Over fifty American players made the trek across the Atlantic to compete in the 140th British Open this week at formidable Royal St. Georges on the south coast ofEngland, described by a Golf Channel commentator as resembling a “lunar landscape.” Whether or not any of them manage to break the United States “drought” of wins in majors dating back to Phil Mickelson’s Masters victory last year, the presence of so many Americans in the field must be credited in part to Arnold Palmer, who won the event 50 years ago at Birkdale and in the process changed the way many of his peers viewed the world’s oldest championship.
Prior to the Palmer era, American players in general showed little interest in the Open, mainly because of the arduous trip and the slim likelihood of recouping expenses given the relatively paltry purse. According to ESPN commentator Andy North, “in the middle ‘70s you literally had to finish in the top five to break even on the trip.”
Curtis Strange, who skipped the Open many years in the prime of his career, now recognizes that as “the biggest mistake I’ve made in my career. It’s the oldest and grandest championship in the world.” Strange observed that only in later years did he begin to appreciate the subtleties of links golf.
At a USGA member education event at Bay Hill earlier this year, Palmer reflected on his commitment to playing the Open, and credited his father for impressing upon him the importance of establishing an international presence. The King followed up his 1961 victory with a win at Troon the following year.
With Palmer as the trailblazer, a succession of prominent American golfers made an indelible mark at the Open in the following decades. In fact, the Yanks dominated the event in the 1970s. Jack Nicklaus, who first hoisted the claret jug in 1966 at Muirfield, racked up two more victories at St. Andrews in the ‘70s. Lee Trevino won back-to-back Open titles in 1971-1972, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller each notched a victory, and Tom Watson prevailed at Carnoustie in 1975 and Turnberry in 1977. Watson, beloved by British fans, went on to win a total of five Opens, narrowly missing a sixth two years ago at the age of 59 when he bogeyed the 18th hole Sunday and lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.
Following the domination of the Open by Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, and Greg Norman starting in the mid 80s, John Daly sparked an American resurgence with his victory at St. Andrewsin 1995, followed by wins by Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, and Mark O’Meara the following three years. Then, Tiger appeared on the scene, winning his first Open at St. Andrews in 2000 followed by victories in 2005 and 2006.
One thing has changed since Palmer’s first victory in 1961: the lack of money is no longer a disincentive to traverse the Atlantic. The winner’s share this year is a hefty $1.43 million, one of the largest in golf. The claret jug, however, hasn’t changed.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?