Ranking the top 10 British Open courses of all time
The place where golf was invented is home to some of the greatest golf courses anywhere. We rank the 10 greatest British Open courses in history.
Walk into any respectable golf clubhouse anywhere in America, and chances are you will see a poster from a travel agency offering all-inclusive packages to Scotland and/or England that include airfare, hotel, greens fees and a breakfast. And that last item is always particularly confounding to Yanks (as the Brits call folks from the United States), because the Brits do breakfast a little differently.
Two words: Blood pudding.
You can look it up. Look, the Brits do some things particularly well and other things with peculiar quirks, and what defines an acceptable British breakfast item is certainly not something you would find on the menu at a Perkins or a Denny’s.
When it comes to golf, the Brits are similarly different. They do difficult, too, but it is not with tall pine trees along the fairways, as we see in Augusta at The Masters, or with the distraction of seals sunning themselves on the rocks, as we see at Pebble Beach when we are lucky enough to have the U.S. Open played there.
They do deep pot bunkers. They do brown fairways instead of green ones. They do waterways known as burns, whose walls have been held up with ancient stones for hundreds of years. They do not do fluffy sand. And their clubhouses do not have skylights, because skylights were not part of the architectural choices when some of these places were built in the 19th century. In those days, the look you wanted to go for was “castle.”
So, when the British Open is held this year at Royal Liverpool, we will all learn some of the quirks of this particular set-up, which has played host to The Open Championship (as the Brits call it) a dozen times since 1887.
Let’s have a look at the top 10 courses that have played host to the British Open -- a list that historically includes a total of only 14 courses. One of them, Prince’s in Sandwich in Southeast England, hosted the event only once, in 1932 when Gene Sarazen debuted the sand wedge. It is still used for qualification tournaments.
Where is The Open Championship 2023 being held?
The Open Championship in 2023 is being held at Royal Liverpool, which was founded in 1969, was lengthened to 18 holes in 1971, and has been redesigned once and tweaked multiple times since to keep up with advances in golf equipment. It is a par 72 that plays 7,218 yards, and it is a seaside links course, which means the intensity of the wind will play a big role in how the championship plays out. The course is mostly level, but the holes nearest the coast run through sand hills. The course underwent a variety of changes in advance of the 2023 Open, including a new par-3 that will play as the 17th hole during The Open.
Which Golf course has hosted the most British Opens?
That would be The Old Course at St. Andrew’s, where Cameron Smith shot 20-under last year to win the Claret Jug and tie the record for lowest score in relation to par.
Ranking the Top 10 Best British Open Courses of All Time
- Prestwick, Scotland
British Opens Hosted: 1860, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1869, 1870, 1872, 1875, 1878, 1881, 1884, 1887, 1890, 1893, 1898, 1903, 1908, 1914, 1925
Past Champions: Willie Park Sr. (4), Old Tom Morris (4), Young Tom Morris (4), Harry Vardon (3), Andrew Strath, Jamie Anderson, Bob Ferguson, Jack Simpson, John Ball, William Auchterlonie, James Beard, Jim Barnes
The Open Championship was first contested at Prestwick in the tournament’s inaugural year of 1860, but Prestwick was dropped from the rotation after the 1925 event was won by Jim Barnes, a Brit who might have been a naturalized American citizen (historians differ on this point.) Old Tom Morris designed this course, and six of the original greens are still in use, as are three of the original hole designs. Old Tom had the foresight to design a 578-yard opening hole, which was extraordinarily long by the standards of the time.
- Royal Troon, Scotland
British Opens Hosted: 1923, 1950, 1962, 1973, 1982, 1989, 1997, 2004, 2016
Past Champions: Arthur Havers, Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson, Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard, Todd Hamilton, Henrik Stenson
Founded in 1878 with five holes, Royal Troon now has 45. The course was redesigned prior to hosting its first Open Championship in 1923 and remains virtually the same with the exception of some lengthened tee boxes. It received the “Royal” designation in 1978 and will host the British Open again in 2024.
- Royal Birkdale, Southport, England
British Opens Hosted: 1954, 1961, 1965, 1971, 1976, 1983, 1991, 1998, 2008, 2017
Past Champions: Peter Thomsen (2), Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Ian Baker-Finch, Mark O’Meara, Padraig Harrington, Jordan Spieth
Royal Birkdale would have hosted its first Open Championship in 1940 if World War II had not broken out, so it had to wait until 1956. The course is laid out among the large sand dunes that mark its terrain, and it was the site of Jack Nicklaus’ famous “concession” when he conceded the last putt of the 1960 Ryder Cup, allowing it to end in a 16-16 tie that allowed the United States to retain the Cup.
- Carnoustie, Scotland
British Opens Hosted: 1931, 1937, 1953, 1968, 1975, 1999, 2007, 2018
Past Champions: Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Paul Lawrie, Padraig Harrington, Francesco Molinari
Golf has been played at Carnoustie since the 16th century, although an official course did not open until 1842. The opening of a railway brought golfers from across England, leading to a restructuring of the course in 1869 by Old Tom Morris. The facility currently consists of four courses, including a free-to-play, five-hole course. The same hole routing has been intact since 1926, but the greens and bunkers were redesigned and toughened several times in the years since. The last three Open Championships played here were decided in playoffs.
- Turnberry, Ayrshire, Scotland
British Opens Hosted: 1977, 1986, 1994, 2009
Past Champions: Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Stewart Cink
Donald Trump bought this complex in 2014, purchasing the three links courses and the five-star hotel built in 1905. This was designed as a golf destination resort because of its proximity to railways, and it has a mothballed air-landing strip that dates back to World War I. Mackenzie Ross rebuilt the course in 1951 after it had again been turned into a military facility during World War II. It has been removed from the Open rotation because of its links to the Trump Organization, which claims to have invested $200 million into the complex. The R&A explained its decision by saying Opens would not return to Turnberry "until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the course itself.”
- Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Lancashire, England
British Opens Hosted: 1926, 1952, 1958, 1963, 1969, 1974, 1979, 1988, 1996, 2001, 2012
Past Champions: Bobby Locke, Peter Thomsen, Bob Charles, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros (2), Tom Lehman, David Duval, Ernie Els
A golfer must navigate 167 bunkers on the Royal Lytham course, which was designed in 1897. It is still considered one of the ultimate tests of links golf, in large part because club selection to avoid the bunkers challenges golfers to think differently than they would on 99.9 percent of courses around the world. That makes it particularly special, because it is a course that nobody can overpower no matter how much golf equipment has and will improve. Bobby Jones was eligible for the $75 first prize when he won in 1926, but he did not accept the cash because he was an amateur.
- Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, England
British Opens Hosted: 1897, 1902, 1907, 1913, 1924, 1930, 1947, 1956, 1967, 2006, 2014, 2023
Past Champions: Harold Hilton, Sandy Herd, Arnaud Massy, John Henry Taylor, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Alf Padgham, Fred Daly, Peter Thomsen, Roberto DiVincenzo, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy
Tiger Woods hit his driver only once during the 2006 tournament at Royal Liverpool, with the course baked out due to dry conditions and playing very fast. The course is mostly level, but the holes nearest the coast run through sand hills. Amateurs Harold Hilton and John Ball dominated the amateur game of their era between 1888 and 1912, and Hilton won The Open Championship here in 1897. Liverpool was host to the first ever international match between Scotland and England in 1902. It hosted the first Home International matches between Great Britain & Ireland and the United States in 1921, an event which became the Walker Cup.
- Royal St. George’s, Sandwich, England
British Opens Hosted: 1894, 1899, 1904, 1911, 1922, 1928, 1934, 1938, 1949, 1981, 1985, 1993, 2003, 2011, 2021
Past Champions: John Henry Taylor, Harold Hilton, Jack White, Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen (2), Henry Cotton, Reg Whitcomb, Bobby Locke, Bill Rogers, Sandy Lyle, Greg Norman, Ben Curtis, Darren Clarke, Collin Morikawa
This is the only course on the Open rotation that is located in Southeast England and was the first outside of Scotland to host the Open Championship. It has the deepest bunker, 40 feet (on the 4th hole) of all the courses in the Open rotation. It is adjacent to the above-mentioned Prince’s Golf Club, along with the Royal Cinque Course, which hosted the 1909 and 1920 British Opens. It was founded by a surgeon in 1888 and featured numerous blind and semi-blind shots, upping the degree of difficulty on a course that measures 7,204 yards and plays to a par 70.
- Muirfield, Gulane, Scotland British Opens Hosted: 1892, 1896, 1901, 1906, 1912, 1929, 1935, 1948, 1959, 1966, 1972, 1980, 1987, 1992, 2002, 2013
Past Champions: Harold Hilton, Harry Vardon, James Braid (2), Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Alf Perry, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo (2), Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson
Overlooking the Firth of Forth (wager your buddy $2 that he cannot say that 10 times in a row without tripping over his tongue), Muirfield is a private club that is different from most links courses. Most run along the coast and then back again, leading to two sets of nine holes, each facing roughly in the same direction. Muirfield, however, is arranged as two loops of nine holes, one clockwise, one counterclockwise. Assuming the wind direction remains the same throughout a round, virtually every hole on the course has a different wind direction from the tee.
- Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland
British Opens Hosted: 1873, 1876, 1879, 1882, 1885, 1888, 1891, 1895, 1900, 1905, 1910, 1921, 1927, 1933, 1939, 1946, 1955, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1970, 1978, 1984, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2022
Past Champions: Tom Kidd, Bob Martin, Jamie Anderson, Bob Ferguson, Bob Martin, Jack Burns, Hugh Kirkaldy, John Henry Taylor, James Braid, Jock Hutchinson, Bobby Hogan, Denny Shute, Dick Burton, Sam Snead, Peter Thomsen, Bobby Locke, Kel Nagle, Tony Lema, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Tiger Woods, Louis Oosthuizen, Zack Johnson, Cameron Smith
When a course has been used 30 times for one particular tournament with a rotating array of courses, it is special, no? Well, there is no place on Earth quite like St. Andrews, a public course with 112 bunkers where golf was first played in the 15th century but was banned in 1457 because King James II of Scotland felt that young men were playing too much golf instead of practicing archery. That prohibition stood until 1502 when Henry VII took up golfing. In 1764 it had 22 holes, which was the standard. But golfers were crisscrossing each other (seven greens serve two different holes), and so four short holes were condensed among the others, which is where the 18-hole standard came from. Bobby Jones and Ben Franklin are the only Americans with keys to the city.
Parameters of Rankings
When there are only 14 courses to choose from, it is not terribly difficult to eliminate four because they have been so seldomly used. What is tough is saying one is particularly better than the next, because these are all golf treasures. So, what we did was to rank them with a mix of history, character, and fame. The Brits and Scots take their golf quite seriously, and anyone who has had the good fortune of traveling there can appreciate the natural beauty of so many of these seaside courses. If you are a golfer, your bucket list should include a trip to as many of these places as possible.
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