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Big-time winners, shots define Birkdale

By the standard set among its centuries-old brethren, Royal Birkdale was late to the championship cotillion.

The links course in Southport, England, was added to the British Open rotation in 1954 and hosts the 146th Open this week. Although Birkdale cracked the lineup after the dawn of the modern era, its list of winners is second to none. Indeed, of the eight players who have hoisted the Claret Jug at Birkdale, six already have been enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame and a seventh is a lock.

Aussie star Peter Thomson won two Opens at Birkdale, and Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and Mark O’Meara – all World Golf Hall of Fame inductees – claimed titles there, too. By reputation, though, it’s not often noted as one of the top links venues.

“I'll tell you, since it's gotten in the rotation, it's gotten a ton of championships,” said Miller, the 1976 winner at Birkdale. “I just think that when everybody thinks of the Open Championship, they think ‘Scotland.’ ”

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A bronze plaque marks the spot at Royal Birkdale’s 15th hole where Arnold Palmer slashed a 6-iron recovery shot en route to winning the 1961 British Open.

A bronze plaque marks the spot at Royal Birkdale’s 15th hole where Arnold Palmer slashed a 6-iron recovery shot en route to winning the 1961 British Open.

They should be thinking “clutch,” because Birkdale’s big-name stars won with even bigger shots on the course. That said, here are the six most unforgettable swings in Birkdale’s comparatively short history, including one misfire and one that never happened: 

Arnold Palmer, 1961: Thanks to a vintage swipe from the Birkdale hay in the final round, the King pocketed a more-princely winner’s check of 1,400 pounds. He was leading by four when he yanked his drive on the 15th deep into some native foliage. A sickle might have been a better choice, but Palmer settled on a 6-iron and took one of his distinctive vicious swipes. ''I saw the opening,'' Palmer told The New York Times. ''I was sure I would make it. Nobody else was.'' He needed the par-salvaging shot, too, because Welshman Dai Davies made three birdies down the stretch and Palmer won by a stroke. A bronze plaque marks the spot from which Palmer struck the slash heard ’round the world. 

1983, Hale Irwin: The analytical, three-time U.S. Open champion was atop the leaderboard at Birkdale with a litany of stars, including Watson, Trevino and Nick Faldo, when he made a dunderheaded and decidedly uncharacteristic gaffe. After lagging a putt to within 2 inches of the hole in the third round, he whiffed a left-handed tap-in while trying to avoid stepping in his playing competitor’s line. A day later, he shot 67 to lose by a stroke to Watson. “I really don't know what happened,” Irwin said. “I'm guessing I had a mental lapse. It looms rather large, doesn't it?'' Indeed, it has been ranked among the 10 biggest gaffes in major-championship history.

2008, Padraig Harrington: The affable Irishman delivered his second consecutive Open title with a scintillating 5-wood approach shot on the par-5 17th that led to an eagle, clinching a win over runner-up Ian Poulter. The bigger question is whether the shot should have been attempted at all. Two shots clear with less than two holes to play, Harrington found the fairway and had 250 yards to the flag, from a slight downslope. His caddie and brother-in-law, Ronan Flood, mentioned hitting a layup shot, but Harrington was having none of it. Mind you, the gorse at Birkdale is as severe as any venue in the Open rotation, so Harrington was bringing a huge number into play. “It's one of the few times I think I've ever heard my caddie say ‘good shot’ to me before the ball is finished,” Harrington said. “Normally, he waits until the ball has actually stopped before he says anything.” The aggressive shot stopped 3 feet from the flag.

1954, Peter Thomson: The Aussie won five Opens, including three in succession starting in 1954, and dominated the event before the Yanks started turning out in droves in the 1960s. Perhaps his most notable shot came with everything on the line during his first Open victory, 63 years ago at Birkdale. Leading by one stroke on the par-5 16th hole of the final round, Thomson hit his approach into a bunker, situated perhaps 20 yards from the flag. Left with one of the toughest predicaments in golf – the long sand shot – Thomson also faced a downslope lie. Yet he somehow plopped the ball within kick-in range for an easy birdie. He won by a stroke and later called the recovery effort "the finest pressure shot of my life." 

1983, Tom Watson: Talk about saving the best for last. With the possibility of a fifth Open title within grasp, Watson stood in the 72nd fairway at Birkdale with a one-shot lead, a 2-iron in hand and 218 yards to the flag, dead into the wind. He took two waggles and hit a laser. “I busted that 2-iron as well as I could hit it,” he said. He two-putted from 20 feet to claim the last of his five career Open titles.

1969, Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin: In a Ryder Cup that had grown a little testy at times, Nicklaus gave Jacklin a putt on the final green at Birkdale that cemented a 16-16 draw, a decision that ranks among the game’s most celebrated gestures. The conceded putt, estimated at 24-30 inches, meant that the two major winners halved the final match of the day. Nicklaus famously told Jacklin, “I don’t think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity." Not everybody applauded the move, including U.S. captain Sam Snead. “When it happened, all the boys thought it was ridiculous to give him that putt,” Snead said. “We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling