Many Yanks still call it “the British Open.” The rest of the world properly refers to golf’s oldest major as “The Open Championship.” Whatever your preference, this storied tournament will contest its 150th edition this July, when St. Andrews plays host for the 30th time. Firm, fast-running seaside links courses pair with wind, rain, insidious pot bunkers, and rough dotted with heather and gorse bushes to offer a supreme challenge year after year. Amid the pressure of competing to win the Claret Jug trophy, it’s easy to see why the tournament’s greatest moments linger long in memory. As always, to narrow it down to a top five, we employed a single criterion: To what extent did the memorable moment not only thrill us, but also move us emotionally? Here, then, are the top five Open Championship moments.
5. Costantino Rocca rocks St. Andrews with a sinfully sensational putt (1995)
Italy’s Costantino Rocca isn’t exactly one of the legendary heroes of golf. Yet, what he accomplished on the 72nd hole at St. Andrews in 1995 was unmistakably an Open moment for the ages. Rocca came to the final hole at the Old Course needing a birdie to tie John Daly and earn a playoff. Rocca’s playing partner, third-round leader Michael Campbell from New Zealand, needed an eagle to equal Daly’s six-under-par total. Campbell nearly drove the par-four green, but in the end, failed to make a 2. Rocca, not far behind Campbell after their drives, hit first—a horribly flubbed chip that trundled only a few yards, leaving him devastated, and facing a 65-foot putt uphill through the green’s infamous “Valley of Sin.” His fate was seemingly sealed.
In an instant, devastation turned to elation. Rocca rapped his 65-foot birdie putt, up and out of the Valley of Sin. It continued tracking to the hole, and tracking, and improbably, it dropped in. Rocca flopped on his stomach and with pure joy, repeatedly smacked his arms on the hallowed turf. Ultimately, he would lose the four-hole playoff to Daly, but no one will ever forget Costantino Rocca’s magical Open moment.
4. Tiger Woods blitzes the field and the Old Course (2000)
Fresh off one of the most dominating performances in major championship history, a 15-shot U.S. Open win at iconic Pebble Beach, Tiger Woods arrived at even more iconic St. Andrews, Tiger’s favorite course, eager to prove that his triumph at Pebble was no fluke. He proved it emphatically. Woods humbled the Old Course in unprecedented fashion, finishing at 19 under par, the lowest score ever posted in relation to par in major championship history. He left his closest pursuers in his rear-view mirror by an eight-shot margin.
At age 24, Woods became just the fifth golfer—and youngest ever—to capture the career Grand Slam. Tiger was so precise in his strategy and execution that he never found a single bunker in 72 holes. On the occasion when past St. Andrews Open champions Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus bade farewell to the Old Course, the torch was passed to the blazing shotmaking and course management skills of Tiger Woods.
3. Jack Nicklaus fulfills his destiny in a wild St. Andrews triumph (1970)
Early in his career, Jack Nicklaus declared, “If you’re going to be a player people will remember, you have to win the Open at St. Andrews.” Nicklaus finished a distant second during his first go-round on the Old Course at the Open of 1964; in 1970, it appeared he would meet a similar fate. At the 72nd hole, Doug Sanders faced a three-foot putt that would clinch the title. He missed. An 18-hole playoff would decide the outcome.
The Golden Bear grabbed a four-shot lead after 13 holes, but two birdies from Sanders and a bogey from Nicklaus whittled the margin to one when they arrived at the 18th tee. In a scene out of Hollywood, Nicklaus dramatically removed his sweater at the tee. No longer confined, he crushed a drive so far on the 358-yard par four that it rolled through the green, nearly out of bounds. He eased his chip down the slope and stopped it close to the hole. Sanders made birdie for a 1-over-par 73, but Nicklaus tapped in for a 72 to seal the victory. The normally stoic Nicklaus sent his putter airborne, nearly clanking Sanders’s head on the descent. Jack couldn’t contain himself. He now owned an Open win at St. Andrews.
2. Arnold Palmer re-energizes the Open Championship (1961)
By 1960, the Open Championship had drifted into irrelevance. It took the crowning of the King to restore its luster. Arnold Palmer, a keen historian, ventured to the British Open at St. Andrews in 1960 in his quest for the modern Grand Slam, but fell one stroke shy. He relished the experience, however. “I’ll keep coming back until I win this championship,” he vowed. He didn’t have to wait long.
Wild weather greeted Palmer in 1961 at England’s Royal Birkdale but at the height of the storm in round two, Palmer birdied four of his first six holes on his way to a remarkable 1-under-par 73. In the final round, from 145 yards in deep rough on the 15th hole, Palmer scythed a 6-iron “as hard as I could” and watched the ball soar onto the green. A plaque now marks the spot for one of history’s greatest shots. Palmer would capture his first Claret Jug by a single shot over Dai Rees. The King returned in 1962 to defend his crown, joined this time by many top Americans. “All by himself,” observed Mark McCormack in 1967, Palmer “restored the British Open to its rightful place as one of the top three tournaments in the world.”
1. Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus soar in their “Duel in the Sun.” (1977)
The stars aligned perfectly in 1977 for golf’s greatest mano-a-mano contest. Tied at the top after identical scores of 68–70–65, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus had lapped the field and were paired for the second straight day in round four. Basking in rare warm sunshine on the stunning Turnberry Ailsa links on the west coast of Scotland, Watson and Nicklaus continued their volley of birdies.
At the 16th tee, Watson turned to Nicklaus and said, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Nicklaus responded, “You bet it is.” Leading by one at the 18th, Watson appeared to slam the door when he stuck his 7-iron approach to two feet. Somehow, from dense rough next to a gorse bush, Nicklaus conjured up an 8-iron that finished 32 feet from the hole. The crowds swarmed over players and caddies. With order restored. Nicklaus promptly, improbably, knocked his long putt into the cup. Pandemonium! “The roar was deafening,” said Watson later. “Then Jack put up his hands to quiet the crowd.” Watson quickly put an end to the duel by holing his two-footer. He raised his arms in triumph. The two men walked arm in arm to the scoring tent. There was a new sheriff in town.
What is your favorite Open Championship moment?