Top 20: Dramatic British Open moments
By Tom Alter, PGATOUR.COM
One man’s opinion of the 20 most dramatic moments in the British Open since World War II:
1. 1977: Jack Nicklaus was 10 shots ahead of his closest pursuer when he came to the final hole of the 1977 British Open at a baked Turnberry. One problem: he also was one she behind Tom Watson. Nicklaus played aggressively on the short par-4 18th, but his tee shot with a driver went into gorse right of the fairway. With a mighty slash, Nicklaus got the ball onto the edge of the green. Watson responded with a 7-iron to about 3 feet. Nicklaus drained his long birdie putt to temporarily tie for the lead. Watson threw both arms in the air after his short putt dropped for the win. Nicklaus shot 65-66 on that weekend at Turnberry, while Watson closed with consecutive 65s. Their epic battle was dubbed “The Duel in the Sun.”
2. 1999: Jean Van de Velde held a three-stroke lead when he arrived at the final hole of the 1999 British Open. Carnoustie’s 18th is one of the most difficult holes in golf. Out-of-bounds hugs the left side, while the Barry Burn runs down the right side and cuts in front of the green. Instead of playing conservatively, Van de Velde hit driver and caught a good break when his tee shot landed right of the burn. Van de Velde eschewed the opportunity to lay up with his second shot as well, selecting a 2-iron. And that’s when all hell broke loose. His ball flew into the grandstand right of the green and took one of the worst bounces in major-championship history; it ricocheted back across the creek into knee-high rough. Van de Velde dumped the next shot into the burn and waded in to try to play it before deciding to take a drop. He’d eventually make a 10-footer for triple-bogey 7 to get into a playoff with 1997 champ Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie. Lawrie, a Scot who shot a final-round 67, won the playoff, but every collapse in tournament golf is now known as “pulling a Van de Velde.”
3. 1972: Lee Trevino was in trouble in 1972 as he tried to win his second consecutive British Open. Jack Nicklaus had shot a final-round 66 to roar into a share of the lead. England’s Tony Jacklin, who was playing alongside Trevino, had a makeable eagle putt for the outright lead while Trevino was in a bunker at Muirfield’s par-5 17th. Trevino bladed his sand shot over the green. He was so upset with that shot that he didn’t even set his feet on his chip shot back to the green, but it went in. The unlikely birdie rattled Jacklin, who three-putted from 15 feet. Trevino was the first player to win two straight British Opens since Arnold Palmer 10 years earlier. And Jacklin was never quite the same player.
4. 1970: Doug Sanders had a two-and-a-half foot putt to win his first major championship at the 1970 British Open. At St. Andrews. Over Jack Nicklaus. It was all too much. He missed. The next day, the pair was tied as they arrived at the 18th hole. Nicklaus unleashed all of his power to drive it over the green on the par-4. After a chip, Nicklaus faced a makeable putt for the title. He didn’t miss. Nicklaus threw his putter in the air, almost hitting Sanders in the head. Sanders, who would win 20 PGA TOUR titles without a major, became the poster child for players who let one slip away on a short putt.
5. 2009: Five-time British Open champion Tom Watson doesn’t play ceremonial golf. He plays to win, even at age 59. Watson held a one-shot lead when his approach into the 72nd hole at Turnberry bounced through the green and he couldn’t get it up-and-down. He lost a four-hole playoff to Stewart Cink, who recognized Watson was such a crowd favorite that Cink said even he was rooting for his opponent. But Cink’s name was added to the Claret Jug in 2009.
6. 1995: John Daly burst onto the sports scene with a Cinderella victory at the 1991 PGA Championship. His incredible power belied his amazing touch. At the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, Daly used all of his skills to post a one-shot lead in the clubhouse. Only Costantina Rocca could catch him. The Italian nearly drove the green at No. 18 and it looked like a tying birdie was imminent. Rocca chunked his chip into the Valley of Sin, though. A desperate Rocca faced a 50-footer for the tie, and made it. Although Daly prevailed in the playoff, the lasting image of this championship was Rocca on his knees with his arms pumping over his head celebrating his miraculous tying birdie.
7. 1979: All eyes were on one player at the 1979 British Open: a 22-year-old who sprayed drives all over Royal Lytham (even into a temporary parking lot), and then figured out a way to make one spectacular recovery after another. Seve Ballesteros won the first of his three British Opens that week, but it was the Spaniard’s swashbuckling style that endeared Ballesteros to golf fans around the world forever.
8. 1994: Nick Price wasn’t No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking heading into the 1994 British Open, but he was playing like it. Price, who held the third-round lead, was trailing Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik as he stared at a lengthy eagle putt at Turnberry’s short, par-5 17th. Price holed the putt, and his running jump was the exclamation point of his eventual rise to No. 1 in the world.
9. 1969: When Tony Jacklin finished the third round of the 1969 British Open with a two-stroke lead, the pressure on the Englishman to become the first homegrown British Open champ in 18 years was enormous. Jacklin was up to the challenge of history at Royal Lytham. He maintained that two-shot advantage to beat Bob Charles for the title. And when Jacklin won the U.S. Open the next year, he was the first Englishman to hold both Open crowns since Harry Vardon in 1900.
10. 2000: Tiger Woods was at the height of his powers at the 2000 British Open. He’d just won the U.S. Open by an unthinkable 15 shots. He was leading by six shots after 54 holes at St. Andrews. Woods said later that his warm-up session prior to his final round was the best he’s ever had. He romped to an eight-shot victory, thanks to never finding one of the 112 bunkers protecting the Old Course. It was Tiger’s first British Open title, allowing him to complete the career Grand Slam at age 24. He joined Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the only greats to win all four major championships. This historic win was also the second leg of what would come to be known as the Tiger Slam.
11. 1949: In the second round of the 1949 British Open at Royal St. George’s, Harry Bradshaw’s ball came to rest next to a broken bottle. He wasn’t sure if he could take relief (which he could), and hit a terrible shot from the glass. This lone stroke probably cost Bradshaw his chance to become Ireland’s first Open champion. He got into a playoff with Bobby Locke, and the South African putting wizard won the first of his four Open Championships.
12. 1990: Tournaments can’t be won and lost on Saturday, right? Well, at the 1990 British Open at St. Andrews, the two best players in the world – Greg Norman and Nick Faldo -- were in the final group for the third round. Faldo shot 67 to open up a five-shot lead. Norman shot 76. Faldo maintained that advantage for his second British Open, and planted the seed for another historic comeback at the 1996 Masters.
13. 2007: Great things have been expected from Spain’s Sergio Garcia since he burst onto the scene with a runner-up finish at the 1999 PGA Championship at age 19. But Garcia struggled to close the deal in a major, and everyone held their breath when Garcia held a one-stroke lead on Carnoustie’s diabolic home hole in the 2007 British Open. Garcia faced a 7-foot par putt as he tried to become the first player to win the British Amateur and the British Open since Bobby Jones. He lipped out. The playoff with long-time rival Padraig Harrington, who had his own troubles on the 72nd hole, was practically over when Harrington made birdie to Garcia’s bogey on the first extra hole. The championship ended with Harrington a national hero, and Sergio feeling snake-bit.
14. 2012: Adam Scott held a four-shot lead with four holes to go in the 2012 British Open at Royal Lytham as he sought his first major title. While Scott was suffering through three consecutive bogeys, ahead at No. 18 Ernie Els drained the most important putt of his career since his win at Muirfield 10 years earlier. Scott now needed a closing par to force a playoff; instead he missed a 7-foot par putt and his longtime confidant and Presidents Cup teammate had his fourth major championship.
15. 1960: Arnold Palmer was the reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion when he decided to make his first appearance in British Open in 1960. His presence and charisma reinvigorated the oldest major. And when he made one of his renowned charges in the final round, Palmer nearly became the first player to ever have a chance to win the modern Grand Slam. Instead, Australian Kel Nagle withstood the challenge; he played the Road Hole as a three-shot hole and made a clutch 10-footer for par to win by one. Palmer would have to wait another year to hoist the Claret Jug.
16. 1961: Arnold Palmer came to Royal Birkdale in 1961 determined to win the British Open that he came so close to winning the year before. After three rounds, he and Dai Rees were clear of the field. It was kind of like match play for the two men, and the Welshman was a Ryder Cup stalwart. But he was no Arnold Palmer. “The King” held off Rees for the first of his two consecutive Open Championship victories.
17. 1953: Like Sam Snead before him at St. Andrews in 1946, Ben Hogan won the Open Championship in his only appearance in 1953 at Carnoustie. Unlike Snead, Hogan found the experience exhilarating. Hogan famously threaded his tee shot on the sixth hole between the fairway bunker and the out-of-bounds stake just a few yards apart to set up easy birdies on the par-5. This victory was the crowning achievement in his historic season that saw “The Wee Ice Mon” win five of just the six tournaments he entered, including three majors.
18. 1965: Peter Thomson had already won four British Opens, but there was a perception that he needed to validate those victories. America’s best players didn’t go across the pond when Thomson was winning in the 1950s, but they were all there at Royal Birkdale in 1965. His victory over the likes of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus is proof that the Aussie was one of the best links players of all time.
19. 1986: After being unable to finish off 54-hole leads at The Masters and U.S. Open, Greg Norman was a man on a mission at the 1986 British Open. The Great White Shark chewed up Turnberry with a second-round 63 to equal the lowest score in major championship history. He held the 54-hole lead for the third consecutive major, yet this time was able to meet the promise of his talent. Norman won the first of his two Opens by five shots.
20. 1985: The most unforgettable moment of the 1985 British Open was when Peter Jacobsen tackled a streaker on the home hole. However, the most dramatic moment at Royal St. George’s was Sandy Lyle’s come-from-behind victory. Trailing a couple of major champions, David Graham and Bernhard Langer, by three shots headed into the final round, it was the Scot who performed in the clutch to win his first major and become the first Brit to win the Open in 16 years.
And here is one man’s guess at the five most dramatic moments at The Open Championship before World War II:
1. 1869: The 1869 British Open was the ninth tournament in the short history of competitive golf. Old Tom Morris was easily the most important figure in the burgeoning golf world. He was not only the best player, “Old Tom” was a clubmaker and course designer. He had already won four of the first eight championships (and twice was a runner-up) as the tournament headed back to Prestwick. He finished a runner-up again in ’69 because his son – Young Tom Morris – beat him. Imagine today what the drama would be like if a famous father was vanquished by his son in a major championship. “Young Tom” won four consecutive Open Championships before tournament's championship belt was retired. The tournament replaced the belt with a silver trophy -- the Claret Jug – which remains one of the most famous trophies in sports.
2. 1922: The flamboyant Walter Hagen liked to live like a millionaire even though no golf professional was making millions early in the 20th century; in fact, they weren’t even allowed in the clubhouse. At the 1920 British Open, Hagen used a limo with a chauffeur as his personal dressing room in the parking lot. And in ’22, when Hagen became the first native-born American to win the Open Championship by one shot over Jim Barnes and George Duncan, the prestige of the pro golfer was elevated to new heights. His victory at Royal St. George’s was his fourth major and the first of his four Open Championships.
3. 1930: Who’s the last amateur to win the British Open? Or the last player to win The British Open and The British Amateur in the same season? The answer to both questions is, of course, Bobby Jones. In 1930, Jones won the last of his three British Open at Royal Liverpool just a week after claiming his only British Amateur. His amazing double dip sparked a tickertape parade in New York City, and fueled speculation that Jones could go on to win the “impregnable quadrilateral,” i.e., win the British Open and Amateur plus the U.S. Open and Amateur in one year. As we all know, Jones went on to win the Grand Slam in 1930, and promptly retired as the greatest amateur the game has ever seen.
4. 1932: There was only one moment of drama during Gene Sarazen’s wire-to-wire victory at the 1932 British Open at Prince’s Golf Club in Sandwich, but it had a legacy that would change the game forever. The first time Sarazen was in a bunker, he pulled out a club hidden in his bag that he designed himself. Inspired by how air travels over an airplane wing, Sarazen built a lofted club with a flange lower than the leading edge so the club would “bounce” through the sand and produce more consistent shots. Today we know the club as the sand wedge, but in winning the ’32 British Open, his competitors dubbed it “the weapon.”
5. 1914: Harry Vardon was the most accomplished player in the world at the 1914 British Open. Vardon and his rival J.H. Taylor each had won five British Opens, and Taylor led by two strokes heading into the final round at Prestwick. The 44-year-old Vardon prevailed for a three-stroke win to capture his sixth Open Championship, a record that still stands today. Only Jack Nicklaus at The Masters has won as many titles in the same major. The 1914 British Open was the last championship until 1920 because of World War I.
Tom Alter, VP-Communications, has worked at the PGA TOUR for more than 25 years in various capacities involving television production, programming and promotion. He has watched every U.S. Open since attending a practice round at the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.