With now 30 British Opens played at St. Andrews dating to 1873, distilling the history of the Open and the Old Course into a dozen or fewer shots is no easy task.
Despite opening and closing holes that could be considered relatively easy — until the pressure is on — St. Andrews has provided some incredible moments.
For example, No. 1 is the easiest opening tee shot in championship golf, and also the most nerve-racking. The hole is fraught with history, tradition, the peering eyes of the R&A members from the nearby clubhouse and the prospects of trying not to go out-of-bounds right (easily within play) or left (as Ian Baker-Finch did) on a fairway that’s 100 yards wide.
Meanwhile, the home hole at St. Andrews is the least worrisome of the lot, as long as you don’t park your tee shot across the white boundary fence along The Link (a road) and its frontage of houses, hotels, clubhouses and shops. The green is indeed drivable, given the slightest favoring wind and some dry ground. The tee shot is toward the clock on the R&A clubhouse, from which it’s a wedge, bump-and-run or long putt through a deep swale (Valley of Sin) to a green sitting in the middle of town and farmed by huge spectator stands. It’s not a very testing hole but certainly a very sporting one – dense with tradition and emotion. In that sense, it’s a fitting end.
Many memories have been made at those two holes and others. Here is a look at the 11 greatest:
With only two par 3s – Nos. 8 and 11 – St. Andrews offers limited chances for holes-in-one. Yet Jock Hutchison nearly made two in the same round. Hutchison, the 1920 PGA Championship winner, was born in St. Andrews but emigrated to the United States as a young man. He arrived back in Scotland early in 1921 and played many rounds on the Old Course in preparation for the Open. Hutchison aced the 142-yard eighth hole, then drove the 303-yard, par-4 ninth and missed holing out by inches. Those eagles proved pivotal in an opening-round 72. Hutchison tied amateur Roger Wethered at 296, then won the 36-hole playoff by nine shots.
The Road Hole bunker has claimed many victims over the years. This small pot bunker at No. 17 sometimes can be nearly impossible to escape, as Japan’s Tommy Nakajima found out in 1978. He was in contention in the final round until he found the sand, then couldn’t get out. Nakajima needed four shots to escape on his way to a quintuple-bogey 9. The locals christened the little bunker “The Sands of Nakajima.”
Jones arrived as defending champion after having won his first Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He quickly proved he was the man to beat at St. Andrews, needing only 29 putts in racing to an opening 68, his first sub-70 score in a major. The highlight was a 120-foot eagle putt on the fifth hole. It helped him to a six-shot first-round lead, the margin by which he would win the title as he set a major-championship scoring record of 285.
Hale Irwin isn’t the only player to whiff a putt in the British Open. Fifty years before Irwin’s gaffe at Royal Birkdale cost him a playoff with Tom Watson, fellow American Leo Diegel made a similar mistake. In Diegel’s unique putting stroke, both elbows pointed outward and his forearms were parallel to the ground. His whiff on the 72nd hole at St. Andrews punctuated his nervous disposition on the greens. All Diegel had to do was tap in his par putt to join a playoff with eventual winner Denny Shute and Craig Wood. Bernard Darwin reported that Diegel missed “by the widest possible margin.” That was being kind: He missed the ball completely.
No one pays much attention these days when players drive the final green on the Old Course. At “just” 360 yards, the hole can be taken for granted when the conditions are right. That wasn’t the case in 1970. In the days before titanium and graphite, 360 yards was a long blow, even for Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear surged to a four-shot lead in the playoff before Doug Sanders battled back. With his lead down to one on the 18th, Nicklaus removed his sweater and then drove through the green. With Sanders just 4 feet from the hole in two, Nicklaus chipped to 8 feet and holed the putt for his second Open victory.
Baker-Finch was a shadow of his former self by the time he played in the 1995 Open. Paired with Arnold Palmer in the opening round for Palmer’s final Open, Baker-Finch brought a game nowhere near the standard of his ’91 victory at Royal Birkdale. Baker-Finch hooked his tee shot so badly it went out of bounds at the first, missing the widest fairway in golf. His shame was compounded by his visor falling off his head. Baker-Finch stumbled to a 77, added a 76 and missed the cut.
Watson seemed destined to win and tie Harry Vardon’s record of six Open victories. Watson might have done it if he’d chosen one club less on 17. Watson drove close to the out-of-bounds on the right and faced a long approach into the green. He chose 2-iron, hoping to draw it into the green. The draw never came. Watson’s ball ran through the green, over the road and up against the brick out-of-bounds wall. His bogey 5 and Seve Ballesteros’ birdie at the 18th proved to be the two shots that separated the pair at the end.
On his final hole of regulation, Johnson — who began the day three strokes off the lead — holed a 22-foot birdie putt at 18 to shoot 66 and take the clubhouse lead at 15-under 273. His caddie Damon Green celebrated by kicking his right foot high in the air and breaking into his signature Chicken Dance. The 39-year-old American won the British Open in a four-hole aggregate playoff Monday, outlasting South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Australia’s Marc Leishman.
Rocca looked to have blown his chances of winning the Open when he duffed his pitch shot into the “Valley of Sin’’ on the 72nd hole. The Italian then gave his 65-foot putt a hit-and-hope stroke, and the ball dived into the hole for an improbable birdie and a playoff with John Daly. What followed was a celebration that typified the fun-loving Rocca. He fell to his knees and beat his arms into the turf in sheer joy. However, it didn’t last as Daly defeated Rocca in the ensuing four-hole playoff.
The Spaniard had a one-stroke advantage as he stood over his birdie putt on the 18th hole. When he hit his right-to-left curler, it looked as if he hadn’t hit the ball hard enough. The ball seemed to hang on the lip before toppling into the hole. It sparked one of the greatest celebrations in major-championship golf. Seve pumped the air with his fist, turning in a 180-degree arc to salute the crowd, his dazzling smile evident for all to see.
All that stood between Sanders and immortality was 30 inches of St. Andrews turf. That’s what he faced for par and victory on the 72nd hole. Sanders seemed ready to pull the putter back when he bent over, brushed something from the line and stood up again. Sanders admitted later that when he settled back over the ball his alignment had changed. His ball never came close to the hole, missing right. Sanders lost a playoff to Jack Nicklaus the next day. Years later, Sanders was asked if he ever thought about that missed putt. “Not much,” he said. “Sometimes I manage to go 10 minutes without thinking about it.”