The 134th Open Championship will tee off for the 27th time in the “auld grey Toon,” universally recognized as the home of golf.
The 26 previous Championships at St. Andrews have provided many memories, creating a wonderful archive that likely will be expanded this year. As far back as 1876, when the British Open was played for the second time over the Old Course, there should have been the first playoff for the Claret Jug. But, believe it or not, one of the two contestants (from a total field of 34) refused to play on.
David Strath was alleged to have hit a spectator (presumably with his approach) at the 17th hole, and under the rules of the day, Strath could have been penalized a stroke. Strath asked the Royal & Ancient to verify that his scorecard was correct before the playoff began, but the R&A ordered the playoff to commence before it would make a ruling.
Strath refused to continue, and St. Andrews local Bob Martin was declared champion.
Martin was runner-up in 1875 and 1887, losing to Willie Park Sr. and Willie Park Jr., respectively. Strath also finished second two other times – in 1870 and 1872 to Young Tom Morris.
I mention these early moments at St. Andrews for a number of reasons. Playoffs have become part and parcel of tournament golf and many varieties have been employed. For several years the British Open and the U.S. Open – if tied at the end of regulation play – were decided over 36 extra holes. The U.S. Open today is decided by 18 added holes in the event of a playoff, the PGA Championship employs a three-hole playoff and the Masters is sudden death.
In the 1989 Open at Royal Troon, the R&A instituted a four-hole playoff system designed to avoid having the tournament being decided by one outrageous stroke of luck, yet getting the job done in a reasonable time frame (Mark Calcavecchia won that playoff over Wayne Grady and Greg Norman). In 1995, John Daly defeated Costantino Rocca in the same format on the Old Course.
In all, there have been 17 playoffs for the Claret Jug, and remarkably, five of these have occurred in the past 10 years. St. Andrews has been the site of four Opens decided by a playoff.
Another fact to consider as the Open Championship is played at the Old Course is the yardage increase. When Tiger Woods won the British by eight shots in 2000, shooting a record 19-under 269, the course played to 7,115 yards. This year, it will play 7,279 yards. Still, that is only 283 yards longer than it was when Australia’s Peter Thomson won his second Open in 1955. Compare that to Augusta National, where chairman Hootie Johnson recently announced that yardage will be increased to 7,445 yards.
Thomson later became one of many great champions to lament that modern technology might diminish the Old Course’s challenge and eventually make it obsolete. I don’t think that is the case today, and I can’t believe the R&A ever will allow that to happen.
Despite one end of the Old Course being land-locked by the town, and the North Sea encroaching at other points, the course continues to work. Historic bunkers have been brought back into play, and if the wind kicks up, players will have a stiff challenge in store.
But even if the players embark on a birdie feast, galleries no doubt will applaud even louder. Saying goodbye to Jack Nicklaus will give patrons yet another reason to cheer. The “old lady” has provided Open thrills since 1873 – and she always will.
And if a playoff is necessary, you can be sure the competitors involved will play on.
– Ken Schofield, former executive director of the PGA European Tour, writes occasionally for Golfweek.