If we're being honest, all of golf's majors are pretty great. But the Open Championship, in particular, stands out from the rest. Here are 10 reasons why the British Open is the greatest major of them all.
1. The Open Championship is golf’s greatest event because it’s the oldest and has the game’s greatest pedigree. Hell, it’s the granddaddy of all modern sporting events. It began more than a century before the first Super Bowl.
The Open was first contested by eight hardy Scots playing three 12-hole rounds in a single grueling day in 1860. How old is this event? Some perspective: the U.S. flag had only 33 stars. The Civil War hadn’t happened and World War I was more than 50 years away. The Pony Express started the same year as the Open but the tournament pre-dates automobiles, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Harry Potter and Nike.
2. Nothing says “I am the champion of the world” like a glitzy winner’s belt. Seriously, what sight was cooler than Muhammad Ali wearing the big golden heavyweight boxing champion belt?
The Open Championship started that tradition. The Challenge Belt was awarded to the Open winner in the event’s first outing in 1860. The Belt was the only prize for which the original eight-man field competed.
Young Tom Morris retired the Belt—OK, he kept it—after he won the Open for a third straight time in 1870. That caused the next year’s Open to be cancelled for lack of a suitable prize. A silver medal was given in 1872 because the new trophy, the Claret Jug, wasn’t quite ready.
Picture Tiger Woods wearing the Challenge Belt after his tearful win at Royal Liverpool. Imagine Seve Ballesteros in it. Think about Jack Nicklaus strapping it on over his argyle sweater at the Old Course.
The Belt, if it were still awarded today, would outshine the green jacket given to the Masters winner.
Bring back the belt.
3. Speaking of hardware, the Claret Jug is the best and most identifiable of golf’s major championship trophies. It’s also functional, as 2009 champ Stewart Cink showed after he won by tweeting a photo of it at breakfast filled with orange juice.
You might know the name of the PGA Championship trophy, the Wanamaker, but you couldn’t pick it out of a lineup of trophies. The Claret Jug has a shape so unique, its silhouette is used as the Open’s official logo. The U.S. Open trophy doesn’t even have a name, it’s just the U.S. Open trophy, although it’s silver top has a nice figure of a winged woman representing victory.
The Masters champion wins a metal replica of the clubhouse as a trophy, as a copy of the permanent trophy that stays on the grounds. It has only been awarded since 1993 and is not seen on the televised award ceremonies and rates second to the Green Jacket. The Claret Jug tops them all. Even better, it’s a television ritual to annually show some grizzled engraver preparing to put the champion’s name on the trophy for the prize-giving at the 18th green. Talk about pressure. Wait, it’s S-P-I-E-T-H, not S-P-E-I-T-H? Uh-oh!
4. Arnold Palmer himself upgraded the Open Championship by re-introducing it to PGA Tour players and the American public.
It was 1960 and the year before, not a single America pro played in the Open. Why? It was too far away, took too long to get there and was too expensive considering the purse was a mere $1,250, more then 10 times less than the U.S. Open’s $14,400.
Palmer, already a popular figure in American golf but not quite yet an icon, went to St. Andrews in 1960 to celebrate the event’s 100th anniversary. He promptly fell in love with the town and the tournament and realized the significance of links golf as a world championship. Thanks to sparse television clips, it was big news when Palmer finished second to Australia’s Kel Nagle. When Palmer returned the following year and won at Royal Birkdale, the sight of him bursting through the gallery that madly swarmed across the final fairway and then briefly staggering and holding his hip, as if injured or exhausted, before breaking into a winner’s laugh raised the Open’s status around the world forever.
5. When you’re the biggest, baddest and best championship in the world, you make your own rules. Golf was invented in Scotland, so even after Americans took up the game a century or two later and used a slightly larger golf ball, Great Britain and the Open Championship continued to use its original model, which became known in America as “the small ball.”
That forced U.S. players like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus who came over to play in the Open to make adjustments. The United States Golf Association decreed in 1932 that a golf ball must be 1.68 inches in diameter but the R&A, Britain’s ruling body, retained its standard, 1.62. The smaller ball was the preferred model to use in the Open because it bored through the winds better and, Jack Nicklaus noted years later, “went 50 yards farther.”
The British small ball was finally disallowed from Open Championship play in 1974 and dropped from all usage in 1990.
6. Whose courses have more unique features and better nicknames than the Open Championship venues?
At the Old Course, there’s the Valley of Sin, the Coffin Bunkers, the Principal’s Nose and the Road Hole. Carnoustie boasts The Spectacles; Turnberry has the Lighthouse Hole and the list goes one.
Royal Troon has one of the world’s great short par-3s, the 8th hole, known as the Postage Stamp because of the green’s small size. It’s famous because it is a mere 123 yards, the shortest hole in the Open course rotation, and yet it wreaks havoc because there is no good place to miss this green. Tiger Woods made a 6 there in 1997 in his first Open as a pro. In the 1973 Open, 71-year-old Gene Sarazen aced it. Take that, Stamp Act.
7. Links golf is why the Open Championship is the best major. Scotland and England (and Ireland, of course) have cornered the world’s market on great links golf. The Old Course. Royal Troon. Turnberry. (Or is it Trumpberry now that Donald Trump owns it?) Royal Birkdale. Royal St. George’s. And the rest of the Open rota.
You turn on the TV to watch the Open coverage and here’s what you see: Sodded face bunkers. Swales. Brown fairways. Burnt-out fescue. High winds. Sideways rain. Grim, worried faces. It’s obviously the Open Championship… or a “Sharknado” sequel.
8. You want to watch golf? NBC will give you 49 and-a-half hours from Royal Troon this year. That is believed to be a record, even in the excesses of television history. If you’ve got the most airtime, you’re the biggest tournament in the world.
Why even go to bed? The Open Championship telecast times will be 1:30 a.m. ET, to 4 p.m. on weekdays, 4 a.m.-2 p.m. on the weekends. Sleep? That’s for losers.
9. The Open Championship telecast always had Peter Alliss commentating at some point. American golf telecasts have never had anyone like him and his presence made the Open special. He is 85 now, he is a throwback to another era, an erudite voice who talks about literature and history and tea as easily as golf. His views can be dated, and his recent comments about Muirfield’s membership policies offended some people. But he was the voice of golf for many viewers, a timeless gem.
Some Alliss lines:
“One good thing about rain in Scotland. Most of it ends up as scotch.”
“It’s a funny old game. One day you’re a statue, the next you’re a pigeon.”
As a camera showed a lone crow hopping in a fairway: “Ah, the crow. I wonder what’s in store for him this winter?”
After a noted player’s shot: “I’ve never seen him hit a shot off-balance. He always finishes as if he’s waiting for a photographer to take a photograph.”
10. Betting. Every town near an Open site has a local Ladbrooke’s or similar gambling establishment. How to make golf even more exciting? Have part of your paycheck riding on some player at 27-1 odds!
Rory McIlroy’s father, Gerry, and three friends made a bet in 2004 that Rory would win the Open Championship before he was 25. They wagered 400 pounds at 500-to-1 odds. When Rory won the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool, they split an estimated $340,000. Open golf is a British tradition. So is betting on it.