Willie Park senior wearing the Moroccan Leather belt which was awarded to the Open's winners before the claret jug was created in 1872
The world’s first Major, the British Open, also known as The Open, was inaugurated in 1860, organized by the Prestwick club who sought to find a successor to Allan Robertson, the “champion of golf”, who died in 1859. The only way to do that was to organize an individual tournament, which was rarely heard of in those days. Most matches were foursomes or individual money matches.
But, in 1858 the Prestwick club had successfully organized an individual tournament for amateur players and, following the suggestion of Major J O Fairlie, a similar tournament for professionals was arranged. On Wednesday 17 October 1860 8 of Britain’s leading professionals played 3 rounds of Prestwick’s 12-hole links.
The winner was Willie Park senior of the Musselburgh club. He was 2 strokes clear of local Prestwick man Tom Morris senior, who was to become one of the Opens great champions. Morris won the Open 4 times and was succeeded by his son, also named Tom, who won the title on 4 occasions. But his untimely death at 24 not only prevented him from adding to that total, but it robbed the game of one of it’s finest ever players.
The Open did not become open in the true sense of the word until 1861 when, again, organization was left to the Prestwick club. Tom Morris senior the title and he like all early winners was awarded with a Moroccan leather belt donated by the Earl of Eglinton.
The rules stipulated that the winner of the belt 3 years in succession could keep the trophy, and so after young Tom Morris won for the third time in 1870 he was allowed to keep it. The following year, without a trophy to offer, there was no championship until revived in 1872 when young Tom lifted the new silver claret jug which today remains one of the most sought-after trophies in world golf.
Having organized the first 11 events, the Prestwick club was finding it increasingly difficult to organize the event as not only the number of competitors grew, so did the amount of spectators. Consequently, the Royal and Ancient at St. Andrews and the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Musselburgh shared the organization and took turns hosting the competitions.
All Open courses are links and in 1894 the competition moved out of Scotland for the first time when Sandwich, in Kent, southern England played host.
The first Open in England started a domination of the championship by 3 men: John H Taylor, James Braid and Henry Vardon. Between them they captured 16 of the next 21 Opens.
It wasn’t until after World War I that the switch in dominance moved from homegrown players to the Americans, and the breakthrough came in 1921 when Jock Hutchison became the first man to take the trophy across the Atlantic.
The 1920’s and 30’s was a golden age for the American golfers with Jim Barnes, Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen and Denny Shute all capturing the title. And there was also greatest ever amateur golfer, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, who won the Open 3 times between 1926 and 1930. The latter year was a remarkable one for the Georgia lawyer because he won the Opens, as well as the amateur titles, of both Britain and America.
The early post war years belonged to two golfers, Bobby Locke of South Africa and Australia’s Peter Thomson, who won 9 titles between them, with Thomson’s 5 wins being the best haul since the days of Vardon, Braid and Taylor.
American interest declined in the 1950’s but Arnold Palmer set about maintaining the British Open’s stature as the world’s leading golf tournament and his arrival on the scene aroused great interest in the game in general. He also ensured that many top Americans made the trip across the Atlantic every summer. Palmer was awarded with successive titles in 1961 and 1962.
Palmer’s arrival on British shores was also to signal the birth of the next generation of golfing trio’s as he, Gary Player of South Africa and American Jack Nicklaus became great favorites with the British fans. They won 8 British Open titles between them; Player doing so in 3 different decades, the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Australia’s Kel Nagle snuck one away from them in 1960.
Britain broke their 18 year drought in 1969 when Tony Jacklin edged out New Zealand lefthander Bob Charles at Lytham. But that was a rare moment of success as the Americans continued to dominate, with Tom Watson winning 5 titles. But the 1980’s saw a switch away from the Americans as first Sandy Lyle, and then Nick Faldo 3 times, put the trophy back in British hands. Spain has also enjoyed glory at the Open thanks to Seve Ballesteros’s 3 titles and of course Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch have brought the Claret jug to Australia on 3 occasions between them, the last time was Normans amazing win in 1993.
Australia's Kel Nagle after winning the British Open in 1960Australians who have won the British Open:
1993 - Greg Norman (Royal St. Georges)
1991 - Ian Baker-Finch (Royal Birkdale)
1986 - Greg Norman (Tunberry)
1965 - Peter Thomson (Royal Birkdale)
1960 - Kel Nagle (St. Andrews)
1958 - Peter Thomson (Royal Lytham and St. Annes)
1956 - Peter Thomson (Royal Liverpool)
1955 - Peter Thomson (St. Andrews)
1954 - Peter Thomson (Royal Birkdale)
The first time there was a cash prize at the Open it was 6 pounds. The first Australian to win the Open, Peter Thomson pocketed 750 pounds in 1954 up to 1,750 pounds in 1965 (his 5th win). Kel Nagle took home 1,250 pounds in 1960. In 1986, Greg Normans first win he collected 70,000 pounds, up to 100,000 in 1993. Baker-Finch won 90,000. In 2008 Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who also won in 2007 netted 750,000 pounds. Golf has come a long way. Australia’s Greg Norman also holds the record for lowest 72 hole total of 267, set at Tunberry in 1986.
For more Australian golf history, click HERE: