A century and a half. That's how long has passed since the Open Championship - lovingly distinguished here in the States as the British Open - was first played in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club. This week, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews celebrates the dawn of this great championship at the "Home of Golf."
St. Andrews' Old Course was not even host of the Open until 1873, three years after the modern routing of the course was established. The Open, too, was established by then by the likes of Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris and Willie Park. Until the Open moved to the sleepy university town in 1873, only one other person than those three had won the championship.
In that first Open at St. Andrews in 1873, Young Tom Morris handed over the Claret Jug for the first time. He did so to Tom Kidd, who won the 36-hole contest that year. Kidd won the Claret Jug, introduced the year prior because Morris had been bequeathed the Open Championship trophy belt for his three straight victories in the tournament.
And so began a tradition at St. Andrews that has endured two World Wars, countless economic hardships and the American abandonment of the Open when the USA became the world's first superpower.
It was in 1960 that the King reinvigorated the most unique and special of the majors - in fact, restoring its place in the group - when he made the trip to St. Andrews to contest the Open after an astounding win at Cherry Hills in the U.S. Open. Palmer's goal was the grand slam which, in his mind, was made up by the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. The Latrobe golfer's power of persuasion was such that not only does his set of four esteemed championships still hold court, but that name stuck as well. Palmer was not successful in bringing home the Claret Jug in 1960, but his entry set off a series of events that allowed for the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to play this most bizarre brand of golf for an ancient and revered title.
The Old course will play host to its 27th Open Championship this week. All the way back to Bobby Jones' win there in 1927, which set off a ticker-tape parade for the dynamo, the Old Course has more often than not identified the best golfer of the era in which it has held the Open. Sam Snead, Peter Thompson, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo and Tiger - each of them won the Open in style and claimed their stake as the greatest of their era.
Nicklaus won in 1970 in a playoff over Doug Sanders, thanks to a poorly aligned 30-inch putt that Sanders wished he could have back the moment he struck it. To this day, Sanders says he does not go 10 minutes without thinking about what could have been. With Nicklaus' mighty 340 yard drive to the final hole of the playoff, he assured himself a second Open at St. Andrews.
In 1984, Ballesteros cemented himself as one of the all-time showmen in golf. His curling 15-footer to win at St. Andrews touched off what will go down in history one of the great celebrations to finish a major championship. In fact, his 360-degree salute to the British people that to this day embrace the Spainard as one of their own actually formed the logo he would use in all of his business ventures.
The drought of English power at the Open Championship had become as arid as the Sahara when Faldo came to the Home of Golf in 1990. Before his win at Muirfield three years prior, Tony Jacklin was the last subject to become Champion Golfer of the Year in 1969 (a year before he became the last European to win the US Open until a few short weeks ago). Faldo, though, was reticent in his goal to win at St. Andrews. He pounded the course in precision fashion to win on -18.
The millennial Open (a misnomer) in 2000 brought Tiger Woods to the Old Course in search of his second consecutive major. Having just won at Pebble Beach by 15 shots, Woods was playing the best golf of his career. From the moment the championship began, Woods was playing against history and the field was playing for second. Woods eluded every bunker at St. Andrews that week, becoming the first man to reach 20 under par in a major championship. Tiger gave just one back to win the title on -19 and take his first Open title, completing the career Grand Slam in the process of an eight shot win.
Five years later - the last time the Open was in town - Woods made his second win at St. Andrews seem routine. It was a five-shot win, one for every year he had not been at the Old Course. It was his second go-round at the career Grand Slam.
Even in the rare case when an all-time great did not prevail, the drama of the championship manifested itself in a compelling tournament.
One need look no further back than the 1995 Open Championship in which Constantino Rocca flubbed a pitch shot at the final hole of regulation, only to drain a mammoth 65 foot putt to force a playoff with John Daly. Daly, who had done virtually nothing in the majors since his astounding 1991 PGA Championship win as the ninth alternate, absorbed the blow and won the Open title in the resulting four-hole playoff.
All of these championships and the other living winners of the Open Championship will be celebrated in a four-hole exhibition the R&A is calling the Champions Challenge. The affair promises to be competitive, emotional and festive. In an interview with Waggle Room earlier this week, Gary Player said that he has every intention of winning the challenge. The fire inside the belly rekindles when the Old Course calls for players of all walks, and all levels - declining or not.
That fire will be burning bright on Thursday morning when the Open begins again at the Old Course. The most noticeable change - the lengthening of the Road Hole by some 40 yards - might be the only sore thumb during the week. And most observers in Scotland have said that for even the disdain or cold shoulder given to the out of bounds teeing ground for the world's most famous hole could not overcome how the box itself looks to just fit in, like it had always been there.
Seemingly, the Open Championship and St. Andrews have always been there. For as long as the sport has been recorded in a modern fashion, the Open was there. St. Andrews has been its steward, as well as being one for the entire great game. It will continue in that tradition this week.
Ryan Ballengee blogs about golf at two SB Nation sites: Waggle Room and Trailing Tiger. And he'll be doing just that this weekend as the best golfers in the world tackle St. Andrews at the British Open.