Editor's note: Bo Wood worked as Gary Player's director of communications and personal assistant for five years.
Gary Player appeared in 46 consecutive British Opens between 1956 and 2001, so, suffice to say, the three-time Open champion knows a thing or two about the courses that host the oldest major.
Player, 86, continues to make the yearly pilgrimage to the British Open, if only for business reasons, but the outspoken South African has plenty of memories to draw upon when offering his opinions on the rota. Player believes Carnoustie, where he won in 1968 by two strokes over Bob Charles and Jack Nicklaus, is the most difficult. As for Royal St. George's, which sits along the country's southern coastline in Kent, England?
“Royal St George's probably is the easiest of The Open golf courses, but the thing that will make it, obviously, is the wind,” Player said. “It's a golf course that is steeped in tradition, there have been some wonderful winners.”
This will be Royal St. George's 15th time hosting the Open. It's first was 1894 and through the years winners have included Harry Vardon (1899, 1911), Walter Hagen (1922, 1928), Henry Cotton (1934) and Bobby Locke (1949). Although only a young, up-and-comer at the time, Player remembers the bizarre occurrence that helped Locke to victory.
"One of the most remarkable things that ever happened in golf, Harry Bradshaw from Ireland, hit his ball in a bottle and had to play it,” Player said. “Where as today he would have got relief."
In the second round, Bradshaw's drive at the 5th hole came to rest in the bottom of a broken beer bottle. Though Bradshaw likely would have received relief had he consulted a rules official, he chose to play the ball as it lay and advanced the ball about 25 yards and went on to make a double bogey 6. He would ultimately lose to Locke in a playoff.
After Locke’s victory, Royal St. George’s was removed from the rota until 1981. Though the course has hosted five championships since, Player says the town itself is not an ideal location to host the Open.
“It's very difficult to have the Open there because they only have one road into the course, and it really causes a massive amount of congestion with traffic," he said. “The Open has changed so much from the old days when you didn't have big crowds and people pouring in from all over the world. This year, it won't be as congested, which is going to make quite a difference.”
Player also offered his thoughts on the modern-day Open rota courses.
Royal Portrush: Probably my favorite links golf course in the world. It has the most incredible holes like the par-3 14th hole. Right on top of a cliff. You miss the green to the right, you go down 100 feet. And then they bury you there. You'll never come back.
Carnoustie: The toughest of all the Open golf courses. That’s where Jean van de Velde made the mistake of his life. The wind, the bunkering, the whole design of the golf course just makes it so tough.
Royal Troon: Has a lot of blind holes, which makes it very difficult. My least favorite of the Open courses. Arnold Palmer won there as a young man and that was really a brilliant win for him. I'll always remember some of the shots he made were magnificent.
Muirfield: One of the three best venues for an Open championship. Absolutely beautiful golf course. It's where I won my first Open (1959) with all that lousy equipment, lousy balls and spike marks on the greens. I played in wind and rain and shot 284.
Royal Liverpool: A very difficult golf course. Mike Souchak, who at the time had the lowest score ever, shot 88 in the morning with the wind and rain. And as I teed off, the weather just became absolutely calm. The first hole he hit a driver, 3-wood and 5-iron, and I hit a driver and a 4-iron.
Royal Birkdale: Also a very tough golf course. The greatest victory I ever saw in my life, in any tournament anywhere, was Jordan Spieth (in 2015). Where he hit the ball that week, to win the tournament, is an all-time miracle.
Royal Lytham and St. Annes: Where I won by six shots [in 1974]. Walking up the 17th hole, my caddie Rabbit [Alfred Dyer] said, 'Ray Charles could win from here.’ It’s the kind of golf course where the fairways are very narrow and very moundy. You have to keep the ball in play.
Turnberry: A very scenic golf course, but you never saw the sea. After the renovation, it might be the best golf course in Europe. It is absolutely fantastic now. Of all the championships, it has the best hotel. They have the steps like where Rocky ran up. I always used to run up those steps pretending like I was Rocky.
The Old Course: The ambiance of that course beats them all because it's the home of golf. There is so much history attached to it. You haven't completed your golfing career until you play there. Wonderful town. Arnold Palmer and I went out there at 10 o'clock at night. One person saw us start. We were only going to play the 1st, 2nd, 17th and 18th holes. And there were 5,000 people there within 30 minutes. Word gets around that town like a wildfire.
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