There is always a perceptible tingle of anticipation each July with the imminent arrival of another Open Golf Championship. It is the oldest of the four Major Championships and one which has seen great success for European Tour Members over the years, most recently when Ernie Els triumphed at Muirfield in Scotland in 2002.
The 133rd Open Golf Championship at Royal Troon in Ayrshire is the culmination of a glorious month on The European Tour International Schedule, a four week spell in which the total prize money on offer reaches a grand total of €15,354,464.
In that time, Frenchman Jean-Francois Remesy has captured the Open de France and the first prize of €500,000; Retief Goosen of South Africa won the €550,004 first prize in the Smurfit European Open and Thomas Levet, also of France, pocketed €545,208 in The Barclays Scottish Open.
All three will be chasing one of the greatest prizes in world sport when the Open is contested for the eighth time over the wonderful links of Royal Troon, within a pitching wedge of the Firth of Clyde.
Only one European golfer has triumphed at Royal Troon, England’s Arthur Havers claiming the title in 1923 on the first visit to the course long before the Royal prefix was accorded to the club.
Subsequent winners have been Bobby Locke of South Africa (1950) followed by a quintet of Americans in the great Arnold Palmer (1962), Tom Weiskopf (1973), Tom Watson (1982), Mark Calcavecchia (1989) and most recently, Justin Leonard in 1997. Sadly, a shoulder injury has forced five-time Champion Watson to withdraw from this week’s event.
Total prize money will be £4 million, an increase of £100,000 on the 2003 figure. The new Champion on Sunday will receive a cheque for £720,000, an increase of £20,000 from last year.
The additional £100,000 will be distributed amongst the 70 players and ties who make the cut, with an average increase of 2.6 per cent. "We have increased the Open Championship prize money in line with inflation and this again keeps the Open purse highly competitive," said Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of The R&A Group of Companies.
In recent years prize money has been substantially increased and in the seven years since Leonard won at Royal Troon, the first prize has increased almost three-fold, from £250,000 to £720,000, and the total prize fund from £1.6 million to £4 million.
Defending the title will be American Ben Curtis, who succeeded Els as holder of the precious Claret Jug after a dramatic finish at Royal St George’s 12 months ago. The American shot a closing round of 69 for a one under par total of 283, clinching a one stroke victory over Denmark’s Thomas Björn and Vijay Singh of Fiji.
In doing so, Curtis became the first player to win the Open on his debut since Watson beat Jack Newton in an 18-hole play-off at Carnoustie 28 years earlier.
The last European born winner lifted the Claret Jug at Carnoustie when Paul Lawrie became the first Scottish-born golfer to win the Open in Scotland since Tommy Armour won, coincidentally, at Carnoustie in 1931.
Starting the final round ten shots adrift of leader Jean Van de Velde, Lawrie's final round 67, the best of the day in the demanding conditions, propelled him up the leaderboard and into a four-hole play-off with the Frenchman and the 1997 Champion, Leonard, who came agonisingly close to landing his second Open title in the space of three years.
Lawrie continued in the play-off where he had left off in regulation play, birdies at the demanding 17th and 18th holes good enough for an emotionally charged victory. It represented the biggest final round comeback in Open history and also equalled The European Tour record set by Jamie Spence in 1992 when he came from ten shots adrift to win the Canon European Masters.
"I never thought I would get into a play-off so I just tried to stay focused on each shot and somehow managed it," said the Scot. "But to win in front of a home crowd was absolutely incredible."
The next Open play-off came in 2002 and brought further European Tour joy as Ernie Els claimed his third Major Championship title, beating fellow European Tour Member Thomas Levet and Australians Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.
Els added the Open crown to an already impressive golfing CV at the end of one of the most fluctuating Championships in history during which the variable Scottish weather contributed to the sense of drama and excitement, and where seven other European Tour Members, Thomas Björn, Gary Evans, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Søren Hansen, Padraig Harrington and Peter O'Malley, finished in the top 13.
During regulation play Els produced several shots of pure genius, including a wondrous bunker escape at the 13th hole. It was a stroke which kept his challenge alive and a shot which was later voted The European Tour Shot of the Year, an appropriate accolade for a player who would go on to be voted European Tour Golfer of the Year for 2002.
Into the play-off, Appleby and Elkington were eliminated after the initial four holes, leaving The European Tour Members to battle it out. Returning to the 18th tee, Levet took driver and found sand while Els split the fairway with an iron.
But the South African pulled his approach into a tough, downhill lie in a greenside bunker, leaving Levet to splash out of the fairway trap and hit his third to the front of the green. With one foot on grass, Els produced a wonder stroke from the bunker to four feet and, after Levet missed his par effort, he eased in the putt which secured the title.
"I had been after this title for ten years since I finished fifth in my first Open at Muirfield in 1992 and at times I thought I would never get my hands on it," said Els. "It is one of the hardest tournaments to play but the most rewarding. It is the greatest Championship and is truly Open in every sense of the word."