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Five Best British Opens of the 21st Century

While there have only been 20 British Opens to date this century, there have already been a handful that may hold up as classics for another 80 years. Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and even a 59-year-old Tom Watson lead a menagerie of players who have supplied the moments.
For numerous reasons, Phil Mickelson long believed that he was incapable of winning a British Open. He changed that narrative with a closing-round 66 to win the 2013 Open. 

For numerous reasons, Phil Mickelson long believed that he was incapable of winning a British Open. He changed that narrative with a closing-round 66 to win the 2013 Open. 

Not only has the internet emerged as a fertile proving ground for factual inaccuracy, journalistic bereavement and botched grammar, it doubles as a depository for countless lists and rankings, few of which contain any nutritional value but appeal to readers like Cracker Jack. From the 100 greatest Rolling Stones songs (too many?) to the best bars in Birmingham (Alabama or England?), these compilations seem to possess a magnetic power. An invitation to step inside and become argumentative or disappointed.

My collection of the top five British Opens since 2000 is no exception. Just one man’s opinion, and in this case, small in size because the century has yet to reach the quarter-mile pole. What floats one fan’s boat might sink two or three others. Did Ben Curtis actually win the tournament in 2003, or did Thomas Bjorn, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III and Tiger Woods all lose it? Thanks mostly to Woods, we’ve seen three blowouts in the last four gatherings at St. Andrews, home of history aplenty.

It’s not all that different than judging flavors of ice cream, but a list is a list is a list. When it comes to golf tournaments, you can’t always get what you want.

5. Carnoustie (2018)

Francesco Molinari’s lone major title gets the edge over Jordan Spieth’s victory the previous year, primarily because he beat a deeper leaderboard and performed at a higher level overall. And because Woods played a significant role in the Sunday suspense — Tiger had sole possession of the lead with eight holes to play but went bogey-bogey to finish three back. This was Woods’ first foray into major contention since returning from a four-year competitive exile that January. A headline hoarder, obviously, but Molinari was the story.

He played the final 37 holes without a bogey and birdied two of the last five, holding off a surging Rory McIlroy, a fading Xander Schauffele and Justin Rose. Spieth began the day with a share of the lead but stumbled home with a 76, capping an afternoon you wish had another nine holes to go.

4. Carnoustie (2007)

After the carnage at Carnoustie in 1999, when Jean Van de Velde’s 72nd-hole collapse led to a three-man playoff at six over par, Scotland’s most scurrilous ballpark staged a memorable bout that ended with Padraig Harrington defeating Sergio Garcia in a four-hole aggregate playoff. Garcia struck the ball like Ben Hogan but couldn’t buy a putt on Sunday. Harrington wiped out a six-stroke deficit with four birdies and an eagle at the 14th, then double-bogeyed the closer to give Garcia another chance. Argentina’s Eduardo Romero made 10 birdies and two doubles. His bogey at the 18th left him one shot short of overtime.

At that point, the fireworks were just getting started. On the second extra hole, the par-3 16th, Garcia’s tee shot caromed off the flagstick and rolled 20 feet away. His post-loss pout in the media center would become vintage Sergio: “I should write a book on how to not miss a shot and not win a playoff,” he moaned. “Every time I get in this position, I never have any room for error.” That’s what the majors are all about, young fella.

3. Royal Liverpool (2006)

Forever tucked beneath his dominance at the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open, Woods’ third British Open victory featured some of the most remarkable golf ever played. He used his driver just once — at the 16th on Thursday — and still shot 18 under. He survived a barrage of punches from Chris DiMarco, sent Ernie Els and Jim Furyk home early Sunday and bore the burden of playing the final round with Garcia, who showed up in canary-yellow pants and matching shirt.

“I think I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird,” Woods cracked after winning by two. He’d been on the opposite end of the emotional scale 45 minutes earlier, when he began sobbing in the arms of caddie Steve Williams immediately after finishing off DiMarco. Having missed the cut at the U.S. Open a month earlier, still grieving the death of his father, Woods dedicated his third Claret Jug to the man who escorted him to greatness. This one’s for you, Earl.

2. Turnberry (2009)

It was only the most epic “what if” in golf history, an unfathomable accomplishment that melted one shot short of immortality. Tom Watson, two months shy of his 60th birthday, had a sixth British Open crown in his grasp until a poor chip from behind the 18th green led to a bogey and a playoff with Stewart Cink. Those four extra holes landed somewhere between devastating and desultory. Cink made two birdies to crush Watson by six, whose double at the par-5 17th sent glory packing.

If Watson had indeed parred the last in regulation, would it have been a bigger deal than Jack Nicklaus’ sixth Masters title at age 46 in 1986? It’s nearly impossible to argue with the 13 ½-year difference, although Nicklaus’ mighty charge and imperviousness to the magnitude of the moment cannot be disputed, either. Not that it matters. The heroic fogey made a lousy bogey, and that was all she wrote. “It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?” Watson lamented. “It wasn’t meant to be, a great disappointment.” Perspective prevails.

1. Muirfield (2013)

Phil Mickelson had talked himself into thinking he was incapable of winning golf’s “original major,” owing to his aversion for chilly weather and a ball flight susceptible to the effects of a hearty breeze. Then came July 21, 2013. In a performance longtime caddie Jim Mackay called “the best round of his career,” Mickelson roared from five behind on what was basically a 7,200-yard roller rink, passed a half-dozen of the game’s best with a closing 66 and finally conquered his overseas demons. That PGA Championship triumph two months ago at age 50 was a belly-warmer. The ’13 British, however, was Lefty’s finest hour — better than even the 2004 Masters, the first of his six Big Ones.

The cast of characters in this thriller was immense. Third-round leader Lee Westwood was the first to fritter away his chances, followed by Adam Scott, who bogeyed the 15th, 16th and 17th. Woods began the day two back and hung around until he bogeyed the 10th and 11th. Henrick Stenson, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan … It seemed like everybody and their mother had a decent shot, but Mickelson’s five-under was four strokes better than any of the eight guys who teed off after him.

He posted that 66 about an hour before the final pairing trudged to the scoring trailer. Be it 60 minutes or 21 years, Mickelson’s wait was well worth the weight.

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