Power Ranking the Sites in the Current British Open Rotation
When we think of the British Open, we think of coastal links courses beset by incessant wind and rain.
We also think about the history of the game, as these are the courses of origin for the sport of golf and anything that came after them are merely an interpretation of how the game was supposed to be played.
Take Muirfield, where the Open Championship will be played July 18–21. It was designed to be played by The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, one of the trio of clubs which ran The Open in the 1870s and 1880s. It first staged The Championship in 1892, just nine months after it had been built.
The Open is now rotated annually over nine courses spread throughout England and Scotland. While it may seem that one Open venue is just like the other, there are peculiarities that differentiate them, turning them into exasperating tests of skill, guile and persistence.
What follows is a power ranking based on a combination of difficulty, tradition and fame.
9. Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, England, 7,118 Yards
Unlike many British Open sites, Royal Lytham is set back from the shoreline separated by housing, roads and a rail line.
That doesn’t mean the wind doesn’t howl or create havoc. Get your ball up in the wind and it will undoubtedly hit one of the 205 bunkers scattered across the course—an average of 11 bunkers per hole.
It is also the only course on the Open Championship rotation that starts with a par-three hole.
You may remember Royal Lytham for Seve Ballesteros’ 1979 victory that included his famous shot out of a parking lot on the 16th hole of his final round. He got a free drop and proceeded to knock his second shot onto the green for a subsequent birdie.
8. Royal Liverpool, England, 7,218 Yards
The name Liverpool invariably invokes the Beatles and sure enough, a young John Lennon used to walk across the course to visit his future wife, Cynthia Powell, who lived in Hoylake.
Of course, Royal Liverpool in Hoylake is really known as one of England’s oldest golf courses and the home to the first ever Amateur Championship in 1885, the Walker Cup and home of the Open Championship governing body, until St. Andrews took over that role.
More than anything else, it is infamous to all golfers who play for its interminable winds. As legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin said about it, "Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions."
However, Tiger Woods showed no respect for the course when the wind diminished in 2006 and he played without a driver in his bag. The dried-out conditions allowed Woods to wend his way through the benign course to a win with only the use of his irons off the tee.
7. Royal Birkdale Golf Course, England, 6,817 Yards
Royal Birkdale is notable for the play of a 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros, who competed mightily against Johnny Miller in 1976.
Playing in an odd English heat wave, Miller bested Seve by posting a scorching 66 in the last round that marked the emergence of the charismatic and brilliant Spaniard on the Open scene.
From a historical standpoint, Birkdale is synonymous with Peter Thomson, who won five times here, just one behind Harry Vardon’s record of six Open wins.
6. Royal St. Georges Golf Club, England, 7,204 Yards
In one of the more nostalgic and heartfelt wins in Open Championship memory, Irishman Darren Clarke took home the Claret Jug in 2011 at Royal St. Georges.
Only the second Irishman behind Fred Daley in 1947 to win an Open, Clarke had a wee bit of luck working for him when he knocked his ball between two bunkers on the ninth hole. That was followed by Dustin Johnson’s mishits on the 14th hole, leaving Clarke with a clear path to victory.
An aerial view of Royal St. George’s reveals the ultimate in Open Championship geography full of bumps, swales, dunes, wild rough, fast-running fairways and deep bunkers.
Located in Sandwich in southeast England, it became the first Open venue outside Scotland in 1894.
Among other winners here are Ben Curtis, Greg Norman and Sandy Lyle.
5. Carnoustie, Scotland, 6,941 Yards
They have been playing golf at Carnoustie since around 1500 and even with renovations by architects Old Tom Morris and James Braid, it remains one of golf’s toughest tests.
Jean van de Velde found this out in 1999 when he fell to this ageless venue. Tom Watson, who won here in 1975, and Gary Player, who won in 1968, struggled before conquering the Scottish medal course. Player used a 3-wood to make what is now referred to as “the Shot,” landing his ball just a couple of feet from the cup for a decisive eagle three and the ultimate win.
Perhaps the most popular winner here was the Scotsman Tommy Armour in 1931 and then in 1953, Ben Hogan came to Carnoustie to score his only Open Championship victory.
4. Royal Troon Golf Club Old Course, Scotland, 7,175 Yards
Royal Troon has somehow become an American haven with the last six Open Championships held there won by the pros from across the pond.
In a bit of a shocking finish that illustrates how difficult it is to pick a winner at an Open Championship, Todd Hamilton claimed victory in 2004.
More well known players to have won at Troon include Arnold Palmer in 1962, Tom Weiskopf in 1973, Tom Watson in 1982, Mark Calcavecchia in 1989 and Justin Leonard in 1997.
Royal Troon includes the shortest hole known as the "Postage Stamp" as its signature hole. At just 123 yards, it has wrought havoc on some of the world’s top players over the years.
3. Turnberry Ailsa, Scotland, 6,493 Yards
Turnberry may be most notable for hosting the "Duel in the Sun," considered by some to be the greatest Open ever.
Such a moniker would be more fitting for a playoff in Palm Springs or Phoenix, but the 1977 "Duel" was a faceoff between the two best players at the time, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, and had fans on the edge of their seats for days.
Watson edged Nicklaus in the end, but it went down to the last hole after numerous day-by-day, hole-by-hole lead changes. He almost won there again at age 59 when Stewart Cink came away with the victory in 2009.
Turnberry is known for its marvelous views and the Lighthouse ninth hole on the Ailsa is the most photographed golf hole in the world.
2. Muirfield, Scotland, 7,245 Yards
Home of the oldest club in the world, The HonourableCompany of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield is often called the fairest test of the Open courses.
But nothing can be fair about a course that has hosted British Amateurs, the Ryder Cup, the Walker Cup, the Curtis Cup and the British Ladies Amateur in addition to the Open Championship.
Muirfield, which first hosted the Open in 1892, has few of the quirky bounces and hidden dangers that characterize most links courses. A better way to put it is that it is the most literal of courses although that still means tall heather, blind shots and deep bunkers.
Oh yeah, then there is the inward/outward course design.Muirfield is the first golf course to be designed in two concentric, opposing loops. The first nine holes proceed clockwise along the outside edge while the back nine run counterclockwise in the inner par. Only three consecutive holes, No.’s three, four and five,run in the same direction. That means the wind coming off the North Sea is a constant factor in club selection.
As Tom Watson said about playing at Muirfield "…there is not a weak hole on this course.”
Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and last year’s Open winner, Ernie Els, have all won at Muirfield.
1. The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, 6,609 Yards
Easily the most famous golf course in the world, St. Andrews has more history and drama as well as the most glorious backdrop of any other golfing venue.
It was here that Old Tom Morris honed his golf design skills when he widened the greens, extended the fairways and became known as the first great golf course architect.
Among St. Andrews' most difficult aspects are its severe bunkers, which seem more like quicksand that gobbles up balls and refuses to let them loose. Players have been known to hit sideways and backwards out of the bunkers in order to progress through the hole.
In 1873, the "Home of Golf" became the second course to host the Open. Nowadays, it does so more often than any other course. Since 1990, it has been scheduled every fifth year.
The Open Championship seems to reserve its best drama for St. Andrews.
The home of the R&A governing body, St. Andrews has also been home to some of golf’s greatest contests, including Nick Faldo's besting of Greg Norman, seve Ballesteros' winning over Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus winning at age 38 and Tiger Woods becoming the youngest pro to complete the Grand Slam.
And it is where notable golf great and golf course architect Bobby Jones said if he could play one golf course before he died, it would be St. Andrews Old Course.