As a youngster in the scheme of things surrounding the history of the Open Championship (formerly known as the British Open), Royal Birkdale has been the epicenter for a couple of golf’s “Big Bangs”. Especially as it pertains to the European Tour, America’s participation in the Open Championship and the Ryder Cup.
Royal Birkdale is a private golf club located on the west coast of England in Southport, Merseyside just North of Liverpool. The club was established in 1889, and moved to Birkdale Hills in 1894. It was awarded Royal status in 1951.
The venue has hosted the Open Championship, The Amateur, the Senior British Open and the Women’s British Open.
The course and current layout was designed by golf course designer Fredrick Hawtree and professional golfer, J.H. Taylor. It is a par 70 and plays to 7173 yards(6559m).
The 2017 edition of the Open Championship will mark the tenth time Royal Birkdale will host this historic event with the first coming in 1954.
Australian Peter Thompson won the first Claret Jug awarded at Royal Birkdale that year, beating South African Bobby Locke, Syd Scott from England and Dai Reese from Wales by one stroke.
Thompson won a whopping 750 pounds for his effort. To put that in perspective, the 2017 winner will pocket $1.849 Million to help with tournament expenses.
The first Big Bang for the Open Championship came in 1961 at Royal Birkdale in the form of Arnold Palmer.
European golf was not organized at that time, and due to low interest from American golfers, which was largely caused by the meager purses offered, could not afford to make the trip across the pond to play in this event.
Arnold Palmer brought his swashbuckling style and charisma to Royal Birkdale in 1961 with American television in tow. He was able to defeat Dai Reese by one shot and bring the Claret Jug to America.
The prize money had only grown to 1400 pounds, but Arnie’s father had always told him that if he wanted to be recognized as a world-class player, he would need to add a British Open to his resume.
Arnie went back to Troon in 1962 and defeated Australian Kel Nagle by six strokes. By the time that Tom Watson won in 1977 at Turnberry, the prize fund had grown to 10,000 pounds.
American television had started televising the final two rounds for a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday help bring attention to the world’s oldest golf tournament.
The second Big Bang came in 1976 at Royal Birkdale.
It would be Johnny Miller’s second, and final major championship, but it marked the emergence of a 19 year-old Severiano Ballesteros Sota. “Seve”.
The young Spaniard led for three rounds of the 1976 British Open with likes of Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Gary Player in the field.
He had his problems in the final round and lost by six shots to Miller and tied for second place with Jack.
His good looks and Arnie-like swashbuckling style was what Great Britain and the European community needed to jump-start the European Tour and galvanize golf around the world.
Seve’s popularity forced Great Britain to include golfers from Europe to be added to the Ryder Cup selection process in 1979.
The inclusion of Europe and the organization of Team Europe has made the Ryder Cup matches what they are today, a global event that is the pinnacle of the sport every two years.
Seve would go on to win five major championships, three British Opens in 1979 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, 1984 at St. Andrews, and 1988 again at Royal Lytham. He won two Green Jackets at Augusta in 1980 and 1983. He finished in the top ten in the two other majors.
He finished third in the 1987 U.S. Open and fifth at the 1984 PGA Championship.
Note: If you get a chance to watch the Golf Channel presentation of “The Summer of 76”, I would encourage you to do so!