Willie Park was the first winner of the Open Championship in 1860 but Young Tommy Morris springs to mind as probably the first player to catch the non-golfing public’s imagination with his four consecutive wins between 1868-1872. Because Young Tommy was entitled to keep the trophy (a bright, red, Moroccan leather belt) after his third consecutive win in 1870 and the money to purchase a new belt could not be found, no championship was held in 1871.
When it was decided to revive the ‘Golfer of the Year’ championship (as it was called) in 1872, a claret jug trophy was commissioned to replace the belt for presentation to the winner but it was not ready in time to be awarded to Young Tommy after his fourth win. Instead he received a medal, as have all subsequent winners.
In 1873, Tom Kidd was the first recipient of the jug but not the first to have his name engraved on it. Young Tommy Morris had that honour (and, rightly so). How many championships Tommy might have won if he had not been visited by an unspeakable family tragedy that indirectly led to his death on Christmas Day in 1875 at the age of 24 is an intriguing question but one must take into account the relative strengths of the competition in different eras plus the fact that his victories were over 36-holes. It was not until Harold Hilton won in 1892 with a score of 305 that the championship was played over 72-holes.
Harry Vardon’s impact on the game was considerable on account of his still unsurpassed record of six wins: 1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, and 1914, plus a U.S. Open win in 1900 too. It’s not Harry’s fault that the quality and quantity of the opposition is questioned in modern times.
Throughout the 1920s, Walter Hagen and the amateur, Bobby Jones, fought it out between them to see who would be bringing the jug to America. Hagen had his four victories in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929. Jones claimed the trophy in 1926, 1927 and 1930.
The next major figures of dominance were Henry Cotton (1934, 1937 and 1948), Bobby Locke (1949, 1950, 1952, 1957) and Peter Thomson (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1965).
Five times the champion golfer, Peter Thomson had no doubts about Locke’s supremacy amongst that trio. In one of the most fascinating 90-minute conversations in my whole life, Thomson told me about his admiration for Locke when I met him in Melbourne in 2014:
Having won the 1946 Open at St Andrews, Sam Snead was invited to South Africa in early 1947 to play in a series of exhibitions with his runner-up, Locke. They played against each other twenty times. Locke winning fifteen to three wins for Snead. They tied twice. Snead encouraged Locke to give the American Tour a try. They flew to Augusta for the Masters Tournament. It was Locke’s first venture in the USA. With only one practice round, Locke tied-14th. Jimmy Demaret won.
In his second start, Locke won the Houston Open by five strokes. Next was the Colonial in Fort Worth where Ben Hogan won and Locke tied for third. The tour moved to Philadelphia next. In inclement weather, Locke put together a pair of 70s on Sunday to overcome Hogan’s five stroke lead and won by four strokes. Locke won again in Boston. After that he finished third at the U.S. Open and then won three more times. At year end, Locke was second to Demaret on the 1947 money list with $24,327 (in 16 tournaments) to Demaret’s $26,536 (in 29 tournaments) Both won six times.
Playing a limited schedule, Locke won four more times in 1948 and 1949 but was banned from the American Tour for not appearing at tournaments when he had committed to do so. Choosing not to defend his Canadian Open title was an egregious error. The ban was lifted in 1951 but Locke rarely returned to America. In total, Locke won 85 professional tournaments worldwide.
Gary Player, another South African, was another multi-winner of the Open: 1959, 1968 and 1974. Jack Nicklaus won in 1966, 1970 and 1978 but, Jack also finished runner up on seven other occasions – a record. I lived through all of them and have the cheek to second guess Nicklaus’s tactics of playing too safely for a pre-ordained target number in his own head. Would Jack sacrifice all of those seconds for one more win? I think he would!
Tom Watson’s five victories came in 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983. He might be termed unlucky not to equal Vardon’s six wins but for butchering the 71st hole at precisely the same time as Seve Ballesteros was birdieing the 72nd at The Old Course in 1984.
Seve was a most exciting and colourful champion in 1979, 1984 and 1988 (which involved an extraordinary final round of the highest quality at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s). Seve and the two Nicks, Price and Faldo (a worthy three-times champion golfer in 1987, 1990 and 1992), all took it in turns to look like the eventual champion before a smiling Seve emerged clutching his favourite trophy of all the silverware he ever won.
The significance of those triple champions and more are all surpassed in the modern era by Arnold Palmer (in my opinion) who scored a ‘mere double’ in 1961 and 1962. Arnold’s personality and gung-ho style of play gave The Open Golf Championship an impetus via the extraordinary BBC TV coverage that is difficult to appreciate today. Palmer puffed furiously and constantly on cigarettes, rolled up the sleeves of his pullover, hitched his pants (as if getting ready for a fight) and tried to make birdies on every hole but sometimes made double bogies instead. The fans loved him for it.