Royal Birkdale should give us a big name winner

13th July 1961: American golfer Arnold Palmer takes a practise swing before the British Open Golf Championships at Royal Birkdale. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
13th July 1961: American golfer Arnold Palmer takes a practise swing before the British Open Golf Championships at Royal Birkdale. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) /

At this 10th time The Open Championship is contended at Royal Birkdale, a look at past Birkdale champions gives cues as to who the 2017 champion may be.

Every major championship venue has a tendency to give us a certain kind of winner.  The Olympic Club, where I broke an ankle at the 8th hole in 2012, offers up Scott Simpson beating Tom Watson or Billy Casper beating Arnold Palmer.  It’s an upset kind of course.  The guy you think is going to win doesn’t.  And you break ankles.

Some courses give us winners that are less surprising, like Baltusrol, where Jack Nicklaus won twice and where Phil Mickelson won his second major, or like Oakmont, where Ben Hogan, Dustin Johnson and Nicklaus have victories.

Royal Birkdale is the Nicklaus, Mickelson, Hogan, Johnson kind of course.  One that, most of the time, delivers a winner you have heard of, maybe one you already know.

Even though it has a long history, Birkdale’s participation in the British Open is relatively recent. This will only be the 10th time it has hosted the world’s oldest tournament.

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The first Birkdale course opened in 1889, then the club moved to a nearby tract of land in 1894. It was never considered “Open Championship” material until a redesign by the famous F.G Hawtree and J.H. Taylor firm in 1922.  Taylor won five British Opens and was part of what was called the Great Triumverate of golf, along with Harry Vardon and James Braid, in the early 1900s. Having his stamp of approval on the course increased the perception of its quality.

The current clubhouse, built in 1935, looks like it fell out of a Hercule Poirot mystery, as though Poirot, Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon must surely be having tea in one of the downstairs rooms overlooking the golf course.  However, based on the history of majors played there, it’s doubtful that the winner will be mysterious in any way.  It’s very likely someone we already know.

First used for the British Open in 1954, Birkdale was just in its third year as a Royal-designated, golf course, having received its proclamation from King George VI in November of 1951.   Typically clubs receive the royal designation after some interaction with the royal family, but in the case of Birkdale, a request was sent to the club for royal status on October 6 of  1951, and it was granted for services rendered to golf.  Prince Andrew has been an honorary member since 1992.

In its first year as a British Open venue, the legendary Peter Thomson was the winner, and he would go on to win the championship four more times in an 11-year span.  His 1965 British Open victory, his last in that championship, was also at Royal Birkdale, perhaps appropriate bookends. That is the yardstick of measurement at this course.

Thomson was such a great player that he won three British Opens in a row, 1954, 1955 and 1956, something that hadn’t been done since the days of Tom Morris, Jr., and Jamie Anderson, both of whom did it before 1880.  (It also hasn’t been done since.)

Thomson has a wonderful record with 26 victories in Europe in the pre-European Tour days and more than 30 wins in Australia.  He didn’t play in the U.S. until he reached PGA Tour Champions age, and in his one season on that tour,1985, he won nine times.

While Thomson was famous internationally, it was Arnold Palmer’s victory at Royal Birkdale in 1961 that put the course on the map in the U.S.  Palmer was, of course, the biggest golf star of his time, some would argue of all time.  In 1960, he gave us the name Grand Slam for what we now call attempting to win all four majors, whether in a career or in a season, the latter of which has never been done.

While Palmer lost to Kel Nagle in his first attempt at the British Open in 1960, he won it in his second try at Birkdale. Then to punctuate it, he repeated in 1962 at Royal Troon.

The list of famous winners at Royal Birkdale continued beyond Thomson and Palmer.

Next was Lee Trevino in 1971, who had already won the U.S. Open and the Canadian Open that season.  Like Palmer, Trevino repeated in 1972.

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In 1976, Johnny Miller came along, and his rounds will no doubt be profiled on NBC and Golf Channel during this year’s British Open telecast.

Then came Tom Watson in 1983. It was Watson’s fifth and last British Open victory, and he won it at Royal Birkdale as the defending champion and as the reigning U.S. Open champ.

In 1984, Watson a chance to win his third consecutive and sixth British Open, which would have tied him with Harry Vardon for six victories in the event and with Thomson, Morris, Jr., and Anderson for three-in-a-row.  In the end though, it was Seve Ballesteros who won at St. Andrews in 1984.  Watson’s last best chance to win the sixth British Open was in 2009 where he lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.

The 1991 British Open victory at Royal Birkdale by Ian Baker-Finch was perhaps a slight surprise although he had led the 1984 British Open which was eventually won by Ballesteros. Baker-Finch was known as a great putter, but not a long hitter.  However, he made five birdies in the first seven holes and posted a front nine 29 in the final round in 1991.

Perhaps the Baker-Finch model led the way for Mark O’Meara in 1998, just months after his Masters victory. He was also a shorter hitter and a great putter.

The most recent winner at Royal Birkdale was Padraig Harrington in 2008.  He was defending his 2007 British Open title at the time.  Harrington would then go on to win the 2008 PGA a month later.

Next: The Open Championship power rankings

Given its history of winners in the British Open, it’s likely that whoever wins at Royal Birkdale will be someone who is already a very good player and most likely someone whose name you know.  Someone who is a good putter and a long enough hitter.  Time to make your picks.