By David Owen
In 2010, I played all 14 in a two-week trip.
Since the beginning of time (i.e., 1860), the British Open has been played on just 14 courses. I’ve played all of them at least once, and I’ve played most of them more than once, and in 2010 I played all 14 in a two-week trip. Here’s my ranking, in reverse order:
14) Golf holes all over the world measure 4.5 inches in diameter because in 1829 a blacksmith in Musselburgh made a hole-cutting device from a piece of drain pipe that happened to be that size. The course, which has just nine holes, is interesting mainly because of facts like that one.
13) Prince’s is the least impressive of the three Open courses on England’s southeastern coast. (See Nos. 7 and 10 for the other two.) The Open was played there once, in 1932 — Gene Sarazen won, using the sand wedge he’d just invented — but that layout no longer exists.
12) Prestwick has hosted 24 Opens, including the first 12. The course is famously “quirky,” but I don’t love it. The private parts of the clubhouse are way cool, however. Plead with a member to show you around.
11) I don’t understand why Opens, including this year’s, are given to Royal Troon. You play what seems like the same hole over and over again, then you play the Postage Stamp, then you play what feels like the same hole over and over again, again.
10) If I could pick any Open club to join, I might pick Royal Cinque Ports, in Deal, England — because I love the course and because the members remind me of the members of my club at home. In 1898, one of them played cross-country from Royal St George’s in 32 strokes. He hit his final shot through a clubhouse window.
9) For the Open, the R&A turns the first hole at Royal Liverpool into the third, giving players two holes to warm up on before hitting one of the scariest tee shots in tournament golf. Plus, the Beatles.
8) Royal Lytham has way too many bunkers, but its ninth hole is one of my favourite par 3s anywhere, and the club offers what might be the best overnight stay-and-play package in the world.
7) Ian Fleming was a member of Royal St George’s. He made it the model for Royal St Marks, the club where James Bond wins a cheating match with Auric Goldfinger. On a clear day, you can see France.
6) When the wind is blowing hard, Carnoustie might be too tough for ordinary humans. The course has provided some of the most memorable Opens ever — Hogan, Player, Watson, Van de Velde — and it’s just over the bridge from St Andrews.
5) Royal Birkdale lies near the center of what might be the most compact collection of great links courses in the world, along the Lancashire coast between Liverpool and Lytham. Birkdale is my favuorite Open course in England.
4) The secretary described Muirfield (recently removed from the Open Rota due to a controversial vote not to allow women members) to me as a lunching club (by which he meant a drinking club) with a golf course attached to it. The members play fast because they’re in a hurry to get back to the dining room. The course is awesome, too.
3) If it weren’t for Republican US Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who owns it now, I would have ranked Turnberry No.1. (Dropping it farther down the list would have given Trump too much credit.)
2) Every serious golfer, at some point, has to play as many rounds as possible on the Old Course at St Andrews. If you suspend your preconceptions about what golf holes are supposed to look like, playing the Old Course can be a transcendental experience. St Andrews makes the strongest possible argument for allowing links courses to create themselves.
1) The voting in my head was close, but in the end Royal Portrush, in northern Northern Ireland, came in at No.1. Design changes eliminated its only serious weaknesses: the two closing holes. And the scheduled return of the Open in 2019, after a 68-year absence, is a hopeful sign (fingers crossed) that people, given time, can learn to coexist.