History of the British Open: Iconic Winners and Memorable Moments

Colin McCarthy

history of the british open

Imagine a tournament so steeped in history that it predates the second-oldest major by 35 years. The British Open, officially known as The Open Championship, has been captivating golf enthusiasts since 1860. It’s not just a test of skill but a celebration of tradition, making it the crown jewel of golf’s four major championships.

From its inaugural event at Prestwick Golf Club to the iconic moments at St. Andrews and Royal Troon, The Open has witnessed the rise of legends.

Players like Tom Watson, with his five wins, have etched their names into the annals of golf history. As you explore the rich tapestry of The Open, you’ll uncover stories of triumph, perseverance, and the ever-evolving game of golf.

Origins and Early Years

The British Open, also known as “The Open Championship,” is the oldest of golf’s four major championships, first played in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland.

Willie Park Sr. won the inaugural event, receiving the Challenge Belt. After Park won the belt outright in 1870, a new trophy called the Claret Jug was commissioned.

Formation and First Championships

The Open Championship, known commonly as the British Open, began in 1860. The inaugural event took place at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland.

Eight professional golfers competed, and Willie Park Sr. emerged victorious with a score of 174 over 36 holes. Initially, the winner received the Challenge Belt, made of red Morocco leather.

The first few Opens were dominated by Scottish golfers, reflecting Scotland’s strong golfing tradition. Prestwick continued to host the championship until 1870.

After Willie Park Sr.’s win, Prestwick Golf Club organized the event annually. The competition format evolved, increasing the number of holes to 72 over four days, aligning with the current standard.

Introduction of the Claret Jug

In 1872, the iconic Claret Jug replaced the Challenge Belt as the winner’s trophy. Tom Morris Jr. won the first Open where this new trophy was awarded. Crafted by Mackay Cunningham & Company of Edinburgh, the Claret Jug has become a symbol of golfing excellence.

Winners’ names are engraved on the Jug, adding an element of legacy. The introduction of the Claret Jug marked a significant moment, enhancing the championship’s prestige.

More so, victors like Old Tom Morris and James Braid etched their names in history, creating a lineage of champions and solidifying the Open’s reputation as a premier event.

Evolution of the Tournament

The British Open, or The Open Championship, has evolved significantly since its inception in 1860. Here are some key stages in its development

Notable Changes and Milestones

The Open Championship has undergone several significant changes throughout its history. It expanded from 36 holes over two days to 72 holes over four days in 1892, increasing its rigor and prestige.

Live television broadcasts began in 1966, bringing the action to a global audience. Prize funds grew from £100 in the early 20th century to $14 million by 2023, reflecting the event’s rising prominence.

Starting in 1995, the tournament returned more frequently to historic venues like St Andrews and Royal Birkdale, preserving its heritage appeal.

Expansion of the Championship

Initially limited to UK players, The Open began welcoming international golfers early on. In 1922, Walter Hagen from the United States became the first non-British winner, setting a precedent for global participation.

By the late 20th century, champions hailed from various countries, highlighting the event’s international allure. Venues also diversified, with hosts like Royal Birkdale in England, Turn berry in Scotland, and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

The evolution of The Open Championship shows its dynamic nature, adapting to reflect the changing landscape of professional golf while maintaining its historical significance, ensuring its status as a cornerstone of the golfing world.

Iconic Venues and Course Rotation

The British Open, or The Open Championship, has a rich tradition of being played on some of the most iconic golf courses in the United Kingdom. Here are a few of the venues that have become synonymous with the championship

The Role of St Andrews

St Andrews, known as the “Home of Golf,” is pivotal to The Open Championship, with the Old Course being the most iconic venue.

First hosting the Open in 1873, it has held the event more frequently than any other site. The course is famous for its historic features like the Swilcan Bridge, Hell Bunker, and the Road Hole (17th), presenting unique challenges and unpredictable weather.

Legendary champions like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have secured memorable victories here, solidifying St Andrews’ status in golfing history.

Historical Significance of Prestwick

Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland holds historical significance as the birthplace of The Open Championship. The first tournament took place here in 1860, featuring a field of just eight professionals.

For the next decade, Prestwick remained the sole venue for the event before the tournament began to rotate among other courses.

The initial course was a 12-hole layout, which later expanded as golf evolved. While Prestwick last hosted The Open in 1925, its contribution to the tournament’s heritage remains unparalleled.

Notable Champions and Record Holders

Dominant Players Through the Decades

The Open Championship has a rich history with legendary golfers. JH Taylor won his fifth Open in 1907 with strategic play, and Arnaud Massy remains the only Frenchman to claim a major, also in 1907.

In modern times, Tiger Woods set a record with a score of 269 (-19) at St Andrews in 2000, while Rory McIlroy achieved 271 (-17) at Royal Liverpool in 2014. Golfers like Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson have also made significant impacts, cementing their elite status.

Significant Records in Open History

The Open Championship’s history is marked by impressive records, such as JH Taylor, James Braid, and Harry Vardon’s five wins each, with Vardon’s spanning 15 years.

Tiger Woods set the record for the lowest total score to par with -19 in 2000, while Tom Lehman’s 271 (-13) at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1996 remains notable.

Prize money has grown significantly, from Payne Stewart’s $825,000 win in 1989 to Rory McIlroy’s $975,000 in 2014, reflecting the event’s increased prestige and competitiveness.

The Open Championship endures as a platform for record-breaking performances and memorable moments.

Traditions and Cultural Impact

The British Open, or The Open Championship, holds a special place in the world of golf, not only for its sporting significance but also for its rich traditions and cultural impact. Here are some of the key traditions associated with the tournament and its broader cultural influence:

The Challenge Belt and the Silver Medal

The Challenge Belt, introduced in 1860 and made of red Moroccan leather, was the original prize for The Open Championship, representing the pinnacle of golfing achievement.

Any player winning it three times consecutively would gain permanent possession, which occurred with Young Tom Morris in 1870.

Consequently, the Claret Jug was introduced in 1872. Since 1949, the Silver Medal has been awarded to the leading amateur golfer, continuing the tradition of honoring excellence in the championship.

Global Influence and Broadcasting Evolution

The Open Championship’s global influence has grown significantly, making it one of golf’s most prestigious events. Broadcasting evolution played a crucial role, allowing fans worldwide to engage with the event.

NBC’s aggressive bid in 2015 helped secure broadcasting rights from 2017 to 2028, bringing the championship to a broader US audience.

The network’s experience with European sports, like the Premier League and Wimbledon, ensured smooth coverage. As a result, The Open’s cultural impact expanded, enhancing its global reach and drawing millions of viewers each year.

Notable British Open Championship Winners

The British Open Championship, often simply referred to as “The Open,” has seen numerous notable winners throughout its long and storied history. Here are some of the most memorable:

Harry Vardon

Harry Vardon, a golfer from Jersey, is one of the most exceptional figures in the history of the British Open Championship, winning the championship six times between 1896 and 1914—a record that remains unsurpassed.

His influence in the sport earned him a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Vardon’s six championship medals are displayed at the Jersey Museum, highlighting his enduring legacy in golf.

Tom Watson

Tom Watson is another legendary figure in the British Open’s history. He claimed the title five times between 1975 and 1983. Watson’s victories are particularly notable because he won on four different courses, demonstrating his adaptability and mastery.

His win at the 1977 Turnberry Open is one of the most celebrated contests in golf history. For Watson, these wins confirm his reputation as a dominant force in the sport, particularly in the challenging conditions often present in Open Championship play.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods is a modern-day golfing icon whose achievements in the British Open are nothing short of extraordinary. Woods won the Open Championship three times. His first victory in 2000 at St Andrews stands out with a score of 269, finishing 19 under par.

This performance remains one of the best in the championship’s history. Woods’s other victories came in 2005 and 2006, adding to his legendary status. His remarkable achievements in the British Open distinguish him as one of the greatest golfers of all time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who holds the record for the most wins at The Open Championship?

Harry Vardon holds the record for the most wins at The Open Championship with six victories between 1896 and 1914. His enduring success has earned him a revered place in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

How many Open Championships has Tom Watson won?

Tom Watson has won The Open Championship five times. His victories span from 1975 to 1983, showcasing his adaptability and skill across different courses, with his 1977 win at Turn berry being particularly celebrated.

How many times has Tiger Woods won The Open Championship?

Tiger Woods has won The Open Championship three times. His most notable victory was in 2000 at St Andrews, where he finished 19 under par, showcasing his remarkable skill and solidifying his status as one of the greatest golfers of all time.

When did the first Open Championship take place?

The first Open Championship took place on October 17, 1860, at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. This historic event marked the beginning of what would become the oldest of all four major golf championships.

Why is The Open Championship also called The British Open?

The Open Championship is often referred to as “The British Open” to distinguish it from other major golf tournaments like the U.S. Open. The term helps to specify the championship held in the United Kingdom as opposed to similar tournaments around the world.


The British Open’s storied history is a testament to the enduring spirit of golf. From Harry Vardon’s early 20th-century dominance to Tom Watson’s impressive adaptability and Tiger Woods’ modern-day brilliance the championship has seen legends rise and inspire.

Each victory adds a unique chapter to a legacy that continues to captivate and challenge golfers worldwide.

As you reflect on these moments you’re reminded of the timeless allure and prestige that make The Open Championship a cornerstone of golf history.

Whether it’s the unpredictable links courses or the passionate crowds, The Open remains the ultimate test of skill and endurance. Through rain or shine, its 150-year tradition endures, a beacon to all golf enthusiasts.

Photo of author

Colin McCarthy

Golf is about mastering your misses and learning from them. I seek answers on the how and why of the golf swing, gaining experience even when answers elude me. With over 11,000 hours of teaching and a hunger for learning, I welcome any questions. My goal is to introduce golf to as many as possible, simplifying the game for all to enjoy. Passionate, eager, and ambitious, I'm here to teach, listen, and learn. LinkedIn

Leave a Comment