The Open Championship: The 5 most exhilarating final rounds overseas, ranked
Founded in 1860, the Open Championship is the oldest major championship in professional golf. The R&A, golf’s governing body outside of the United States, hosts the tournament annually in the United Kingdom.
With the PGA Championship moving to mid-May in 2019, the Open Championship is now the fourth and final major of the year, as it is always contested in mid-July.
This year’s edition will take place at Royal Liverpool, where Rory McIlroy won the Claret Jug in 2014.
Cameron Smith will head to Liverpool as the defending champion, as he became the “Champion Golfer of the Year” at St. Andrews in 2022.
With that, let’s take a look at the top five most exhilarating Open Championships to date:
5. 2009 – Stewart Cink – Turnberry
The 2009 Open Championship is often remembered as what could have been, not about what was.
Five-time champion golfer of the year Tom Watson was on fire at Turnberry as the 59-year-old turned back the clock.
Watson opened the 2009 Open with a 5-under 65 and continued to play superbly throughout the tournament.
He shot an even-par 70 on Friday, battled harsh conditions on Saturday, and carded a 1-over 71 for his third round. Only five players were under-par during the penultimate round.
Watson then entered the final day with a one-shot lead over Ross Fisher of England and Matthew Goggin of Australia.
The eight-time major champion began his final round with a couple of hiccups, bogeying two of his first three holes. Watson then steadied himself as he took advantage of the par-5 7th with a birdie.
He then birdied the 17th hole and walked to the 18th with a one-shot lead over Stewart Cink, who rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt at the last to hold the clubhouse lead at 2-under par.
A par would make Watson the oldest major champion of all time.
He blistered his tee shot at Turnberry’s closing hole and then faced a down-wind mid-iron shot into the green.
Watson hit his second shot perfectly, but it bounced on a downslope on the green, raced past the flagstick, and settled beyond the putting surface. He failed to get up and down from there and settled for bogey, forcing a playoff with Cink.
Cink then dominated the four-hole aggregate playoff to claim his only major championship victory, leaving the golf world wondering what could have been.
4. 1970 – Jack Nicklaus – St. Andrews
One of the biggest heartbreaks in Open Championship history occurred on the 18th green at St. Andrews in 1970.
After getting up and down from the treacherous road hole bunker on the 17th, Doug Sanders walked over to the short par-4 18th, holding a one-shot lead.
If he makes par, he wins The Open.
Sanders, who won 20 events on the PGA Tour, hit his tee shot right down the middle of the fairway on perhaps the most famous closing hole in all of golf.
His drive landed 74 yards short of the green, and to avoid the dreaded ‘Valley of Sin,’ Sanders launched his second shot 30 feet past the flag stick.
He then faced a treacherous downhill putt.
Two putts and Sanders is the Champion Golfer of the Year.
For his birdie putt, Sanders lagged it to about three feet short of the hole.
Now he faced every golfer’s worst nightmare: a downhill three-footer that he had to make.
In one of the most famous gestures in golfing history, Sanders approached his ball and took his putting stance.
As he was about to hit his stoke, Sanders bent down with his left hand and picked something that disturbed him from the ground.
Instead of regaining his composure, Sanders kept in his stance.
He proceeded to putt and missed on the low side, thus tying Nicklaus after 72 holes.
At that time, playoffs at The Open were 18 holes and took place the following day.
Nicklaus shot an even par-72 in the playoff, whereas Sanders finished one shot worse.
The Golden Bear captured his second of three Open Championships, while Sanders would never win a single major championship.
3. 1984 – Seve Ballesteros – St. Andrews
Whenever the home of golf hosts the Open Championship, something special usually transpires.
1984 was no different.
Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros, the best golfers in the world then, battled each other down the stretch on Sunday.
Watson won the 1982 and 1983 Open Championships and, in 1984, vied for a third straight Claret Jug and 6th overall. His superb play in the United Kingdom earned him the title of the best links golfer in the world.
He fired a 6-under 66 on Saturday to put him at 11-under for the championship heading into the final round. Watson shared the lead with Ian Baker-Finch of Australia.
Baker-Finch faded on Sunday, but Ballesteros, who started the round two shots back of Watson, brought his ‘A-game’ that day.
The Spaniard, who won the 1979 Open, was in the penultimate group alongside Bernhard Langer of Germany.
Watson and Baker-Finch comprised the final pairing.
After battling the Old Course all day, Watson arrived at the famous 17th hole at 11-under for the championship.
Up on the green, Ballesteros was also 11-under, knowing that Watson shared the same score 461 yards behind him.
The Spaniard escaped the difficult road hole with a par and headed to the last.
Watson, meanwhile, rifled his tee shot over the Landmark Hotel and into the 17th fairway.
But his second shot was one of his worst swings all week. With a 2-iron, Watson’s approach sailed right of the green, caromed over the road, and sat directly next to the wall behind the green.
Watson had nothing. He proceeded to make bogey.
At the same time, Ballesteros faced a birdie putt on the 18th hole.
The 10-foot birdie putt had almost a foot of break, but Ballesteros drained it, giving him the victory.
The Spaniard celebrated emphatically, and his emotion on the 18th green is one of the most famous images in golf history. This later became a rallying cry for the European Ryder Cup team, especially in 2012—a year after Ballesteros died of brain cancer at 54.
His victory at St. Andrews marked his second Open title and fourth major overall. Ballesteros would go on to win the 1988 Open as well.
2. 1977 – Tom Watson – Turnberry
Whenever a sporting event earns a nickname, it’s usually something of historical significance.
Think of ‘The Immaculate Reception’ in football or ‘The Shot’ hit by Michael Jordan in 1989 and 1998.
Maybe the ‘Kick-Six’ comes to mind for college football fans.
Nevertheless, The 1977 Open Championship earned the distinction of ‘The Duel in the Sun,’ as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson battled it out over 36 holes on Saturday and Sunday at Turnberry.
At this point, both Nicklaus and Watson were at the height of their powers.
Nicklaus had 14 majors to his name in 1977, and Watson had just won The Masters in April.
Entering the third round, Nicklaus and Watson each sat at 2-under par, one stroke behind 36-hole leader Roger Maltbie.
During the third round, the two Americans separated themselves from the field as both men shot 5-under 65s to get to 7-under for the championship.
The next day, Nicklaus and Watson each turned in performances for the ages.
Watson bogeyed the second, while Nicklaus made a birdie, thus giving the Golden Bear a two-shot advantage through two holes.
When the final pairing reached the fifth tee box, Nicklaus held a three-shot lead and seemed destined to run away with it.
But Watson chipped away as he birdied the 5th, 6th, and 8th. He and Nicklaus then stood on the 9th tee tied at 9-under.
The next closest pursuant, Hubert Green, stood at 1-under at that juncture—the only other man under par for the championship.
The final pairing continued to duel on the back nine.
Nicklaus held a one-shot advantage over Watson when the two arrived at the long par-3 15th.
Measuring 209 yards, Watson pulled his tee shot into the light rough adjacent to the green. Nicklaus, meanwhile, knocked it onto the putting surface and faced an uphill putt for birdie.
Since he was away, Watson played first. Using his putter from off the green, Watson holed the 20-yard shot, sending the Turnberry crowd into a frenzy.
Nicklaus could only watch as he proceeded to miss his birdie attempt.
So with three holes to play, the two top golfers in the world were tied with the Claret Jug on the line.
Both pared the par-4 16th and headed to the par-5 17th.
At 17, Nicklaus and Watson each found the fairway.
Watson played first and immediately put pressure on Nicklaus by finding the green. He now had a makable eagle putt.
Nicklaus then felt the pressure as he hit his second shot fat. It ended up short and right of the green, which left him a tough chip.
No problem for Nicklaus, however, as he scuttled his chip shot to four feet past the hole, giving himself a great look at birdie.
Watson missed his eagle attempt but tapped in for a birdie-four to get to 11-under for the championship.
Nicklaus, who rarely makes a mistake, missed his short birdie at 17, thus giving Watson the solo lead for the first time in the championship as the two headed to the 72nd hole.
Watson hammered his tee shot right down the middle of the fairway, but Nicklaus still rattled after his mishap at 17, pushed his tee shot right.
Luckily for the Golden Bear, his ball missed the gorse bush and had a halfway decent lie in the thick rough.
Before Nicklaus could play, however, Watson hit his second shot at 18 to about two feet, thus producing another one of golf’s most enduring images.
At that point, The Open was all but over, but Nicklaus gave himself a glimpse of hope by smashing his shot onto the green.
It was one of the most impressive shots the Golden Bear ever hit.
“That was one of the most powerful, animalistic golf shots I have seen,” muttered Peter Alliss on the ABC telecast.
Nicklaus proceeded to drain the 50-foot putt for birdie, briefly tying Watson. It also ramped up the pressure on the little two-foot putt.
But Watson did not suffer the same fate Nicklaus did at 17 as he made the putt, which gave him his second Claret Jug.
Nicklaus and Watson walked off the 18th green with arms around one another, each knowing they had just produced a championship for the ages.
“I gave it my best shot, and it was not good enough,” Nicklaus said after the round. “You were better. Well played.”
1. 1999 – Paul Lawrie – Carnoustie
The 1999 Open Championship produced the craziest finish in major championship history.
Jean van de Velde of France had never won a major championship before, nor did he ever rank higher than 70th in the Official World Golf Rankings.
He was a journeyman golfer by trade, although he did not play like one over the first 71 holes at the 1999 Open.
Carnoustie, colloquially known as ‘Car-nasty’ for its brutality, showed its teeth during the 1999 Open.
Only Van de Velde stood at even par or better through three rounds. After rounds of 75, 68, and 70, the Frenchman sat at even par for the championship through 54 holes.
The next closest pursuers, Justin Leonard and Craig Perry of Australia, were 5-over par after three rounds.
On Sunday, Van de Velde battled the harsh conditions and arrived at the 18th tee 3-over for the championship. He held a three-shot lead over Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard when he pulled out a driver.
At this point, the trophy engraver could have begun to etch Van de Velde’s name into the Claret Jug, but thankfully he did not do so.
Van de Velde’s drive went right of the Burn and landed safely in the 17th fairway. He had escaped trouble and looked well on his way to winning.
All he needed was a double-bogey six to win the championship.
But his second shot was when everything began to fall apart.
Van de Velde pushed his long iron so far right that it bounced off the grandstands and sailed into deep, gnarly fescue short of the Barry Burn.
He had a brutal lie, and Van de Velde then chunked his third shot right into the Burn, which then produced one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport.
Van de Velde then took off his shoes and socks to see if he could play his shot from the Burn.
However, the tide was not low enough, so the Frenchman decided not to make a further mess of things and take a drop.
His fifth shot then went into the sand trap short and right of the green and nestled right next to Perry, his playing partner.
Now Van de Velde needed to hole his shot from the bunker to win The Open. An up-and-down would force a playoff with Lawrie and Leonard.
Knowing that Van de Velde just went to hell and back on the 18th at Car-nasty, Perry gave the Frenchman a minute to collect himself and proceeded to play his third from the bunker.
The Australian holed his shot, an amazing feat considering that is what Van de Velde needed to win The Open.
Van de Velde did not have the same fate; his 6th shot stopped about eight feet left of the flagstick.
He then faced a delicate putt for a triple-bogey seven, which would force a playoff.
Van de Velde made it and celebrated emphatically as he had just won The Open. It is the most famous triple-bogey in the history of golf.
Unfortunately for Van de Velde, he could not compose himself in the playoff. Paul Lawrie won the Claret Jug in the four-hole aggregate playoff, and Van de Velde was left to wonder what could have been.
Jack Milko is a golf staff writer for SB Nation’s Playing Through. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jack_milko for more golf coverage. Be sure to check out @_PlayingThrough too.