A Short History of the British Open

Photo Courtesy of Dan Perry

Photo Courtesy of Dan Perry

Scotland held the distinction of the golf capital of the world in the nineteenth century.  In the 1850s, St. Andrews clubmaker Allan Robertson held the honor as the country’s (and the world’s, for that matter) best golfer, according to www.theopen.com.  After his death in 1859, a debate ensued as to Robertson’s successor.  Two influential members of the Prestwick Golf Club, the Earl of Eglinton and Colonel James Fairlie, decided that a tournament should be held at Prestwick to determine the greatest golfer in the world.  Clubs and golfing societies in Blackheath, Perth, Edinburgh, Musselburgh, and St. Andrews received letters asking them to send their best golfers to play a three-round, one day tournament on the 12-hole Prestwick course on October 17, 1860.  The winner would receive the Challenge Belt, a red Moroccan leather belt that featured silver panels of golfing scenes.  However, the winner would not receive any money.  Eight golfers participated in the first Open Championship.  Willie Park, Sr. from Musselburgh beat Tom Morris, Sr. from Prestwick by two strokes.  The Open Championship was off and running.

The tournament remained at Prestwick from 1860-1870, with the winners receiving the Challenge Belt to hold until the tournament the following year.  Prize money became part of the Open beginning in 1863.  Open officials retired the Belt as the winner’s prize after Tom Morris’ son, Tom Morris, Jr., won it three years in a row, whereby a rule stipulated that Tom Jr. could keep the Belt as his own.  Without a trophy of some type, the tournament skipped 1871.  That same year Prestwick officials agreed to join the Royal and Ancient of St. Andrews and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in Musselburgh in a three-site rotation to host the Open.  Prestwick held the Open in 1872 and the winner, Tom Morris, Jr., received a gold medal.   The first Claret Jug was presented to the winner of the 1873 Open, Tom Kidd.  However, Tom Morris, Jr. had his name engraved on the trophy (along with Kidd’s) as its first winner in 1872.  The Claret Jug has been awarded to the Open winner ever since.

During the 1890s, the Open became a four day, 72-hole event; the Royal St. George’s Golf Club in England hosted the tournament for the first time outside of Scotland; and because of the large number of participants, a cut after two rounds became a standard.  In 1920, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club assumed the responsibility for the staging and management of the Open.  The Open became an official PGA Tour event in 1995, meaning that any prize money won by a participant would be included in the official PGA money list (important for maintaining PGA Tour status and gaining exemptions into PGA-sponsored tournaments).

The Open rotates among ten links courses (generally treeless courses built along a coast that incorporate the natural uneven terrain of their locations).  These are the Old Course at St. Andrews; Carnoustie Golf  Links in Carnoustie, Scotland; Muirfield in Gullane, Scotland; the Ailsa Course at the Westin Turnberry Resort near Girvan, Scotland; Royal Troon Golf Club in Troon, Scotland; Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England; Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England; Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s Golf Club in Lytham St. Annes, England; Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England and Royal Portrush Golf Club in Portrush, Northern Ireland.   Besides the unique terrain, these courses are all affected by the weather, which can change dramatically in a matter of hours.  More so than the other majors, the weather can destroy a player’s round.

Professionals have dominated the Opens, as only six amateurs have ever won one.  The last amateur to win the Open was Bobby Jones in 1930, the year he won the Grand Slam (U.S. and British Amateurs and the U.S. and British Opens). England’s Harry Vardon holds the record with six Open titles (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911 and 1914).   Those who won five include, England’s J. H. Taylor (1894, 1895, 1900, 1909 and 1913), James Braid from England (1901, 1905, 1906, 1908 and 1910), Australian  Peter W. Thomson (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1965), and American Tom Watson (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, and 1983).  Scotland’s Tom Morris, Sr. won four (1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867) as did his son, Tom Morris, Jr. (1868, 1869, 1870 and 1872). Other notable winners are Jack Nicklaus (1966, 1970 and 1978) and Tiger Woods (2000, 2005 and 2006).  South Africa’s Gary Player holds the Open record with 46 appearances, including titles in 1968 and 1974.

The current Open field allows for 156 golfers chosen from various sources, including the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking; the top 30 in last season’s European Tour Race to Dubai and PGA Tour FedEx Cup; all previous Open Champions 60 years old or younger; winners of the other three majors within the last five years; the top 10 from the previous year’s Open; and the winners of the British Amateur and United States Amateur, as long as the winners are still amateurs. The Open winner receives about $1.8 million, and the tournament, since 1979, has been played during the week that contains the third Friday of July.

Inside Great Britain, the tournament is referred to as the Open or The Open Championship.  Everywhere else, it is referred to as the British Open.  Whatever the name, old Allan Robertson (hopefully, somewhere above us) must be proud of the tournament that was initiated to find the successor to his title as the greatest golfer in the world.


Lord Byron Nelson: The Gentleman from Waxahachie


Byron Nelson impacted the game of golf for decades.  He played as a child into his 90s, established a record win streak that may never be broken, became the first professional golfer to have a PGA TOUR tournament named after him, served as a golf commentator for ABC, mentored young golfers such as Tom Watson, developed the modern golf swing, and performed as an honorary starter at The Masters for years after he retired from playing.  However, his gentlemanly demeanor that set the standard for sportsman-like conduct may be his greatest contribution to the game.

Born in Waxahachie, Texas in 1912, John Byron Nelson, Jr. learned at an early age the tenets of Christianity from his parents.  His faith dictated the way Nelson carried himself and treated others throughout his life.  His fellow golfers considered him to be the perfect gentleman, which inspired The Atlanta Journal’s O. B. Keeler (Bobby Jones’ friend, mentor and biographer) to give Nelson the nickname of “Lord Byron.”

Nelson began learning the game as an eleven-year old caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.  Three years later Nelson defeated fellow caddie and future golf great Ben Hogan in a tournament at the club.

By 1932, Nelson had elevated his game to that of a professional and earned a job as the golf professional at the Texarkana Golf Club two years later.  During the early 1930s, Nelson, like many golfers, switched from hickory-shaft woods to steel ones. He quickly realized a difference between swinging wood-shaft clubs and steel-shaft clubs.  With the way hickory shafts curved in the backswing, a golfer had to keep his lower body mostly still and generate power with his hands. Nelson recognized quickly that to be successful with steel-shaft clubs his swing would have to be redeveloped.  Nelson began to stand more upright and use his legs and feet to generate power.  He found that taking the club back straight, keeping his left arm rigid and with very little torque, he could keep the club head square through the hitting plane. Nelson then ascertained that he must keep his head still while his body shifted past it during the downswing.  Once he mastered his redesigned swing, Nelson found that he could repeat it easily and precisely.  He also found that his swing hit the ball with a more direct impact, which caused it to travel farther.  Consequently, Nelson is credited with developing the modern golf swing.  He also receives credit for designing the modern golf shoe and inventing the golf umbrella.

He joined the PGA TOUR in 1935 and won the New Jersey State Open that year for his first TOUR victory. That victory began an eleven year run that would witness 52 tournament championships, including the 1937 and 1942 Masters Tournaments, the 1939 United States Open, and the 1940 and 1945 PGA Championship titles.

The 1945 season for Nelson established him as one of the all-time great golfers.  He won eleven tournaments in a row and seven others, and he averaged 68.33 strokes per round, a record that stood until 2000 when Tiger Woods averaged 67.8.

Nelson retired from the TOUR to become a rancher in 1946, but never strayed far from the game.  He played on the 1947 United States Ryder Cup team and captained it in 1965.  Nelson came out of retirement briefly in 1951 to play the Bing Crosby Pro-Am and won the tournament for his last PGA TOUR victory.  He would play The Masters numerous times after retiring from the TOUR, finishing 15th in 1965.  While managing the ranch, Nelson also had time to mentor young golfers such as Ken Venturi and Tom Watson and serve as a golf commentator for ABC television in the 1960s into the 1980s.

His most enduring accolade may be the golf tournament renamed for him.  The Dallas Open became the Byron Nelson Classic in 1968 (it is now called the AT&T Byron Nelson).  The Salesmanship Club of Dallas organizes the tournament.  Much of the tournament proceeds go to help at-risk youth at the Salesman Club Youth and Family Centers in the Dallas area.  Nelson’s tournament has raised more than $100 million for the charity and became a special interest to him for years. Nelson in 2000 stated, “It (the tournament) has meant more to me, golf-wise, than anything.”

The gentleman from Waxahachie became one of the original eleven male inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 and passed away in 2006 at the age of 94.  Lord Byron arguably contributed more to the game of golf than any one individual and did so with a charm and grace unparalleled in the sport.  Some golf historians claim Nelson was the greatest golfer that ever lived.  While that may be debatable, everyone who ever encountered him would agree that Nelson had a gift for making people feel special, and that may be the greatest compliment one person can give to another.  Cheers to Lord Byron Nelson!

The Players Championship and TPC Sawgrass



Courtesy of Craig ONeal

Courtesy of Craig O’Neal

Professional golf split into two organizations in 1968: the PGA of America and the PGA TOUR.  Founded in 1916, the PGA of America consists of local club and teaching professionals at golf courses throughout the country.  This group focuses on growing the game of golf and working closely with amateurs.  Also, this organization oversees the PGA Championship each year.  The PGA TOUR operates as the organization for professionals who play in tournaments. It hosts almost 50 events each year and consists of the PGA Tour, the Champions Tour, and the Web.com Tour.  The PGA TOUR does not host one of the professional Majors:  the Masters, the British Open, the United States Open or the PGA Championship. The fact that the PGA TOUR hosted no signature event led to then-PGA TOUR commissioner Deane Beman’s brainchild:  the Tournament Players Championship.

Beman sought to have a championship for the PGA TOUR, much like the PGA Championship for the PGA.  Only recently split from the PGA of America, the PGA TOUR, according to Beman, needed to establish important events that would lure the television networks and the money they could provide.  The Tournament Players Championship became the first of such events.  Later, the World Series of Golf (currently, the WGC-Mexico in Mexico City, the Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, TX, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, OH, and the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China), Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament and Arnold Palmer’s Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge became PGA Tour mainstays.  All of these tournaments helped establish credibility for the PGA TOUR and attract much needed television revenue.

The Tournament Players Championship (TPC) teed off in 1974 at the Atlanta Country Club.  Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural tournament in early September and would win three out of the first five TPCs.  The event moved to the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas for 1975, then in 1976 to Inverrary Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The event moved to Sawgrass Country Club’s Oceanside Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida for a mid-March date in 1977 and remained there until 1982 when the Stadium Course at TPC at Sawgrass opened.

Before the construction of the Stadium Course, Beman envisioned a special and unique site for the Players Championship.  He believed the players of the PGA TOUR should own the event and the host site.  Beman sold his idea to landowners Jerome and Paul Fletcher, who liked it so much that they offered to sell 415 acres of wooded wetlands and swamp to the PGA TOUR for $1.  This land served as the basis for the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course.

Beman told Dye that he wanted a course that would favor no specific player or style of play.  The course had to be balanced; must contain a selection of short, medium and long holes within the categories of par-3s, par-4s and par-5s; and had to have right and left doglegs.  Also, the course must not have two consecutive holes played in the same direction so that wind direction would have a more balanced influence on the players.

Because the site was to be built on wetlands and amidst heavy woods, Dye created lakes for strategic play of a hole and for fill necessary to create contours of play and “stadium” mounding, according to TPC.com.  Spectator viewing became an integral part of Dye’s design. Strategic viewing areas lined the 1st and 10th tees and the 9th, 16th, 17th and 18th greens.  These mounds allowed thousands of spectators to have unobstructed views of play.

The famous 17th island hole came about by accident.  Dye originally designed the green near a small pond. However, constructors continually dug out valuable sand around the pond until the green was surrounded by water, and arguably the most famous par-3 hole in golf emerged.

The event changed its name to the Players Championship in 1988.  The event and TPC Sawgrass are indeed owned by the players and the tournament has the richest purse of any tournament on the PGA TOUR, $10 million in 2015.  The field consists of 144 players chosen by various criteria, including rankings, PGA TOUR victories and Majors titles.  Players can also receive invitations from the Players Championship Committee.  Winners of the Players Championship receive exemptions of five years on the PGA TOUR, three-year exemptions for the Masters and British Open, and an exemption for the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship later that year.

Beginning in 2007, the Players Championship moved from its March date to its current May date in a restructuring that accommodated the new FedEx Cup, which concludes with the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta in September.  Players now have a significant event for six consecutive months beginning in April (The Masters in April, The Players Championship in May, the U.S. Open in June, the British Open in July, the PGA Championship in August, and the Tour Championship in September).

The Players Championship has become known as golf’s fifth major because of its lucrative purse, exemptions and FedEx Cup points awarded (the same as the four Majors). TPC Sawgrass offers a challenging, yet fair, golfing experience for players of all levels, professional and amateur, while the course contains one of the most famous par -3s in golf, the 17th island hole.  It may have taken a few decades, but Beman and the PGA TOUR found their signature event.