News & Opinion

Palmer’s ’61 Birkdale victory elevates Open

It is golf’s oldest major championship, and it captures the attention and imagination of the entire golf world because it is played every year on one of the great links courses. No one would think of skipping or ignoring it.

But the British Open was not always viewed in that regard. The fact that every one of the game’s stars will start from the first tee at Royal Birkdale is owed, like many other aspects of our game, to Arnold Palmer.

He virtually single-handedly revived the Open and made it a must-play event for the world’s best players.

In 1960, Palmer had won the Masters and the U.S. Open. With the words of his father ringing in his ears, he headed to St. Andrews for the British Open with the idea of winning the year’s first three major championships, as Ben Hogan had in 1953.

It was the centennial Open, the first championship having been staged in 1960 at Prestwick. Palmer came up one stroke short at the Old Course, losing to Kel Nagle of Australia, but he was determined to return the following year at Royal Birkdale, the site of next week’s 146th Open. Palmer’s father, Deacon, had told Arnold that he could not be considered a great player unless he played on the world stage.

Previously, most Americans had stayed away from the Open. Travel was difficult, creature comforts were few and the purse for professionals was little more than a pittance.

But when top Americans did make the trip, they succeeded. The greatest pro and amateur in the game in their era dominated the British Open over a nine-year period. From 1922 to ’30, Walter Hagen won the Open four times, and Bobby Jones took three Claret Jugs. Hagen won the title in 1922, ’24, ’28 and ’29, and Jones won in 1926, ’27 and ’30, the year of his Grand Slam.

Sam Snead came over to St. Andrews in 1946, the first Open that had been played since 1939 due to World War II. But Snead originally balked when presented with the idea. The Open paid only $600 for first place at the time, and Snead said that wouldn’t even cover his expenses.

The president of Wilson Sporting Goods, which sponsored Snead, persuaded him to make the trip by picking up his travel tab. Even at that, Snead didn’t like the Old Course and said derisively, “Any time you leave the U.S., you’re camping out.” Snead won his only Open at the Old Course, but he didn’t return to play in the Open until 1962. Hogan played in only one Open, which he captured in 1953 at Carnoustie.

But largely, the British Open was provincial from the 1940s through the ‘50s and dominated by the likes of England’s Henry Cotton, who won three times; South Africa’s Bobby Locke, who won four Opens; and Australia’s Peter Thomson, who won five Opens from 1954 to ’65.

Palmer’s return to Birkdale in 1961 was significant in that he was the best player in the world at the time and he decided that the British Open was not a one-time-only event that cost too much and returned too little. He believed his father’s admonition about being a world-class player and wanted to win the Open as badly as he desired any of the other three majors.

At Birkdale, Palmer was one shot behind Wales’ Dai Rees and South Africa’s Harold Henning at the 36-hole mark, having shot 73 in the second round in 50-mph winds. Thirty-six holes were scheduled for the final day, which was a Friday, but torrential rains washed out both rounds.

That left the completion of the championship in doubt. The Open was scheduled for 36 holes on Saturday, but the weather forecast was dicey. Playing on Sunday in England would mean that charging fans for admission would be illegal.

The R&A championship committee issued a statement that if the championship were not completed on Saturday, the competition would be voided and no winner would be declared.

“I’m prepared to play in a rowboat,” Palmer told Sports Illustrated.

Palmer shot 69-72 on the final day to get past Rees by a stroke for his first Open title. He would win again the following year at Royal Troon, which would be his final Claret Jug. But he accomplished something much bigger: attracting America’s best players to the oldest championship, regardless of the purse.

“I play for championships, not for money,” Palmer said.

The money since has caught up – $1.845 million to the winner from a $10.25 million purse this year – but, thankfully, the sentiment among the best players remains the same.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf