On October 17, 1860 Willy Park Sr. won what would be the very first British Open Championship by two strokes at Prestwick Golf Club in Ayrshire, Scotland.
I suppose one could start the tale of The Open Championship by going back to the beginnings of the ancient game. However, I’ve chosen 1854 as our story’s start because that year several key players of the first Open were involved in a pivotal moment.
In 1854, the aforementioned Willie Park burst onto the Scottish professional golfing scene by challenging Allan Robertson (generally accepted as the world’s best), Old Tom Morris, or Willy Dunn to a £100-stake (roughly £11,000 today, or $13,500) match after he had given Morris a “thrashing” during a previous friendly encounter. Unfortunately for Park, none of the three accepted the challenge. Instead, Morris’ brother, George, agreed to a match-play contest at St. Andrews Links.
Park, whose off-the-course profession was crafting golf clubs, soundly beat George by a whopping 10 holes. Perhaps in an effort to restore his family’s honor, Tom Morris agreed to face Park the morning after the massacre. Once more, Park had the upper hand and won by four holes. One day later, the pair played again, this time with Morris winning by “three or four holes”. These would be the first of many challenge meetings between Park and Morris.
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Five years later, Robertson tragically died due to an attack of jaundice in his mid-40s. Because of his prowess with the club was so respected, the golfing world became left without unanimous champion.
With a hole at the top of the mountain, Prestwick Golf Club’s board decided to hold a stroke-play tournament for a “champion belt” to determine the best golfer in all of Great Britain. The belt itself was made of red Morocco leather and cost a reported £25 (around £3,000 in today’s terms, or $3,700) to make.
Invitations were sent out to numerous clubs across England and Scotland by the event’s principal organizer, James Ogilvie Fairlie. These invites requested that each club send no more than three of its best players. They also remarked that only “Cawdies, i.e. Professional Players, not Keepers of Links” were eligible to enter.
The tournament would be held at Prestwick’s links course, located along the Firth of Clyde in west Scotland. Before 1882, the course featured only 12 holes totaling 3,802 yards in all (a little more than half of what you might see on today’s PGA Tour). These holes featured various nicknames, from the short seventh hole, Green Hollow (144 yards), to the mammoth first hole, Back of Cardinal (578 yards). Because the now-standard golf rules of par had not been invented yet, no hole at Prestwick—or, indeed, the whole course—had a suggested score.
On the day of the event, only eight men showed; seven from Scotland and one who came all the way from London. They were organized into four pairings of two men each:
- Old Tom Morris (Prestwick) and Robert Andrew (Perth)
- Willie Park Sr. (Musselburgh) and Alexander Smith (Edinburgh)
- William Steel (Edinburgh) and Charlie Hunter (Prestwick)
- George Daniel Brown (London) and Andrew Strath (St. Andrews)
The windy day saw the golfers start at noon. Local favorite Morris began well and opened with a round of 58 strokes over the first 12 holes. He then finished with two rounds of 59 for a total of 176.
Unfortunately for Morris, his on-course rival from the town of Musselburgh did a bit better. Park opened with a blistering 55 in his first round. He equaled Morris over the second leg, and did one worse on the third, but it was enough for a two-stroke victory of 174.
According to the official Open website, Park arrived on the final “bobbly green” 30 feet from the hole needing two putts for the win and three for the tie. The Musselburgh man didn’t need the extra putts and simply sank the 30-footer.
A contemporary report of the time remarked that no one had ever seen Morris “come to grief so often” during the tournament and likened the golfer’s defeat to that of Britain’s at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War.
After three rounds on Prestwick’s 12-hole course, the leaderboard ultimately looked like this:
- Willie Park, 174
- Tom Morris, 176
- Andrew Strath, 180
- Robert Andrew, 191
- George Daniel Brown, 192
- Charlie Hunter, 195
- Alexander Smith, 196
- William Steel, 232
With the win, Park earned the red Moroccan challenge belt and wrote his name into The Open Championship annuals by claiming the first-ever title.
Willie frichtens us wi’ his long driving.
The renowned golfer in 1854 on Park’s long game
Two days after the tournament, Park and Morris contested a friendly match at the Prestwick links with £20 at stake. This time, Morris got the better of Park and won the 36-hole match-play contest by seven holes with six left to play.
Park and Morris would continue to battle on the course over the coming years. During the tournament’s first eight years, Morris won the champion belt four times and Park three (Andrew Strath’s win in 1865 was the lone non-Park or Morris breakthrough). Their dominance would end when Morris’ son, Young Tom Morris, won the belt in perpetuity by capturing three straight championships from 1868 to ’70.
The duo continued their more popular—and more profitable—challenge matches, too. The last of these came in May 1882, when Park threw down the gauntlet for a £200 (about £240,000 today, or $290,000) match. After a 144-hole, week-plus marathon that took place at four Scottish courses—Musselburgh, St. Andrews, Prestwick, and North Berwick—Park ultimately won 48 holes to Morris’ 41 (they halved 55).
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Park became known throughout his career for powerful driving and strong putting, although some found his iron game to be lacking. The golfer was especially proud of his cleek (essentially a driving iron from ancient times) and his wooden putter, both of which he suggested “ought to be framed, on account of the many important matches he had won by their help.”
“Auld Willie”, as he was known later in life, won his fourth and final Open in 1875. His last appearance at an Open came at Musselburgh Links in 1886, although he withdrew after only one round. The club maker later passed away at the age of 70 in 1903.
Old Tom Morris, meanwhile, died four years later at 87 years old. He made his 34th and final Open appearance at Muirfield in 1896. Morris holds a couple of age-related records for the tournament that still stand today: oldest champion (in 1867 at 46 years and 99 days) and oldest competitor (in 1896 at 74 years, 11 months, and 24 days).
In September 1861, the tournament committee officially made the competition “open”. An excerpt from meeting minutes reads:
It was unanimously resolved that the Challenge Belt tomorrow and on all future occasions until it be otherwise resolved shall be open to all the world.
While The Open opened itself up to the world in 1861, the victors list would remain a Scottish stronghold for nearly 30 years. The first crack came in 1890, when England’s John Ball paced the pack. American success wouldn’t be achieved until Jock Hutchison triumphed at St. Andrews in 1921.
The early course rotation also had a strong Scottish flavor before the 1894 edition was held at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, Kent along England’s southeast coast. In total, 14 courses across Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland have hosted The Open.
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Prestwick held the first 12 Opens, until the “home of golf”, St. Andrews, played host in 1873. The Prestwick course would remain in the rotation until 1925 when it hosted its 24th and final Open. In 2010, the then-club secretary, Ian Bunch, told the New York Times that “it would be nice to do an Open at Prestwick again, but I’m afraid it’s just impossible because of crowd control and because the closing loop would not allow it.”
After Young Tom Morris won sole rights to the belt in 1870, the now-historic Claret Jug arrived on the scene, with Tom Kidd lifting it first. The original Claret Jug was given to champions until 1928, when a replica was commissioned; that replica has been hoisted by every winner since.
The long spoon was also a powerful weapon in his hands. With it a bad-lying ball went away as if it had been shot from some rocket apparatus.
Golf writer in the 1895 Golfer’s Guide on Willie Park Sr.’s ability with the wood
Unsurprisingly, no images exist of the actual play from that October day in 1860. However, in 2016, a painting by artist Peter Munro was commissioned by Professor David Purdie to represent the opening tee shot at Prestwick. The art piece depicts Old Tom Morris preparing to drive his ball off the tee. Willie Park Sr., in gray, can also be seen in the image:
One other related image exists, too. Park later posed for a shot while wearing the challenge belt:
No one who was a spectator of the struggle could regain from feeling and expressing their high appreciation of Park’s play.
On Park’s victory in 1860 (as printed in the Fife Herald)
- In 1860, members of the Prestwick Golf Club invited golfers from across Scotland and England to compete in a one-day tournament for a “challenge belt”.
- The inaugural event was won by Willy Park Sr., who shot 174 over 36 holes. He beat runner-up Old Tom Morris by two strokes.
- Park went on to win three more times; Morris won four total as well.
- The event would later be called The Open Championship, which is still run today; the 2019 tournament was the 148th edition.
- Golf, by Horace G. Hutchinson via HathiTrust
- The Golf-book of east Lothian, edited by John Kerr via HathiTrust
- Golfer’s Guide for the United Kingdom 1895, edited by William Dalrymple via the NJ Historical Portal
- The Daily Scotsman, September 2, 1859 via The British Newspaper Archive
- The Evening Telegraph (Dundee), July 27, 1903 via The British Newspaper Archive
- The Fife Herald, October 11, 1860 via The British Newspaper Archive
- The Fife Herald, October 25, 1860 via The British Newspaper Archive
- The Scotsman, November 24, 1860 via The British Newspaper Archive
- “A look at the birthplace of The Open: Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland”, Golf Advisor
- “12 hole prestwick pre 1883”, Golf Club Atlas
- “The Coming of The Open – History of The Open Golf Championship”, Golf Today via the Internet Archive
- ” ‘Opening Drive’ and the Scene of the First Open Championship”, Graylyn Loomis
- “All-Time Bests From the British Open”, LiveAbout
- “Home of the Open (Before St. Andrews)”, The New York Times
- “A history of how the 1860 Prestwick tournament became the first Open Championship”, The Oklahoman
- “Previous Opens”, The Open
- “The Open Championship”, Prestwick Golf Club
- “Capturing The Open’s first tee shot at Prestwick”, The R&A
- “1851 Prestwick”, Scottish Golf History
- “The Founding Fathers of Golf”, The Wall Street Journal
- “Park Sr., Willie”, World Golf Hall of Fame