A Packed Month of Noteworthy Golf Begins With the Open Championship
It is very fitting that the country who introduced to world to the game golf, is the backdrop for the beginning of a historic run of golf events spanning 31 days. About a month’s worth of golf that begins tomorrow with the Open Championship at Royal Troon GC, Ayrshire, Scotland. The first grouping will tee off while most in the eastern time zone are still sound asleep. The busy season closes with the final rounds during the return of golf to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Canada will look to defend its gold medal they have not relinquished since 1904, the last time golf was an event in the Olympics (St. Louis, MO).
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It starts at the birthplace, ends with the new place. Well, new to everyone under the age of 112. Stuck right in the middle is the fourth and final major of the season, the PGA Championship at Baltusrol GC, Springfield, New Jersey.
Five weeks of noteworthy golf begins now, with our focus on the 145th Open Championship.
My, how times have changed. The Open Championship was held for the first time in 1860 at Prestwick GC in Scotland. Eight golfers played three rounds in one day on the 12-hole course. Willie Parks Sr. won the inaugural event. Old Tom Morris, greens keeper and club pro of St. Andrews, won four of the next seven Open Championships. His son, Young Tom Morris, 17, beat his pappy in the 1868 Open. Morris Jr. is the youngest player to win a major at 17-years old. A record that has yet to be, and will unlikely ever be broken.
The original trophy was called the Challenge Belt. A thick red belt with a big sliver buckle, resembling something Gorgeous George might have sported in the wrestling ring. Young Tom Morris, for winning three Open Championships in a row from 1868-1870, was allowed to keep the challenge belt for life.
In 1871, there was no trophy to award, so the tournament was cancelled. Seriously. Could you imagine if the Pittsburgh Penguins refused to turn over the Stanley Cup before next season, and the NHL’s response was just say, “Cancel the season. We can’t get the trophy back.”
In 1872, the current trophy, the Claret Jug was born. Young Tom Morris won it, but the trophy wasn’t completed on time, so he was awarded a medal. But in 1873, the first time the jug was awarded, Young Tom Morris’ name was the first engraved on it from 1872. The Claret Jug we all know and see today was first awarded in 1928 (Walter Hagen) and must be returned before the next Open. The winner then receives a replica for their collection. So like the Stanley Cup, there is only one real Claret Jug.
The first 29 Open winners were Scotsmen. It wasn’t until 1894 that the Open was hosted outside of Scotland, when it was played at St. Georges in England. The club earned “Royal” status 10-years later. Today, there are nine courses in the Open Championship rotation spanning Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland. St. Andrews, the host venue in 2015, gets the distinct honor of hosting the Open every five years.
Royal Troon GC is this year’s host. It opened in 1878 and earned it’s “Royal” status 100 years later. Overshadowing the golf this week in a good way, may be the news that Royal Troon will finally allow women members into the club. A vote on July 1st showed that over three-quarters of the members supported the acceptance of women. The other one-quarter need to get in their time machine, set the time circuits for the 2016, and get with the times.
In fact, the vote was held in earnest when two weeks’ prior, Muirfield GC is East Lothian, Scotland, was stripped of it’s rights to host future Open Championships. The R&A (Royal and Ancient Club, organizers of the Open Championship) approached the club that runs Muirfield, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, about allowing women members into their club. A vote among the members didn’t reach their two-thirds majority needed to amend the club constitution and women would still not be allowed. The R&A took appropriate action against the backwards thinking “Honourable” club in stripping them of hosting a major championship, maybe ever again.
Before the R&A could approach Royal Troon, the committee there rushed to assemble for a meeting, a vote, and it appears the accommodations for women members will be made.
On the course, there will be storylines a plenty, starting with the hole garnering the most attention when Royal Troon plays host. The par-3, 123-yard 8th hole, known as the “Postage Stamp” (pictured above). It is the shortest hole on the Open Championship rotation. An extremely small green surrounded by deep bunkers make this the European version of the 17th at Sawgrass. Short, but can ruin your round in a hurry.
In 1973, at age 71, Gene Sarezen played in the Open Championship with a past champions exemption. 50-years prior he failed to qualify in his first visit to Troon. The 71-year old legend hit an ace at famous “Postage Stamp” in the first round. In round two, he hit his tee shot into a bunker. So he just went ahead to holed out for birdie. He played the postage stamp to a score of 3-under in two rounds without even taking the putter out of the bag.
This week we will see plenty of players looking to create their own legendary stories. Build on existing ones. The man currently building a nice one is Dustin Johnson. DJ is coming off his first major title, winning the U.S. Open at historic Oakmont Country Club. He won by three strokes over Jim Furyk, Scott Piercy and Shane Lowry. The win has helped him climb to number two in the World Golf Rankings behind Jason Day.
Day finished T8 at the Oakmont, and T3 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. WGC events are just a step below majors as far as importance and prize money, without being given the title “major”. The Aussie has held the top spot in the rankings for 15 weeks now. Historically he has not fared well in the Open Championship, failing to card a top 25 finish in his first five attempts. He broke through last year at St. Andrews where he finished T4. He’ll play Royal Troon this weekend for the first time in competition.
The current Claret Jug owner, defending champ, Zach Johnson, hasn’t won a tournament since that stunning victory a year ago. One in which he got into playoff by edging out Jason Day and Jordan Spieth (going for his third straight major title) by one stroke. Johnson went on to win the playoff over Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen, earning his spot in the playoff by draining a 30-foot putt on the final hole. Johnson, a 2007 Masters Champion as well, enters play this week with two top ten finishes in his last two entries (U.S. Open, WGC-Bridgestone).
Jordan Spieth will look to add the Claret Jug to his Green Jacket and Jack Nicklaus Medal in his major’s trophy case. He’s been running hot and cold of late. After his T2 in the meltdown at the Masters, he took five weeks off the tour. Returned for The Players and missed the cut. But then got right back to the winners circle two weeks later at the Dean and Deluca Invitational. It was back down for Spieth with a couple poor showings at The Memorial and U.S. Open, but bounced back to post a T3 at the WGC-Bridgestone.
History is on the side of players like DJ, Jordan, Zach, and others who call America home. The last six Open Champions who won theirs at Royal Troon, were Americans, dating back to Arnold Palmer in 1962. The list of champions at Royal Troon doesn’t read like the hall of fame roster that has conquered a U.S. Open at Oakmont, with Tom Watson the only other notable champion there (1982) other than Palmer.
Todd Hamilton is Royal Troon’s defending Champion (2004). In his 28 years on tour, he logged two career PGA tour wins. One being the Open. He’s entered 36 major championships during this time, missed 20 cuts, only cracked the top 30 in the 15 majors where he wasn’t the winner. Why am I sharing this? It goes to show it truly is “open”. The top players in the world can win it, or a Todd Hamilton can win. Everyone’s favorite, John Daly, has a chance. He’s exempt as a past Open Champion (1995) for ten more years, until he turns 60.
The favorite to ruin the American’s run at Royal Troon is hands down, Rory McIlroy. Taking away the missed cut he suffered at the U.S. Open, McIlroy has finished in the top ten in six of his last seven events including a victory at the Irish Open. McIlroy has one Open Championship to his name already, winning in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, Merseyside, England. It was a win most well known for his dad and a couple friends winning $342,000 on a bet when Rory was 15, that he’d win an Open Championship by the age of 26. He was 25 at the time of the win. No pressure, son.
Many of the game’s top pros warmed up for the Open by playing in the European Tour’s Scottish Open last weekend. An attempt to get acclimated to links style golf, major time zone change and weather conditions not conducive to most of the United States in July. Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson both finished T13 in the event.
The top ranked Scotsman in the world, Russell Knox (26th) finished T10 in his home country last week. Earlier in the season, Knox finished in T2 in the RBC heritage, followed by a T19 at The Players, where he could have been in play for the win, but a 9-spot on the famous 17th at Sawgrass stung him. Knox rebounded by finishing T2 behind Rory McIlroy at the Irish Open. Don’t be surprised if the cheers for Knox this weekend aren’t a little louder than the rest of the field receives. Maybe it fuels him to become the first Scotsman to win the Open Championship on his home soil since Paul Lawrie prevailed in 1999 at Carnoustie. It was the Open made famous for Jean van de Velde’s collapse rather than Lawrie’s victory.
Winning the Scottish Open was Alexander Noren of Sweden. Phil Mickelson won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in 2013, en route to winning the Open the following week. Noren competes on the European Tour and has five career wins there in 11-years as a pro.
If you are three sheets to the wind tonight, closing down your favorite watering hole on the east coast of the U.S., you will be awake to see Colin Montgomerie get the 145th Open Championship underway with a 1:35am EST tee time.
Other featured groups include:
4:03am – Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Shane Lowry
4:25am – Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day
4:36am – Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson
If you suffer from insomnia, follow these guys solely for about four hours until the rest of the country wakes up for:
8:26am – Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els
9:04am – Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Russell Knox
9:15am – Zach Johnson, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson
Thursday, Friday – 1:30am – 4:00pm, Golf Channel
Saturday, Sunday – 4:00am – 7:00am, Golf Channel. 7:00am – 2:00pm, NBC