Legends made at the British Open

From Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods, golf's oldest major has produced some iconic champions.

The historic scoreboard at St. Andrews after Tiger Woods score of 19 under par beat Nick Faldo's previous record of 18 under par at St. Andrews in 1990.   (Photo by Rebecca Naden - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
The historic scoreboard at the 2000 British Open after Tiger Woods score of 19 under par beat Nick Faldo's previous record of 18 under par. (Photo by Rebecca Naden - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

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The cradle of golf has witnessed many of the finest performances in the game’s history. Gray skies, piercing rain, howling wind and a looming sense of history await any player who challenges the British Open. A few have stood tall in the face of such challenges, and their names are now engraved forever on the iconic Claret Jug.

Harry Vardon, Muirfield (1896): No man won more British Opens than Vardon’s six, and each of those six was a masterpiece of resilience and craft. In 1896, his first and most memorable, Vardon had to survive not just four tournament rounds, but a 36-hole playoff. Imagine asking today’s players to face that.

Ben Hogan, Carnoustie (1953): Hogan won by four strokes over the field, but that’s not the real story of this particular tournament. It’s the way he did it. Hogan had only a week to learn the intricacies of links golf, and he did it at a time when most other Americans were staying home because of the difficult travel and small prize money. Hogan’s victory meant he held the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open titles in the same year; he’s still the only player ever to manage that feat.

Arnold Palmer, Royal Troon (1961): Like other tournaments on this list, the 1961 British Open remains notable not just because of its victor, but because of its historical significance. Palmer was the first American to win since Hogan in 1953, but Palmer brought the tournament to an entirely new American audience. His victory elevated the tournament in the eyes of Americans, and gave it a prestige that it enjoys to this day. While many American players had skipped the British Open prior to Palmer’s victory, few did afterward.

Jack Nicklaus, St. Andrews (1970): At the peak of his powers, Jack Nicklaus was virtually impossible to beat, but he gave everyone around him the hope that they could topple him. One such challenger was Doug Sanders, who took Nicklaus all the way to an 18-hole playoff in 1970, only to lose by a single stroke. Sanders, who was four strokes behind after the 13th, put on a charge, but Nicklaus sealed the win with a birdie on the 18th.

Lee Trevino, Muirfield (1972): Trevino made history in two different ways at Muirfield: He defended his own title, and he blocked Jack Nicklaus — the favorite coming into the tournament — from achieving a grand slam. Nicklaus put on a charge on Saturday and Sunday, but Trevino managed to ride an even-par final round to a one-stroke victory. The key shot: A chip-in on the 17th that put a dagger through the hopes of Tony Jacklin, then tied for the lead. Jacklin admitted later that he was never the same player after that heartbreaking loss.

UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 10:  Golf: British Open, Tom Watson victorious after winning tournament on Sunday at Turnberry GC, Ailsa, GBR 7/10/1977  (Photo by Stephen Green-Armytage/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)  (SetNumber: X21615)
Tom Watson celebrates beating Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 British Open at Turnberry. (Stephen Green-Armytage/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Tom Watson, Turnberry (1977): Perhaps the greatest Open ever played, the “Duel In The Sun” pitted Watson against Nicklaus for two intense, harrowing weekend rounds. With the rest of the field at least three strokes back, Nicklaus and Watson spent Sunday claiming and losing the lead, back and forth. Watson held a one-stroke lead on the final hole, but Nicklaus carded a remarkable birdie after a wayward tee shot. Watson managed a birdie of his own to stave off a playoff and claim the second of his five British Opens.

Seve Ballesteros, St. Andrews (1984): One of Europe’s most beloved players won its most revered tournament. Ballesteros held off Bernhard Langer and Watson, clinching the victory with a birdie on the 18th. He fist-pumped his way into history, a move that the European Ryder Cup team later adopted as its own in years to come.

Tiger Woods, St. Andrews (2000): During his remarkable early-career run, Woods claimed the 2000 British Open by eight strokes over Ernie Els. This victory completed the career grand slam — all four majors over the course of a career — two years before Nicklaus had achieved the feat. The 2000 victory also marked the second jewel in what would be known as the “Tiger Slam,” as he would go on to win the 2000 PGA and 2001 Masters in addition to the 2000 U.S. Open trophy he already held. Woods finished this tournament at -19, a record-low score for all major championships that would stand for 15 years.

Henrik Stenson, Royal Troon (2016): What could have been. Phil Mickelson started the tournament with a 63, barely missing a putt on 18 that would have given him a 62, still the lowest score in a round in major championship history. Mickelson and Stenson dueled the rest of the way, with Stenson passing Mickelson on Saturday and shooting a magnificent 63 of his own to win on Sunday.

Shane Lowry, Royal Portrush (2019): The significance of an Irish golfer winning the British Open held in Northern Ireland can’t be overstated. Plus, Lowry, who won by six strokes, is one of the most affable players in the sport, easy to root for and fun to follow. Simply a great tournament, from both the historical and competitive perspectives.