Statistically Speaking: The Greatest St Andrews Champion
Who is the greatest St Andrews Open Champion? That is a question that has and will continue to be asked around the golfing world.
There have been many memorable Open Championships from St Andrews. From Tiger’s masterclass in 2005 to Seve’s magic in 1984, many of golf’s most famous Champions have triumphed at the home of golf. Statistically speaking, who was the greatest Champion?
Everyone will have their favourite, for all different reasons, and every favourite is valid. But Dr Ian McHale, of Fozmuz McHale, builds sports rankings based on the evidence alone and by removing favouritism or sentiment, the rankings are based purely on data. Of course, this is not everyone’s idea of how the rankings should be determined, and the rankings will fuel the debate over who is the greatest of all time.
Before crowning the greatest St Andrews Champion there are several simple ideas that need to be taken into consideration. You could look at the total shots against par played by each Champion and compare them. Under this case Tiger Wood’s 19-under-par score in 2000 would undoubtedly be the greatest Open Championship victory at St Andrews. The absolute score however, does not take into account the conditions of the course, course changes, or even the improvement in golf equipment.
Looking at the Champions margin of victory would be another possibility. Doing this would better reflect the externalities such as the weather and course set up. However, there are reasons why this way would also be problematic. The first problem being that the margin of victory does not measure the strength of the field. For instance a golfer who wins by a large margin may have been playing in a weaker field compared to a golfer who wins by a smaller margin but in a much more difficult and competitive field. Another problem with this is that having a larger margin of victory may mean that players chasing the score will take more risks and drop more shots compared to when they play conservatively.
A statistical model is used by Fozmuz McHale in order to accurately rank golfers at St Andrews. This model uses past results to determine the rankings, much like how a bookmaker calculates their odds before an event. By using the model in reverse, it can be used to retrospectively identify how good a golfer was at a particular moment in time.
The key to this particular exercise is to determine the strength of the field. Of the 143 Open Championships before 2015, only 28 have been played at St Andrews, just over one in five events. This means that using results from previous events at St Andrews does not provide a large enough sample size to measure the strength of the field. Therefore, Fozmuz McHale feel it’s better to measure a golfer’s ability to perform when it really matters, at the Majors. The strength of each player has been based on his performance in the Major Championships that he have played over his career, however it is weighted to reflect how good a golfer is at St Andrews, the main interest.
Today we countdown the greatest St Andrews champions from 10-6.
Statistically speaking : Counting down the greatest St Andrews Champions, from 10 – 6
10th- Tom Watson 1984
Despite never winning at St Andrews, Tom Watson manages to sneak himself into the top ten Champion Golfers. He boasted a tremendous Open record, winning five times and coming within one putt of winning again, aged 59 in 2009.
If this exercise was to find the best ever Open Champion he would be very close to the top. After winning back-to-back in 1982 and 1983, he finished second to the great Seve Ballesteros in 1984.
9th Peter Thomson 1955
Five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson won at St Andrews in 1955. Like Bobby Locke, Thomson would have been higher in the rankings if the bigger American players travelled to The Open in the 1950’s. He also won at Royal Birkdale, beating both Nicklaus and Palmer.
8th- James Braid 1910
Scotsman James Braid won the Open Championship on five occasions, including twice at St Andrews, and was a member of the ‘Great Triumvirate’ along with Harry Vardon and JH Taylor.
7th- Bobby Locke 1957
Bobby Locke, the memorable South African, won his fourth Open Championship at St Andrews in 1957, beating Peter Thomson. Locke would have been higher in the list but for the fact that many of the best Americans did not play in The Open at that particular time. Locke was the first of the South African Major Championship winners.
6th- Seve Ballesteros 1984
Seve won three Open Championships, including his iconic battle with Tom Watson in 1984. Seve birdied the last hole followed by a memorable celebration, while Watson bogeyed the 17th, handing victory to the Spaniard, who won by two shots.
5th- Tiger Woods 2005
Tiger Woods won his second Open, and second at St Andrews, in 2005, the year Jack Nicklaus made his final Open appearance. He was the fifth player to win two Open Championships at St Andrews after Bob Martin, JH Taylor, James Braid (all by 1910) and Nicklaus in 1970 and 1978. Woods opened with a 66, going on to complete a wire-to-wire victory. This was Woods’ 10th major, and the fourth he had won by 5 shots or more. It was also the 10th time out of 10 he had gone on to win a major when leading after the third round.
4th- Sam Snead 1946
Sam Snead was one of the greatest golfers of his era, winning 7 Majors. His only Open victory was at St Andrews in 1946, when he beat Johnny Bulla and Bobby Locke by four strokes in the first post-War Open. All three were tied going into the final round where Snead shot a 75 in strong winds to claim the victory. Without the war, he may well have won several Majors and clearly had a liking for the Old Course. Snead would only play the Open three more times, returning next in 1962. Who knows how many more he might have won.
3rd- Nick Faldo 1990
Nick Faldo set the then Major scoring record of 18-under-par at the 1990 Open at the Old Course. It was Faldo’s fourth Major victory and second Open, and followed his victory at the Masters earlier in the year - the first player to win two Majors in a year since Tom Watson in 1982. Faldo shared the lead at the halfway point on -12, and then played conservatively, shooting -1 in the final round to win by 5 from Mark McNulty and Payne Stewart. Faldo would go onto win one more Open, and his three Open and three Masters titles make him the most successful British golfer of the modern era and certainly one of the great Open Champions.
2nd- Tiger Woods 2000
Tiger’s second appearance in the top 5 emphasises how well he played at The Open at St Andrews. In 2000, he set an Open and Major scoring record of -19, shooting in the 60s in all four rounds. He won by 8 shots from two-time Open winner Ernie Els and Thomas Bjorn, whose 3 shots out of the bunker on the 16th famously cost him the 2003 Open. This was the second of four consecutive major wins, culminating in the so called Tiger Slam at the Masters in 2001, and became the fifth player to have won all four majors. He also became the sixth player to win the US Open and Open Championship in the same year, having won at Pebble Beach by an incredible 15 shots.
1st- Jack Nicklaus 1978
1978 was the second of Nicklaus’ Open victories at St Andrews. In 1970 he won following Doug Sanders’ infamous missed three foot put on the 18th, resulting in Nicklaus winning an 18 hole playoff. 1978 was the second consecutive Nicklaus versus Watson duel, following Watson’s triumph in 1977 by one shot at Turnberry. Watson was the overnight leader after three rounds, but faded with a 76, Nicklaus eventually winning by 2 from Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Ray Floyd and New Zealander Simon Owen who led after chipping in at the 15th. A young Seve Ballesteros was co-leader after 2 rounds, and would beat Tom Watson when The Open next came to St Andrews in 1984. Watson would win 5 Open Championships, but never succeeded at The Old Course. This victory represented Nicklaus’ 15 of 18 career grand slam victories, and the completion of his third career slam.