The Most Historically Significant Golf Tournaments Ever Played

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2011

The Most Historically Significant Golf Tournaments Ever Played

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    Organized golf tournaments first began in the 1860s, and there have been millions of tournaments played throughout the world since that time.

    Although there have been many memorable tournaments and victories throughout the history of the game, this is my attempt to identify the most historical significant golf tournaments every played.

    The tournaments are listed in chronological order, and like any "all-time greatest" list, feel feel to agree or disagree with my selections.

1860 Open Championship

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    You can’t have a list of the most historically significant golf tournaments of all-time without including the first ever major championship.

    On October 17, 1860 eight Scottish professional golfers gathered at Prestwick Golf Club to compete in the first Open Championship.

    The eight professional played three rounds over Prestwick’s 12-hole layout. Willie Park Sr. won with a score of 174.

    The win was two better than Old Tom Morris who had designed and essentially built Prestwick Golf Club with his bare hands just a few years earlier.

    The following year the field was opened up to both professionals and amateurs, hence the name “The Open Championship.”

    This was the first known organized tournament where both professionals and amateurs competed side-by-side for the same prize.

    Between 1860 and 1870, players competed for a Champions Belt which the winner was allowed to keep in his possession until the following Open Championship. 

    If a player was somehow able to win three consecutive Opens, he would be able to keep the belt forever.

    When this idea was first implemented, no one really thought about the possibility of a player actually winning three consecutive Open Championships.

    That’s exactly what happened in 1870.  Young Tom Morris won his third consecutive Open at Prestwick Golf Club. He was awarded lifetime possession of the Champions Belt.

    The Open was not played the following year, partly due to the fact that they had nothing to compete for since Morris had taken the belt.

    In 1872, The Open started up again and contestants competed for the Claret Jug, a prize they still play for today...along with a $1.3 million check.

    Young Tom Morris captured his fourth and final Open Championship title that year.  He would die of a heart attack just three years later at the age of 24.

1913 U.S. Open

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    Famous by the book and film “The Greatest Game Every Played”, the 1913 U.S. Open will be considered one of the most historically significant golf tournaments ever held on U.S. soil.

    Although Francis Ouimet was not the first American born golfer to win the U.S. Open (John McDermott had won the previous two U.S. Opens), he was the first American to really defeat the top British golfers of the day.

    Prior to 1913, Americans viewed golf as a game dominated by British and Scottish players.

    America had really only picked up the game of golf 20 years earlier.  In the eyes of most Americans,  the Brits and Scots were considered all but unbeatable in the early 1900s.

    But that all changed in 1913, when Ouimet—a 20-year-old amateur—went head-to-head with two titans of the game—Harry Vardon and Ted Ray—and came out on top.

    Ouimet’s heroics at the 1913 U.S. Open captured the hearts and minds of the nation.  He gave American golfers new-found confidence in their ability to compete with and even defeat the top golfers from across the pond.

    Between 1914 and 1980, Americans would go on to win all but four U.S. Open Championships.

    Perhaps the rise of American golf was inevitable at some point, but Ouimet’s win certainly seemed to accelerate things.

1922 Open Championship

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    In 1922, nine years after Francis Ouimet defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, Walter Hagen became the first American born golfer to win the Open Championship.

    Although Jock Hutchison was considered an “American” when he won the 1921 Open, Hutchison was born in St. Andrews, Scotland and only became an American citizen in 1920.

    Following Hagen’s win at the 1922 Open, American born players won nine out of the next 11 Open Championships.

    Bobby Jones, Tommy Armour and Gene Sarazen were all amongst the American born winners between 1922 and 1933.

    Ouimet’s U.S. Open win in 1913 taught Americans that it was possible to beat the Brits and Scots at their own game. 

    Hagen took it one step further in 1922 when he showed America that it was not only possible to defeat British and Scottish born players, but it was even possible to defeat them on their own soil.

1930 U.S. Amateur

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    Held at Merion Cricket Club outside of Philadelphia, the 1930 U.S. Amateur was the final leg in Bobby Jones’ quest for the single season grand slam.

    Jones won the British Amateur and British Open before returning stateside to compete in the U.S. Open at Interlachen.

    Jones won the third leg of the slam at Interlachen. 

    A few weeks later he defeated Eugene Homans by a score of 8-and-7 at Merion. He finished off what many consider to be the greatest accomplishment in the history of golf.

    Tiger Woods would hold all four major championship titles at one time in 2001, but Woods did this over two seasons.

    To this day, Jones is still the only golfer in history to have won all four major championships (or what were considered to be major championships at the time) in a single season.

1935 Masters

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    At the time, this little tournament started by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts was known as the Augusta National Invitational.

    It was far from being considered a major.

    In fact, it’s biggest claim to fame in 1935 was simply that it was the only tournament Jones still competed in.

    But that all changed with Gene Sarazen’s Shot Heard Round The World.

    During the final round of the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, Sarazen holed out a four wood from 235 yards out on the par-five 15th for an incredible double eagle.

    Sarazen’s double eagle made headlines around the world, and brought some much needed exposure to this little gathering of Jones and his friends.

    Although the Augusta National Invitational would not evolve into The Masters until 1939, and depending upon who you ask, the tournament didn’t truly become a professional major until sometime between 1940 and 1960.

    Sarazen’s double eagle at 15 gave the Masters a shot in the arm, and the tournament has never looked back since.

    Historical Note:

    Hagen was playing alongside Sarazen that afternoon and while Sarazen stood in the middle of the 15th fairway unable to decide on a club, Hagen yelled over to him, “Hurry up, will ya? I’ve got a date tonight.”

    This caused Sarazen to finally decide on a 4-wood, which he then belted 235 yards and right into the hole for a double eagle.

    Many assume that Sarazen’s double eagle on 15 secured his victory at the 1935 Masters, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.  Sarazen’s double eagle only helped him come back and tie Craig Wood for the lead after 72 holes.

    Wood and Sarazen would take part in a 36-hole playoff the following day, which Sarazen won by a score of 144-149.

1950 U.S. Open

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    Known as “The Miracle at Merion”, Ben Hogan shocked the world with his U.S. Open victory at Merion a year and a half after nearly dying in a car accident.

    On February 2, 1949 Hogan was driving with his wife Valerie on a winding road near Van Horn, Texas. 

    The foggy conditions that day made driving very difficult, which was why Hogan was taking it slow through this treacherous portion of his journey. 

    The driver of a greyhound bus travelling in the opposite direction, however, was not as careful.

    The Greyhound bus came flying around a corner, veered onto Hogan’s side of the road and struck Hogan’s car head-on.

    Hogan’s was able to see the bus at the last second and threw himself on top of Valerie in an effort to save her life.

    While Hogan was successful in saving the life of his wife, his courageous split second decision actually saved his life as well.

    The greyhound bus hit Hogan’s car with such force that the steering wheel flew directly through the drivers seat and would have almost certainly killed Hogan on the spot.

    After several complications with blood clots over the next month, Hogan was told that he may never walk again.

    But he did.

    Hogan was then told that he’d never play golf again.

    But he did.

    Hogan was then told that he could never play competitive golf again.

    Not only did Hogan play competitive golf again, but a year and a half after the accident, Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion.

    It was an accomplishment immortalized by photographer Hy Peskin’s famous photograph of the 1-iron H approach shot Hogan hit into the 72nd green.

    Hogan would actually go on to win five more majors after 1950.

    It was a pretty incredible accomplishment considering the ongoing pain he had to deal with for the rest of his life as a result of the accident.

    Also, he never attended another PGA Championship until after it switched over to stroke play (PGA Championship switched to stroke play in 1958 and Hogan began attending the event again in 1960).

    Historical Note:

    Many assume that Hogan’s 1-iron on the 72nd hole in 1950 was the knockout punch that earned him the U.S. Open title.

    But that was not the case.  In fact, the 1-iron was simply the shot that stopped the bleeding for Hogan.

    Hogan had bogeyed 15 and 16, sunk a long winding putt to save par on 17 and mis-hit his drive on 18. That was why he was forced to hit his approach shot into the par four with a 1-iron.

    Hogan made a par on the 72nd hole to force an 18-hole playoff the following day with George Fazio and Lloyd  Mangrum, which Hogan won by four strokes.

1960 U.S. Open

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    The 1960 U.S. Open was the most significant meeting of the game’s past, present and future during one final round at a major championship.

    20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus, 30-year-old superstar Arnold Palmer, and 47-year-old legend Ben Hogan faced off against one another during the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado.

    The day began with Mike Souchak holding a three stroke lead over Nicklaus and Hogan and a seven stroke lead over Palmer.

    Nicklaus actually held the lead for a brief time during the final round before three-putting both the 13th and 14th holes, dropping him back into an eventual solo second place finish. 

    Hogan had a record setting fifth U.S. Open in his grasp as he came to the 71st hole, but found the water with his third into the par-five.

    He hit his fourth shot out of the water and then two-putted for a bogey.

    A completely dejected Hogan would go on to card a triple bogey at the last, thus playing the final two holes in four-over par when even par would have tied Palmer and forced an 18 hole playoff the following day.

    Palmer came flying out of the gate that Saturday afternoon (yes, the U.S. Open concluded on Saturday back then with 36-holes played during the final day of competition).

    Palmer drove the 346-yard par-four first and made a birdie.  He quickly followed with birdies on the second, third and fourth holes en-route to a front nine score of 30.

    Palmer managed to par those same final two holes that had crushed the dreams of many that afternoon and captured his first and only U.S. Open Championship.

    Palmer’s comeback from seven strokes down is still considered to be one of the greatest comebacks in the history of golf. 

    Hogan would begin to fade away towards retirement in the years that followed. Palmer ruled the game through the early 1960s.  Nicklaus would of course become, well, Jack Nicklaus.

    Never before or since has there been a similar meeting of the game’s past, present and future during one final round of a major championship.

1963 U.S. Open

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    The Bear has awoken.

    Jack Nicklaus won his first professional event and major championship in the same week.

    He also defeated the game’s most popular player, Arnold Palmer. 

    And not only did Nicklaus defeat Palmer, but he did so on Palmer’s home turf at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania.

    Nicklaus and Palmer were tied after 72-holes and forced to play an 18-hole playoff for the title the following day.

    Arnie’s Army was out in full force cheering on their hero while heckling Nicklaus to no end.

    Nicklaus would later say that he didn’t hear a thing from the crowd during that entire round.

    It's hard to believe until you take into account Nicklaus’ near flawless round of golf which was good enough to defeat Palmer by three strokes.

    Following the round, Palmer would famously say of Nicklaus "Now that the big guy's out of the cage, everybody better run for cover,” and he was right.

    Nicklaus dominated the game for the next 20 years.

    He ended Palmer’s run as the game’s top dog right there on Palmer’s home turf in front of his home town crowd at a tournament Palmer wanted more than any other.

    The big guy certainly came out of his cage that day in 1960 at Oakmont Country Club, and wasn’t caged back up again until after the 1986 Masters.

1987 Ryder Cup

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    Many simply assume that the Ryder Cup has always been a hotly contested match between the United States and Europe.

    In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

    America completely dominated this event up until 1983, and little attention was paid to the biannual matches prior to the early 1980s.

    Tom Weiskopf once decided to go on a hunting trip in 1977 instead of taking part in the Ryder Cup. 

    He was later crucified for this decision, but that just shows how little golfers thought of this ‘exhibition match” prior to the 1980s.  

    Europe came within a hair of winning in 1983 at PGA National. This supplied the Europeans with the confidence they needed to win their first Ryder Cup match in 1985 at The Belfry.

    However, it wasn’t until 1987 that this biannual war known as the Ryder Cup really began to take form.

    Why 1987?

    Because in 1987 the Europeans won their second consecutive Ryder Cup, and they did so for the first time on U.S. soil. 

    Not only did they win on U.S. soil, but they won in Jack Nicklaus backyard at Muirfield Village while Nicklaus himself was the captain of the American side.

    From the moment the Europeans began celebrating on the 18th hole of Nicklaus’ beloved Muirfield Village, the war was on. It has increased in intensity since.

    Had Europe not won those three consecutive Ryder Cup matches between 1985 and 1989, and particularly the match at Muirfield Village in 1987, these biannual matches might still be seen as a friendly exhibition match between America and Europe.

1986 Masters

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    Where were you when Jack Nicklaus made his back nine charge at the 1986 Masters?

    For golf fans it’s the equivalent of, where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?

    Or, where were you on September 11th 2001?

    Heading into the 1986 Masters, Nicklaus hadn’t won a major in five and a half years and hadn’t even won a PGA Tour event in nearly two years. The Golden Bear was done...or so we thought.

    But like most great athletes, Nicklaus had just enough fuel left in the tank to come back for one last triumph on a golf course—a course he dominated more than any other during his career.

    On a day when five different players had at least a share of the lead, Nicklaus began slow.  Despite birdies on 9, 10 and 11, Nicklaus was still three strokes behind the leaders after 12 holes.

    Nicklaus legendary charge officially began on the par-five 15th where he carded an eagle followed by a birdie at 16.

    After a wayward tee shot on 17, Nicklaus hit his second to around 18 feet.

    He watched intently as the ball rolled towards the hole while Verne Lundquist made his famous call of “maybe.....YES SIR!” as Nicklaus’ putt disappeared into the hole for another birdie.

    After a two putt on 18, Nicklaus completed a round of 65, including a back-nine 30, which gave him a one stroke lead over the field.

    While Nicklaus waited in the clubhouse, one player after another stumbled in his bear tracks over the last four holes.

    Seve Ballesteros bogeyed 15 and 17 to fall out of contention.

    Greg Norman incredibly birdied 14,15,16 and 17. He was tied for the lead heading to 18.  He somehow managed to shank his approach shot into the gallery and could do not get up and down for a par.

    It was official. At 46 years old, Nicklaus had become the oldest Masters champion and the second oldest major champion in history.

    At a time when everyone thought that bear had gone off into hibernation for the rest of his life, he shocked the world. He put forth one of the greatest major championship charges ever seen.

1997 Masters

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    Ok, where do we begin.

    Well, in 1997 Woods became the youngest Masters Champion. He became the first African American to win the Masters.

    He recorded the lowest score in Masters history and won by the largest margin of strokes ever at the Masters.

    Woods completely decimated the field and the golf course at the 1997 Masters.

    Woods broke onto golf’s main stage in convincing fashion that week in Augusta, Georgia.

    He also sent the green coats of Augusta National, and every other golf course in the country scrambling to figure out a way to contain his incredible power.

    Woods was hitting 9-irons into par-fives, and had wedges into virtually all of the par-fours.  Woods essentially turned Augusta National into his own little pitch and putt course back in 1997. 

    What Woods did at the 1997 Masters would have been the equivalent of Rory McIlory coming out and hitting 400 yard drives, hitting 9-irons into par-fives and winning the 2011 Masters by 12 strokes.

    Since 1997, Augusta National has been lengthened by more than 500 yards.  Between 1997 and 2005, some courses on the PGA Tour have actually been lengthened by close to 1,000 yards.

    Although equipment has played a major role in all players hitting the ball longer today, it really began with Woods in 1997.

    Woods demonstrated just what you can do to a major championship golf course with incredible power.

    An entire generation of “power players” has followed.

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