Commentary

St. Andrews tops list of Open courses

Originally Published: July 9, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

His talents were many, including ball maker, "keeper of the green" and champion golfer.

Whether Tom Morris Sr. was a visionary is impossible to know, but it's a good bet -- a popular pastime in St. Andrews -- that he had nary an inkling of what was to become of golf's first "championship."

Morris was one of eight participants in the inaugural Open Championship in 1860, losing by two shots to rival Willie Park, at a time when stroke-play golf was rare and one-man or two-man team matches were the favorites of players and bettors alike.

The following year, Morris won the tournament for the first of four times, and later his son, Tom Jr., would win the title four times, retiring the championship "belt" which led to the creation of a Claret Jug for the victor. (Park would also win the championship four times.)

It is from those humble beginnings 150 years ago that the Open has grown into what many believe to be the premier event in the game, an anniversary to be celebrated when the tournament returns to the Old Course at St. Andrews next week.

During all that time, just 14 venues have combined to host the Open 138 times, with St. Andrews the leader at 27 championships. Scotland has been home to the Open 91 times, England 46 times and Northern Ireland once.

With a nod to the Open's 150th anniversary celebration this year, here is an unscientific and highly subjective ranking of all 14 venues.


1. The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland. (27 Opens; first: 1873; last: 2005).

This tops the list for obvious reasons. St. Andrews is considered the home of golf, the Old Course its jewel. Not everyone likes the layout, but its uniqueness makes it special and it is virtually the same as the one taken care of by Old Tom Morris in the late 19th century. The course has also seemingly produced some of the biggest winners of their generation. Tiger Woods this week will attempt to become just the fifth person to win a major at the same venue three times (excluding Augusta National) and the first since Harry Vardon won at Prestwick for the third time in 1914.

Did You Know? The R&A Clubhouse, which sits behind the first tee and 18th green, was built in 1854 and became home to golf's governing body (outside of the U.S.) in 1897.

2. Prestwick Golf Club, Prestwick, Scotland (24 Opens; first: 1860; last: 1925).

The original home to the Open Championship, Prestwick still rates because of its impressive history, even though it is no longer suited to host the championship. The first 12 Opens were played at Prestwick, and 15 of its 24 were played on a 12-hole layout that was not revamped until the late 1880s. Today, only four of the original holes remain, but the quirky layout is filled with history. The club's head pro, David Fleming, is the sixth person since Tom Morris Sr. to hold the job.

Did You Know? In 1870, Tom Morris Jr. won for the third straight time and started the tournament with a 3 on what was then a 578-yard opening hole that played as a par-6.

3. Turnberry, Ailsa Course, Turnberry, Scotland (four Opens; first: 1977; last: 2009)

Ailsa Golf Course
David Cannon/Getty ImagesTurnberry has hosted four Opens, including the memorable "Duel in the sun" between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

This is the most picturesque of the Open venues, hence such a high ranking for a course that has hosted the championship just four times. The last to join the rota in 1977, Turnberry has yet to disappoint, with Tom Watson's "Duel in the Sun" with Jack Nicklaus in 1977, followed by Greg Norman's first major title in 1986, a memorable finish for Nick Price in 1994 and Watson's remarkable run at becoming the oldest major champion at age 59 last year that ended with a playoff defeat to Stewart Cink. Photos of the Ailsa Craig off the Turnberry coast are some of the most popular in golf.

Did You Know? During both World Wars, Turnberry was used as a military air base, with the hotel turned into a hospital for the wounded.

4. Royal Birkdale, Southport, England (nine Opens; first: 1954; last: 2008)

Located along northwest England's finest stretch of links golf, Royal Birkdale is a relative newcomer to the Open rota and now among the most popular locales along with St. Andrews and Royal Lytham & St. Anne's. It didn't host its first Open until 1951, when Peter Thomson won the first of three straight, but has been home to the championship nine times, including Padraig Harrington's come-from-behind victory over Norman two years ago.

Did You Know? Birkdale will be home to the Women's British Open in two weeks.

5. Carnoustie Golf Club, Carnoustie, Scotland (seven Opens; first: 1931; last: 2007)

Only logistical issues kept Carnoustie from hosting the championship more often because the course has earned a reputation for being one of the toughest links layouts in the world. It is where Ben Hogan won his one and only Open in 1953, where Watson won his first of five in 1975, where Jean Van de Velde became infamous in 1999 and where Harrington in 2007 avoided the same fate by defeating Sergio Garcia in a memorable playoff. The words "Barry Burn" are part of golf lore.

Did You Know? When Hogan won the title in 1953, 36 holes were played on the final day. He birdied the par-5 sixth twice on the way to a four-shot victory and the hole is named "Hogan's Alley."

6. Royal Portrush, Portrush, Northern Ireland (one Open: 1951)

Royal Portrush
David Cannon/Getty ImagesRoyal Portrush is the only course to host the Open Championship oustide of England and Scotland.

The only Open to be played outside of Scotland or England was at Royal Portrush, and it is a shame the R&A has not found a way to get back. Logistical concerns, undoubtedly, are the reason, certainly not the golf course, which is known for its stunning beauty and immense difficulty when the wind howls. The town of Portrush is home to the new U.S. Open champion, Graeme McDowell. Perhaps his influence, along with that of countryman Rory McIlroy, will get the Open back.

Did You Know? Fred Daly, born and raised in Portrush and a member of the club, was the only Irishman to win the Open until Harrington's triumph in 2007. Daly won the title in 1947 at Hoylake.

7. Muirfield, Gullane, Scotland (15 Opens; first: 1892; last 2002)

Properly known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield is one of the oldest clubs in the world and often cited as the fairest of the Open venues. The course was opened in 1891 and became a frequent site of the Open, replacing nearby Musselburgh. The list of winners at Muirfield certainly says something: Vardon, Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Nicklaus, Watson, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els.

Did You Know? Golf was first played at Muirfield in 1891 on 18 holes laid out by Tom Morris Sr.

8. Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, England (11 Opens; first: 1897; last: 2006)

The first club in northwest England to host an Open, Hoylake, as it is called, is the second-oldest seaside links in England and home to some nice history. It was the venue for the first (British) Amateur Championship in 1895 and two of the three amateurs who won the Open, Harold Hilton and John Ball, were Hoylake members. It is also where another amateur, Bobby Jones, won the second leg of the Grand Slam in 1930. Hoylake went 39 years between Opens when Woods won in the Open's return to the venue in 2006.

Did You Know? Hoylake will host the Women's British Open for the first time in 2012, but the event will be played in September so as not to coincide with the Olympics, slated for London that year.

9. Royal Troon, Troon, Scotland (eight Opens; first: 1923; last: 2004)

A next-door neighbor to Prestwick (in fact, the two clubs have an annual tournament in which they start at one course and play through onto the holes of the other and back again), Troon has an out and back configuration similar to the Old Course and was better equipped to handle the demands of a big tournament, hence it replaced Prestwick in the rota. The famous "postage stamp" eighth hole is where Gene Sarazen made an ace at age 71 in 1973.

Did You Know? Mark Calcavecchia's 1989 victory was achieved during the Open's first four-hole playoff. He defeated Wayne Grady and Norman, who had birdied the first six holes and shot a course-record 64, a mark that still stands.

10. Royal St. George's, Sandwich, England (13 Opens; first: 1894; last: 2003).

The first course in England to host the championship, St. George's has also been the site of the Open more than any other club south of the Scottish border and ranks fourth overall. The last two Opens at Sandwich, as it is commonly known, were won in dramatic fashion by Norman (1993) and then-unknown Ben Curtis (2003). Located near the Kent coast, on a clear day you can see France from the surrounding area. The Open returns to Royal St. George's for a 14th time in 2011.

Did You Know? Author Ian Fleming used Royal St. George's in his 1959 novel "Goldfinger" but called it "Royal St. Mark's."

11. Royal Lytham & St. Anne's, Lytham St. Anne's, England (10 Opens; first: 1926; last: 2001).

It starts with a par-3 and is not overly long, but with some 200 bunkers, Lytham can be very exacting, especially when the wind blows. Jones won the first Open at Lytham in 1926 and it took until 1996 for another American, Tom Lehman, to win at the course on England's northwest coast. It is also where England's Tony Jacklin became the event's first home-grown winner in 1969. When Lytham hosts the Open in 2012, it will mark the first time in Open history that the championship will be played in England in consecutive years. (It is at Royal St. George's in 2011.)

Did You Know? Before the final round of the 1926 championship, Jones had forgotten his competitor's ticket and was refused access to the course by an unknowing attendant. Jones simply paid for admission. He went on to win the first of his three Opens.

12. Royal Cinque Ports, Deal, England (two Opens: 1909, 1920)

Located a few miles from Royal St. George's, Deal, as it is commonly called, would have hosted the championship far more often were it not for world circumstances. It lost out because of wars in 1915 and 1938. The 1949 Open scheduled for Cinque Ports was moved to Royal St. George's because of flooding. An interesting moment in golf history occurred at Deal in 1920 when Hagen defied orders to change in the pro shop -- as required of all professionals at the time. Pros were barred from the clubhouse, but Hagen had his limo driver park at the flag pole, where he would change his shoes each day. Hagen would win the Open four times.

Did You Know? Karen Stupples, who won the 2004 Women's British Open, is a member at Royal Cinque Ports.

13. Prince's, Sandwich, England. (one Open: 1932).

Located adjacent to Royal St. George's, the course made for three Open venues within a few miles of each other, but it got its one and only Open in 1932, when Sarazen set a scoring record that stood for 18 years. Much of the course was destroyed during World War II as the Royal Air Force used it for bombing target practice. Although the greens were left mostly intact, the Open would never return.

Did You Know? Sarazen led the only Open at Prince's after every round and defeated Macdonald Smith by five strokes.

14. Musselburgh, Musselburgh, Scotland. (six Opens; first: 1874; last: 1889)

Last but certainly not least, Musselburgh goes to the end of the list simply because somebody had to and it is the course farthest removed from hosting the championship, last doing so in 1889. The nine-hole course is a loop which is mostly contained within an existing horse race track and it played a big part in the early days of the championship, as for a time it was rotated between Musselburgh, St. Andrews and Prestwick.

Did You Know? The course is officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest surviving golf course.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com