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The Open: A-Z of golf's oldest major

The world’s oldest golf tournament, The Open Championship, dates back to 1860, with the inaugural winner, Willie Park Sr, beating Old Tom Morris by two shots.

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The tournament has seen some of the most memorable moments in the sport’s history, and ahead of the 151st Open, we’ve put together an A-Z of golf’s oldest major.

A – Amateurs

After its inception in 1860, the tournament became open – hence its name – to amateurs as well as professionals, with eight amateurs competing alongside 10 professionals in 1861.

While amateurs are ineligible to receive prize money, the low amateur for the week wins a silver medal, with any other amateur competing in the final round winning a bronze medal.

2015 was notable for amateur Paul Dunne playing in the final pairing on Sunday alongside Louis Oosthuizen, but a final round of four-over-par saw Jordan Niebrugge take the silver medal by one shot.

B – Bobby Jones

On the topic of amateurs, it’s impossible to ignore Bobby Jones. The greatest amateur to have played the game, Jones is the only amateur to have won The Open three times.

But Jones’s Open career looked to be over not long after it had started. After a frustrating debut at St Andrews, Jones ignored the tournament for the next four years, but upon his return in 1926, he won his first title at Royal Lytham & St Annes, defending the championship the following year at St Andrews, and winning a third Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool. 

C – Clarke

A solid golfer throughout the early 2000s, Darren Clarke spent 350 weeks in the world's top 20, 42 weeks in the world's top 10 and had played his way onto five European Ryder Cup teams, winning four times. He’d also recorded three top-10 finishes at The Open.

But by 2011, Clarke's most recent top-10 was nine years previous, and, long past his best and ranked outside the world's top 100, the 42-year-old wasn't expected to feature at The Open.

But the Northern Irishman would upset the odds to win The Open by three shots, becoming the oldest first-time major winner.

D – Duel in the Sun

Perhaps the greatest final round in major championship history saw two of the game’s all-time greats go head-to-head to be named Champion Golfer of the Year.

At the end of the third round, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus had created separation from the field, three shots clear of third place and sharing the lead.

A two-shot swing on the second hole saw Watson surrender his share of the lead, and he wouldn’t get his nose in front until a birdie on the 17th.

A pair of birdies on the 18th saw Watson win his second Open in three years, as Nicklaus finished one shot back, and a whopping 10 shots clear of third.

E – Ernie Els

US Open winner in 1994 and 1997, Ernie Els was Champion Golfer of the Year in 2012. Ten years later, now aged 42, Els would capitalise on one of the great Open collapses as Adam Scott bogeyed his final four holes, allowing the South African to win by one shot. 

F – Faldo

Prior to his maiden win in 1987, Nick Faldo had an excellent record at The Open. In his first 11 appearances, he recorded five top-10 finishes and three more top 20s.

But in a bid to turn those top-10s into wins, Faldo remodelled his swing and finally reaped the rewards in 1987, with 18 consecutive pars to edge out Paul Azinger and capture his first major.

The Englishman would win again in 1990 at St Andrews and for a third time – again at Muirfield – in 1992.

G – Greg Norman

It’s easy to look back on Greg Norman’s career as what could – and perhaps should – have been, with eight runner-up finishes in majors, but both of his major wins came at The Open. The first, in 1986 was won by five strokes and a score of even par, with the second seeing him oust rival Nick Faldo by two shots in 1993.

Long past his best in 2008, a 53-year-old Norman, who’d not played a major tournament for two years, remarkably held the outright lead after the third round, eventually finishing third behind Ian Poulter and Padraig Harrington.

H – Henrik Stenson

The 1977 Open will be forever remembered as the Duel in the Sun as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson went toe-to-toe at Turnberry, finishing 10 and 11 shots clear of the chasing pack respectively, but the 2016 Open went some way to matching it.

Phil Mickelson had won the Claret Jug three years earlier while Henrik Stenson was perhaps the best golfer in the world without a major at the time. 

Having surrendered his lead on the first hole with a bogey, Stenson would make a mammoth 10 birdies over the course of the round breaking the record for the lowest score in a major championship, while the gap of 11 shots between Mickelson and third-place JB Holmes was the largest ever.

I – Ian Baker-Finch

Greg Norman ended Australia’s 21-year wait for an Open champion after Peter Thomson’s 1965 win, and Ian Baker-Finch followed five years later, winning at Royal Birkdale in 1991.

Two-over-par and four shots off the lead going into the weekend, Baker-Finch shot -10 over the final two rounds to win by two shots.

J – Jug

In its infancy, The Open Championship awarded a red belt to the Champion Golfer of the Year, with the Claret Jug only being awarded in 1872.

Rules stated that the belt could be kept by anyone who won The Open three times in a row, eventually done by Young Tom Morris, with Prestwick, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club agreeing to commission a new trophy – the Claret Jug, which has been used ever since.

Players get to keep the trophy for a year, returning it the following year, given a smaller replica to keep.

K – Kel Nagle

Like many Australians, Kel Nagle had a real knack for links golf, recording six top-10s at The Open throughout the 1960s after his win at the start of the decade.

But aside from being the 100th anniversary of the first Open, the 1960 tournament was notable for a maiden appearance by Arnold Palmer, whose runner-up finish behind Nagle brought more credibility to The Open, prompting more Americans to begin making the trip over the Atlantic.

L – Links

In the 1400s, with sandy coastal land making arable farming difficult, the turf was instead used for recreation and the sport of golf was invented. 

Growing in popularity throughout the 15th century, it wasn’t until 1860 that an annual competition was organised to determine the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’.

The Open has always been played on links courses, featuring challenging terrain and pot bunkers, not to mention coastal weather conditions, making it arguably the ultimate golfing test.

M – McIlroy

There would perhaps be no more popular winning at Royal Liverpool this year than Rory McIlroy.

Despite his Manchester United affiliation, McIlroy received a rapturous reception from the Liverpool crowd after winning at Hoylake in 2014 and would love to repeat the feat in 2023, ending a nine-year wait for a major.

The Northern Irishman has a chequered history with The Open. On just his second appearance in 2010, he blitzed the Old Course at St Andrews, tying the major championship record with a nine-under-par 63, following up with an eight-over-par 80, eventually finishing third.

He would finally win The Open in 2014, but an injury in the run-up to the 2015 Open meant he was unable to defend his title the following year. He also led going into the final round in 2022, but his round of 70 was six shots worse than winner Cameron Smith, who finished two clear of McIlroy.

N – Nicklaus

In 1962, Jack Nicklaus had played in 10 majors and having turned pro that year, ventured across the Atlantic to try and emulate budding rival Arnold Palmer in winning The Open.

He finished T34-3-2-T12 in his first three tips to Britain before completing the Grand Slam in 1966 at Muirfield, winning The Open again in 1970 and 1978, both at St Andrews. 

But perhaps more impressive than his wins was the Golden Bear’s sheer consistency at the tournament.

Between his win in 1966 and 1980, Nicklaus finished in the top 10 of The Open every year and in the top five every year bar one.

O – Old Tom Morris

One of golf’s leading pioneers of the 19th century, Old Tom Morris, or Tom Morris Sr, was a greenkeeper at Prestwick, the first Open venue, as well as St Andrews. 

He was also a highly proficient golfer, finishing second at the first Open, winning the tournament in the following two years, where he’d set the record for the largest winning margin at a major, held for 138 years until broken by Tiger Woods in 2000. 

He won again in 1864 and for the fourth and final time in 1967.

P – Prestwick

In 1859, Allan Robertson, regarded as the best golfer in the world until his death, passed away, prompting the search for the new ‘champion golfer’.

Prestwick hosted each of the first 12 Opens before the tournament began a rotation that included St Andrews and Musselburgh.

However after hosting its 24th Open in 1925, increased crowds and insufficient crowd control disrupted the tournament, and it was permanently removed from the Open rotation.

Q – Qualification

While early Opens had limited fields and operated on an invitational basis, the tournament grew over the years.

While there are lots of routes for the pros to qualify for The Open – being ranked in the top 50 in the world, finishing in the top 10 the previous year etc. – players can also take the more precarious route of regional qualifying. 

Around eight places are available from each of the 15 qualifying venues with successful players making it through to final qualifying, with 16 spots at Royal Liverpool available from there.

R – Rotation

While the Masters always has been and always will be played at Augusta National Golf Club, the other three majors have a rotation of courses to pick from each year.

The courses currently in rotation for The Open are Carnoustie, St Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Troon, Turnberry, Royal Portrush, Royal Lytham & St Annes, Royal Birkdale, Royal St George’s and this year’s venue, Royal Liverpool.

S – St Andrews

The Old Course at St Andrews has hosted The Open Championship 30 times, and traditionally does so every five years, with the exception of 2022, where the major returned to the venue for the 150th Open after a seven-year absence.

Although a short course by modern standards, St Andrews has two of the most iconic closing holes in the world. 

The 17th, The Road Hole, offers players a blind tee shot over the Old Course Hotel and features the infamous Road Hole Bunker, which, if found, makes par a remarkable feat of escapology. The 18th is within driving distance for many pros, but they still have to navigate the Valley of Sin, an eight-foot deep valley in front of the green.

Tiger Woods won twice at the Home of Golf in 2000 and 2005 and describes it as his favourite place to play golf, trumping even Augusta National. 

The course is actually open to the public, though tee times are notoriously difficult to acquire, being allocated by a random draw, with unlucky players often queuing up from 1am to get one of the remaining tee times.

T – Tom Watson

One of the best golfers in history, Tom Watson won eight majors over his career, but is best known for his exploits on British shores.

No one in the post-war era won more than Watson’s five Open Championships, but despite his legendary ‘Duel in the Sun’ with Jack Nicklaus, it’s perhaps the one that got away that most sticks in the memory.

25 years after his last major win back in 1983, Watson got off to a fast start and was one off the lead after the first round, tying the lead after the second. At the age of 59, Watson smashed the record set by a 53-year-old Greg Norman the previous year to become the oldest 54-hole leader in major championship history.

And after a birdie on the 71st hole, Watson simply needed to par the last to win a sixth Open, but saw his approach shot run off the back of the green. A bogey left him in a play-off with Stewart Cink, which Watson would lose by six shots.

U – Umbrellas

Always hosted on the British coast, umbrellas and waterproofs are a staple of The Open Championship, with the weather often wreaking havoc on individual rounds and entire tournaments. 

Storms jeopardised the 2014 Open, with the unusual decision to play the third round from two tees to ensure play could go ahead as scheduled, with torrential rain causing localised flooding at St Andrews the year after.

TOPSHOT - US golfer Phil Mickelson putts in the rain on the 5th green... News Photo - Getty Images

V – Van de Velde

Not just the biggest collapse in Open history, but golfing history. 

Frenchman Jean Van de Velde led by three shots going into the final hole of the 1999 Open, but a wayward tee shot, wayward approach and the baffling decision to climb into the burn to try and play a shot – before thinking better of it and taking a penalty drop – saw Van de Velde card a triple-bogey, losing in a play-off with Paul Lawrie emerging victorious.

W – Willie Park Sr.

In the mid-19th century, the top players typically made money in golf via a series of challenge matches against other leading players of the time, with Willie Park Sr. no exception.

Organised by Prestwick Golf Club, eight leading golfers made the trip to South Ayrshire to play three-rounds across the 12-hole course, with Park Sr. edging out Old Tom Morris by two shots to win the inaugural Open Championship. 

X – Xander Schauffele

While his wait for a major win goes on, it feels like a matter of time for Xander Schauffele, who seems to save his best for the big four.

In his second Open start, he shared the lead going into the final round but a three-over-par final round saw him finish in a tie for second.

In 25 major starts, Schauffele has recorded a superb 11 top-10s, and is amongst the favourites for the 2023 Open.

Y – Young Tom Morris

Son of perhaps the most famous 19th-century golfer, Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris was a pioneer of the game. 

Having won his first Open aged 17, he’d win twice more in consecutive years, thus keeping the Champions Belt permanently. The lack of a trophy meant The Open wasn’t played in 1871, but with a new Claret Jug ready to be handed out the following year, Morris won a fourth consecutive Open, matching his father’s four wins and eclipsing Willie Park Sr's three wins.

He finished T3-2 in the next two years before his untimely passing in 1875.

Z – Zach Johnson

Starting the final round three shots back, Zach Johnson was -7 through his first 12 holes; good enough to force a three-man play-off.

The final round was unusually being played on a Monday after heavy rain on Friday and Saturday, and playing in similar conditions to when he won his first major – the 2007 Masters – Johnson beat Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in the four-hole play-off.

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