Europe in 1922.
The Americans had arrived
From 1920 onwards, the Open Championship was under the sole administration of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club; the R & A. The newly appointed governing body wasted no time and made significant changes to the format, which saw the first and second days hosting 18 holes each with the final 36 holes to be played on day three. The R & A also included qualifying and a cut for the first time.
Financed by the British Open Championship Fund, eleven golfers from the US made their way across the pond to compete in the Open for the very first time. Five of the eleven players were actually born in the United Kindom but had moved to the States to make a career for themselves, teaching at some of the most prestigious clubs in the world.
Two weeks prior to the Open championship teeing off, the Americans and Europeans played a match against each other. Many historians believe this gave birth to the current day Ryder Cup. The Open that year was won by Jock Hutchinson and was actually played on his home course of St Andrews.
A ten-year stretch from 1923 to 1933 saw the emergence of American dominance, with all ten Open Championships, won by a US-based golfer. Walter Hagan captured four claret jugs, and the legendary Bobby Jones held the jug aloft three times, with Gene Sarazen winning once. The English players didn’t lie down, though and from 1934 to 1939 captured each of the six Open Championships, including two victories by Henry Cotton.
Overcrowding was a real problem during the Open at Prestwick in 1925 and forced the R & A to modify the event format and rotation of courses. The Open was growing in popularity, and due to the extensive galleries of fans attending, some of the courses on the rotation needed to be replaced; Prestwick was one of them.
The internationals burst onto the scene
Following World War II, St Andrews played host to the Open Championship with Sam Snead holding the claret jug. From 1949 to 1952, South African Booby Locke won three times and then won again in 1957, taking his Open tally to four.
In 1953 the legendary Ben Hogan captured the Open Championship, which would be his first and last. Earlier that year, Hogan had already won the Masters and the US Open and, with the winning of the Open Championship, sportswriters coined his achievement as the “triple crown.” On his return to New York City, Hogan was greeted with a ticker-tape parade that saw thousands of fans lining the streets.
The Australian Peter Thompson became the first Aussie to win the claret jug in 1954 and incredibly won the Open Championship four times from 1954 to 1958.
During this period, Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club was removed from the Open rotation due to flood damage it received in 1938 and 49. In 1951 the British Open was hosted at Royal Portrush G. C. in Northern Ireland; this was the first time the Championship was held outside of England or Scotland.
The number of American players teeing it up at the Open declined dramatically as the PGA Tour had started to take off. Prizemoney on the PGA Tour was nearly triple that of the Open, not to mention the PGA Championship was held on similar dates, making it impossible for players to make the trip.
Jack, Arnold, and Gary
Gary Player, or “the Black Knight,” captured the Open Championship title in 1959; Player would go on to win three claret jugs during his celebrated career. In 1960 Arnold Palmer made the long trek across the pond to compete at the Open Championship in the hopes of emulating his compatriots, feat Ben Hogan, by winning the triple crown. Palmer fell just shy, finishing runner-up to Kel Nagel; however, Arnold returned winning back-to-back titles in 1961 and 62.
Back in the US, Palmer was adorned by golfing fans who probably got their first look at the Open Championship with the advent of TV. Jet travel had also risen, which increased the number of international players teeing it up at the Open.
Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, captured the claret jug on three occasions in 1966, 70, and 78 and recorded seven second-place finishes. The period was utterly dominated by Jack, Arnold, and Gary, although the eccentric American, Lee Trevino, chimed in for back-to-back wins in 1971 and 72. During the trio’s dominance, the sole British winner was Tony Jacklin in 1969.
Tiger and the Open Championship
A ten-year period from 1994 to 2004 resulted in ten first-time winners of the Open Championship. During this period, the most famous of the Opens’ was played in 1999, when Frenchman Jean van de Velde blew a three-shot lead by triple bogeying the 18th. Paul Lawrie, a Scotsman ranked 241st came from ten shots back to capture his first and only major. The come-from-behind win is the largest comeback in major history.
Two other players also came from nowhere in 2003 and 04, when Ben Curtis ranked 369th in the world and Todd Hamilton ranked 56th won their first and only majors.
In 2000 after just winning the US Open by a record eight strokes, Tiger Woods was looking to emulate Ben Hogans feat by winning the Open Championship and with it the career grand slam. However, Tiger’s plans came to a screeching halt on a cold, gusty third round after shooting a career-worst 81, 10 over par. But in typical Tiger fashion, he returned to the Open, winning back-to-back claret jugs in 2005-06.
Two other players were also multiple winners during this period, with South Africas Ernie Els winning in 2002 and 12 and Irishman Paddy Harrington winning back to back in 2007 and 08. Tom Watson nearly pulled off what would’ve been one of the greatest wins in any major when the 59 yo led the Open Championship with one hole to play. Watson bogeyed the final hole, putting him in a four-hole playoff before eventually losing to American Stweart Cink.
Another young American arrived at the Open in 2015 after having already won the Masters and the US Open; Jordan Speith was looking to join the likes of Hogan and Woods but fell just short, finishing tied fourth. That year, Zach Johnson was the winner, but Speith got his revenge by hoisting the claret jug in 2017 at Royal Birkdale.
The American dominance continued when the enigmatic Phil Mickelson captured his first claret jug and fifth major overall. Mickelson was again involved in a memorable Open Championship in 2016 when he and Swedish golfer Henrik Stenson went head to head in what many experts believe was on par with the battle between Nicklaus and Watson in 1977. After the round, Nicklaus said, “Phil played one of the best rounds he’s ever seen; unfortunately for Phil, Henrik played better.”
2018 saw the emergence of Italian superstar Francesco Molinari as he went on to win by two strokes, becoming the only Italian ever to win a Major. Shane Lowry captured the title in 2019 at Royal Portrush G. C. Due to the COVID pandemic, the 2020 Open Championship was postponed and eventually canceled for the first time since World War II.
The 2021 Open was hosted by Royal St Georges and won by American Colin Morikawa. This year’s Open Championship will be the 150th anniversary of the event and fittingly will be hosted at the Old Course at Royal St Andrews.