The British Open: The 10 best players from each era

Rory McIlroy, British Open,(Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy, British Open,(Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images) /
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The British Open – simply ‘The Open’ if you live in Britain or work for NBC – is both the world’s oldest golf major and an event that has defined each era of the game.

It was 35 years after the Brit was created when somebody in the U.S. thought to hold an Open championship of its own. As golf’s senior event, the tournament has hosted literally all of the game’s greats, beginning with Old Tom Morris and continuing in an unbroken string to today’s stars.

For that reason, an era-by-era examination of the most dominant Open players is almost simultaneously a stroll through the game’s history.

Here’s the system used to determine the best players of each British Open era.

Beginning with the era of the Morris tandem, 1860 through 1874, and continuing through the post-Tiger Woods era, 2010 to 2021.

  • Players will be considered if they played four rounds in at least half of the British Open competitions played during the era in question. Depending on the period in question, that will be as few as five or as many as nine events.
  • The yardstick will be the standard deviation of the player’s performance in each British Open. Standard deviation, which is a measure of relative exceptionality, is preferred because – unlike a raw score – it normalizes for season-to-season variations in course setup, equipment, weather, and numerous other factors.
  • Keep in mind that because golf is a game where less is more, a lower standard deviation is preferable to a higher one. A decade-average standard deviation of -1.0 or lower would be of contending caliber.
British Open, St. Andrews, R&A, The Open, 150th Open
Old Tom and Young Tom Morris. (Photo by Sarah Fabian-Baddiel/Heritage Images/Getty Images) /

British Open: The Morris era (1860-1874)

When the first Open was contested in 1860, Old Tom Morris was acknowledged as the game’s best. Morris lost that first tournament to Willie Park, but came back to win in 1861, 1862, 1864, and 1867.

By 1867, though, Old Tom had found a worthy challenger in his own home. His son, Young Tom, won in 1868, 1869, and 1870, then a fourth time in 1872. But Young Tom died suddenly late in 1875.

Here are the 10 best players from golf’s formative era.

1.       Young Tom Morris, -1.11

2.       Old Tom Morris, -0.66

3.       David Park, -0.61

4.       Davie Strath, -0.57

5.       Willie Park Sr., -0.55

6.       Andrew Strath, -0.20

7.       Bob Kirk, -0.18

8.       Robert Andrew, -0.07

9.       William Dolen, +0.34

10.    Charlie Hunter, +0.85

Obviously, golf was a clannish game in this era. The Parks – Willie Sr., brother Mungo, and Willie Jr. – and the Straths were the principal challengers to the Morrises. The Park family eventually combined for seven titles, nearly equaling the eight won by the Morrises.

But realistically this era was dominated by Old Tom and Young Tom. Old Tom won by 13 strokes in 1862, and in 1868 Young Tom dethroned his dad, who finished runner-up three strokes behind his son. Young Tom won by 11 in 1869, by a record 13 in 1869, and by 3 in 1870.