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In the time since that first championship, the Open has evolved from an event of limited local standing to once being rated by the likes of Nick Faldo, Raymond Floyd and Jack Nicklaus as the world's "fifth major" championship.
It has been the stage for the game's greatest players as they have battled to claim Australian golf's most prized silverware – the Stonehaven Cup. It is of no surprise then, that the names engraved on that cup are synonymous with major championship history.
Three of the sport's five Immortals are there; in addition to South African Gary Player's record of seven inscriptions (most indelibly alongside the year 1965 when he plundered Kooyonga to the phenomenal tune of 28 under par), there's Nicklaus's name six times, and also Gene Sarazen for his win at Metropolitan in 1936 where he made good his promise to return and avenge his 1934 defeat by Sydney pro Bill Bolger.
And the other two? Well Ben Hogan was terrified of flying and made the trip to Britain only once – enough though to claim the Open Championship, however the thought of a trip to Australia was simply too much. And Tiger? Well, he came very close in 2011.
But what of those who couldn't win all four of the majors? For a start there's Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, while Australia's five-time Open champion Peter Thomson is there for his wins in 1951, 1967 and in 1972.
Greg Norman and Australia's greatest ever amateur, Ivo Whitton, are there five times. And sitting just one title shy of Norman and Whitton is the only player to have won three successive Australian Opens – the great Ossie Pickworth. Back to Whitton though, and he is to Australian golf what Bobby Jones is to American golf. Like Thomson, Whitton was able to win the Open in three different decades; recording the fifth of his victories at The Australian in 1931.
The Early Years
It is unfortunate however, that for 85 years, Whitton's 1912 victory by five strokes over Fred Popplewell and Dan Soutar was shrouded in controversy.
Certainly, no doubts have ever been cast as to the solidity of Whitton's character, rather the accepted reading of history appears to be that Whitton was the beneficiary of an incorrect ruling by the committee controlling the championship and instead of being disqualified, Whitton's ‘indiscretion’ went unpenalised with the record books telling the remainder of the story. In any case, the 1912 championship wasn't even the first Australian Open to produce a disputed winner. A quick scan of the Open records will show that the fourth Open Championship of Australia, the 1907 event, was won by Michael Scott with Dan Soutar the runner-up, eight strokes in arrears. History though, casts a rather large shadow of doubt over the validity of Scott's triumph.
The 1907 Open was played at Royal Melbourne, with the club's committee controlling the championship. After the first two rounds the tee markers on each hole were moved slightly to a fresh piece of turf, and on every hole, except the 12th, the position they were moved to was to the left of the sand and water boxes. On the 12th however, they were situated to the right of the boxes. This variation led to several players playing from outside the designated teeing ground; with the penalty for such action, under the Rules of Golf in 1907, automatic disqualification.
As it happened, one of the players who had played from outside the teeing ground was Michael Scott, but because of the extenuating circumstances the committee decided to waive the penalty of disqualification and completely overlooked the incident. The ruling provoked a good deal of consternation and, as a result, Royal Melbourne Golf Club wrote to the governing body of world golf, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, hoping for a decision that would vindicate its ruling. However, in direct contradiction to the path chosen by Royal Melbourne, the R&A's decision was that the correct course of action would have been to disqualify Scott and all of the other players who had committed the same breach.
So, in addition to his 1905 title, Dan Soutar should have been the 1907 Australian Open champion, but it was not to be. Now, with the competition more than closed, despite the obvious injustice, the Stonehaven Cup has "Hon. M. Scott" engraved alongside the year 1907, and that is how it shall read forever more.
But what of Whitton and the 1912 controversy? Again the venue was Royal Melbourne and again the runner-up by the length of the straight was Dan Soutar, this time jointly with Fred Popplewell. What happened on this occasion was that, when faced with a terrible lie whilst playing the 14th hole during one round, Whitton declared his ball to be unplayable. He then, according to the Rules of Golf, proceeded to drop the ball in a wrong place. Of this there is no dispute. There is also no dispute that Whitton was directed by a member of the committee controlling the championship to drop where he did. It also appears that Whitton went so far as to question the decision, but was assured by the official that it was correct.
It also appears certain that when the matter was referred to the R&A, in order to clarify what should have happened, the committeeman's role in the incident was not mentioned (incidentally, the matter was in fact referred to the R&A by the New South Wales Golf Association, not by the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, the body that conducted the event). Hence, the R&A ruled that the relevant penalty of disqualification should have been applied. However, when the entire facts were presented to Australian Golf Union officials in 1997, they were adamant that as it was the committeeman who determined where Whitton's ball should be dropped, Whitton should indeed have been absolved from any penalty, and that whether or not the committee reached its decision via the correct method, it was perfectly correct to award the championship to Whitton.
So much then for the disputed championships, but hardly even the beginning of the tournament’s drama. To properly record every noteworthy Open moment would see the compilation of something resembling the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Rather than such a work, what follows here is simply a brief listing of some poignant Open moments to remind golf fans that what will unfold this year is simply another chapter in the history of Australia's most prestigious golf title.
While it’s impossible to properly compare the ability of players across different eras, it is not impossible to compare their achievements. In 1920, at The Australian, New South Welshman Joe Kirkwood slashed an amazing 12 strokes from the previous Open tournament record score with his wining total of 290. It was the first time 300 was broken in the event's history. Again the runner-up was Dan Soutar, and his score of 295 was the second best the Australian Open had seen. It fact, Soutar finished in the top two on eight occasions, but was remarkably the winner only once.
Kirkwood's record stood for 14 years until the first of the five Immortals arrived in Australia in 1934. At that time Sarazen hadn't yet won all four of the modern major championships, but he was well on his way to doing so and had already established himself as one of the game’s greats. It was assumed he would win the Open, and probably take Kirkwood's record with him. Given this, nobody was surprised that his tournament total at Royal Sydney of 286 bettered that old mark by four. What shocked the golfing world was that 'Gene the Machine' had only finished second. Sydneysider Bill Bolger bettered Sarazen by three to set the new mark at 283, and the golfing grapevine abuzz.
Sarazen, though gracious in defeat, vowed to return and win the title. In 1936, at Metropolitan he showed himself to be as good as his word. This time he came as the past winner of all four majors. He left as the 1936 Open champion of Australia and as the holder of the new tournament record total with his score of 282.
The 1940s and 1950s
In 1939, Sydney amateur Jim Ferrier, later to become the 1947 US PGA champion, completed an unprecedented double-double. He won both the Australian Open and Amateur Championships in 1938 and 1939! It is a feat that surely will never be repeated. After 'Big Jim's' 1939 triumph, the Open took a six-year break for World War II. Competition resumed again in 1946 at Royal Sydney and the championship was won by the then Sydney pro Ossie Pickworth. In 1947, at Royal Queensland, Pickworth was champion again – by this time he had been appointed the assistant pro at Royal Melbourne, and at Kingston Heath in 1948 Pickworth completed what remains as the event's only hat-trick by defeating Ferrier over 18 extra holes in the event's first playoff.
From 1950 to 1953, fiery Queenslander Norman von Nida won himself three Open titles, while in 1955, the great South African Bobby Locke won at Brisbane's Gailes despite torrential rains. That year, levee banks had to be built around the greens to protect them from the temporary streams that were flowing across the golf course; a common sight for the hardy souls who ventured out to watch the action was players following their balls along those temporary streams as they waited for them to stop so a shot could be played.
In 1956, 20-year-old Bruce Crampton won at Royal Sydney, so matching fellow New South Welshman Lou Kelly's 1933 effort – Kelly was also 20 when he won over Royal Melbourne's West Course. Crampton, who went on to twice win the US Tour's Vardon Trophy and also to become the first foreigner to win $1million in prizemoney on the US Tour, later described the Open victory as his greatest achievement in golf.
In 1959, Australia's Centenary British Open champion, Kel Nagle, won at The Australian, while 1960 featured what, until Aaron Baddeley, had universally been accepted as the last occasion that golf would witness an amateur's name being engraved on the Stonehaven Cup. That was the year a young Bruce Devlin won at Perth's Lake Karrinyup. Four years later at The Lakes, Devlin had a chance for a second title when he stood on the 72nd tee needing only a par to defeat Jack Nicklaus by a stroke. The old 18th at The Lakes was a par five with a slightly elevated green and for two Devlin was just short of the green and had only the slope left with which to contend. His first chip reached the top of the bank and then, almost unbelievably, the ball rolled back to his feet. After his second chip finished 4m away, he had that putt for the championship. Alas for Devlin, the putt hit the rim but stayed out. The next day in the playoff, Nicklaus fired 67 to Devlin's 70 and won the first of his six Open crowns.
The Golden Era
The next year at Kooyonga, Gary Player shot rounds of 62-71-62-69 for the incredible total of 28-under-par 264 to lower his own Open record total by six strokes. Player won by six from the 1957 and 1961 champion, Frank Phillips, and Jack Nicklaus. Player's 1965 effort is still the tournament record and it gave him the fourth of his seven Open Championships, also a record.
In 1972, Thomson recorded a victory that completed his achievement of title victories in each of three consecutive decades when he defeated David Graham in a playoff at Kooyonga. Graham, though, won his country's Open Championship five years later, finishing three strokes ahead of Don January, Bruce Lietzke and John Lister at The Australian in 1977. Graham went on to win the 1979 US PGA and 1981 US Open.
In 1979 at Metropolitan, Jack Newton won his only Australian Open after Greg Norman missed a 1m return putt following his attempt at outright victory. In between this and another one-shot loss in 1981 (this time to reigning British Open champion Bill Rogers at Victoria), Norman recorded his first Open triumph following a one-stroke defeat of Brian Jones at The Lakes. He won again at Royal Melbourne in 1985 when, for the only time in its history, the Australian Open was shortened and the championship was played over 54 holes after torrential rain had washed out the scheduled first day.
His third title came in 1987 and he won by 10 strokes from Scot Sandy Lyle. The 1987 Open was memorable for more than just the size of Norman's victory though. Sunday's fourth round had to be cancelled and replayed on the Monday after fierce northerly winds made a number of greens unplayable. The next two years saw the continuation of the domination trend that ‘The Shark’ had started. American Mark Calcavecchia blitzed the field at Royal Sydney in 1988 to win by six, and Queensland's Peter Senior made the 1989 event his own when he won at Kingston Heath by seven. There, however, the trend expired with The Australian playing host to the tight 1990 title battle which was ultimately decided in a playoff between Craig Parry and America's John Morse. Morse prevailed at the first extra hole.
In 1991 at Royal Melbourne, Robert Allenby almost produced the unbelievable as an amateur. The title was his until Wayne Riley produced his unforgettable birdie-birdie-birdie finish (including a monster putt across the 72nd green) to win by a stroke. The next year featured the silken swing of Steve Elkington on top by two strokes from Peter McWhinney at The Lakes, while the silken putting touch of American Ryder Cup player Brad Faxon was simply too good at Metropolitan in 1993.
In 1994 at Royal Sydney, Allenby and Brett Ogle almost bled emotion as they stumbled over the closing holes, both dropping shots and neither apparently aware of how to arrest their respective slides. It was a finale that will never be forgotten, Allenby limped over the line, a shot ahead of his rival. Norman won his fourth title in 1995 as McWhinney again finished two strokes behind one of Australia's modern-day greats, and in 1996, Norman – on the back of an eight-shot triumph – issued a golfing lesson to a field that included superstar Woods – ultimately making it five.
The 1997 event was a classic. The tournament started with arguably the year's best field in an event anywhere in the world outside of the four majors, and the quality of the golf played was befitting the talent on show. On day one, Peter Lonard produced one of the best rounds in the history of the sport in this country. He ripped a specially toughened Metropolitan apart on his way to a 63 that was two strokes better than Norman's and Faxon's previous course record.
His magic deserted him on day two though, and by early on day three it was Norman who appeared set to storm to his third consecutive Open title after reeling-off a rapid-fire six-under start for the first six holes. Englishman Lee Westwood was the one player able to go with Norman, and by day's end it had become a two-horse race. Day four was all it was billed to be – a dual between two of the finest players in the world that had the potential to go right to the wire. The 18 holes proved not enough, and just when it seemed as though the deadlock would never be broken, Westwood, seemingly impervious to pressure, finally emerged the victor at the fourth sudden-death playoff hole.
The 1998 edition belonged to West Australian left-hander Greg Chalmers and the trivia buffs. Chalmers, who would go on to win his second ahead of Woods in 2011, became the first left-hander to win the Open since Claude Felstead way back in 1909; remarkably he also became the first Western Australian to win the Open; and he was the first Australian Amateur champion to win since Bob Shearer in 1982. It was also the first time Royal Adelaide had hosted the event since 1962, and the first time it had been outside of Sydney or Melbourne since 1974.
As for Royal Adelaide, while it was undoubtedly fair, it was also brutally tough. In fact the resultant test, combined with the event's history, moved Faldo to follow the sentiments previously uttered by Nicklaus and Floyd, and proclaim that the Australian Open should be made the world's fifth major. He additionally expressed his amazement that such status hadn't been bestowed long ago.
The fairytale of 1999 belonged to Aaron Baddeley. The 18-year-old started as an amateur with a huge billing – Player had rated him as better than Nicklaus at a similar age – but who no one really believed could win; not yet. But he achieved the unthinkable – he won the Open as an amateur in the modern era. But that wasn't the end of it … at 18 years, 8 months and 11 days, he'd surpassed five-time Open champion Whitton's 1912 effort by becoming the youngest champion in the history of the event. Whitton had been 18 years, 9 months and 5 days of age when he won his first title at Royal Melbourne.
Was it a stroll in the park, or a rapid-fire run over the final holes to emerge from the safety of obscurity? Hardly, he led for virtually the entire weekend and on the final day went head-to-head with Scotland's world No.3 Colin Montgomerie. He also had to deal with the presence of eventual runner-up Greg Norman, who was surging on the back of a third-round 64. But the young Victorian handled it all – his closing 69 equalled Norman's effort, and eclipsed Montgomerie by two.
And then in 2000, at Kingston Heath, the kid did it again – but this time as a pro. Two Australian Opens and not even 20 years of age. And again Baddeley did it from the front – playing in the final group on both Saturday and Sunday and dealing with the spotlight the whole way. While the record books will show second-placed Allenby finished only two shots behind, the real story was the relative ease of a win that no one, at least no one outside of the Baddeley camp, realistically thought possible.
The New Century
Victoria Golf Club was host in 2002 for an event with more than its fair share of drama. After the cancellation of the first day's play because of unplayably fast greens, an outstanding championship unfolded from which local star Stephen Allan, playing courtesy of an AGU exemption, emerged victorious. In a tense finale, Allan was able to hold off the fast-finishing trio of Parry, Baddeley, and reigning US PGA champion Rich Beem to win by a single stroke.
The Open Course at Moonah Links made its debut on the international stage in 2003 and produced a fitting champion – New South Welshman Peter Lonard. In its centenary year of 2004, The Australian took more than just a few prisoners. Only the high-quality quartet of Rod Pampling, Steven Bowditch, Appleby and Lonard finished under par and, in a tense finish, two shots was all that separated them. Ultimately though, after Appleby’s 3m birdie putt at the last slid by, it was Lonard who outlasted them all to retain his title.
In 2005 we were back at Moonah and the story of the week, in fact the Australian sporting story of the month was Allenby. He won his second Australian Open in the first leg of what was to be dubbed the “Triple Crown" – the Open, PGA, and Masters titles in consecutive weeks. It was a remarkable achievement that finished with a playoff win at Huntingdale, but the finest of his wins was undoubtedly the Open. After opening with a 63, Allenby ultimately held on to win by one from Nick O’Hern, Paul Sheehan and John Senden. Perhaps the toughest challenge came from his own mind as his final 21 holes were played battling a painful hand injury. Ultimately though he held the repeated "knife-like" pain at bay and got the job done.
No fewer than a dozen players were in contention throughout a thrilling 2006 final round at Royal Sydney. Eventually, it was Senden who broke through with a clutch birdie to win his first national title by one stroke from US Open Champion Geoff Ogilvy and two shots from Appleby and Gavin Coles.
In 2007 it was time for a crowd favourite to break through at The Australian for his maiden Australian Open victory. Parry took hold of the Stonehaven Cup for the first time after holding off fast-finishing trio Won Joon Lee, O'Hern and American ace Brandt Snedeker by one shot.
Tim Clark became the first South African winner since Player to win the championship when he held the trophy aloft at Royal Sydney Golf Club in 2008 after a nail-biting playoff against Tasmanian Mathew Goggin.
In 2009, future world No.1 Adam Scott lifted the Stonehaven Cup for the first time, presented to him by his childhood hero and fellow Queenslander Greg Norman.It was a battle of wits on the final day at New South Wales Golf Club as Scott and Appleby fought out the crown.
In 2010 Victorian Geoff Ogilvy raised the Stonehaven Cup after he plundered The Lakes to the tune of 19-under par. But the same venue the following year wasn’t so giving, despite an array of American stars including Woods, Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Fred Couples, Bill Haas, John Daly, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and David Toms joined Aussies Norman, Scott, Jason Day, Ogilvy, Baddeley, Senden and Allenby in a field many described as the finest in the history of the championship – an even greater tribute to Chalmers that he prevailed again.
In 2012, Peter Senior created history by becoming the oldest winner, holding off the field in gale-force winds to win his second Open at age 53. The veteran Queenslander overcame a three-hour delay caused by winds in excess of 80km/h at The Lakes to card a dogged even-par 72 and defeat Brendan Jones by a shot.
Between stints as world No.1, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland made a birdie at the final hole to stop Scott from completing his own Triple Crown in 2013, after the Queenslander led the Open from the opening day following his other Aussie wins. Scott had torn Royal Sydney apart with a course record 62 in the opening round, led by four through three rounds, and he was still in front by a shot when the players reached the final tee. With the biggest crowds in years congregating around the 18th green, Scott, missed the green and took a bogey while McIlroy calmly stroked in his birdie putt from just 4m to win.
But of all the great Open rounds ever played, few, if any, were better than the closing 63 to seal Jordan Spieth’s 2014 victory back at The Australian. The rising American star blew a world-class field away by six strokes with a flawless round in extremely testing conditions to finish at 13 under and with only seven players under par. Summing up Spieth’s excellence, McIlroy confessed that if he’d played 100 rounds today he “wouldn’t sniff 63”.
In 2015, challengers to world No.1 Spieth came from far and wide, but the eventual winner came from within. After a build-up highlighted by a memorable ceremony honouring past champions in the tournament's 100th staging, The Australian Golf Club's own Matt Jones staved off a fierce rally by Spieth to win by a stroke and spark emotional scenes among his family, friends and home club coach Gary Barter. That it came with a knee-knocking putt on the 72nd hole only added to the drama.
At Royal Sydney in 2016, in his third consecutive trip Down Under, Spieth climbed back to the top rung after another dramatic final round at Royal Sydney. As multiple challengers rose and fell throughout the fourth round, Spieth joined Victorian Ash Hall and young Queenslander Cam Smith in a playoff. And while all three withstood the pressure of the cauldron of the club's famous closing ampitheatre to find the green in regulation, it was Spieth's famous putting stroke that came to the fore, ramming home a birdie for his second Australian crown.
Spieth returned again in 2017, but could not shake his off-season rust in time. He roared home with a closing 67 but could only finish T8 on a frenetic closing afternoon at The Australian. Lucas Herbert and former world No.1 Jason Day were in the final pairing, but neither could match the pace being set ahead with, at different times, Matt Jones, Cam Smith and Sweden's Jonas Blixt all looking likely winners. But none were privy to a charge for the ages from hometown hero Cameron Davis, who had led with an opening 63, but was thought to have faded from contention with 72-74 in his middle rounds. At four under for his last round through 10, Davis was handy. But when the young Sydneysider chipped in for eagle on the 12th, he was suddenly right in the hunt. A superb closing birdie gave him a sparkling 64, a one-shot victory at 11 under and membership of an exclusive club of just nine players — also including Chalmers, Shearer, Devlin, Ferrier, Whitton, Scott, Soutar and Clyde Pearce — to have won the Australian Amateur and Australian Open titles.
The 2018 edition welcomed the Australian All Abilities Championship on board, another ground-breaking moment for world golf with players of all abilities competing in alternating groups around The Lakes among those competing in the "traditional" Open. For the record, Sweden's Johan Kammerstad was victorious after a stupendous closing 73, better than many of his able-bodied colleagues on a course that was battered by foul weather for much of the week. The tournament featured several outstanding amateurs, with Victorian David Micheluzzi leading for much of the first two rounds and ultimately joined in the top 13 by three of his promising peers, Keita Nakajima, Takumi Nakaya and Viktor Hovland. The round of the week, though, came fittingly amid the harshest conditions with Abraham Ancer's sublime Saturday 65 setting in train his remarkable five-stroke victory and enabling him to become the first Mexican to hoist the Stonehaven Cup.
And so we look to this year and, doubtless, another story that will enthral – just another chapter in the already rich folklore of the Emirates Australian Open.
The champion receives:
– His name engraved on original Stonehaven Cup which remains in the Golf Australia Museum
– the Gold Medal
– replica Stonehaven Cup to hold for one year
As part of the R&A’s Open Qualifying Series, the leading three placegetters in the top 10, who are not already exempt, will win direct entry into next year’s Open Championship.
The leading amateur receives the Silver Medal (multiple winners in the case of a tie).