Top 10 Open Championships Of All Time
Tiger at his best was the best. But Old and Young Tom Morris were something, too. Ranking the 10 greatest British Opens in golf history.
Back in the day (and we use that expression liberally), the winner of the British Open received a championship belt. Yes, just like in boxing.
That was back in the 1860s when the best golfers in Great Britain decided to hold an “open championship” to replace Allan Robertson, who was considered the best golfer in the world from 1843 until his death in 1859. That was what brought about the first British Open in 1860 at the 12-hole links course in Prestwick, which hosted the event for the next decade and 24 times in all before overcrowding in 1925 led to its deletion from the course rotation.
It is called The Open because it is in theory "open" to all, i.e. professional and amateur golfers. In practice, the current event is a professional tournament in which a small number of the world's leading amateurs also play, by invitation or qualification.
It is, to Britons, the world’s most prestigious golf tournament, no matter what the folks in the green jackets in Augusta, Ga., might think.
Where is the 2023 Open Championship?
Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England, will be hosting the tournament for the first time since 2014. This year’s tournament will be held July 20-23 with Cameron Smith trying to defend his title. Rory McIlroy shot 17-under in 2014 at the course known by many as simply “Hoylake,” and Tiger Woods was 18-under when The Open Championship was played there in 2006. That is a far cry from 1947, when Fred Daly won there at 21-over, and Woods’ four-round total of 270 was a mere 44 shots better than amateur Harold Hilton’s score when he won the 1897 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. In all, the British Open has been held at this course 12 times, a total bested by only Prestwick (24), Saint Andrews (30) and Muirfield (16).
Who has the most Open Championship wins?
Harry Vardon, a turn-of-the-century golfer two turns of the century ago, won The Open Championship six times (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 2911 and 1914), and Young Tom Morris won it four consecutive times: 1868, 1869, 1870 and 1872 (there was no tournament in 1871 because there was no trophy available.) His dad, Old Tom Morris, also won it four times. And it bears mentioning that Jack Nicklaus was runner-up seven times.
Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Open Championships of all time
- Henry Cotton, 1934 at Royal St. George’s
The American Ryder Cup team had stuck around after defeating the Europeans 8-4, and Cotton’s final-round 71 came in torrential weather conditions to end a streak of eight straight wins by Americans. He later said that it was one of the finest rounds of his career. Brits would go on to win the next six Open Championships before Sam Snead ended the streak in 1946. No championships were held from 1940 to 1945 because of World War II.
- Nick Faldo, 1992 at Muirfield
Faldo was going for his fifth major in six years. He had won the Irish Open, and at the start of this Open he set a 36-hole record, beat his own 54-hole record, and came into the final round leading by four shots. However, a poor stretch from 11 to 14 saw him lose three shots, and American John Cook took the lead on 16. But Faldo birdied two of the final four holes and squeaked out a one-shot win for what is considered the greatest of his three Open victories.
- Ben Hogan, 1953 at Carnoustie
The greatest golfer of his generation came to Britain for the first and only time in his life and gave himself just one week to prepare for the links style of golf. He improved in every round, shooting 73-71-70-68 to finish at 6-under and win by four strokes, birdieing the 18th despite battling the flu. The win capped an incredible year in majors that also saw Hogan capture the Masters and U.S. Open. He remains the only golfer to ever win those three events in the same year.
- Young Tom Morris, 1868 at Prestwick
At the time, Morris Jr. was the youngest player in Open Championship history at 17. Prestwick was a 12-hole course, and the three rounds of the championship were all held on a single day. Morris Jr. set a record when he shot 51 on his first round, which was then bested by his father, who shot a 50 in the second round to take a one-shot lead. In the final round, though, Morris Jr. carded a 49 to beat his dad by three shots and win his first Open.
- Arnold Palmer, 1961 at Royal Birkdale
Palmer was the first American champion since Ben Hogan in 1953, and his win restored the status of the British Open in America. Palmer had been runner-up the previous year, and his victory changed the way the tournament was viewed by American professionals, who had stopped making the trip because of travel concerns, relatively low prize money, and various other reasons. Palmer also won The Open Championship the following year at Royal Troon by six strokes, but his one-stroke victory in 1961 over Dai Rees of Wales was a game-changer in terms of how this tournament was viewed across the pond.
- Jack Nicklaus, 1970 at Old Course at St. Andrews
Back in 1970, you almost never saw a 360-yard drive – something that is common these days due to the increased technology in manufacturing golf equipment. But Nicklaus drove the ball over the green at the 18th in an 18-hole playoff. He chipped close from there, made his birdie putt, and beat Doug Sanders by one -- launching his putter skyward after the final putt caught the lip and dropped in. It is one of the seminal triumphant golf moments ever broadcast on TV.
- Henrik Stenson, 2016 at Royal Troon
Battling Phil Mickelson, Stenson tied Johnny Miller’s major record (for a winner) with a final-round 63 and set a cumulative Open record with his 72-hole score in relation to par of 20-under, which was matched last year by Cameron Smith. Mickelson, who ended up losing by three strokes, had already won an Open in 2013, and Stenson was a player who was always in contention at the majors but had never won one. He is the only player from Sweden ever to win the British Open.
- Tom Watson, 1977 at Turnberry
Golfing greats Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus had been developing a rivalry for a few years, and they were head-and-shoulders above everyone else at this tournament. Watson, 27, and Nicklaus, 37, matched each other score for score in the first three rounds, and toward the end they were 10 shots better than anyone else in the field. In the closing stretch, Watson birdied four of the final six holes for the dramatic victory.
- Lee Trevino, 1972 at Muirfield
Trevino was the defending champion, and his chip on 17 on Sunday ranks near the top of the greatest championship hole-outs ever. Trevino had bungled the par-5 up to that point, and had to hole out for par while Tony Jacklin, tied for the lead, had a 15-footer for birdie that he three-putted. He went on to bogey No. 18 and finished third behind Jack Nicklaus, who shot a final-round 66. “I was never the same again after that. I didn’t ever get my head around it -- it definitely knocked the stuffing out of me somehow,” Jacklin said.
- Tiger Woods, 2000 at Old Course at St. Andrews
This was the “Millennium Open,” at the most famous course in the world, and 239,000 spectators watched Tiger Woods post a then-Open record 19-under, beating his nearest opponent by eight strokes and securing the career Grand Slam at the age of 24, making him the youngest to achieve the feat. Over 72 holes, he did not find a single of the 112 bunkers. This was Tiger at his best, and not since John Henry Taylor did it in 1913 had a player won by eight strokes. When folks talk about Tigermania, this was the height of it.
Parameters of Rankings:
It is sometimes difficult to choose between drama and dominance, and when you are writing about a tournament that started in 1860, there is a heck of a lot of history to consider. What we went for in these rankings were British Opens that are part of golf lore, the type of golf stories that dads tell their sons, that club pros tell their students, that Europeans and Americans debate over cold beers during hot summers when this tournament captures the world’s imagination better than anything other than soccer’s World Cup.
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