The 146th Open Championship started today at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, Merseyside, which will be hosting the event for the 10th time, the second highest after St. Andrews (which, as the home of golf, hosts the event every 5 years).
The club was established in 1889 and first held the Open in 1954 an event won by Australian Peter Thomson who would go on to win 4 more Open titles.
The Open itself was first held in 1860, some 29 years before Royal Birkdale was established, at the Prestwick Golf Club where 8 professional golfers sought to be crowned the inaugural “Champion Golfer of the Year”.
Willie Park Snr. triumphed in this first competition seeing off Old Tom Morris to claim the Challenge Belt made of red Moroccan leather and said to be worth some £25. The Challenge Belt was retired in 1870 after Young Tom Morris had been crowned Champion Golfer for the third year in a row. At the next holding of the Open the winner received the Claret Jug which has since become one of the World’s most iconic sporting trophies.
The Open has seen many great battles with legendry names such as Palmer, Player and Woods all adorning the winner’s trophy. Others will claim to have got so close yet remain so far from being added to this list of names.
Who can forget Jean van de Velde throwing taking his shoes and socks off whilst throwing away a three shot lead down the last hole of the 1999 event held at Carnoustie – truly one of sport’s most uncomfortable viewing experiences. Or 1977’s “duel in the sun” at Turnberry between two of the game’s greats Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
Add to this Constantina Rocca’s 50 foot putt through the infamous “Valley of Sin” at St. Andrews to force a playoff in 1995 and Sergio Garcia’s 7 foot miss at the last hole at Carnoustie in 2007 to throw away a first Major Championship – something he finally remedied at this year’s Masters.
So who is the favourite to succeed this weekend?
The unanimous answer to this is that no-one truly knows. In recent years one or two players have been dominant, Faldo, Norman and Woods in particular. In more recent times the mantle has been bestowed on Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth but they have not had as much success in Major tournaments over the last 2 years. Indeed the last 7 Majors have each been won by a different first time Major winner albeit some, such as Garcia, have been waiting for a long time to break the dreaded duck.
Lee Westwood, the most successful player not to have won a Major over the last 10 years, will no doubt take encouragement from Garcia’s success and local favourite Tommy Fleetwood, currently leading the European Order of Merit, will have the benefit of local knowledge on his side.
A further question that may legitimately be asked is whether the Open, and golf generally, can continue to attract visitors and viewers at the same level as before – a topic covered by this blog previously.
In a World where viewers are looking to consume content in short, bite size and shareable moments do they still want to see players spend several minutes lining up a 3 foot putt? If the game wants to attract younger viewers and therefore encourage greater participation in a sport which has seen levels falling away, something must be done; but what?
Royal Birkdale has a history of introducing young stars to a wider audience – a 19 year old Seve Ballesteros in 1976 and a 17 year old Justin Rose in 1998, both future Major winners, made the game attractive and relevant for a new generation. The same could be said for Laura Davies and her triumph on the course at the 1986 Women’s Open leading to a surge in female participation in the sport.
Even if a newcomer does similarly set the stage on fire the options for those new to the game remain limited as before – lessons at the driving range or joining a golf club many of which are stuck in the past and run by committees out of touch with the commercial realities of the sport. No jeans in the club house and ladies only allowed on the course before lunch are some common and archaic turnoffs still present in many clubs.
Golf Sixes, ‘smart ranges’, tournaments with fewer holes and a relaxing of the myriad rules and regulations have all been suggested as ways in which to encourage more people to enjoy the game. In doing so golf would be inviting a new generation to fall in love with the game first rather than be put off by the rigid format of championship golf played out over many hours over 4 days and 72 holes.
There remains a place for such tournaments at the pinnacle of the sport, as there does Test Match cricket, but maybe it’s time to accept that, in our time poor society, to keep participation levels up the traditional concept of the game needs to change?