British Open Golf 2011: The 10 Greatest British Open Performances of All Time

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJuly 13, 2011

British Open Golf 2011: The 10 Greatest British Open Performances of All Time

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    The British Open begins tomorrow morning, and as the oldest major championship that routinely takes place at the "home of golf," there is naturally a ton of rich history.

    There have been famous putts, like the one Costantino Rocca made in 1995 to force a playoff; memorable shots, such as 71-year-old Gene Sarazen's hole in one at the Postage Stamp of Troon in 1973; unforgettable single-hole performances, like the debacle put up by Jean Van de Velde at the 72nd hole at Carnoustie; and incredible single rounds, like Greg Norman's 63 at Turnberry.

    But what about the greatest wire-to-wire efforts history?

    Check out this slideshow of the 10 best cumulative efforts the British Open has ever seen.

No. 10: Jack Nicklaus, 1977

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    Where: Turnberry

    Score: 68-70-65-66 (269)

    Finish: Second, runner-up to Tom Watson

    Admittedly, it's a bit strange to place this performance (along with the next one on this list) ahead of so many winning efforts, but Nicklaus was incredible in his "Duel in the Sun" with Tom Watson.

    He played the final two rounds at a collective nine-under-par, and that shot from the rough at the 72nd hole—followed by a ridiculously long putt—to give himself a shot at a playoff was one of the most brilliant in history.

    Even though he didn't claim the Claret Jug that year—it's worth noting that the Open was his "worst" major, having only won three times, as opposed to six Masters, four U.S. Opens and five PGAs—this was his greatest outside-the-USA performance ever.

No. 9: Tom Watson, 2009

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    Where: Turnberry

    Score: 65-70-71-72 (278)

    Finish: Second, runner-up to Stewart Cink (playoff)

    Perhaps it's fitting that "Nicklaus at Turnberry" should follow "Watson at Turnberry" (albeit 32 years later) on this list.

    Yes, Watson failed to win here, running out of steam, first by missing that putt at the 72nd hole and then by coming unraveled in the extra four playoff holes. But considering he was 59 years old, hadn't won a PGA event in over 11 years and hadn't even contended in a major for nearly a decade, carding a two-under-par score at a major championship was awesome.

    Golf may be different from the NFL and NBA—turning 40 doesn't necessarily mean the "twilight" of a career—but for a man 35 years removed from his first Open appearance to come within one putt of winning is unparalleled.

No. 8: Lee Trevino, 1971

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    Where: Royal Birkdale

    Score: 69-70-69-70 (278)

    Finish: Winner

    Birkdale was long considered the "blue-collar" venue in the British Open rota, so it was only fitting that a "People's Champion" like Trevino would claim the Claret Jug.

    It was also fitting that Trevino do so in an incredibly consistent fairways-and-greens performance. 

    Despite late-round charges from the local favorite Tony Jacklin and Lu Liang-Huan (aka "Mr. Lu"), with whom Trevino engaged in some pre-round gamesmanship, the Merry Mex won to complete his unprecedented National Triple Crown, claiming the U.S., British and Canadian Opens—all in the span of six weeks.

    And in a typical Trevino move—one that people tend to forget in the face of his smile and all his joking—Trevino donated one-third of the winnings to a local orphanage.

No. 7: Gene Sarazen, 1932

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    Where: Prince George's Golf Club

    Score: 70-69-70-74 (283)

    Finish: Winner

    It's probably one of the reasons why the Open never returned to the course located right next to this year's Open venue, but Sarazen's performance shouldn't be punished for that.

    The raw numbers don't jump out by today's standards, but back in the 1930s, with persimmons woods, mashies, niblicks and an absence of technology, those types of totals were outstanding. He easily shattered the four-round record to earn a five-stroke Open victory, the first and only of his long career.

    If that wasn't historically significant enough, that week at the Open was when Sarazen chose to debut a new club that he had made: the sand wedge. It caught on.

No. 6: Kel Nagle, 1960

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    Where: St. Andrews

    Score: 69-67-71-71 (278)

    Finish: Winner

    Nagle stands out a bit on this list like a sore thumb; he's the only one who didn't claim multiple majors and dominate the sport.

    But history forgets that the Aussie did dominate the Open Championship for roughly the entire decade of the 1960s, posting seven top-10s.

    Still, that first-ever appearance in 1960 was by far the shining moment of his career.

    Not only did he tie his countryman Peter Thompson's record of 10-under-par at the home of golf, he did so by outlasting Arnold Palmer, who had put together a trademark final-round "charge" via a four-under 68.

    Had it not been for Nagle's one-stroke triumph, Palmer might have won the first-ever professional Grand Slam, just days after he allegedly dreamed up the concept.

No. 5: Nick Faldo, 1990

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    Where: St. Andrews

    Score: 67-65-67-71 (270)

    Finish: Winner

    Thirty years after Nagle's win at St. Andrews, Faldo delivered a similarly historic performance.

    Along with Greg Norman, Faldo completely separated himself from the field at the halfway point, and once Norman bowed out on Moving Day with a 76, Faldo kept going, becoming the first man ever to finish the third round with a sub-200 total.

    He didn't exactly close with a fury, shooting a one-under 71, but he didn't need to, winning by five strokes and setting a new Open and major championship record by posting an 18-under total.

No. 4: Arnold Palmer, 1962

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    Where: Royal Troon

    Score: 71-69-67-69 (276)

    Finish: Winner

    Coming into the 1962 Open, the King was carrying a heavy load: He was the defending champion and had to overcome the painful defeat at the U.S. Open just a few weeks prior.

    Following a one-under first day, he blew through a field that included his nemesis from Oakmont, Open Championship rookie Jack Nicklaus, and Kel Nagle, the man who two years earlier ruined his Grand Slam hopes.

    Since that second straight Open victory—a record-setting 12-under-par performance—helped infuse interest back into the old tourney, he deserves a top spot on this list.

No. 3: Tiger Woods, 2000

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    Where: St. Andrews

    Score: 67-66-67-69 (269)

    Finish: Winner

    It seems impossible to put anything Tiger did in 2000 third on an all-time list, but given the performance a month earlier at Pebble Beach, you'd have to think the field felt defeated even before the start of the first round.

    Along the way, players gave him nice single-round pushes—Ernie Els had a one-stroke advantage after the first day, Phil Mickelson matched Tiger's second-round 66 to climb into contention and David Duval did the same a day later. But by the start of the final round, the lead had ballooned to six strokes, and he cruised to an eight-stroke win.

    The triumph was not quite as overwhelming as what he did in that year's U.S. Open, but historic nonetheless. The 19-under-par total snapped the mark Nick Faldo had set a decade earlier on the same course.

No. 2: Greg Norman, 1993

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    Where: Royal St. George's

    Score: 66-68-69-64 (267)

    Finish: Winner

    Say what you will about Norman and his major championship chokes, but his effort at Sandwich 18 years ago really hurts your argument.

    An eight-under-par 64 to close out the British Open? Climbing to the top of a leaderboard that includes Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, Ernie Els and Corey Pavin? Easily one of the finest single-round efforts ever. 

    As Norman said later, "In my whole career I’d never before gone round a golf course and not miss-hit a single shot. I was playing a game of chess out there, hitting the ball into position in the fairway where I could get it to the best spot on the green. I didn’t want the round to end. I wished it could have been 36 holes."

    But it is all four days that earn him the silver medal spot here. He overwhelmed the seemingly difficult course, was under 70 each day and set a new aggregate score that still stands.

No. 1: Tom Watson, 1977

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    Where: Turnberry

    Score: 68-70-65-65 (268)

    Finish: Winner

    You shouldn't be surprised to see Watson on this list twice. He's clearly the greatest Open player of all time: five wins, two runners-up.

    Still, this isn't a list of greatest Open players; it's a list of greatest individual efforts in Open history, and Watson still earns that honor for what he did in 1977.

    Going toe to toe to defeat Jack Nicklaus was part of it. Absolutely running away from the rest of the field—one that included Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, defending champ Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, hotshot Ben Crenshaw and newly crowned U.S. Open champion Hubert Green—with Nicklaus was another part.

    But closing a major championship with consecutive 65s—after reaching the halfway point already two under par—is arguably the most incredible feat in major championship history.