The Open Championship: History of Golf's First Major

By Todd Mrowice

Jack Nicklaus at Open Championship bridge

The British Open has been contested since 1860 and is the oldest of golf's four major championships, besting the second-oldest, the U.S. Open, by 35 years. With that, the British Open has some of golf’s most memorable moments and has significant history. Here is some of the tradition that surrounds this pillar event in the game of golf.

How it All Began

The first British Open, which is formally known as the Open Championship, was played on October 17, 1860. It was completed in a single day, played as three consecutive rounds, 12 holes each, in Scotland at Prestwick Golf Club.

The field was made up of only eight professionals and in the end, Willie Park, Sr. was the winner of the inaugural Open Championship.

The Claret Jug

The Open Championship claret jug

The Claret Jug is given to the winner of the British Open and it’s one of the most recognizable trophies in all of golf. The Claret Jug is made of sterling silver, stands approximately 20 inches tall, and weighs 5.5 lbs.

It wasn’t until 1872, however, that the Claret Jug was given to the winner. Prior to that, a leather belt with a silver buckle was presented to the champion, which the champion would be allowed to permanently keep should he win three consecutive Open Championships. After Young Tom Morris won the event three consecutive times in 1868-70, the belt was retired and Morris was allowed to keep it. Indecision on how to replace the belt actually caused the cancelation of the 1871 Open Championship.

Early Days of the British Open

Here are some significant moments in the earliest year of the British Open.

1861

After the inaugural championship of only professionals, amateurs are allowed to compete in the event.

1872

In 1872, the British Open began alternating between Prestwick, Musselburgh and St. Andrews golf clubs in Scotland until 1894.

1892

The number of British Open entrants increased, prompting organizers to extend the tournament to 72 holes played on two days.

1894

England hosted the British Open for the first time at Royal St. George Golf Club. John Ball of Liverpool, England, won the Claret Jug.

Host Courses

As of 2021, 14 courses have hosted the British Open. The Old Course at St. Andrews has hosted the most with 29 championships. The British Open has been held outside Scotland and England only twice in 161 years. The two exceptions being 1951 and 2019, both years contested at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland.

St. Andrews 18th hole and clubhouse

There are currently nine courses that serve as rotational hosts of the British Open: The Old Course at St. Andrews, Carnoustie Golf Links, Muirfield, Turnberry, Royal Troon Golf Club, Royal St. George’s Golf Club, Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, and Royal Liverpool Golf Club.

Champions

Looking at the long list of British Open champions you find many of the most important names in golf history. Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, and many more.

Harry Vardon has won the most British Open championships with six (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911 and 1914).

Memorable Moments

Here are a few of the more memorable moments in British Open history.

1922

Walter Hagen became the first American-born player to win the British Open.

1977

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus duel in the sun

The famous “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry, when Tom Watson outlasted Jack Nicklaus by one shot in an epic battle of champions.

1999

Jean van de Velde has an incredible collapse on the 18th hole at Carnoustie where he cards a triple bogey. He held a three-stroke lead after the 71st hole, and eventually lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie.

2000

Tiger Woods wins his first British Open, it is the second major win of what became known as the Tiger Slam.

2006

Tiger Woods won at Royal Liverpool just two months after his father, Earl, passed away.

2009

Tom Watson nearly became the oldest major winner in history at the age of 59. Instead, he bogeyed the 72nd hole and lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.

About the Author

Todd Mrowice is a Staff Writer for GolfLink. His experience spans over 15 years and he has covered all aspects of the game including travel, products, business, and professional tours. Todd has also put his deep knowledge of golf equipment to work as a club fitter and in several marketing roles in the golf industry. He has a hole-in-one on his playing resume and appropriately gave his son the middle name “Ace.”