Open Championship Owes American Interest To Palmer

Arnold Palmer put the Open Championship on the map for Americans

It is hard to believe, but until the 1960s, the Open Championship was pretty much a strictly European affair. Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen not withstanding, few Americans made the trip.

The first American to win the Open Championship was Jock Hutchison in 1921, That was the start of a thirteen year stretch in which Americans won twelve of the Open Championships: Walter Hagen (4 wins), Bobby Jones (3), Jock Hutchison,  Jim Barnes, Tommy Armour, Denny Shute, and Gene Sarazen all were winners.

From 1934 to 1961, there were just two US Open Championship winners: Ben Hogan in 1953 and Sam Snead in 1946.

In 1946, after his victory at the Old Course, Sam Snead was asked if he would return to defend his title: “Are you kidding?,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Snead also famously mistook the Home of Golf for an abandoned track: “Say! That looks like an old abandoned golf course,’’ Snead said as his train steamed by. “What did they call it?’’ Later, he would comment that the Old Course was “some acreage that was so raggedy and beat up that I was surprised to see what looked like a fairway amongst the weeds. Down home, we wouldn’t plant cow beets on land like that.’‘

Snead’s “I can’t afford it” comment reflected the fact that for many American players, the trip to the Open Championship was expensive and the purse not particularly rewarding. For professionals living week-to-week on the tour, money and logistics made the Open Championship unattractive. Further, playing the Open Championship took significant time away from other tournaments. Ben Hogan, who won the Open Championship in 1953 in his only start, missed the PGA Championship that year. It ended one day before the Open Championship began.

But in 1960, the telegenic and enormously popular Arnold Palmer made the trip to the Old Course , stamping the British Open Championship into the American public’s consciousness. And on the way over, in a conversation with Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Drum, Palmer declared that the Open Championship was one of the four “Modern Majors” to parallel Bob Jones Grand Slam of the US and British Amateurs and Opens.

Palmer lost the 1960 Open Championship to Australian Kel Nagle, but would return in 1961 to win at Birkdale. After that, there was no question that most of the top American players would make the transatlantic trip to play the Open Championship. From 1961 to present, US players have won thirty of the 56 Open Championships.

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