The most memorable British Opens

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Elliott Kalb

I got hooked on the British Open and its treacherous weather conditions back in 1981, when a baseball strike forced me to watch a 25-1 underdog, Bill Rogers, win the British Open at Royal St. George's. They have played the British Open since 1860, and these are what I consider the 10 most memorable moments. One of the most emotional may play out at St. Andrews this week, as Jack Nicklaus has his final go-round after playing 38 British Opens, and winning at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978. 1. 1977 - Tom Watson outduels Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry Jack Nicklaus has not only won 18 majors, but he's finished second (or tied for second) an astounding 19 other times. Perhaps the most stirring second-place finish for Jack was the final day of the 1977 British Open, the "duel in the sun." Through the first three days, both Nicklaus and Watson had put up 68, 70, and 65 scores. They played together Sunday, and matched each other shot for shot. Jack went up three strokes after birdies on the second and fourth holes (Watson bogeyed the second hole). Then, Watson made up ground with birdies on the fifth and seventh holes. Nicklaus sank a beautiful 25-foot putt on the 12th hole for a birdie to go up two strokes. Watson fought back on the 13th. Now, it was like Ali-Frazier in the late rounds. Watson had won his first British Open in 1975, which began a run of five British Opens in a nine-year period. But to win his second, in '77, he needed to hole a 60-foot putt on 15. Of course, he did. That brought him even with The Golden Bear. They walked up to the par-5 17th hole tied. Watson's birdie put him up a shot. There would be no denying the Kansas City native, who shot 65 on the final day, and who in 1999, was made an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient GC of St. Andrews, joining fellow Americans Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, former President Bush, and the late Gene Sarazen. 2. 2000 - Tiger Woods in a class by himself at St. Andrews If the 1977 British Open was like Ali-Frazier, then the 2000 British Open was reminiscent of Secretariat's Belmont victory in 1973. Tiger Woods' final margin of victory was eight strokes ahead of Thomas Bjorn and Ernie Els, with a score of 269. Woods became the third winner to score all four rounds in the 60s. Do you realize that he did not find a single bunker during the four days of the Championship? That was Tiger at his absolute best. He was smack in the middle of one of the greatest years any athlete — much less golfer — ever enjoyed. He set or tied 27 PGA Tour records, and won three consecutive majors (the U.S. and British Opens, PGA Championship). The victory at St. Andrews placed him the same company as Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus as winners of the career Grand Slam. Tiger was only 24 at the time. 3. 2002 - Ernie Els survives at Muirfield The third day of the 2002 British Open brought the damp, miserable conditions that the tournament is known for. Tiger Woods actually shot an 81, the highest score of his career at a major. Els managed a 72, giving him a 54-hole lead at 5 under par, two strokes ahead of Soren Hansen. After losing a three-shot lead on the back nine Sunday, he salvaged a spot in the first four-man, four-hole playoff at the British Open. After Els parred all four playoff holes, he made par out of the green-side bunker on the first hole of sudden death against Frenchman Thomas Levet. With his right foot anchored on the top of a bunker left of the 18th hole, he blasted out and wound up no more than four or five feet from the hole, and made the putt to win. The tournament had a great story line, including one of redemption for Els. 4. 2004 - Todd Hamilton beats Els in playoff at Royal Troon In last year's British Open, most everyone expected Phil Mickelson (shooting a 66 in the second round) or Ernie Els to overtake PGA tour rookie Todd Hamilton. Hamilton, at 38, a veteran of the Asian tour, made par on all four playoff holes. Els bogeyed the third playoff hole. It was a shock that Hamilton held on to capture the Claret Jug. It was especially shocking after Hamilton bogeyed the 72nd hole to fall into a tie with Els, who birdied two of his final three holes. Especially hard to figure was that Hamilton became the eighth American winner at the British Open in the last 10 years. 5. 1984 - Seve Ballesteros rallies at St. Andrews over Tom Watson In 1979, 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros won his first British Open when he came back from two strokes down on the final day to win by three strokes. In a very emotional display, his two brothers rushed out and greeted him as soon as he made his par on the 18th green. If I have to take one Ballesteros memorable moment from the British Open, then I'll bypass 1979, and go with 1984. St. Andrews was the site, and Seve was battling head-to-head with Tom Watson. They were tied going into the difficult 17th hole. Ballesteros made par. Watson bogeyed the hole. When Seve birdied the final hole, it capped a 276 total, 12-under-par tournament that broke the St. Andrews record. And it denied Watson a sixth Open title. 6. 1999 - Paul Lawrie comes back from 10 strokes down on final day in Carnoustie Lawrie made the comeback of comebacks, and became the first Scotsman in 68 years to capture the Claret Jug in his native Scotland. Jean Van de Velde had the big lead, but on the final hole (with a three-stroke lead!) he choked his way to a triple bogey. Lawrie started the final round 10 strokes down, but somehow managed to get in a three-way playoff with Van de Velde and Justin Leonard. On the fourth playoff hole, the 22nd of the day, in the miserable and dark conditions, Lawrie hit a four-iron from 221 yards out that came within three feet of the hole. It capped the most amazing last-day comeback in a major. 7. 1930 - Bobby Jones wins his last major in Hoylake, England The great Bobby Jones wasn't the first American to win a British Open (Walter Hagen was, and he won four times beginning in 1922). He didn't win a record number of times. But he won in 1926, when Royal Lytham made the British Open rotation, and the play was increased to three days. Jones captured his second British Open in 1927 at St. Andrews. When Jones captured the 1930 tournament in Hoylake, England, it was truly memorable. When he returned to the States, he was given a ticker-tape parade. Less than three months later, he captured the U.S. Amateur title to complete what people began referring to as the "Grand Slam." 8. 1983 - Tom Watson wins fifth British Open as Hale Irwin blows tap-in Tom Watson won an incredible five British Opens in a nine-year period, but none were easy. To take the fifth, he sank a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole to break a three-way tie. He finished one stroke ahead of Hale Irwin and Andy Bean. In the 14th hole of Saturday's third round, Irwin left a short birdie putt hanging on the lip of the cup. He attempted a tap-in, but the club head hit the ground and bounced over the top of the ball. Irwin called the stroke on himself. He wound up losing by a single stroke. You never know if that alone cost him a shot at the major championship, but it sure didn't help. 9. 1969 - Tony Jacklin becomes first Englishman in 18 years to win British Open A 25-year old journeyman named Tony Jacklin became a national sensation when he shot a 4-under-par 280 to win at Royal Lytham and became the first British player since Max Faulkner in 1951 to win the British Open. The crowd screamed for Jacklin on every ball, as he held off New Zealander Bob Charles. 10. 1972 - Lee Trevino defeats Jack Nicklaus in Muirfield Jack Nicklaus came into the Muirfield in the middle of a year that looked like one of Michael Jordan's, Wayne Gretzky's, or Tiger Woods' career seasons. Nicklaus was looking to add to his Masters and U.S. Open titles. The Grand Slam was a definite possibility, especially when Nicklaus tied a course record on the final day when he shot a 66. But defending British Open champ Lee Trevino sank a 30-foot chip shot to save par on the 17th hole, and held off the surging Nicklaus by a stroke. "Super Mex" prevented any chance of the Slam — and was almost apologetic about it. Nicklaus is the only American to win the Open twice at St. Andrews, but despite three British Open wins, he finished second no less than seven different years. The Scottish people have shown him so much affection that the Royal Bank of Scotland issued currency with his picture on it. To have the respect of your peers like Trevino and the entire sporting world of Scotland says volumes about Nicklaus' contributions to golf.

Elliott Kalb is the author of the new book, "Who's Better, Who's Best in Baseball?" (Available at or his website

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