The game of golf has changed a great deal since the golden age of amateur golf back in the last decade of the 19th century.
Nowadays, The Open Championship, and the other three Majors, are all dominated by the professionals but it was a different story back at the start of the 1890s when, in the space of eight short years, two amateurs, John Ball and his Hoylake club-mate Harold Hilton (pictured right), won three Open titles and a third, John E. Laidlay, finished second on another occasion.
Ball (pictured left) was the first amateur to claim the Claret Jug when he defeated Willie Fernie and Archie Simpson by three shots at Prestwick in 1890 and two years later Hilton was to secure his first of two titles when he won the first Open staged at the new home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield and the first to be contested over 72 rather than 36 holes.
Over the previous 31 years The Open Championship had always been held at either Prestwick, St Andrews or Musselburgh but when the Honourable Company decamped from Musselburgh down the coast to its new home at Muirfield the Championship went with it and so was to begin a relationship which this year will see the East Lothian course stage the Championship for the fifteen time in 121 years.
Nowadays, Muirfield is among the most revered courses on The Open rota but back in 1892 it was just 5,203-yards in length and far from popular in some quarters. One prominent professional, Andra’ Kirkaldy, described the new course as “an auld water-meadie” (old water meadow) and others were equally critical. However, the decision to increase prize money to £100, with £35 for the winner, ensured the Championship still attracted virtually all the leading players of the day.
Hilton, as an amateur, could not benefit from the increase in prize money and he elected not to enter until the last minute when he received an invitation to stay with a friend, Gordon Robertson, who lived nearby. Making the journey on the overnight train from Liverpool, he left himself with just one day to practice but made full use of his time, completing three full rounds before darkness fell.
The previous year, on his Open debut, Hilton had finished tied eighth, behind Andra’s younger brother, Hugh Kirkaldy, at St Andrews. He went on to reach the final of the 1992 Amateur Championship, also at St Andrews, where he lost to Ball, so it was no surprise when he opened with a 78 at Muirfield, bettered by only six players, including the amateur, Horace Hutchinson, with a 74 and his arch-rival, Ball on 75.
The following day, needing three shots to extricate himself from a fairway bunker on the 7th, Hilton fell away with an 81, which left him seven shots adrift of Hutchinson, and also behind Ball, Alex Herd, Willie Park Jnr and Ben Sayers However, a third round 72, which started with a two on the 201-yard first hole, saw him move up to second on the leaderboard, just two shots behind Ball on 231 and he was go on to close to with a 74 that left with a three shot advantage over Ball, Herd and Hugh Kirkaldy.
Hutchison, who fell back into tenth place with closing rounds of 86 and 80, described Hilton’s march to victory in glowing terms his autobiography, Fifty Years of Golf, published in 1919: “He was walking along at top speed, very pleased with himself, as well he might be, brimful of confidence and with the smoke trailing up from his cigarette, even while he was playing the ball, so that it seemed impossible that he could see through it to hit the ball correctly. But he did hit it mightily correctly, for all that, and won the championship.”
Hilton, for his part, attributed his victory to three months practising at Formby, which had small greens like Muirfield, before admitting he was surprised to win The Open before The Amateur. “To me, it seemed silly to win The Open event before the amateur and after the event I could not realise I had secured the bigger prize before the lesser.”
The victor was to go on to win the title once more, at his home club at Hoylake in 1997, to be the last amateur to win until legendary American, Bobby Jones, secured his first of three titles in 1926. He was also to win The Amateur three times, in 1900, ’01 and ’11, and the US Amateur once, also in 1911, thereby confirming his reputation as the first of a long line of great champions to win The Open at Muirfield.
View the full results of Muirfield’s first Open Championship here.