The 15 Greatest British Open Performances in History

Kevin Casey@kevincasey19Contributor IJuly 18, 2012

The 15 Greatest British Open Performances in History

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    The British Open (or the Open Championship, the common name for the event outside the United States), has been going on for a century and a half and has produced many a great moment.

    A list of greats, from Vardon to Jones to Nicklaus to Woods, have etched their names on the Claret Jug and become a significant part of the lore of the oldest of the majors.

    There have been 140 winners at the year's third major, but not all victories are created equal.

    As in any tournament, the Open has had several strong performances by champions over the years, but also put up some duds (no offense to Darren Clarke, who did play great golf, but last year was a prime example).

    Here, we will see a compilation of the absolute best. These aren't just Open victories, but golfing displays that put a player clearly above the pack.

    Ranging from 1862 all the way to 2010, these performances do encompass much of the Open's history.

    It includes the greats of the game from three different centuries and from both sides of the pond.

    It's a list of variety that proves that the Open is a truly global event.

    With all of that in mind, here are the 15 best performances at the Open.

Louis Oosthuizen 2010

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    Without a doubt, the greatest surprise in the golfing world in 2010 (on the course, mind you) was Louis Oosthuizen's romp at the British Open.

    Played at St. Andrews, the 139th edition of the Open was expected to produce a big-name champion. After all, the past winners at the Old Course read like a veritable list of who's who in golf from both sides of the pond: J.H. Taylor, James Braid, Peter Thompson, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros east of the Atlantic and John Daly, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to the west.

    However, fluky weather conditions on Friday would change the formula for the victor in 2010.

    Oosthuizen got out early that day, faced very little wind and was in the clubhouse with a 67 and a two-day total of 12 under par before the gales of the afternoon took out half his competition.

    First-round leader Rory McIlroy, who ripped apart the Old Course Thursday with a stunning 63, ballooned to an 80 in the high winds on Friday, and Tiger Woods, the two-time defending British Open champion at St. Andrews who opened with 67, put together a decent 73 in terrible weather on Friday but was well behind the eight-ball going into the weekend.

    So, Oosthuizen did get a little help from Mother Nature on his way to victory. Still, he had bested the half of the field that had a fair shot at him by five strokes after two rounds.

    And the man who had survived all of one cut in his eight previous starts at majors impressively kept control all weekend (when there was no such weather favoritism), widening his margin to seven strokes by the time he putted out on the 72nd green.

    From nowhere, the smooth-swinging South African was hoisting the Claret Jug at the game's most recognizable course.

    The good side of the draw on Friday helped out a great deal, but a tournament is 72 holes and even with that break, a seven-shot victory over a world-class field was definitely a performance worthy of putting King Louis on the map.

Greg Norman 1986

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    By the middle of 1986, the pressure was really on Greg Norman to secure his first major title.

    The young hotshot from Australia was gaining fast in the victory column on the PGA Tour (doubling his career tally to four after two victories in the first half of 1986) but stagnating under major championship pressure.

    There was the Masters, where Norman held the lead heading into Sunday, fell out of the running, birdied four holes in succession to tie for the lead heading up to 18, then watched his chances float away when his four-iron approach sailed off to the right and landed him a closing bogey.

    Next was the U.S. Open, where Norman picked up where he left off, both fortunately and unfortunately. Again with a lead after Round 3, the Aussie faded, and this time he didn't have a finishing kick, not even landing a top-10 finish in an event he was leading 18 holes earlier.

    When the 31-year-old put together a spectacular 63 (which would've been a 62 with a two-putt from 30 feet on 18) at the British Open on Friday to vault into the lead and stayed one shot clear heading into the final round, more disaster seemed imminent.

    But this time, Norman came to play.

    Fashioning a beautiful one-under-par 69 on a day when just seven golfers broke 70, Norman ran away with the title, finishing five shots clear of his nearest competitor.

    This was some way to get the major championship burden off his back.

    Not only had Norman secured his first major title, but he had done so in emphatic fashion.

    It wouldn't exactly become a Greg Norman staple to expand on third-round leads, but his near flawless final 18 at Turnberry in 1986 was one to remember in British Open history.

Padraig Harrington 2008

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    After nearly collapsing at Carnoustie in 2007 before eventually securing his first Claret Jug, Padraig Harrington made his second grab of the trophy a much simpler matter.

    At Royal Birkdale the very next year, Harrington blew past the field, a result that seemed highly unlikely considering his position early in the week.

    At that point, his recently injured wrist was acting up and causing so much discomfort that Harrington was unsure if he could finish 72 holes or play at all.

    It looked that the Open might not have its defending champion, and even if it did, it would be a frail version of the man.

    Harrington did indeed play, though, and performed as if nothing were amiss.

    Rounds of 74, 68 and 72 over the first three days were enough to place him in the final group on Open Sunday and in prime position for a second straight Claret Jug.

    Making sure 54-hole leader Greg Norman would experience yet another final-round disappointment in a major, Harrington took charge that Sunday.

    On a windswept Royal Birkdale course, Harrington struggled to a three-over-par score on the front nine and was losing control of the tournament.

    Then he turned on the afterburners.

    Birdies at 13 and 15 gave Harrington a two-shot lead, and with the shot of the tournament at 17, a five-wood that sent the ball right through the wind and rolled nearly the entire green to finish three feet from the cup for an eagle, his British Open defense was certain.

    On a day when just six players broke par, it was Harrington's back-nine 32 that set him apart from the field.

    It was the Irishman's gutsiest performance. Through wind, rain and pain, Harrington prevailed at Birkdale.

Tiger Woods 2000

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    Coming off a 15-shot U.S. Open win that made him the toast of the town and heading to a St. Andrews course that was a pantheon of great champions, Tiger Woods had everything in his favor going into the 2000 edition of the British Open.

    But he also experienced a great deal of pressure. How was he going to back up that U.S. Open performance? Could he secure a victory at a venue where a win would be so instrumental to his golfing legend?

    Well, despite all the hoopla, Woods fired on all cylinders that week.

    A defenseless Old Course played right into the long-bomber's hands. Woods took advantage of the numerous drivable par-fours and opened with rounds of 67 and 66 to carry a three-shot lead into the weekend.

    The 24-year-old did not register a single bogey over the first 36 holes, and although he recorded his first square early in Round 3, Woods quickly regrouped and fired a second 67 for the week to up his lead to six going into Sunday.

    Woods finished his second masterpiece in as many majors the next day.

    Playing partner David Duval had a chance to get within two of Woods on the 10th green, but a missed birdie try along with Woods' successful birdie attempt pushed the lead back up to four and Woods out of sight.

    His lead eventually stretched to eight, and his 19-under-par total was the lowest score in relation to par in major championship history.

    On a week where there was so much pressure, Woods sidestepped it all. He won his first Claret Jug and captured the career Grand Slam at the home of golf, dominating the field in the process.

    Quite an encore to what he did at Pebble Beach.

Young Tom Morris 1869 and 1870

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    The son of golfing legend Old Tom Morris (hence the moniker "Young"), Tom Morris Jr. was a golfing prodigy.

    At the age of 12, his magnificent play in a match against a top junior player received more attention than the actual Open itself.

    By age 15 he was competing in the Open, and by age 17, still not legally an adult, Morris collected his first Open title.

    He was certainly the fastest player (still to this day) to reach such prominence, but would his success continue into his adult years?

    The answer is an emphatic yes. Defending his Open title in 1869, Morris made it clear early on that his second Open title was imminent.

    A first-round 50 (played over 12 holes) gave Morris a three-shot lead, and he wouldn't look back. The 18-year-old, playing like a seasoned vet, consistently wedged himself further away from the field, walking off the final green 11 strokes clear of his nearest competitor.

    If that wasn't enough, he upped the ante again the next year.

    An opening-day 47, considered one of the finest tournament rounds ever recorded in golf, put Morris a whopping five shots ahead through Round 1. Duplicating his previous year's effort, he expanded his lead and would waltz his way to an astounding victory margin, this time 12 strokes.

    It was a remarkable two-year stretch, to say the least!

    One detraction might be that Morris didn't have to face the massive 150-player fields of today, instead competing against little more than a dozen other men during those championships.

    However, these performances shouldn't get belittled.

    Morris had just 36 holes, in contrast to today's 72, to acquire such margins of victory, and those two years produced some remarkable records.

    His hole-in-one in the first round of the 1869 Open was the first in championship history, and his three at the 578-yard opening hole during the first round of the 1870 edition is considered the first double eagle in championship history (578 yards would've likely played as a par-six in that day considering the shafts were made from wood and the balls were made from a tree sap from Malaysia).

    In addition, his total of 149 strokes in 1870 was a record never even touched in the championship's 36-hole days.

    His life ended abruptly when he died at age 24, but in such a short time, Young Tom Morris created unforgettable brilliance.

Old Tom Morris 1862

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    Not to be outdone by his son, the elder Tom Morris makes this list as well.

    It was a full 150 years ago that Tom Morris Sr. set the Open record for largest margin of victory, and it has stayed that way since.

    Yes, the Open of 1862 wasn't what it is in 2012, as only eight players participated in the event that year.

    Few spectators were around, there were no television cameras in sight and the Claret Jug wasn't even the trophy yet (it was a Championship Belt at that time).

    Still, Morris' 36 holes would be some of the greatest in Open history.

    Right from the beginning it was his tournament to lose, as he stormed out to a seven-shot lead after one round.

    The lead jumped up to 11 after Round 2 and finished at 13 when the third and final round was complete.

    With no footage and little coverage to go by of the event, there isn't much to say about how Morris won. Whether it was superior ball-striking, exquisite putting or superb course management that put him so far ahead is unknown.

    What is known is that, in just 36 holes, Morris finished 13 shots ahead of his nearest pursuer.

    Again, he did only have seven guys to beat, but even at that amount, that margin of victory is too impressive to ignore.

Johnny Miller 1976

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    For three days, the focus of the 1976 British Open was on a 19-year-old named Severiano Ballesteros.

    The Spaniard made himself known throughout the golfing world at that Open, compiling rounds of 69, 69 and 73 to carry a two-shot lead after 54 holes.

    It looked destined for a young hot shot to win the Open, but Ballesteros' time would come three years later.

    In came Johnny Miller, 10 years older than Ballesteros but still quite youthful, to take the day.

    Two shots back and playing with a raw kid not accustomed to the heat of Sunday at a major, the man who fashioned a final-round 63 (at Oakmont no less) to take the U.S. Open title three years before was ready to pounce.

    Indeed he did. Ballesteros moved his lead to three after the first hole, but it quickly evaporated as he made error after error while Miller made none.

    Miller's front-nine 33 to Ballestero's 38 meant his two-shot deficit had turned into a three-shot lead with nine holes to go, and he wasn't laying off the gas pedal.

    The California boy strolled along, eagling 13 and moving eight ahead of a flustered Ballesteros.

    Miller's final-round score would be a course-record tying 66, his margin of victory six shots and his British Open title the second of his majors.

    Oddly, he would never win another one of the big four (see: putting). With a flawless round that Sunday, though, he blew away the field and a future great of the game.

Ian Baker-Finch 1991

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    Before Ian Baker-Finch made a habit of missing 150-yard wide fairways, shooting tournament rounds in the 80s (or higher) and generally losing all physical and psychological confidence in his game, the Aussie had his one moment in the sun at Royal Birkdale.

    There, during the 1991 British Open, he displayed a gear that only the best in the world possess, a playing ability that saw him score lower and lower while the rest were stuck in cement.

    It was over the final 36 holes where Baker-Finch made his valiant charge. Matching 71s over the first days left him four strokes behind, but when conditions eased up on Saturday, the 30-year-old pounced.

    A blistering 64, round of the day by two strokes, vaulted him into a tie for the lead heading into Sunday.

    But could he back it up during the final round, something he had failed to do in his other two appearances in the final group on a Sunday at the Open?

    Yes, he could, and then some.

    Baker-Finch flew out ahead on Sunday. He birdied No. 2, he birdied No. 3, he birdied No. 5, he birdied No. 6, and when his putt dropped on No. 7 for his fifth birdie in six holes, he had opened up a five-shot lead.

    In fact, the Aussie needed just 29 strokes to complete his front-nine that day and, although he cooled off, he held his competitors at bay over the remaining nine.

    He hit every fairway and every green on that day, and this was all after shooting a tidy little 64 the day before.

    His 130 over the final 36 holes was four strokes lower than any other competitor in the field.

    At least for two days, Baker-Finch reached his peak.

Greg Norman 1993

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    Quite often the final round of a major championship was Greg Norman's great nemesis.

    When he went on one of his famous birdie runs, a bogey or some other roadblock at the end would be there to halt his march.

    When his competitors were in jail and victory seemed imminent, they would turn the screw, holing out seemingly impossible shots as if divinely inspired.

    And when his lead looked cushy enough to send him right to the winners' circle, his worst golf came out and sent him reeling right to losers' oblivion.

    Sure, he had cracked the formula once, in 1986, but it looked a fluke, something Norman, not even with a 20-shot lead, could accomplish again.

    On British Open Sunday in 1993, though, nothing went wrong. Ironically, on a leader board packed with big names, Norman would take control from the start.

    Going into the day one off the lead, Norman quickly took a share of it with two birdies in his first three holes and then surged ahead by two when two more birds dropped on holes No. 6 and 9 to give him an outward going 31.

    It took Norman just seven more holes to make three more birdies, and when he came to the 17th green at seven-under par for the day, he had opened up a three-shot lead.

    On this day, everything was working. His irons were flying right at flags, and he was pouring in the birdie putts. Even when Norman did occasionally stray the course, his flat stick was true on the par-savers.

    One of the game's greatest drivers, Norman actually outdid himself on this day, finding 14 of 14 fairways.

    OK, he did miss a 14-inch par putt on 17, but it was already too late for Norman to choke. He had cruised in to a two-shot victory with a mesmerizing 64.

    In all of the failure built up in the Greg Norman memory, this emphatic success was not one soon to be forgotten.

J.H. Taylor 1900

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    Harry Vardon's golfing tour of the United States was clearly the sport's most important event in the year 1900, but on the other side of the pond, another Englishman put together its most impressive feat.

    The man behind this performance was J.H. Taylor, a long-time rival of Vardon and part of the Great Triumvirate (which also included Vardon and James Braid).

    Sharing the lead after the first round, Taylor made sure no one could come close to stopping him over the next three.

    Taylor worked his way beautifully around the Old Course at St. Andrews, steadily increasing his lead, first to four after the second round, then to six after 54 holes, and finally to eight when he finished out on the final green.

    It was 72 holes of golf that left the other two members of the Great Triumvirate in the dust. Vardon took second place eight shots behind Taylor, and Braid took third position a full 13 shots back.

    It was Taylor's third of five career Open titles and definitely a high point in his career.

Harry Vardon 1903

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    The greatest master of the Open had to be Harry Vardon.

    The man won golf's oldest major a record six times (which still stands nearly 100 years later), finished runner-up on four other occasions and fashioned a top-10 finish at the event at the ripe old age of 52.

    Clearly, Vardon brought out his best at the Open, and his effort in 1903 was his most brilliant.

    Already a three-time champion heading into that event, he would make win No. 4 look the easiest of all.

    Vardon opened with a 73 to take a share of the lead, upped the lead to four after a second-round 77 and ran his margin to seven after 54 holes with a third-round 72. He cruised during the final round and walked from the course with a six-shot victory.

    From start to finish, the 33-year-old Englishman had a complete grip on this tournament. It was classic Vardon when he was firing on all cylinders, getting ahead of the pack and never giving them any hope that he would relinquish the lead.

    However, Vardon hadn't been his regular self physically that week. He was very ill throughout the tournament and barely able to finish his final 18 holes, even with such a big lead in hand.

    It just makes this performance that much more remarkable. Playing some of the best players in the world sick as a dog, Vardon beat every single one of them, and it wasn't even close.

    Seeing how Vardon played that way sick, it's easy to see why he was one of the all-time greats.

Ben Hogan 1953

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    Going into the British Open in 1953, Ben Hogan had put together one of golf's truly remarkable years.

    He won the Masters and the U.S. Open and had scored a victory in four of five starts.

    Now, all he had to do was win the British Open to make this a complete year. Not so hard, right?

    Well, the British Open in 1953 was far from the affair it is today, and when Hogan hopped over to that side of the pond that year to play at Carnoustie, it was his first time playing in the event.

    So at the British, Hogan was inexperienced, playing the smaller British ball for the first time and totally unaware of the future historical significance the event would bring.

    It was to be a formula for disaster for Hogan at Carnoustie, only it turned out those worries were totally useless.

    Hogan played well enough to hold a share of the lead after three rounds, and he made sure to pounce over the final 18.

    Indeed, the 40-year-old went around the course in 68 strokes during the last round, setting the course record and galloping to a four-shot victory.

    Maybe the four-shot margin of victory isn't as impressive as some on this list, but doing so playing in the event for the first time was pretty remarkable.

    It also secured Hogan his fifth victory in six starts and what would be enumerated as his third major of the year.

    It was Hogan's one and only time at the game's oldest championship, and he certainly made the most of it.

Bobby Jones 1927

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    By 1927, Bobby Jones was firmly entrenched as the game's premier amateur player.

    He had already put together two wins apiece at the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur and had a British Open victory on record from the previous year.

    So, he was clearly the favorite heading into that year's British Open at St. Andrews.

    But Jones had some bad history at the course. It was there at the Open six years earlier that Jones had lost his temper at his poor play, picked up his ball in the middle of the third round and effectively disqualified himself from the tournament.

    It was Jones' self-proclaimed lowest point of his career.

    On his return to the Old Course, Jones made sure a different story would be written.

    The 25-year-old started with a bang, putting together a fantastic opening-round 68 to take a five-shot lead after 18 holes. From there, the rest was simple.

    Jones didn't let any player get close the rest of the way, romping to a six-shot victory.

    Not only had he won at St. Andrews with grace, but he had done so by wiping away the field.

    It was quite the redemption.

Arnold Palmer 1962

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    If anybody knew how important the British Open could be, it was Arnold Palmer.

    It was in 1960 that the man affectionately known as "the King" won the Masters and the U.S. Open, both in dramatic fashion.

    However, what we know today as the four majors was not in effect then. The British Open, golf's oldest championship, was a fledgling affair, as a miniscule purse that didn't nearly cover trans-atlantic travel costs meant few American greats would make the journey to play.

    Sam Snead decided to go over in 1946, won the event and promptly waited 16 years to return. Ben Hogan made the trip just once, in 1953, and, despite winning, never went again.

    So Palmer's trip to the 1960 edition of the event was a big deal, and when he and writer/friend Bob Drum cooked up the idea of the British Open and the PGA Championship comprising the final two of the four majors, the Open was reborn.

    Palmer would finish second in that Open, falling short of the newly minted third leg of the slam, but he would soon find success at the event he made relevant again.

    He would win the very next year and in 1962 had an even greater performance in store.

    The massive crowds at the event showed how much Palmer had changed the tournament in just two years, and he gave them a treat.

    Palmer opened with 71 and never went that high again, finishing with rounds of 69, 67 and 69 to finish six shots clear of the field and 13 shots ahead of third place.

    This was the charismatic golfing legend at the height of his powers. He had brought all the excitement to the event and had put together a golfing spectacle of the highest caliber.

    Unfortunately, the King was already being unseated by a big blond boy from Columbus.

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus 1977

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    As many know, this tournament would boiled down to one five-word phrase, "The Duel in the Sun."

    Hit by a summer drought in 1977, Turnberry had lost some of its bite, as its rough had been reduced to little more than a coarser part of the fairway.

    Through two rounds, though, the scores were pretty modest. Only seven guys had bettered par over the opening 36 and three-under was good enough for the lead.

    Then, two men stole the show.

    Mocking what was supposed to be a championship-caliber course, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson blitzed the place with birdies.

    Both took the course in just 65 strokes on Saturday and moved one back to three clear of the field heading into the final 18.

    The barrage didn't slow under the pressure of an Open Sunday.

    Nicklaus birdied two of his first four, and along with a bogey by Watson at two, the Golden Bear had opened his lead up to three.

    But Watson, 10 years Nicklaus' junior, wasn't afraid of the older man, and with birdies at five, seven and eight, he had erased all three strokes of his deficit.

    Resilient, Nicklaus pulled ahead after Watson bogeyed nine and looked like he would take control for good after holing a 30-footer for birdie and a two-shot lead on 12.

    Again, Watson fought back though. A birdie on 13 got him within one and when he holed a 60-footer for birdie on 15, the duo was tied.

    Watson went one ahead after birdieing 17, then a dramatic final hole. With Nicklaus in the gorse bushes off the tee, Watson, from the middle of the fairway, set to close the door on this Open.

    His seven-iron flew straight at the flag and plopped two feet from the cup. The Open seemed now to be his.

    Nicklaus had one last trick, though. He miraculously slashed his ball from the gorse onto the green and when he holed the ensuing 40-foot putt for birdie, the crowd erupted.

    Watson now had to make his putt to win, and that he did. A closing 65 for him, a 66 for Nicklaus and no pursuer in sight.

    Nicklaus finished 10 shots clear of third place, making this the most breathtaking duel not only in Open history but in the annals of all major championship golf.

    It is still the most talked-about match over three decades later, and with that much brilliance packed in 36 holes, it is tough to imagine how this duel will ever be topped.