The Open Championship – History, Records, Legends & Trends

The world’s best golfers descend upon the UK each year to vie for supremacy at The Open Championship.

It is the oldest of the four majors, having initially been held in 1860. Several Aussie stars have won the famous Claret Jug since then, including Peter Thomson and Greg Norman.

The tournament, widely referred to as the British Open, is now firmly established as one of the most prestigious sporting events of the year. Read on to learn more about the history of The Open, the iconic courses that have hosted the action, the records that have been set and the most famous winners of all time.


British Open History

Queen Victoria was on the throne when The Open Championship first took place at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860. The Burke and Wills expedition had just left Melbourne, and Charles Dickens was putting the finishing touches on Great Expectations.

It was created to decide who would succeed the recently deceased Allan Robertson as the “champion golfer”. Eight professionals took part, and Willie Park, Sr. finished two shots clear of Old Tom Morris to seize glory. He was awarded the Challenge Belt, which was made with red leather and a silver buckle.

The following year, it was turned into an “open” event, meaning amateurs could compete alongside professionals. Eighteen golfers contested the 1861 Open Championship, and Old Tom Morris gained revenge by finishing four shots ahead of Park to win the crown. In 1872, the Challenge Belt was phased out to make way for a new trophy – the Claret Jug – and Young Tom Morris clinched his fourth triumph.

The tournament then began to rotate between different courses. It took place at St Andrews for the first time in 1873, and Musselburgh, Muirfield, St George’s and Royal Liverpool emerged as venues towards the end of the 19th century. The first non-Scottish winner was John Ball in 1890, and the first non-British winner – Frenchman Arnaud Massy – claimed the Claret Jug in 1907.

The tournament was cancelled for several years due to World War I. George Duncan won at Royal Cinque Ports when it resumed in 1920. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club became the sole organiser that year. In 1921, 11 American players visited to compete, bankrolled by the British Open Championship Fund. One of them, Jock Hutchinson – who was born in St Andrews before becoming a naturalised American – returned to his hometown to win the event.

The following year, Walter Hagen became the first American-born winner. Americans dominated during the ensuing decade. The action was paused again during World War II, and American Sam Snead won in 1946 when St Andrews hosted The Open. It was held every year until 2019, with the purse steadily rising to $10.75 million.

The tournament was then cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it returned in 2021, when Collin Morikawa finished two strokes ahead of Jordan Spieth at Royal St George’s. Prize money has increased 22% to US$14 million (AU$20.7 million) in 2022, which should ensure a strong field. LIV Golf rebels are invited to take part alongside PGA Tour stars, which should create a tense and exciting atmosphere.


Open Championship Courses

Fourteen different courses have hosted The Open Championship since it was established in 1860. As you can see below, the Old Course at St Andrews has been the most common venue. It will host The Open for the 30th time in 2022.


Course Location Times Hosted
Old Course at St Andrews St Andrews, Scotland 29
Prestwick Golf Club  Prestwick, Scotland 24
Muirfield Gullane, Scotland 16
Royal St George’s Golf Club Sandwich, England 15
Royal Liverpool Golf Club Hoylake, England 12
Royal Lytham & St Annes Lytham St Annes, England 11
Royal Birkdale Golf Club Southport, England 10
Royal Troon Golf Club Troon, Scotland 9
Carnoustie Golf Links Carnoustie, Scotland 8
Musselburgh Links  Musselburgh, Scotland 6
Turnberry South Ayrshire, Scotland 4
Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club  Deal, England 2
Royal Portrush Golf Club Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland 2
Prince’s Golf Club  Sandwich, England 1


Open Championship Record Holders

    • Most Wins: Harry Vardon (6)
    • Most Consecutive Wins: Young Tom Morris (4)
    • Oldest Winner: Old Tom Morris (46 years, 102 days)
    • Youngest Winner: Young Tom Morris (17 years, 156 days)
    • Lowest Final Score: Henrik Stenson (264)
    • Largest Winning Margin: Old Tom Morris (13 strokes)
    • Lowest Round: Branden Grace (62)



Open Championship Legends

Dozens of elite golfers have lifted the Claret Jug over the years. However, a handful of players have earned legendary status by regularly flourish at this hotly contested major:


John Henry Taylor

Taylor first prevailed at The Open in 1894, when he finished five strokes ahead of Douglas Rolland at St George’s. He successfully defended his crown the following year, but he lost to Harry Vardon when bidding for a hat-trick in 1896. Taylor finally picked up his third win in 1900, and he also clinched the Claret Jug in 1909 and 1913. He went on to become a significant golf course architect, and he also helped to found the British PGA.


Harry Vardon

Vardon won six Open Championship titles in the late 1800s and early 1900s, making him the most successful player in the tournament’s history. He also finished runner-up four times, regularly engaging in entertaining battles with Taylor. Both men could have earned more titles, but they were cut short by the outbreak of World War I.


Jack Nicklaus

Nicklaus only won The Open three times, but he also finished runner-up on a record seven occasions. He formed the Big Three – along with Gary Player and Arnold Palmer – who dominated the tournament between 1959 and 1974. Nicklaus is the most decorated player of all time, with 18 major championships. 


Tom Watson

Watson won his first Open Championship in 1975, and he then finished one stroke clear of Nicklaus to prevail in 1977. The American star won again in 1980, 1982 and 1983. Watson won eight majors in his career, but The Open was his most successful event.


Seve Ballesteros

Ballesteros won The Open in 1979, 1984 and 1988, getting the better of Nicklaus, Watson and many other famous names in the process. Two of his wins came at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and the other was at St Andrews.


Tiger Woods

Woods finished 19-under, 8 strokes clear of Thomas Bjørn and Ernie Els, to win his first Open Championship at St Andrews in 2000. He returned to the same venue to win again in 2005, and he successfully defended his crown at Royal Liverpool the following year.


Open Championship Winning Australian Players

Four Aussies have reigned supreme at this historic tournament over the years:


Peter Thomson

Thomson is one of the most successful players in Open Championship history, having won the event five times. His first four wins came in 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1958. Thomson returned in 1965, when he finished ahead of Nicklaus, Palmer and Tony Lema to claim his fifth triumph. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985.


Kel Nagle

Nagle was a surprise winner of The Open in 1959. He was 39 years old at the time, and he had never previously finished in the top-10 of a major championship. However, Nagle was simply a late bloomer. He was 19 when World War II started, and he did not turn professional until he turned 25, following five-and-a-half years of military service. He beat Palmer that year, and he went on to finish runner-up to Palmer in 1962 and runner-up at the US Open in 1965.


Greg Norman

The Great White Shark’s two major triumphs came at the Open – in 1986 at Turnberry and 1993 at Royal St George’s. He was also the runner-up in 1989. Norman had three runner-up finishes at the Masters, and he was second at the PGA Championship twice and the US Open twice during his illustrious career. He spent 331 weeks as world number one in the 1980s and 1990s, and he won 89 professional tournaments.


Ian Baker-Finch

Baker-Finch finished two strokes clear of fellow Aussie Mike Harwood to win The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1991. It was a golden age for Australian stars, with Baker-Finch, Harwood, Norman and Wayne Grady in contention, but it is now almost three decades since we had an Open Championship winner. Adam Scott and Marc Leishman have gone close in the modern era, but nobody has managed to get their hands on the Claret Jug.


Open Championship Winning Trends 

Since 2000, 70% of Open champions had already secured a victory that year. Eight of the last 10 winners had already tasted victory that year. The last player to claim a maiden win for the year at the Open was Zach Johnson in 2015.

Last year’s winner, Collin Morikawa, was the first debutant to prevail in more than a decade. The previous nine winners all had a top-10 finish at the Open under their belts. All of the last 10 winners had a previous top-two finish at a major.

The average age of Open winners this century is 33. Six of the last 10 champions were 35 or older. Americans no longer dominate to the same extent as they once did, and they have won just four times in the past 10 editions. Seven of the last 10 winners ranked in the top-seven for scrambling.