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The 19th Hole

The British Open was actually closed

By Gene Bleile | Aug 08, 2013

Every year I'm amazed by the British Open style of play on a course that resembles an abandoned golf course. Don’t get me wrong, since I watched my first British Open about 15 years ago (won by Mark O’Meara, U.S 1998) I now understand Scottish golf courses (possibly).

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What the Masters tournament is to beauty, the British Open is to golf in the 1800s. Augusta National Golf Course, home of the Masters, compared to Muirfield, home of the 2013 British Open, is like looking at a dozen roses compared to brown grass in your lawn. If you're an avid golfer, you will see the beauty in both.

Local fans were rooting for Lee Westwood at Muirfield, but in the end the championship went to one of my favorites, Phil Mickelson. Mickelson really didn’t need the $1.5 million purse as much as having his name engraved on the Claret Jug.  Phil’s first win at the Open was one to remember.

As he walked down the 18th fairway at minus three for the tournament, I envisioned the ghost of Willie Park, Sr., the first winner of the Open in 1860, walking next to him toward the green. Mickelson shot a combined score of 283, which was the highest number of total strokes since Padraig Harrington shot his 283 in 2008.  Since 1860, each British Open has all the old charm of the first one played at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland, when a group of rich golfers took up a collection among the membership to have an elegant trophy made for the first winner and golf champion of Scotland.

Now, if you guessed that the trophy was the famed Claret Jug (not to be confused with the Stanley Cup), you would be wrong.

Are you ready? The first trophy was actually a large red leather belt with a silver buckle. It was called the Championship Challenge Belt and if you won it three years in a row, you could keep it.  This seems to go against all we know about the tough Scots, who wore kilts into battle and on the links. Kilts have no belt loops, so I suppose the belt was probably about the size of today’s World Wrestling Entertainment Championship Belt and was worn around Prestwick as a display piece.

To add another twist to the first tournament, the British Open was actually closed to  golfers unless you were a professional golfer, caddie, golf instructor or gambler who made a living playing golf. That all changed a year later, when the word Open allowed amateurs and professionals alike to enter and compete for the Championship Belt.

In 1864 things got rolling with the addition of a six-pound cash award to accompany the red leather belt. To publicize the annual event, the membership voted to add the title, Championship Golfer of the World.

It wasn’t until 1873 that organizers of the Open Championship got tired of passing around a belt as the top prize and decided to take up another collection and have another unique trophy manufactured. So they took their wee purse full of money to the Mackay Cunningham Company of Edinburgh and had them create a large cup, which was named the Championship Cup.

When the golfing public and professional golfers complained that the name was too bland for such a prestigious event and the cup actually resembled the cups used at the Prestwick to drink claret wine, the name was changed to the Claret Jug (no historical explanation as to how a cup turned into a jug, but add wine and Scottish whiskey to the discussion and voilà it turned into a jug).

With the new jug in hand, every golfer in Prestwick wanted to be the first winner of the new prize and be called the Championship Golfer of the World. But to their dismay, the first winner was Tom Kidd, a caddie from St. Andrews, who shot a 179 to take home the title.

So next year, when you watch the British Open played on a course with no trees, rough up to your knees, rolling berms, eight-foot-deep bunkers and wind clocked at 25 mph on a calm day, remember that the Open is played for tradition, not beauty.

19th Hole Trivia

• The British Open is rotated between nine links courses in Scotland or England.

• 1951 was the only year the Open has been played in Ireland.

• Young Tom Morris was the youngest winner (1868) at 17, 156 days.

For more golf course landscape images and fine art photography go to genebleilephotography.com.

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