News & Opinion

British Open earns award for major drama

Five months after being sentenced to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics, I returned to Europe for my first British Open, which felt like compensation for spending half of February in Norway on Tonya Harding patrol. Perhaps it was the overpowering beauty of Scotland’s western coast, the elegant simplicity of Turnberry or the fact that you still could park 50 yards from the media center, but I became enthralled with the idea of writing about golf all the time, not just a few occasions each year for a daily newspaper.

Five months after being sentenced to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics, I returned to Europe for my first British Open, which felt like compensation for spending half of February in Norway on Tonya Harding patrol. Perhaps it was the overpowering beauty of Scotland’s western coast, the elegant simplicity of Turnberry or the fact that you still could park 50 yards from the media center, but I became enthralled with the idea of writing about golf all the time, not just a few occasions each year for a daily newspaper.

Golf is played in the day, so there’s no deadline pressure. Tour pros are accessible and accommodating, so those stories are more interesting. And nobody shows up with a tire iron to whack the knee of a gold-medal favorite in a so-called sport in which performance is measured subjectively, which makes figure skating more of a dog show than an athletic competition.

Phil Mickelson
For pure drama, the British Open has stood out in the past 25 years among golf’s 4 major championships, which Phil Mickelson helped underscore in 2013 at Muirfield.

Green grass, pure sunshine. The United Kingdom isn’t particularly known for either, but both were in abundance that week at Turnberry, and in the quarter-century that I’ve spent chronicling this wonderful game, the British Open has produced more terrific tournaments than any other major championship. This is also a subjective measure, one that can be challenged on any number of levels. What exactly makes a major great? Isn’t Augusta National, home of the Masters, the official cathedral of Sunday suspense?

Why can’t you golf writers show a little love for the PGA? And by the way, who died and left you in charge of the Department of Excitement? All legitimate questions, which is how the topic derives its intrigue. While reviewing my notes on the 99 majors played since the start of 1995, I graded each tournament on a 1-to-5 scale based on the following criteria:

Did somebody go out and win it on Sunday, or was the outcome decided largely by a player coming apart down the stretch?

How intense was the drama, and how long did it last?

Was history made?

If a no-name player emerged as champion, how significant was the element of surprise? Whom did he beat? Did he play well or basically find himself in the right place at the right time?

Were there any weather delays? There’s nothing worse than getting psyched to watch a major, turning on the TV and finding out that play has been suspended.

Did the overall quality of the winner’s golf stand as a performance above and beyond, an indisputable statement of superiority?

Forty-four of the 99 earned a rating of 4 or higher, which meant they made the cut. And from all those questions came these results:

British Open 15.

Masters 11.

PGA 10.

U.S. Open 8.

Since this year’s British Open has yet to transpire, it beat the others comfortably despite playing a man down. From John Daly’s unfathomable triumph at St. Andrews in 1995 to Padraig Harrington’s first major title over a disconsolate Sergio Garcia in 2007, nine British Opens made the list. Over that same 13-tournament stretch, the U.S. Open had just five keepers, barely more than the four that landed in the basement due to faulty course setups that compromised the competitive element.

A lot of passionate golf fans, myself included, probably would have bet on the Masters to win this discriminate derby. I counted six years in which it rated a 5, one more than the British and two more than the PGA. And of the 99 candidates up for consideration, this year’s Masters was one of the most difficult to appraise. Tiger Woods’ fifth journey to Greenjacketville had significant but not substantial historic overtones; he didn’t pass Jack Nicklaus in career major victories or Masters titles. And as sturdy as Woods proved to be on Sunday, he got a ton of help from those slipping around him.

In the final analysis, however, an arbitrator must consider public reaction, or in this case, the overall reverberation factor. Woods shook the earth in April by fully validating his comeback and claiming his first big trophy in almost 11 years. I gave the 2019 Masters a 5. And I’m still second-guessing the decision.

Back to the British. It simply doesn’t deal us many duds, which was the biggest difference between the Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy. The PGA seems to run hot or cold. Brooks Koepka (2018) and Rory McIlroy (2014) were the only two qualifiers in the last 10 years, since Y.E. Yang stuck it in Tiger’s face at Hazeltine in 2009. Woods’ majors obviously figure prominently on the list, but Phil Mickelson made nearly as many contributions: three of his five wins and a pair of unforgettable U.S. Open losses (1999 and 2006).

A total of 18 majors were indeed decreed as grand, as I made it a point not to pass out 5s like political pamphlets in October. Of those 18, four stood out as the absolute best of the past 25 years, Two of the four required extra holes to determine a champion. Both were won by Woods. The others featured an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole and one of the greatest final-round charges in the modern era. Both belong to Mickelson.

The 2000 PGA. The 2004 Masters. The 2008 U.S. Open. The 2013 British Open. Like green grass and pure sunshine, it doesn’t get much better than that.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com