Golf tournaments are in the business of identity cultivation. The best way to stick out from the sea of Safeway Opens and Rocket Mortgage Classics is to carve out a niche. To be known for something. Some tournaments have been more successful at this than others. The Genesis Open has emerged as a can’t-miss stop because its host venue, Riviera Country Club, is perhaps the best non-major track on the PGA Tour schedule. Other tournaments not blessed with iconic golf courses have found their own ways to stand out. The Travelers Championship, for example, transformed from an afterthought to a firmly above-average event by treating everyone one of its participants—and their families—like superstars.
The majors, of course, have a huge head start in this identity horse race. The Masters has Augusta National and all its traditions, and it’s the first major of the year, and it serves as an unofficial beginning of spring. The U.S. Open, despite the best efforts of gentler recent layouts, is still known as golf’s toughest test. The PGA is still searching for its identity, and that’s why it’s undoubtedly fourth among the major championships.
The Open Championship, at least on this side of the pond, is beloved in part because it is so delightfully different. Quirky. Unique. It might not be the “best” or “biggest” or “hardest” golf tournament in the world, but it is the most charming. Here are five reasons why.
The first Open Championship was held at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860. Eighteen Sixty. That’s nine years before professional baseball began and 74 years before the first Masters. That’s six months before the start of the American Civil War. The price of gas back then was irrelevant because cars wouldn’t be a thing for another 30-odd years.
Eight golfers competed in that inaugural tournament, which was contested over three rounds on a 12-hole course. Willie Park Sr. edged Old Tom Morris by two shots, though Old Tom would win the next two Opens and finish his career with five. His son, Young Tom Morris, won four Opens of his own, including at the age of 17 in 1868, before his death at the age of 24. (Here is my official request that fathers and sons who share a namesake shall be known by Old and Young, rather than Senior and Junior.) St. Andrews hosted its first Open in 1873 and will do so again, for the 30th time, in 2021.
Simply put, there is something special about a golf tournament that predates the invention of the lightbulb.
The Golf Courses
It’s the only major played on traditional links courses. American sports fans are accustomed to golf courses featuring massive bunkers with bright-white sand, graduated rough, trees lining the fairways and water hazards guarding greens. Traditional Open courses feature none of the above. They’re typically 100-plus year old layouts that challenge with nuance, mounding and deception. The courses become new beasts entirely when the wind blows, which it almost always does.
They simply ask different questions of players. Too many courses allow players to simply bomb driver then figure it out later. Thanks to Trackman, these players know exactly how far they fly the ball in dome-like conditions, and they are so often able to simply cut-and-paste this knowledge onto the golf course. Not so at Open Championships. There are so many different ways to play a 150-yard shot. Tiger Woods put it best in his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday:
“There is an art to playing links golf. It's not—okay, I have 152 yards, bring out the automatic 9-iron and hit it 152. Here, 152 could be a little bump-and-run pitching wedge. It could be a chip 6-iron. It could be a lot of different things.”
You’re going to see approaches bouncing and rolling out and taking ridges this week. You’re going to see stingers off the tee and the fairway. You’re going to see guys playing out sideways after finding a pancake-stack pot bunker. This is golf how it was originally played, and it’s a wonderful change of pace from the norm on the PGA Tour.
The Name Controversy
It is officially The Open Championship. It’s often shortened to, simply, The Open. In America, it’s most commonly referred to as the “British Open.” I’m normally not one to get caught up in semantics, but this British Open stuff tends to ruffle some feathers and adds fuel to the Americans-are-arrogant fire.
This year, the anti-British Open people have a point. This isn’t a “British” Open at all. Northern Ireland, which is hosting its first Open since 1951, isn’t a part of Great Britain. It’s a part of the United Kingdom, but Great Britan is comprised of England, Scotland and Wales…not Northern Ireland. So even if you’re a British Open guy, maybe put it on hold for just this year.
Golf broadcasts these days are marred by fools yelling “GET IN THE HOLE!” or “MASHED POTATOES!” You will almost certainly hear none of that this week. Fans at the Open Championship tend to be significantly less boisterous than the fans were at, say, Bethpage Black. (Perhaps they’re less lubricated, or maybe just better at handling their alcohol). They also have a greater appreciation for un-sexy shots; they know that sometimes an 8-iron to 40 feet is a perfectly executed play. On the flip side, they won’t clap at all when they deem a shot unworthy of applause. They are stern judges but they are fair judges—impress them, and you will be rewarded. Disappoint them, and you will be ignored. They’re not going to fake it.
No Double-Tee Starts
In the first two rounds of the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, groupings tee off both the 1st and 10th tees. The Masters field is roughly half the size of the other three majors, so it has the luxury of having to fit in fewer threesomes and thus only sends players off 1. The British Open, however, has a full 156-man field and still manages to have every group start only on the 1st tee. This is possible because The Open falls in July, when days are long, and because England, Scotland and Northern Ireland are far enough north that the sun does not set until around 9 p.m. (sunset at Portrush this week is around 9:55).
This isn’t a big deal, but starting off the 1st tee allows the golf course to be played as it was designed, all four rounds. Plus, having every player start on the same hole is a nice equalizer—at Bethpage Black, for example, half the players had to start their tournament on the beastly 500-yard par-4 10th…while the other half started on the 400-yard opening hole, probably the easiest par 4 on the course.
There will undoubtedly be some fantastic golf played this week at Royal Portrush, and a deserving winner will be crowned. But as you overcome sleep deprivation to watch this action this weekend, try to appreciate everything that makes the Open Championship what it is. It’s the little things in golf, man.