Before the Claret Jug there was another trophy, the Challenge Belt. It has quite a story to tell!
The Open Championship Claret Jug is, without a doubt, the most coveted prize in golf. Everybody who’s ever teed it up against another golfer secretly dreams of hoisting that small silver jug in triumph. But the Claret Jug — more accurately, The Golf Champion Trophy — wasn’t the original prize awarded to the winner of The Open. Before the Claret Jug, there was The Challenge Belt.
Prestwick Golf Club hosted the first Open Championship in 1860 and presented the winner with a handsome red Moroccan leather belt embellished with a silver buckle and emblems, The Challenge Belt.
A red leather belt rather than a little silver jug? The impetus to provide the Challenge Belt came from The Earl of Eglinton, a sports enthusiast and driving force in establishing The Open Championship. The Earl had a keen interest in medieval pageantry and donated many trophies for competition, including a gold belt for competition among the Irvine Archers.
The original Challenge Belt was purchased by the members of Prestwick Golf Club and the Rules of the new championship specified precisely how the safekeeping of the Belt would be assured:
"“The party winning the belt shall always leave the belt with the treasurer of the club until he produces a guarantee to the satisfaction of the above committee that the belt shall be safely kept and laid on the table at the next meeting to compete for it until it becomes the property of the winner by being won three times in succession.”"
Young Tom Morris wearing the Challenge Belt. Photo credit: The Scottish Golf Book
In 1870, the 10th year of The Open Championship, Young Tom Morris won the contest for the third consecutive year and the Challenge Belt became his property. At the 1871 Prestwick annual membership meeting Gilbert Mitchell Innes proposed what would become the rota for The Open. His reasoning was straightforwardly pecuniary:
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"“In contemplation of St Andrews, Musselburgh and other clubs joining in the purchase of a Belt to be played for over four or more greens it is not expedient for the club to provide a Belt to be played for solely at Prestwick.”"
Prestwick couldn’t afford to buy another Belt. By 1872 three clubs –Prestwick, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club — had agreed to rotate hosting The Open and share the cost of a new trophy, a silver claret jug, each club contributing “a sum not exceeding £15 from the funds of the club.” The 1872 winner, again young Tom Morris, received a medal on which was engraved “The Golf Champion Trophy.”
For the record, the original claret jug is retained by the R&A and a replica is awarded annually to The Golf Champion.