Royal Birkdale this week hosts The Senior Open Championship Presented by Rolex for the first time, but the venerated Southport links has played witness to countless magical moments in the nine occasions it has previously staged The Open. europeantour.com looks back at five of the finest…
1965 – Awesome approach sets up Australian’s “greatest win”
The name Peter Thomson is not only inextricably entwined with Open Championship history, but with Royal Birkdale’s too. Despite a bogey at the 72nd hole, the Australian won his maiden Open title here in 1954, when Birkdale first staged the tournament, before going full circle by claiming his fifth and last Claret Jug at the Southport venue in 1965. On reaching the penultimate hole that year, one shot clear of a stellar field that included the likes of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Roberto de Vicenzo, Thomson hit a true shot for the ages. Following a drive down the middle at the par five 17th, he produced a stunning second, a pin-point fairway wood approach that struck the flag and set up an easy birdie four. Thomson would prevail by two strokes, claiming what he later described as “my greatest win.”
1976 – Introduction to a genius
The history books may decree American Johnny Miller as The Champion Golfer in 1976, but for many this was the week that the world first encountered the unbridled genius of a young Spaniard by the name of Severiano Ballesteros. Then just 19 years of age, the Pedrena man displayed virtuosic shot-making in taming a red-hot, sun-baked Birkdale for three rounds to lead by two from Miller heading into the last 18. It would not prove Seve’s year (that would come at Lytham three years later) as he found every corner of Birkdale in a round littered with double and triple bogeys. Knowing he needed a strong finish to tie Jack Nicklaus for second, though, Ballesteros eagled the 17th before a closing gambit that was as extraordinary then as it is iconic now. After coming up 15 yards short and right of the green with his second (the 18th was then played as a par five), Ballesteros played a hugely risky chip and run through the narrowest of gaps between the bunkers, an audacious effort that finished just four feet from the hole. With Miller having already putted out to secure his second Major triumph, it seemed fitting that it was Seve who had the final say, putting out for a remarkable birdie that earned a runner-up spot and drew the warm applause of a Southport crowd which had witnessed the birth of a Spanish star.
1983 – Thrilling finale to Watson’s Open odyssey
Thirty years ago, Tom Watson won his fifth and final Open Championship by one shot at Royal Birkdale, largely thanks to a master-stroke from 213 yards at the last. “I have great memories of the final hole in 1983,” Watson told europeantour.com. “I needed to make par to win the tournament. It was playing into the wind and very long but I hit a beautiful tee ball, a power fade, right in the middle of the fairway. I waited and waited to play my second and then finally made a great swing with a two iron and that was probably one of the best shots that I remember in my career, hitting into that green. As the ball was in the air the crowds grew together and ran to get a vantage point in the middle of the fairway so I never saw how the ball ended up. I heard the gallery clap but I just did not know how close it was. Finally, when I emerged from the crowd on the other side of it, I saw the ball up there fairly close, much to my relief, and I two putted to win The Open Championship for a fifth time. What a great memory.”
1998 – O’Meara prevails as Rose blooms
On a week of anniversaries, The 2013 Senior Open Championship also marks 15 years since Mark O’Meara made history by becoming the oldest – at 41 – to record his first two Major victories in the same season by winning The Open at Birkdale. Having already captured the Masters title that April, the American reversed a two-shot deficit going into the final round in Southport, shooting a superb 68 – including six birdies – to rein in Brian Watts, whom he overcame in the subsequent play-off. The week is also remembered for the emergence of future Major Champion Justin Rose. The then-17 year old amateur had held a share of the lead at the halfway stage following a second round 66, but it was on the 72nd hole – needing a four for a level par round of 70 and the highest finish by an amateur in modern times – that Rose’s flash of brilliance occurred. After pulling his drive well left, he could only chop his second further down the left rough and still almost 50 yards from the putting surface. The Walker Cup player, having decided to turn professional after The Open, waved a stunning goodbye to the amateur ranks by flopping a high pitch over the intervening bunkers that landed on the green and rolled seamlessly into the hole. Throwing his arms in the air, Rose looked to the sky and the Royal Birkdale crowd erupted.
2008 – Famous five wood seals Harrington double
Having won his first Open Championship title a year earlier following a play-off with Sergio Garcia at Carnoustie, Padraig Harrington journeyed to Royal Birkdale in 2008 unsure as to whether he would even tee off in his defence of the Claret Jug. A troublesome wrist injury almost put paid to that bid, but the Irishman soldiered on, battling through a fearsome wind to come home in a scintillating Sunday 32 to finish four shots clear of the field, after two-time Open Champion Greg Norman, bidding to become the oldest winner of the Claret Jug, had rolled back the years to lead going into the back nine. On reaching the 17th two shots clear, Harrington found the par five’s putting surface with two spectacular five wood blows – the second of which was voted European Tour Shot of the Year in 2008. Almost 250 yards out, Harrington’s stinging approach, seeming to fade away over the left grandstand, landed on the front of the green and bounded up to just three feet ensuring a winning eagle. "On the 17th, I hit my five wood off the tee and hit it really solid. It was good to hit the fairway," he remembered. "I had 220 yards to the front of the green and 249 yards to the pin. The five wood is my favourite club and I knew I could make birdie if I hit that club. I was anxious that Greg (Norman) could make eagle, and if I laid up and I made par, all of a sudden it was very close.” Harrington’s moment of brilliance, unfurled against a backdrop of extraordinary pressure on Birkdale’s famous 17th, ensured that did not happen and he became the first European to retain golf’s oldest competition since James Braid in 1906.