LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND (AP) - Picking the best five from the oldest championship in golf isn’t easy, not with 150 years of history.
Willie Park Sr. won the first British Open at Prestwick in 1860 _ a month before Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. president. Against an eight-man field on a 12-hole course along the Ayrshire coast of Scotland, he defeated Old Tom Morris by two shots and won the championship belt, but not money. Darren Clarke won the most recent Open at Royal St. George’s, capturing a silver claret jug and nearly $1.5 million, plus much more endorsement incentives.
Walter Hagen was the first American to win the British Open. Ben Hogan played only one time and won. Byron Nelson never came over to Britain enough, and it was the only major keeping him from the Grand Slam. The Open introduced the golfing world to the genius of Seve Ballesteros and the ruthlessness of Tiger Woods.
Here are five of the best British Opens:
5. SEVE BALLESTEROS AT ST. ANDREWS
The leaderboard was strong. The finish was dramatic. What made this one of the best British Opens was the celebration of Seve Ballesteros, who captured his second claret jug at the home of golf in 1984. Ballesteros trailed by two shots against Ian Baker-Finch, who faded quickly, and Tom Watson, who did not. Going for a record-tying sixth Open Championship, Watson was tied for the lead until he went long on the 17th, his ball between the road and wall, leading to bogey. In the group ahead, Ballesteros made a 15-foot birdie putt that effectively clinched the win. He thrust his fist down when the putt dropped in on the last turn, gleefully shook his fist, and then turned and thrust his arm in victory, an indelible image that became his logo. He won by two shots over Watson, who wouldn’t win another major, and Bernhard Langer, who would win his first major a year later at the Masters.
4. COMEDY OF ERRORS AT CARNOUSTIE
The most shocking collapse gave way to the greatest comeback in major championship history in 1999 at Carnoustie. Jean Van de Velde of France, thanks to a brilliant week with the putter, opened a five-shot lead going into the final round and still led by three shots going to the final hole. What followed was inexplicable. A driver off the tee that narrowly avoided the Barry Burn. A 2-iron that struck the railing of the bleachers and caromed back some 80 yards in front of the burn into heavy rough. A wedge that fluttered into the burn. A penalty shot. A wedge to the bunker. He had to make an 8-foot putt for triple bogey just to join a playoff.
Paul Lawrie teed off an hour earlier, 10 shots out of the lead, and his Sunday-best 67 figured to be worth no more than second place. Remarkably, he was in a playoff with Van de Velde and former Open champion Justin Leonard. Lawrie took the lead in the four-hole playoff with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th. And after Leonard hit into the Barry Burn for his second shot on the 18th, Lawrie hit 3-iron to 3 feet for birdie to secure his name on the claret jug and in the record book for the largest comeback ever in a major.
3. HOGAN AT CARNOUSTIE
In his only trip to the British Open in 1953, Ben Hogan became the first player to win three professional majors in one season, and he joined Gene Sarazen as the only players to win the career Grand Slam.
Not many Americans came to the British Open at that time because of the time it took to travel, and because the winner received only 500 pounds, not enough to cover expenses. Hogan would have seemed the most unlikely because of his badly damaged legs from his 1949 auto accident. He had to qualify for the Open, as did everyone in that era, and his appearance in Scotland drew enormous attention.