LYTHAM, England — Picking the best five from the oldest championship in golf isn't easy, not with 150 years of history.
Willie Park Sr. won the first British Open at Prestwick in 1860 – a month before Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. president. Against an eight-man field on a 12-hole course along the Ayrshire coast of Scotland, he defeated Old Tom Morris by two shots and won the championship belt, but not money. Darren Clarke won the most recent Open at Royal St. George's, capturing a silver claret jug and nearly $1.5 million, plus much more endorsement incentives.
Walter Hagen was the first American to win the British Open. Ben Hogan played only one time and won. Byron Nelson never came over to Britain enough, and it was the only major keeping him from the Grand Slam. The Open introduced the golfing world to the genius of Seve Ballesteros and the ruthlessness of Tiger Woods.
Here are five of the best British Opens:
(All captions via AP)
The "Duel in the Sun" featured the best two champions of their era, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, in a battle that stretched over four days at Turnberry. Amazingly, they had the same scores for three rounds - 68-70-65 - and left everyone else far behind. They remained tied after 16 holes of the final round until the championship turned on the par-5 17th. Nicklaus chipped to 5 feet, but missed the short birdie putt. Watson reached the green with his second shot and two-putted for birdie. On the closing hole, Nicklaus was in the right rough and did well to get the ball on the green, although it was 40 feet away. Watson hit 7-iron that settled about 2 feet from the cup and seemingly clinched the win. But not so. Nicklaus rolled in his long birdie putt, forcing Watson to make his. Watson calmly rapped it in for 65 and a one-shot win over his rival. Such was their duel that Nicklaus, the runner-up, was 10 shots ahead of third place.
Fresh off his 15-shot victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Tiger Woods came to the home of golf for a chance at age 24 to become the youngest winner of the career Grand Slam. Seizing on the historic moment, as he often did, Woods had such control of his game that he didn't hit into a single bunker on the Old Course the entire week. He took control with a 66 in the second round, and after making his first bogey in 64 holes at a major on the second hole of the third round, Woods still had a 67 and stretched his lead to six shots. David Duval challenged him briefly in the final round, but he fell apart in the Road Hole bunker. Woods closed with a 69 to break Nick Faldo's record to par in the British Open with a 19-under 269. He won by eight shots over Ernie Els and Thomas Bjorn and became only the fifth player to win all four majors.
In his only trip to the British Open, Ben Hogan became the first player to win three professional majors in one season, and he joined Gene Sarazen as the only players to win the career Grand Slam. Not many Americans came to the British Open at that time because of the time it took to travel, and because the winner received only 500 pounds, not enough to cover expenses. Hogan would have seemed the most unlikely because of his badly damaged legs from his 1949 auto accident. He had to qualify for the Open, as did everyone in that era, and his appearance in Scotland drew enormous attention. Hogan didn't disappoint. He opened with a 73 to trail amateur Frank Stranahan by three shots, and then added a 71 to get within two shots of the lead. In the morning third round, he took the lead with a 70, and then closed with a tournament-best 68 for a four-shot win over Antonio Cerda, Dai Rees, Peter Thomson and Stranahan. Hogan couldn't play the PGA Championship that year, and thus win all four major titles, because it was held in Michigan the same week as British Open qualifying. For the "Wee Ice Mon," as the Scots called Hogan, this turned out be his ninth and final major.
The most shocking collapse gave way to the greatest comeback in major championship history in 1999 at Carnoustie. Jean Van de Velde of France, thanks to a brilliant week with the putter, opened a five-shot lead going into the final round and still led by three shots going to the final hole. What followed was inexplicable. A driver off the tee that narrowly avoided the Barry Burn. A 2-iron that struck the railing of the bleachers and caromed back some 80 yards in front of the burn into heavy rough. A wedge that fluttered into the burn. A penalty shot. A wedge to the bunker. He had to make an 8-foot putt for triple bogey just to join a playoff. Paul Lawrie teed off an hour earlier, 10 shots out of the lead, and his Sunday-best 67 figured to be worth no more than second place. Remarkably, he was in a playoff with Van de Velde and former Open champion Justin Leonard. Lawrie took the lead in the four-hole playoff with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th. And after Leonard hit into the Barry Burn for his second shot on the 18th, Lawrie hit 3-iron to 3 feet for birdie to secure his name on the claret jug and in the record book for the largest comeback ever in a major.
The leaderboard was strong. The finish was dramatic. What made this one of the best British Opens was the celebration of Seve Ballesteros, who captured his second claret jug at the home of golf. Ballesteros trailed by two shots against Ian Baker-Finch, who faded quickly, and Tom Watson, who did not. Going for a record-tying sixth Open Championship, Watson was tied for the lead until he went long on the 17th, his ball between the road and wall, leading to bogey. In the group ahead, Ballesteros made a 15-foot birdie putt that effectively clinched the win. He thrust his fist down when the putt dropped in on the last turn, gleefully shook his fist, and then turned and thrust his arm in victory, an indelible image that became his logo. He won by two shots over Watson, who wouldn't win another major, and Bernhard Langer, who would win his first major a year later at the Masters.