Jul 13, 2021
Bob HarigESPN Senior Writer
- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
SANDWICH, England — Jack Nicklaus never got to play an Open at Royal St. George’s during his prime. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons a quote attributed to him — he is coy about whether he actually really said it — make some sense. And why when an Open comes around at the southeastern England venue, as it does this week, the quote resurfaces.
“The Open venues get worse the farther south you go,” Nicklaus once allegedly said.
This comment or various iterations have been linked to Nicklaus, although pinning down its origin is problematic. Nicklaus over the years has denied saying it, laughed when it is brought up, admits he might have said it, then goes into a more diplomatic response.
“I liked the Scottish venues better than the English venues,” said Nicklaus, who won all three of his Opens — Muirfield and twice at St. Andrews — in Scotland. “I think the type of golf in Scotland is a little different than the type of golf in England, and the farther south you went the more you saw sort of a hummocks and bee hills and stuff that was different.”
Nicklaus is not necessarily alone. Royal St. George’s, which hosts this week after The Open was canceled a year ago because of COVID-19, does not always get the greatest reviews.
Sandy Lyle, who won at Royal St. George’s in 1985, called it “a beast.” Still, it will host the championship for the 15th time this week, making it the fourth-most used venue in the rotation.
Three years ago, in 2018, we offered up our first ranking of Open venues. Since then, Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland made a grand return to the rotation. In 2019, it hosted the event to rave reviews; it had hosted just once before — in 1951.
So here is our latest crack at the list. The first 10 are those that are still part of the rotation and the last four — yes, there have been just 14 total venues in Open history dating to 1860 — follow.
1. St. Andrews (The Old Course)
St. Andrews, Scotland
Hosted 29 Opens; first in 1873, the last: 2015. Next scheduled: 2022.
This tops the list for obvious reasons. St. Andrews is considered the home of golf, the Old Course its jewel. Not everyone likes the layout, but its uniqueness makes it special and it has remained virtually the same since Old Tom Morris took care of the place in the 19th century. Next year, the 150th playing of The Open will take place at St. Andrews. The course has produced some of the biggest winners of their respective generations. Tiger Woods won there twice. So did Jack Nicklaus. Seve Ballesteros won at St. Andrews. And yet, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson did not.
St. Andrews tidbit: The R&A Clubhouse, which sits behind the first tee and 18th green, was built in 1854 and became home to golf’s governing body (outside of the U.S.) in 1897.
Hosted 16 Opens; the first in 1892, the last in 2013. Next: yet to be scheduled.
Known more formally as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield is one of the oldest clubs in the world and often cited as the fairest of the Open venues. The course was opened in 1891 and became a frequent site of The Open, replacing nearby Musselburgh, which was a nine-hole layout. The list of winners at Muirfield is also impressive: Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson all won here.
Muirfield tidbit: Muirfield was briefly taken out of the running for future Opens because it did not have any women members. The course voted to change that in 2017. Still, it has yet to be awarded another Open since Mickelson’s win in 2013.
3. Royal Birkdale
Hosted 10 Opens; the first in 1954, the last in 2017. Next: not yet scheduled.
Jordan Spieth captured his third major title in stunning fashion when he won The Open at Birkdale in 2017 with a wild back nine that saw him give ground to Matt Kuchar and then overtake him for the victory. That was the year Spieth recovered from the driving range after a wayward drive at the 13th. In the same year, Branden Grace shot a third-round 62, the lowest round ever in a major championship. Located along northwest England’s finest stretch of links golf, Royal Birkdale is a relative newcomer to the Open rota and is now among the most popular locales. It didn’t host its first Open until 1954, when Peter Thomson won the first of three straight.
Birkdale tidbit: The course was the site of the famous concession by Jack Nicklaus to Tony Jacklin on the final green of the 1969 Ryder Cup, which ended in a 16-16 tie.
4. Royal Portrush
Portrush, Northern Ireland
Hosted two Opens; the first in 1951, the last in 2019. Next: not yet scheduled.
Only two Opens have been played outside of Great Britain. The most recent was so successful the venue will be rewarded with at least one more, perhaps relatively soon. Logistical concerns were the main reason for such an absence, certainly not the golf course, which is known for its stunning beauty and immense difficulty when the wind howls. The town of Portrush is also home to Open champion Darren Clarke. Fellow major winners Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell also hail from Northern Ireland. And it certainly helped that an Irishman, Shane Lowry, won the championship in 2019.
Portrush tidbit: There is a good chance the R&A returns to Royal Portrush for the 2025 Open, the next available open date.
5. Carnoustie Golf Club
Hosted eight Opens; the first in 1931, the last in 2018. Next: not yet scheduled.
The course has earned a reputation for being one of the toughest links layouts in the world. It is where Ben Hogan won his one and only Open in 1953, where Tom Watson won his first of five in 1975, where Jean Van de Velde became infamous in 1999, where Padraig Harrington in 2007 avoided the same fate by defeating Sergio Garcia in a memorable playoff, and where in 2018 Tiger Woods made a spirited run at the Claret Jug before Italy’s Francesco Molinari prevailed.
Carnoustie tidbit: When Hogan won the title in 1953, 36 holes were played on the final day. He birdied the par-5 sixth twice on the way to a 4-shot victory and the hole is named “Hogan’s Alley.”
6. Royal Troon
Hosted nine Opens; the first in 1923, the last in 2016. Next: scheduled for 2024.
Troon is a next-door neighbor to Prestwick, which hosted the first Open in 1860. The two clubs have an annual tournament in which they start at one course and play through onto the holes of the other and back again. Troon has an out-and-back configuration similar to the Old Course and was better equipped to handle the demands of a big tournament, hence it replaced Prestwick in the rotation. The famous “postage stamp” eighth hole is where Gene Sarazen made an ace at age 71 in 1973.
Troon tidbit: Both Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson shot then record-tying 63s in 2016 at Troon. Mickelson’s came in the first round and Stenson’s capped his final-round victory.
7. Royal Liverpool
Hosted 12 Opens; the first in 1897, the last in 2014. Next: scheduled for 2023.
The first club in northwest England to host an Open, Hoylake, as it is called, is the second-oldest seaside links in England and home to some nice history. It was the venue for the first (British) Amateur Championship in 1895. Two of the three amateurs who won The Open, Harold Hilton and John Ball, were Hoylake members. It is also where another amateur, Bobby Jones, won the second leg of the Grand Slam in 1930. Hoylake went 39 years between Opens before Tiger Woods won in The Open’s return to the venue in 2006. Rory McIlroy added his lone Open title in 2014.
Liverpool tidbit: With the course baked out by hot, dry conditions in 2006, Woods famously hit just one driver all week — it was during the first round — and strategically played the course by hitting irons off the tees to avoid bunkers. He finished at 18 under and won by 2 strokes.
8. Royal St. George’s
Hosted 14 Opens; the first in 1894, the last in 2011. Next: this week.
The first course in England to host the championship, St. George’s has also been the site of more Opens than any other club south of the Scottish border. It has hosted the fourth-most times of any venue. It is in the tiny town of Sandwich, which has less than 5,000 people. Walter Hagen won two of his four Opens at Royal St. George’s, which went 32 years between hosting from 1949 until 1981. Located near the Kent coast, on a clear day you can see France from the surrounding area.
St. George’s tidbit: Author Ian Fleming used Royal St. George’s in his 1959 novel “Goldfinger” but called it “Royal St. Mark’s.”
9. Turnberry (Ailsa Course)
Hosted four Opens; the first in 1977, the last in 2009. Next: not yet scheduled.
This is the most picturesque of Open venues. The R&A, though, announced earlier this year that it has no plans to bring the tournament back “in the foreseeable future” due to former U.S. president Donald Trump’s ownership. Turnberry has hosted the championship just four times. Its remote location is also a financial hardship for the R&A. The last to join the rotation in 1977, Turnberry has yet to disappoint, with Tom Watson’s “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus that first year, followed by Greg Norman’s first major title in 1986, a memorable finish for Nick Price in 1994 and Watson’s remarkable run at becoming the oldest major champion at age 59 that ended with a playoff defeat to Stewart Cink.
Turnberry tidbit: Paired with Nicklaus for all four rounds in 1977, Watson shot 66-65 on the weekend to edge Nicklaus’ 66-66. Nobody else was closer than 10 strokes.
10. Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s
Lytham St. Anne’s, England
Hosted 11 Opens; the first in 1926, the last in 2012. Next: not yet scheduled.
It starts with a par-3 and is not overly long at 7,100 yards, but with some 200 bunkers, Lytham can be very exacting, especially when the wind blows. Bobby Jones won the first Open at Lytham in 1926. It took until 1996 for another American, Tom Lehman, to win at the course on England’s northwest coast. It is also where England’s Tony Jacklin became the event’s first homegrown winner in 1969. Much like Turnberry, Lytham has fallen out of favor with the R&A, due not so much to the course but to its footprint and the struggles to host such a large enterprise. It has not been mentioned in any future Open plans.
Lytham tidbit: When Lytham hosted The Open in 2012, it was the first time in Open history that the championship was played in England in consecutive years, having been played at Royal St. George’s in 2011.
Other venues no longer in use
Prestwick Golf Club
Hosted 24 Opens; the first in 1860, the last in 1925.
The original home to the Open Championship, Prestwick still rates because of its impressive history, even though it is no longer suited to host the championship. The first 12 Opens were played at Prestwick, and 15 of its 24 were played on a 12-hole layout that was not revamped until the late 1880s. Today only four of the original holes remain, but the quirky layout is filled with history.
Prestwick tidbit: In 1870, Tom Morris Jr. won for the third straight time and started the tournament with a 3 on what was then a 578-yard opening hole that played as a par-6.
Royal Cinque Ports
Hosted two Opens; the first in 1909, the last in 1920.
Located a few miles from Royal St. George’s, Deal, as it is commonly called, would have hosted the championship far more often were it not for world circumstances. It lost out due to wars in 1915 and again in 1938. The 1949 Open scheduled for Cinque Ports was moved to Royal St. George’s due to flooding. An interesting moment in golf history occurred at Deal in 1920, when Walter Hagen defied orders to change in the pro shop — as required of all professionals at the time. Pros were barred from the clubhouse, but Hagen had his limo driver park at the flagpole, where he would change his shoes each day. Hagen would win The Open four times.
Cinque Ports tidbit: The venue is more than capable of hosting The Open, it simply lacks the space and infrastructure to be able to stage the tournament, hence Royal St. George’s emergence.
Hosted one Open, in 1932.
Located adjacent to Royal St. George’s, the course made for three Open venues within a few miles of each other. It got its one and only Open in 1932, when Gene Sarazen set a scoring record that stood for 18 years. Much of the course was destroyed during World War II as the Royal Air Force used it for bombing target practice. Although the greens were left mostly intact, The Open would never return.
Prince’s tidbit: Sarazen led the only Open at Prince’s after every round and defeated Macdonald Smith by 5 strokes.
Hosted six Opens; the first in 1874, the last in 1889.
Last but certainly not least, Musselburgh goes to the end of the list simply because somebody had to and it is the course furthest removed from hosting the championship. The nine-hole course is a loop that is mostly contained within an existing horse racetrack. It played a big part in the early days of the championship; for a time The Open rotated between Musselburgh, St. Andrews and Prestwick.
Musselburgh tidbit: The course is officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest surviving golf course.