British Open begins Thursday at Royal Birkdale
The defending champion is Henrik Stenson
There’s only one Open, according to the Brits.
Not the British Open, nor the Open Championship. Just The Open.
It’s been that way since the oldest of golf’s four majors began in 1860.
The 146th Open takes place this week at Royal Birkdale, a venerable old links north of Liverpool in the northwest of England.
It’s the only major outside the United States, and requires a different skillset to master the humps, hollows and sea-breezes of links golf.
Here’s seven things you need to know about The Open at Royal Birkdale.
The Open rotates around 10 of the world’s best links golf courses in Scotland, England and, from 2019, Northern Ireland again.
Royal Birkdale was opened in 1889 and is one of the game’s most celebrated links – with two nines fanning into the sandhills of Southport overlooking the Irish Sea.
Most holes run along deep valleys between towering dunes, while rolling fairways, slopey greens, deep pot bunkers and winds off the Irish Sea add to the challenge.
This year marks the 10th Open to be staged at Royal Birkdale, stretching back to 1954.
Roll of honor
Royal Birkdale has been the stage for some of golf’s biggest names as champions over the years, and has a habit of rewarding past or soon-to-be multiple major winners. Of the previous nine winners, only Ian Baker-Finch wasn’t already a major champion or didn’t go on to add to his tally.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won the last Open at Royal Birkdale in 2008 for back-to-back Claret Jugs and won the USPGA a few weeks later for his third major.
In 1998 American Mark O’Meara clinched the Open in the same year he won the Masters at the age of 41.
Australian Ian Baker-Finch won his sole major at Royal Birkdale in 1991 before suffering a severe and ultimately career-ending collapse in form.
Tom Watson clinched back-to-back Open titles and his fifth and final Claret Jug at Birkdale in 1983, while countrymen Johnny Miller (1976) and Lee Trevino (1971) also triumphed on the Southport links.
Arnold Palmer won the first of two consecutive Opens at Birkdale in 1961, while Australian Peter Thomson won the first of five opens at Royal Birkdale in 1954 – sparking an unprecedented run of three Opens titles – and won again when the tournament returned in 1965.
A 19-year-old Spaniard named Seve Ballesteros exploded onto the world stage when he finished second at Birkdale behind Miller in the 1976 Open. The exciting young talent went on to become a world No. 1 and the driving force in European golf, winning three Opens (1979, 1984, 1988) and five majors in all.
Seventeen-year-old amateur Justin Rose holed his approach shot to the last to finish fourth in his very first major tournament at Royal Birkdale in 1998. The Englishman tuned pro shortly after but missed 21 consecutive cuts. Now the world No. 12, Rose won the US Open in 2013 and missed out to Sergio Garcia in a playoff for the Masters in April.
The “Great White Shark” Greg Norman was 53 and playing on his honeymoon in 2008 after marrying tennis great Chris Evert. The charismatic Australian had won the last of his two Opens in 1993 and hadn’t been close to a major title since 1999. But he led by two after three rounds before falling back to finish tied third in his first major appearance for three years.
One of golf’s most infamous missed putts occurred at Birkdale in 1983. Hale Irwin, then a two-time US Open champion, had a couple of inches for a tap-in at the par-3 14th in the third round. He strolled up and attempted to backhand the ball in, but missed completely. It counted as a stroke and he went on to finished second by one to Watson.
Birkdale is also synonymous with arch-hoaxer Maurice Flitcroft, who claimed to be a pro and tried to qualify for the 1976 Open at the Southport course – “with Jack Nicklaus and all that lot.”
The 46-year-old crane-operator from Barrow-in-Furness armed himself with a half set of mail-order clubs and a couple of instruction books and tried to learn the game at a nearby beach before carding at least 121 – at 49 over par, the worst score in the tournament’s 141-year history – in the Open qualifier down the road at Formby.
Officials were not amused and tightened the rules, but Flitcroft tried several more times – as an American named Gene Pacecki; as a Swiss professional under the name of Gerald Hoppy with a false moustache; and as an American called James Beau Jolley.
Each time he was rumbled after a few holes, but his legend lived on.
The Open landmarks
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the famous “Duel in the Sun,” the final-day battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry on Scotland’s west coast.
Nicklaus, 37, had 14 majors and was the game’s big beast; fellow American Watson, 10 years his junior, was the man of the moment, having won the Masters a few months earlier for his second major.
After the third round the pair were three shots clear of the field, and on a sun-drenched Saturday they pulled clear with golf of a sublime standard. Nicklaus led by two after 12 holes, Watson fought back to level it after 16 and clinched the title by one. The pair were 10 shots ahead of the rest.
Twelve months ago the Open witnessed arguably an even greater tussle – the “Duel of the ‘Sons’” – when 2013 champion Phil Mickelson and Swede Henrik Stenson fought a ferocious battle on the last day at Royal Troon.
Stenson pulled clear towards the end to win by three with the field trailing in their wake.
Birkdale was also the venue for “The Concession,” one of the most sporting gestures in the history of sport. At the 1969 Ryder Cup, Jack Nicklaus conceded a missable three-foot putt to England’s Tony Jacklin on the final green to draw the tie 16-16.
“I don’t think you would have missed it, but I wasn’t going to give you the chance, either,” said Nicklaus.
“The Concession” was the inspiration for a golf club of the same name in Florida, co-designed by the two who became lifelong friends.
Who to watch?
Birkdale has a reputation as venue where major champions add to their haul, but the current trend is newbies – the last seven majors have been won by maiden major champions.
Added to that streak, the last nine majors have been won by different players, stretching back to the first of Speith’s two victories in 2015.
So will Birkdale reward the old boys network, or will the streak continue?
Local man Tommy Fleetwood, 26, is flavor of the month after finishing tied fourth at the US Open at Erin Hills before clinching the French Open a couple of weeks ago for his second win of the year. Fleetwood used to sneak on to Royal Birkdale to play a few holes as a kid.
The world No. 1 is Dustin Johnson, who won his maiden major at the US Open last year. The big-hitting American came second in the Open in 2011 but missed this year’s Masters with injury and missed the cut at the US Open last month.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama is ranked second and is bidding to become the first male Japanese player to win a major. Matsuyama came second in last month’s US Open but missed the cut in the Open last year.
Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy won the Open in 2014 but since returning from a rib injury this season he has struggled and has missed the cut in three of his last six majors.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia is a self-confessed Open nut and has had 10 top 10s, including two seconds. The Spaniard has finished no worse than sixth in his last three Opens, and after dedicating his Augusta Green Jacket win to the legacy of countryman Ballesteros, a win at Birkdale – scene of Seve’s emergence – would fit the narrative.
Powerful American Brooks Koepka won his maiden major in last month’s US Open and has widespread experience of European conditions after slogging his way around the continent’s second-tier Challenge Tour before joining the European Tour earlier in his career.
And what of Jordan Spieth? The world No. 3 has not played an Open at Royal Birkdale before and won both his two majors in 2015, but he has lifted two titles this season to keep pace with Tiger Woods’ win rate by the age of 24.
Officially known as the “Golf Champion Trophy,” the Claret Jug was first awarded in 1872 and is the champion’s to keep for a year.
However, the current Jug is a replica dating back to 1928. The original is on display at the Royal and Ancient clubhouse at St. Andrews in Scotland. The winner also receives a replica of the trophy and a gold medal.
Tales abound of victory celebrations involving the Jug. Stenson took it jet-skiing, Harrington’s son used it as a home for ladybirds and plenty of players have drunk their favorite beverage from it.
After his 2013 win Phil Mickelson poured in a bottle of 1990 Romanee-Conti – a $40,000 red wine, and technically a burgundy – into the Claret Jug.
Tom Watson, Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink are among those who have had to get the Jug repaired after it suffered damage on their watch.
This year’s event will feature a total prize purse of $10.25 million, with the winner set to receive $1.85 million.
However, if more than 70 professionals qualify for the final two rounds, additional prize money will be added. And it will all come in dollars.
“We are operating in an increasingly global marketplace and have made the decision to award the prize fund in US dollars in recognition of the fact that it is the most widely adopted currency for prize money in golf,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of Open organizer the R&A.