A wine jug, Old Tom, and a legendary announcer: The history and traditions of the Open Championship

This week's British Open is the 143rd edition in the 153-year history of golf's oldest major. Here are some quirks, traditions, and high points in the long history of golf's most unique event.

The Open Championship is the oldest championship in golf and is one of the oldest competitions in all of sports. With a history that dates back to before the our Civil War, there is a lot to learn and soak in about this championship.

The Courses

For the first 12 Open Championships, the host was Prestwick Golf Club. In 1872, a decision was made to start rotating courses. The first Open rota included Prestwick, Musselburgh Golf Links, and St. Andrews, which was home to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. While Prestwick and Musselburgh may not be used anymore, St. Andrews still hosts the Open some 140 years later. For me, that kind of course history is hard to beat.

Today the Open rota has expanded to 10 courses with the recent inclusion of Royal Portrush.

And while we're discussing the current courses, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one man who has been at every one for the past 40 years. That man would be announcer Ivor Robson. You will surely hear his unique voice as he introduces this year's field on the first tee. Robson must be a national treasure in the UK. He may even be a treasure here in the States.

The Format

Today the Open Championship is a 72-hole, four-round stroke play tournament, but that wasn't always the case. From the tournament's inception in 1860 to 1891, the Open Championship featured less than a few dozen golfers, competing in three 9-hole rounds. In 1892, the Open became a 72-hole, two-day tournament. Each player completed 36 holes each day. The scores were, uh, different than they are today. Eventual winner Harold Hilton opened with 78 and 81. Today that would probably get you sent home early. He was also an amateur and denied a cash prize. Speaking of cash ...

The Cash

The first cash prize at the Open was £6. For some context, that is equivalent to about $700 now. Something tells me that Tiger and Phil aren't getting out of bed for less than $10,000. Prize money for first place this week is £975,000. But as we all know, the money is nice but it's really all about capturing that major championship trophy.

The Trophy

From 1860 to 1870, the winner of the Open was awarded the Challenge Belt. If you are picturing a WWE style belt, that's pretty accurate. But in 1870, the belt was purchased by Prestwick Golf Club. In 1871, a championship was not held as a new strategy for the tournament was being worked on. In 1872, the tournament returned with a new idea. The event would rotate to other courses and there would be a new prize. Under the new rules, the three Open courses (Prestwick, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers based at Musselburgh and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club) each contributed money for a medal and a brand new claret jug. (Claret jugs actually come from a region in France by the same name and were used to serve wine.) The Golf Champion Trophy was awarded for the first time the following year and has been given out ever since.

The Champions

With 153 years of history, there is a long and diverse list of champions at the Open. Here are some facts about the Open Champions:

  • Frenchman Arnaud Massy became the first non-British winner of the Open in 1907. Coincidentally, his win came at Royal Liverpool, host of this year's Open.
  • Harry Vardon remains the most decorated champion, having won the Open 6 times from 1896 to 1914. It's quite possible he could have won even more Open Championships, but after his win in 1914, the Open was put on hold for six years due to World War I.
  • While Scotland may have dominated the early Open Championships, the United States is actually home to the most champions with 42 wins by 27 different golfers. (It helps to have guys like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods).
  • The oldest champion was Old Tom Morris at 46, while the youngest champion was Young Tom Morris at age 17. So they're not just clever names!
  • Speaking of Old Tom, he still holds the mark for biggest margin of victory. In 1862, he won by 13.
  • More recently, the biggest deficit overcome during the final round is 10 shots. This feat was accomplished by Paul Lawrie in 1999. Of course, his comeback would not have been possible if not for the biggest final round collapse. That distinction belongs to Jean Van De Velde who blew a five shot lead the very same day. Of course, we all remember that meltdown fondly.
  • While Phil Mickelson's final round 66 last year was special, it's not the lowest final round for an eventual champion. Greg Norman's final round 64 boosted him to victory in 1993, beating Nick Faldo by two strokes.

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