When the 150th Open Championship begins at St Andrews on Thursday, there will be 11 Australians taking part. A century ago there was only one, and if not for one dramatic collapse he would have been Australia’s first Open champion.
The name Joe Kirkwood is etched into Australian golf history as the winner of the Australian PGA Championship each year is presented with the Joe Kirkwood Cup.
Aussies At The Open, a new book written by Tony Webeck and Steve Keipert, charts the history of Australian performances at golf’s oldest and most treasured Major championship, including the extraordinary record of Kirkwood in the wake of World War I.
Tasmanian brothers Clyde and Bruce Pearce were the first to travel from Australia to contest the Open Championship in 1911, but it was a further decade before Australia was once again represented.
The following is an extract from Aussies At The Open that details just how close Joe Kirkwood Snr came to claiming the claret jug:
The advent of the war and its aftereffects meant a full decade passed before the next Australians competed in The Open. Joe Kirkwood Snr, who during a public subscription to help send him to Scotland was criticised for his failure to enlist for war service, and J. Victor East journeyed to St Andrews for the 1921 Open. It was East’s one and only appearance in the championship, but Kirkwood was an Open fixture during the 1920s and early ’30s before a final hurrah at the first post-World War II Open, in 1946.
East shot 81-87-83 to miss the third-round cut, while Kirkwood – the reigning Australian Open champion – could very well have won that ’21 Open. He trailed by just three shots after 36 holes and pruned that deficit to a single stroke with a round to play, yet succumbed to the Old Course in the afternoon lap, carding a 79 to share sixth place, six shots out of the playoff won by Scot Jock Hutchison. Astonishingly, Kirkwood claimed he had been sabotaged by bookmakers who disrupted his concentration.
Kirkwood was Australia’s lone participant at The Open in 1922, ’23 and ’25. He finished equal 20th at Royal St George’s in 1922 and tied for 14th at Prestwick’s final Open in 1925, his appearance there making him the lone Australian golfer to ever contest an Open at the championship’s original site. In between, however, was a shocking missed opportunity at Troon in 1923.
Muirfield was supposed to host the 58th Open in 1923 under the rota system in place, yet doubts emerged about the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ desire to lend their course for the championship. So Troon, on the opposite side of Scotland, staged the first of its nine Opens (a 10th is set for 2024).
Kirkwood was the early pacesetter, leading after the first round with a 72. Even a second-round 79 that afternoon still had him inside the top six and within five shots of the lead. An exceptional 69 the next morning – one of just two sub-70 scores returned for the championship – pushed him within a stroke of Arthur Havers’ lead.
In the last round, Havers holed a bunker shot at the 18th for a closing 76 and a 295 tally. Yet unlike today when final-round draws are seeded, there was plenty of activity still taking place on the Troon links. Kirkwood, 26 at the time, had crafted a handy lead as he walked to the 14th tee. ‘Level 4s’ was a common term in the era before being under or over par was common terminology, and with Havers’ score already posted, Kirkwood knew five 4s would see him eclipse the Englishman by three strokes. With two par 3s and just a lone par 5 to come, the claret jug appeared within his grasp.
What unfolded, however, was an implosion that wouldn’t be matched by an Australian at a Major for another 73 years when Greg Norman surrendered a six-stroke lead at the 1996 Masters – a tournament not yet founded in 1923. Kirkwood’s freefall began with two visits to bunkers at the short 14th, before a missed short putt led to a double-bogey at the 15th. A wild drive and visit to the burn crossing the par-5 16th preceded a par 3 at the 17th before another short miscue at the home hole. Where a quintet of 4s would indeed have earned a three-stroke victory, Kirkwood couldn’t even muster ‘level 5s’ as he required 26 strokes for the closing five holes and lost by three, taking fourth place alone. As it turned out, Havers’ last-green hole-out had edged Walter Hagen by a shot, but it was the Australian who was left to rue a golden opportunity missed.
“He is essentially a card and pencil fiend who walks stealthily ’round the course offering 3s and 4s,” London’s Daily Telegraph noted of Kirkwood. “But confronted by an opponent in the flesh he is sometimes less machine-like.”
Eleven years later, Kirkwood conceded some scar tissue remained. “An Open championship is something different,” he told American sportswriter Grantland Rice in 1934. “The prize at stake… the rushing galleries… the mental and physical strain… I guess we are all human.” The Open had already permeated Australian golf’s veins.
Kirkwood would have other flirtations with the claret jug. In 1927 at St Andrews, he was never outside the top four after any round in sharing fourth place behind the incomparable amateur Bobby Jones, who won by six shots. Kirkwood was part of a five-way tie for the lead with a round to play in 1933 at St Andrews but closed with an 81. In 1934 at Royal St George’s, he was alone in second place with 18 holes to play, but trailed Henry Cotton by 10 shots. A closing 78 dropped him into another tie for fourth as Cotton won by five after a 79. At age 49 in 1946, Kirkwood made one final appearance at The Open, sharing eighth place at St Andrews in another championship in which he was permanently domiciled inside the top 10.
Kirkwood won 13 times on the PGA Tour in America and lived there until his passing in 1970.
Aussies At The Open is out now. To purchase your copy, visit australiangolfdigest.com.au/aussiesattheopen.