The tough old courses that comprise the Open Championship circuit lend themselves to plenty of drama.
Since the oldest championship in golf kicked off at Prestwick, Scotland in 1860, there have been plenty of tears, both happy and sad, shed on finishing holes at Carnoustie, St. Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Liverpool, Royal Troon, Turnberry, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal St. George’s and Royal Birkdale.
One of the earliest dramatic moments recorded happened at Prestwick in 1862.
“Old Tom” Morris, for who the 18th at St. Andrews is so named, won his fourth Open title when he was 99 days past his 46th birthday, making him the oldest ever to win it. And he won it by an incredible 13 strokes, a Major tournament record that held up until Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots.
This year at Royal Birkdale could have its own fireworks if the prestigious field has anything to do with it.
Here are 15 of the most dramatic moments on record from the PGA Tour’s oldest Majors stop, in chronological order.
15. Bobby Jones Equalises At Royal Lytham & St. Annes – 1926
The great Bobby Jones was forging his mystique in 1926, having won the U.S. Open for the second time. Later the co-designer of Augusta and co-founder of The Masters, Jones was playing in just his second Open Championship after a withdrawal at St. Andrews in 1921. Ever consistent, the lawyer and famed amateur carded 72-72-73 to sit two strokes back of American rival Al Watrous entering the final round. Watrous held a two shot advantage with just five holes to play and seemed to still be in command when Jones sailed his ball into the rough at 17, 170 yards from the hole. Undaunted, Jones pulled out an early version of a hybrid, a mashie he called “Old Equaliser.” He ripped the shot into the wind, the ball settling close enough to the hole for him to make par and march on to his first of three Open titles.
14. Sam Snead Slams St. Andrews – 1946
Slammin’ Sam Snead was his era’s greatest golfer and still the record holder for most PGA Tour victories with 82, including seven majors. The folksy Virginian was playing in the 1946 Open at St. Andrews for the first time since 1937 and immediately made a name for himself — in the worst way. We’re betting the locals took side bets against him when he said of the course, “It looks like an old abandoned kinda place.” Snead, despite his awful first impression of the famed Old Course, played very well and went on to claim the Claret Jug, but not before giving the locals a moment of Schadenfreude on the 14th during the last round. He had a comfortable lead but proceeded to pull his tee shot into the infamous “Hell Bunker.” He then chipped out into a nasty gorse bush, but managed to salvage a six on the par-5 hole on his way to victory. As a final nose-thumbing to the tournament, he had to be tracked down in the hotel for the trophy presentation.
13. Harry Bradshaw Plays Out Of A Bottle – 1949
Long before the likes of Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and even clown prince David Feherty came out of Ireland to PGA Tour fame, Harry Bradshaw was the Emerald Isle’s most famed golfer. In 1949 the then five-time Irish PGA champion blew into Royal St. Georges’s bent on atoning for missing the cut in 1947 and 1948. He shot a 68 in the first round, putting him one stroke behind Scotland’s Jimmy Adams heading into the second round. A drive on the fifth hole would prove to be his defining moment. The shot came to rest on broken glass from a beer bottle, just in the first cut of rough off the fairway. Instead of taking a free drop, which he was entitled to, an unsure Bradshaw hit it as it lay and promptly flubbed it just 30 yards ahead. Having to take that lousy stroke proved costly later, as his aggregate tied South African Bobby Locke after final round play. forcing a 36-hole playoff that Bradshaw lost by 12 strokes.
12. Hogan Tames Carnoustie’s Sixth Hole – 1953
In 1949, the late great Ben Hogan was involved in a near fatal car accident. His extensive injuries, which nearly crippled him completely, severely curtailing his golf activities. Later, in 1953, Hogan entered the first and only Open Championship of his career. The task ahead of the four-time U.S. Open and two-time PGA champion wasn’t insignificant, as he had to get used to the links layout at Carnoustie and the smaller ball used by the Brits. He brought the drama at the always tough par-5 sixth hole. Hogan bravely snaked his drives through a narrow gap between huge fairway bunkers and an out of bounds fence. He used the momentum gained from playing that particular hole well to win the tournament by four strokes over four competitors grouped at 2-under. In honor of his prowess at no. 6, the hole was officially dubbed “Hogan’s Alley.”
11. Kel Nagle Putts And Chips Palmer Into Submission – 1960
Arnold Palmer was growing his army in 1960 when he arrived at St. Andrews, having won the first two majors of the year, The Masters and U.S. Open. It was to be his first foray at the Open Championship and he was odds-on favorite to kiss the Claret Jug. Also in the field was little known Australian Kel Nagle, who tied for 19th in two previous Open Championships. The Aussie was workmanlike through his first three rounds and entered the final round with a two-stroke lead over Roberto De Vicenzo and held a four-shot advantage on Palmer. Palmer was his usual devastating self, firing a 68 — including a crucial birdie on 18 — at the Old Course to put the pressure on. Nagle never buckled, wowing the crowd with a slippery 10-foot putt on the Road Hole at 17 to keep his lead. He called it, “the best putt of my life.” Not done yet, Nagle hit “the best shot of his life” at 18, a nine-iron shot that nestled three feet from the hole to seal his lone major championship victory.
10. Doug Sanders Three-Foot Putt Nightmare – 1970
The Old Course at St. Andrews seems to be the place golfer’s fortunes go to live — and die. Doug Sanders, who actually won his first pro golf tournament as an amateur at the world’s second oldest golf tournament, the Canadian Open, knew all to well how the Old Course could be humbling. After tying for second, just one stroke behind Jack Nicklaus at the 1966 Open Championship at Muirfield, Sanders had the opportunity to put the famed Golden Bear second banana at St. Andrews four years later. The natty dresser dubbed “the Peacock of the Fairways” entered the final round tied with Nicklaus for second place, two strokes behind Lee Trevino. However, Trevino fell off during the last 18 while Nicklaus and Sanders went toe-to-toe until the final hole. Needing only to get up and down for a par-4 on 18, Sanders had a three-foot putt to seal his victory. But, just as he was about to address his ball, the nervous Sanders bent down to flick away a blade of grass. He then hurried the putt and missed, forcing an 18-hole playoff that would see him lose to Nicklaus, again by just one stroke.
9. Gene Sarazen Makes Improbable Hole In One – 1973
Making a hole in one at a PGA Tour event is still something special. It’s even more special when a 71-year-old legend does it on a hole named “the Postage Stamp.” Gene Sarazen, who first teed it up at the Open Championship in 1924, was still kicking around in 1973. He had an exemption to the tourney at Troon (it wasn’t Royal yet) for being the champ at Prince’s in Sandwich in 1932. During his first round, Sarazen stepped up to the tee at the famous (or infamous) 126-yard, par-3 eighth hole with it’s tiny green, aka “the Postage Stamp.” He was quoted about his improbable ace later, “For many years the hole had haunted me,” he said. “I feared it, so when I walked on to the tee and faced the wind, I must admit I was nervous. I selected my five-iron as I was determined not to be short. When the crowd roared and I realised the ball was in the hole, I felt there was no better way to close the books on my tournament play than to make a hole in one on the Postage Stamp.” Alas, he didn’t make the cut, but provided a dramatic moment for the ages.
8. Watson And Nicklaus “Duel In The Sun” – 1977
Seldom is an Open Championship played under clear skies and ideal conditions. Even more rare are two great golfers going head-to-head in more of a match play duel than stroke play. In 1977 at Turnberry, two-time winner Jack Nicklaus and defending champion Tom Watson found themselves paired for both the third and fourth rounds in a head-to-head battle that would earn the nickname “Duel In The Sun.” Both entered the third round tied for second at 2-under, one stroke behind Roger Maltbie. With deadly precision, they both carded 65s in the third round to put them three strokes clear of second place Ben Crenshaw. In the final 18, the two traded birdies and the lead, with the Golden Bear up two with just six holes to play. By the par-5 17th, though, they were all square. At that hole, Nicklaus missed a short birdie putt and settled for a par. Watson drained his for a birdie and held a one-stroke lead with one to play. Nicklaus made a miracle recovery from thick gorse on the par-4 18th and then holed a huge birdie putt to put the pressure on Watson. But, Watson had just a two-footer for birdie and the championship, making it in fine fashion.
7. Richard Boxall Breaks His Leg – 1991
British golfer Richard Boxall had an Open Championship in his sights at Royal Birkdale in 1991, until tragedy struck. The journeyman pro’s best finish at any previous Open was a T-52, which he did twice, in 1984 and 1989. In 1991, he opened with a 71 and then fired a respectable 69 in the second round to put himself just two shots off the lead. He was playing with Colin Montgomerie in the third round and came to the ninth tee just three strokes back of the lead. However, he had woken up that morning with an aching leg, which he paid no attention to. However, after teeing off he collapsed on the ground in obvious pain, right in front of Monty. Incredibly, Boxall had fractured his leg. He commented on that unfortunate turn of events later. “I was out for 10 months, and went from the comfort zone of having a few quid behind me to needing the money.”
6. Nick Price Holes Crucial 50-Foot Putt To Win – 1994
Before Tiger Woods burst on the scene later in the ’90s, Nick Price was regarded as the world’s best player. The Zimbabwean didn’t win his first major until capturing the Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship in 1992, when he was 35. The World Golf Hall of Famer was playing in his 17th Open Championship in 1994 at Turnberry and looking to shake the monkey on his back that saw him place second twice in the 1980s. He opened the tourney with a 69, the sizzled to a 66 on day two to climb with two strokes of leader Tom Watson. A 67 on Saturday moved him to within a stroke of the lead owned by Brad Faxon and Fuzzy Zoeller, along with Jesper Parnevik, Ronan Rafferty and Watson. In the final round Zoeller and Faxon faded, while Parnevik and Price went toe-to-toe. Parnevik, in a group ahead of Price, had a two-shot lead at 18, but bogeyed it, leaving the door open for Price on 17. In dramatic fashion, he holed out a 50-foot putt for an Eagle. Needing just a par on 18 to win, he did just that for his one and only Claret Jug.
5. Costantino Rocca Forces Playoff With Monster Putt In “Valley Of Sin” – 1995
There may be no more diabolical finishing green than that on the Old Course at St. Andrews. The par-4 hole, designed by Old Tom Morris, is actually a very easy hole to make birdie, however, the long swale in the middle of the expansive green has humbled more than one golfer over the years. In 1995, little known Italian Costantino Rocca was in the final group, with John Daly the clubhouse leader at -6. He didn’t hit the reachable green with his first shot, then chunked an approach that left him with a 65-foot putt with a sharp break through the infamous “Valley of Sin” just to force a playoff. As Daly looked on, Rocca did just that, shaking off his brutal approach. Daly, though, would win easily in a four-hole playoff over Rocca.
4. Seventeen Year Old Amateur Justin Rose Finishes Fourth At Royal Birkdale – 1998
Amateurs at major championships usually don’t have garner favorable odds at winning, much less emerge victorious. In 1998, Justin Rose was a 17-year-old amateur who would hold his nation in thrall at the Open Championship. He opened the tournament with an admirable but pedestrian 72, which was a full seven shots off the score Tiger Woods posted to hold a share of the lead. On day two, instead of fading and giving it the old college try, he tamed Royal Birkdale with a magnificent 66 to put himself with a stroke of the lead. High scores with the order of the day in round three, where Rose slipped to solo fifth with a 75. On Sunday, even though he wouldn’t end up winning, Rose elicited the biggest cheers for his robust play. On the final hole of a round that would see him card a 69, Rose chipped in from a terrible lie off the green, to thunderous applause. His fourth-place standing was the best for an amateur since Frank Stranahan finished second to Ben Hogan in 1953.
3. Jean van de Velde Blows Up At Carnoustie – 1999
Sometimes drama at an Open Championship can be cringe-worthy. Pity poor Frenchman Jean van de Velde. The little known van de Velde, who had one European Tour win to his credit (1993), rolled into Carnoustie in 1999 with little mathematical chance of winning it. Like many players on day one, he shot a 75, which was four strokes behind Rod Pampling of Australia. Then, on day two he announced himself to the golf world by firing a 68 to take possession of the lead. After a 70 in round three, he was in the driver’s seat, five strokes ahead of Justin Leonard and Craig Parry. Despite the jitters on Sunday, van de Velde came to the 18th tee needing only a double bogey six to become the first Frenchman to win a major tournament since 1907 (Arnaud Massy At Royal Liverpool). However, as has been so sadly documented, van de Velde made bad shot after bad shot, closing with a triple bogey to force a three-way playoff. Shaken by his case of the yips, he lost in a three-way, four-hole playoff to Paul Lawrie (who was 10 shots back before play that day).
2. Extra Club In Bag Costs Ian Woosnam A Shot At The Title – 2001
Woosie will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame this September. We have to wonder if the 1991 Masters champion and member of the European “Big Five” (including Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle), will recount his infamous flub in the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. No Welshman had ever won an Open Championship, but by the end of the third round, Woosnam held a share of the lead with Langer, David Duval and Alex Cejka at six-under. He birdied the first hole in the final round and was looking good, until his caddy reported on the second tee that he had left a driver Woosie was trying on the practice tees in the bag. A shocked Woosnam duly reported the illegal 15th club to officials and was hit with two-stroke penalty. The visibly shaken Woosnam would finish T-3 for the tournament.
1. Sergio Garcia Runs Out Of Gas At Carnoustie – 2007
Maybe this is the year that 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia finally puts bad memories at previous Open Championships behind him. The great Spaniard finally won his first major this year, which makes him an odds-on favorite at Royal Birkdale. Despite his brilliance at Augusta this year, he has played past Open championships better, just not quite good enough. In 20 previous Opens, he has 10 Top-10 finishes, including two in second place. The one that hurt most was 2007 at Carnoustie. Garcia roared out of the gate that year, carding a tournament leading 65 in the first round, following it up with a 71 and a 68 to head into the final round with a three-stroke lead on Steve Stricker. Nerves got the better of Garcia on Sunday, yet despite playing over par, he maintained a one-stroke lead on the last hole. His approach shot, though, on the venerable 18th found a greenside bunker. He managed to get out well, leaving a 10-foot putt for par and the title. But, to his and the gallery’s horror, he lipped out and had to settle for a playoff. Facing Irishman Padraig Harrington, Garcia lost the four-hole playoff.