The Open: The story of Muirfield’s champions

Jack Nicklaus won by a single stroke in 1966. Picture: Getty
Jack Nicklaus won by a single stroke in 1966. Picture: Getty
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Thirteen golfers have lifted the Claret Jug at the East Lothian course, from parent-defying Hilton to teary Player and the most recent winner, storm-conquering Els. They all have a great story behind their rounds of glory, writes Tom English


Harold Hilton: the champion who defied his father

HAROLD Hilton took the night train to Scotland despite his father not wanting him to travel to the Open. At 22, though, Hilton was his own man and one of only three amateurs who have won the championship. This was the first Open with entry fees, an attempt to improve the quality of the field, and the first Open contested over two days and 72 holes. Hilton, from West Kirby, the pride of Hoylake, needed an eight or better at the final hole to triumph from John Ball, Sandy Herd and Andrew Kirkaldy, the grump who had said of Muirfield that it was “naught but an auld watter meaddie”.

Hilton was a chain-smoker and a furious scrapper, but hardly a golfing stylist. Bernard Darwin described his swing as that of a “little man jumping on his toes and throwing himself and his club after the ball with almost frantic abandon”.

His victory was hailed down south, but not in Scotland. One newspaper wrote of its profound disappointment. “It’s a sad blow to Scotch professionalism to have an amateur beating all-comers, but it is all the more severe when an Englishman takes first place in our national game.”


Harry Vardon: With a little help from a friend

IN THE wake of Vardon’s first of a record six Open championships, the golf writer HSC Everard saluted the great man from Jersey. “If in the [18] seventies young Tommy [Morris] was a sort of Alexander the Great, assuredly 20 years later we have in Harry Vardon a great Napoleon of the game.”

Vardon described his younger self as a thin and rather delicate child, but he became a colossus. “I have not known what it is to be nervous,” he wrote of his early years as Open champion. “No stroke or game ever seemed to cause me any anxiety in those young days and my rapid success may have been in a large measure due to my indifference.”

At Muirfield, the players were denied use of the members’ clubhouse and changed their shoes in a nearby shed. It was Vardon and the great JH Taylor locked together. Vardon needed a five at the final hole to tie.

He was uncertain to go for the green in two or lay-up until a friend, James Kay, started making “frantic efforts to attract my attention and pointing with his hand to the ground on the near side of the bunker as a hint to play short”.

Vardon played short, made five, and in a 36-hole play-off, with his brother and inspiration Tom as caddie, he defeated Taylor by four strokes to win his first Open.

1901 & 1906

James Braid: Conquering the demons

JAMES Braid’s game was in top order, apart from his putting. On the greens, the great man was in the depths of despair. Before Muirfield he changed his cleek for an aluminium putter and immediately started to notice a difference. His Open challenge started disastrously, though. His first tee-shot was a vicious hook and sailed out of bounds. He was out in 43 and home in 36. His play was so outstanding thereafter that he could afford to shoot 80 in his closing round and still beat Harry Vardon by three shots and JH Taylor by four. It was the first of his five Opens and the beginning of his love affair with Muirfield.

Braid won at St Andrews in 1905 and again at Muirfield in 1906. He said he was nervous at that time and cured his anxiety by staying away from Muirfield until the last minute. On the morning of the final day’s play in 1906, Braid prepared by playing a leisurely 18 on a nearby course, far from the madding crowd.


Ted Ray: The old man

TED Ray was said to be the biggest hitter of the golf ball that the game had ever seen. It wasn’t pretty, but when he was on-form it was a beastly weapon. One journalist wrote of his swing that it resembled the lurching charge of an enraged Cape buffalo. “Many roads lead to Rome, but some take us there quicker than others,” said Ray. “I often complete the journey to that fair city in solitary company, my route untrodden by previous travellers.”

Born in Jersey, he idolised and befriended Harry Vardon, who he beat by four shots at Muirfield. Even though the course had been lengthened since Braid’s last Open (it now measured 6,425 yards) Ray still managed to over-power it.

On his final round, Ray was followed by a vast gallery, his pipe rarely out of his mouth as he played. At 35, he was the oldest player to win the Open since Mungo Park in 1874. He won the US Open in 1920 and was captain of the first British and Irish Ryder Cup team in 1927.


Walter Hagen: The Haig, at his leisure

ON the final green, Walter Hagen had a putt of four feet to win the Open – and missed. Not that it mattered. The American could have had six more attempts and still he would have won. His landslide victory was set up by a 67 the previous day, the lowest ever score at the Open championship to that point.

As good as the 67 was, Hagen’s final round was said to be better. “They do say that Hagen that day played the greatest golf ever seen in the Open,” wrote Henry Longhurst. “My own affection for Hagen bordered on hero-worship.”

A huge gale blew during that final day. So many players shot in the 80s. “But the gale only showed Hagen as the supreme artist, a man who could juggle with a golf ball as though it were tied to a string. He produced from somewhere a mallet-headed, deep-faced driver, and they say for 36 holes he steered his ball along within 20 feet of the ground. Cannily, craftily, he was round twice in 75.”

It was his fourth and final Open and his tenth of 11 majors. Hagen was one of the most charismatic men who ever lifted a golf club. “Staggering self-assurance,” wrote Longhurst. “Wit and good humour; a bronzed, impudent countenance with a wide-open smile; inexhaustible zest for life; and a unique ability to combine wine, women and song with the serious business of winning golf championships.”


Alf Perry: Alf who?

THE professional at Leatherhead had played in the Open six times before Muirfield and had never finished in the top 20. Of all the Muirfield winners, he is the only one who failed to win another major, the rest of them winning a combined 85 major championships in their careers. The Open was Perry’s victory as a professional. He triumphed by four shots.

“All these years on,” said Peter Alliss, a few years back, “I wish I’d paid more attention to the likes of Alf Perry at the time because I now know he won the Open at Muirfield in 1935 by hitting a towering three-wood – a spoon they called it then – into the middle of the green of the 18th. He was just Uncle Alf to me.”

In his game report, Henry Longhurst wrote that “Perry was last seen sitting on the platform of the station at Drem, waiting for the London train, nursing the trophy like a baby”.


Henry Cotton: The last stand

BY 1948, Cotton was living among the mega-rich in Eaton Square in London’s Belgravia and boasting that he’d out-bid Winston Churchill, who had wanted to buy the property. “At Muirfield I found that the course for the Open was my course – narrow fairways and lots of rough.” Watched in part by King George VI, Cotton’s record-breaking 66 helped set up an easy victory, though he had to wait hours for the field to finish, his caddie Ernest Hargreaves phoning him with updates from the course while Cotton relaxed in his rented house. This was Cotton’s third and last Open championship.


Gary Player: The coming of age

THE first of Gary Player’s nine majors and achieved only after he thought he had blown it. In his final round, Player wore a white cap, salmon pink slacks and red, white and blue shoes, his Black Knight persona not yet established. He was 23 years old and on fire. “If he can eliminate the irascible side of his temperament he should have a future rich in financial gain,” wrote one national newspaper. Quite.

He needed a par at the last for a 66, but dumped his drive in a bunker and three-putted for 68. He had a long wait to be crowned champion, an achievement that reduced him to tears.


Jack Nicklaus: ‘You sort of conk out’

WHEN Jack Nicklaus arrived at Muirfield in 1966 he hardly recognised it from the course where he played the Walker Cup seven years before. “It didn’t even look like a golf course, it looked more like a wide expanse of wheat whipping in the wind.” The rough was grown and the fairways were narrowed, dramatically. During the championship, Nicklaus only used his driver 17 times, such was the premium on finding the fairways and avoiding the hay. This was the first four-day Open.

On the back nine of his final round Nicklaus said he started to play “jittery golf”. He lost three shots in four holes and his lead evaporated. “Golf is not at all a logical game,” he said. “There was no reason, really, why I should have lost my composure so completely after I had three-putted the 11th from 7ft. There was no reason either why I should have suddenly regained it just as completely. This is what happened, however. I walked to the 17th tee full of confidence, a different man. I was no longer thinking how I might lose the championship. I was thinking how I could win it. All I needed was a birdie and a par.”

Nicklaus did just that. “You sort of conk out at a moment like that,” he recalled. He had won his first Open and now all four majors had been won. He was overcome with emotion. “I got so choked up that tears came to my eyes and I couldn’t talk. This had never happened to me before.”


Lee Trevino: When God was a Mexican

ARRIVING in Scotland, Lee Trevino got off the plane and walked through the arrival gate at Prestwick airport not realising that he needed to get a connection to get him to Edinburgh. Realising his blunder he hired a van and driver to get him to environs of Muirfield.

Jack Nicklaus had won the first two majors of the year and the Open crystallised into a three-horse race between the Mexican, the American and Tony Jacklin, who was sickened by Trevino’s miraculous chip-ins that went down in legend. Years later, Trevino said that it was a holed bunker shot on the 16th in his third round that was most significant given how impossible the shot looked. His magic wand that week was a club called “Helen”, a 40-year-old ladies wedge designed by Helen Hicks, the great amateur champion of the 1930s. Helen broke Jacklin’s heart and halted Nicklaus’ grand slam.


Tom Watson: The king of Scotland

ISAO Aoki set a course record 63 during the championship, but the week was all about Tom Watson, who won a third Claret Jug on his third different Scottish links, conquering Carnoustie in 1975 and Turnberry (and Jack Nicklaus) in 1977. After two rounds, Lee Trevino led by three strokes, but it all changed on the Saturday when Watson shot 64 and raced into a four-shot lead that he was never, ever going to relinquish. In the final round, Watson birdied five out of six holes from the 7th and won easily from Trevino in second.

1987 & 1992

Nick Faldo: Faldo does a Braid

A FAMOUS final round of 18 pars won Nick Faldo his first Claret Jug and did for Paul Azinger, who needed two pars of his own to win and got two bogeys instead. Faldo had just turned 30 and had won three more majors by the time 1992 came around. He wasn’t supposed to win that week, but began 66-64, led by four going into the final round, trailed by two by the 15th and then produced what he considered to be the best pressure golf of his life on the way home to pip America’s John Cook by a single shot.

Faldo had been getting terrible grief for the state of his game and his endless tinkering. “Everyone was a flaming expert. So that’s what made that win so special.” In his acceptance speech he infamously sang My Way and thanked the media – “from the heart of his bottom”.


Ernie Els: Calm in the storm

EVEN now the abiding memory of Muirfield 2002 is the storm that hit on Saturday and blew Tiger Woods’ chances of a grand slam to kingdom come. Woods had won the year’s first two majors and was nicely positioned after two rounds at the Open only to be caught in the teeth of the monsoon. He shot 81, his worst round as a professional. His was a sob story, but not the only one. Padraig Harrington missed the four-man play-off by a shot despite a 76 on that horrible Saturday.

In the end it came down to Ernie Els, Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby and then, in sudden death, Els and Levet until the Big Easy was the last man standing. This week he is defending champion, a man who has earned his place in the great story of Muirfield’s legends.