Every major championship has its own identity, but none is stronger than the oldest in golf, The Open. The easy and popular choice for "favorite major" is the Masters. The event at Augusta National has marketed itself perfectly and elevated its importance in what is a relatively short history compared to the other majors. I prefer The Open.
For several reasons -- the identity, how it stands so apart from every other tournament of the season, my own personal interaction and memories -- this is the championship that resonates most with me. I get up for it more than any other major. Here are some of the ways it's the best, most entertaining major in golf.
1. Links weather
It can get a little monotonous for the American golf fan. Sure, there are occasional seaside venues and many courses have a signature hole or quirk. But there are certainly months-long stretches with little variety.
The Open's great appeal is that it presents the players and audience with such a dramatically different venue and style of golf. There's an increased level of creativity often required to succeed -- we've seen Tiger win without ever taking his driver out of the bag, we've seen unknown Todd Hamilton win using a damn hybrid to bump-and-run his way around the greens, and we see winning scores that run the gamut. At Troon, a runaway duel between Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson left us with a winning score at 20-under. The Open rota is mostly predictable set of venues but this year's, Royal Portrush, is an unknown for the pros. It’s the first time The Open has come to Northern Ireland and Portrush since 1951 and it’s sold out, a rarity for this major. The pros may not be familiar with it, but it’s a world-class setup fully capable of hosting and will provide many of those traditional links feels and views we get in Scotland and England.
It's just a totally different style of golf and the weather can change it all from day to day, morning to afternoon and hole to hole. Sure, the big hitters and bombers often still have the advantage that they enjoy at many of the other venues on the season schedule. But at least they have to think about it some more, adapt different parts of their games and get creative at times. There are *options* on almost every shot, especially up around the green.
Many of the courses on The Open rotation have been lengthened, like all the other championship tracks across the world. But these venues still look the same -- you know immediately that you're at The Open. Links golf through the weather is the defining characteristic of an Open Championship and it's rewarding to dive right in for one all-important week each year.
2. Middle-of-the-night golf
Again, a unique aspect of The Open that is part of its charm but would be quite miserable if it went on for more than one week per year. BUT ... it's just one week, so suck it up and embrace the glorious blessing of middle-of-the-night golf. Getting up in the middle of the night to watch every hour of The Open broadcast once let me witness the greatest player-caddie interaction of all time.
You never know what you might get as the rest of your house presumably sleeps. It's a fun party -- social media starts to stir, you know who's up and around and ready to plow through a 14-hour march.
In recent years, ESPN would come on the air around 4 a.m. for the first two rounds. This year, however, Golf Channel and NBC are back again for their fourth straight Open and will run a 50-hour broadcast from the very first tee shot until the conclusion on Sunday afternoon. So we'll do it live dammit! starting around 1:30 a.m. ET on Thursday. You now need to get up three hours earlier than you used to.
Whatever your preferred method is for getting through it -- crashing early Wednesday, or just going out for a late dinner, then staying out and powering through until Thursday afternoon -- make the effort. It's just one week and it becomes a fun personal tradition.
3. The 18th
Fewer and fewer things in golf really get the emotions running high -- so much of it is produced and forced. But the scene at the 18th of The Open never fails. Like so much with the oldest major in golf, it's because you know exactly what you're getting there. The courses may change but the R&A creates an ideal theater at the 18th each year. The only difference, really, is the clubhouse, which can serve as a "back wall.”
Grandstands go deep up the fairway from the area around the green, creating a tunnel of sorts. They also always look the same -- a similar arrangement with the blue-and-yellow scoreboards lording over the scene. It's a tradition and it looks inspiring even empty before Sunday...
... and then completely chilling when that Sunday comes and the crowds envelope the final group walking up to the green.
"It's the greatest walk in golf."pic.twitter.com/rk1I6xN1i7— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 18, 2017
Every major is going to put up a grandstand at its final hole, but no one sets the scene and does it with such a traditionally consistent look like The Open.
A major championship may not always produce the sexiest winner, but whomever makes that walk up the 18th at Portrush on Sunday will be gripping to watch.
4. The starter
Only at the Open Championship does a 156-player field all go off the same tee for all four rounds. It's just not possible at the U.S. Open or PGA Championship, where they send the full field in groups of three off both the 1st and 10th tees.
At The Open, however, it often stays light out way past 9 p.m. and sometimes pushing 10:30 or so when it's north in Scotland. They start the first and second rounds at 6:30 a.m., and just run everyone off the first tee for almost 11 hours until just after 4 p.m.
Standing guard at the 1st tee for the entire 11 hours, never taking a bathroom break, was always Ivor Robson, the iconic Open starter. Mr. Robson retired four years ago at St. Andrews, so we no longer have his incredibly unique and amusing voice at the start of every single round.
It will take a generation for someone to have the built-in familiarity that Robson had. David Lancaster got the first call for the impossible task of replacing Robson, and he didn't fly solo, unmoved for 11 hours like the great Ivor, but rather had occasional support from a second chair.
5. Pot bunkers
Bunkers, or sand traps if you're so inclined, aren't what they used to be. They're often not that penal for the best in the world, who sometimes even prefer that the ball go in a bunker for an easier up-and-down. At The Open, however, you can count on carnage. The pot bunkers are another tradition that make the golf of The Open so different from what we're used to, and it's fun to watch the best be challenged. Many of these might as well be hazards.
Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports
A word that's really only used, and used constantly, at The Open. It's junk, schmutz, jail, death. These are the plants so thick that once your ball goes off line and lands in them, you'll have trouble just finding it. There are fewer of these gorse bushes at Portrush but there are large swaths of unkempt and unplayable fescue and wildflower fields Playing it and making a swing is often not really an option. So much like the bunkers, these are unofficial hazards. You don't need ponds and lakes everywhere to force big numbers on a scorecard.
7. The outfits
Yeahhh, the outfits from past decades at the other majors look questionable and can be jolting in retrospect. But the players tend to get a little more creative at The Open, going for some amalgam of modern and edgy gear that's also a nod to the history in the home of golf. This was Rory McIlroy's getup at Carnoustie in 2007 -- not some mid-70s tournament, although there's an overflowing library of those, too. A mock turtle, deep V sweater and white pants.
The weather always forces the players to layer up and all the #brands want to display their best, most innovative or iconoclastic stuff. What you get is a four-day adventure in style.
8. The Claret Jug
I am biased. If you've read this far, you understand that I love almost everything about the way The Open stands out from the others. So I am sure there will be some objections in some quarters ... buuuut the Claret Jug is the best trophy in sports. There are only one or two active trophies that are older, and it's the oldest in golf. There's nothing incredibly ostentatious about it. It's relatively small, has an actual utilitarian purpose and is the most sought-after trophy in the game. The presentation of the jug, as the R&A chief drones "champion golfer of the year," is another goosebumps moment at the end of this event.
You can have your green jacket. I want to put $40,000 bottles of wine in my jug like Phil Mickelson.
* * *
There are so many little quirks that separate The Open from every other event in golf. A first tee start or a logo or a trophy all taken individually seem minor and unnoticeable. But the combination of all these differences and touches make The Open what it is, and that's the best major in golf. The course, the players, the time of day, the broadcast, the history ... there are so many things, both subtle and conspicuous, that make up a major's identity. The combination at the modern-day Open make it the most fun in golf.