It all started with one question: Who was the Champion Golfer?
That was what Colonel James Fairlie sought to answer in 1860 following the death the previous year of Allan Robertson, who was widely regarded as the greatest player of his time.
Fairlie and the rest of the members of Prestwick Golf Club agreed a competition should be held to see who would be Robertson’s successor – and from there, The 1st Open was born.
The opening tee shot was struck on October 17, 1860 – the moment when modern golfing history started – as just eight professional players competed for the prestigious title.
And Willie Park Snr was the man who ultimately came out on top, beginning a 159-year legacy that has since seen many of the all-time greats be crowned Champion Golfer of the Year.
To mark the anniversary of that momentous occasion, we’ve gone back in time for an in-depth look at how The Open came into being and the events on that famous day.
The early beginnings
Robertson’s premature death in 1859 left an unmistakeable void in the golfing world.
He was one of the first golf professionals to make a living from playing for bets, caddying, ball and club making and instruction, and was the undisputed best golfer at the time.
In fact, he was so good that tradition has it he was never beaten in a stakes match, often carrying lesser opponents before defeating them on the last one or two holes.
But following his early death at the age of 43 after an attack of jaundice, it was proposed by the members of Prestwick that a competition to determine a new Champion Golfer should take place.
Invitations went out to clubs and golfing societies across Scotland and England to put forward their best professionals - essentially experienced caddies, club makers and greenkeepers.
It read: “It is proposed by the PRESTWICK GOLF CLUB to give a CHALLENGE BELT, to be played for by PROFESSIONAL GOLFERS; and the various Golf Clubs in Scotland and England are requested to name and send the best players on their Links, not exceeding three from any one club, to compete for it.”
The trophy presented to the event’s winner was originally a red Morocco leather belt, called the Challenge Belt, which had silver clasps and an ornamental silver buckle – bought from Edinburgh silversmiths James & Walter Marshall for £25.
In the end, eight professionals assembled for the right to wear the belt after Fairlie had sent invites calling on players from Blackheath, Perth, Edinburgh, Musselburgh and St Andrews.
Park Snr overcomes favourite
As the greenkeeper at Prestwick, Old Tom Morris was the clear favourite going into The 1st Open, which was held over three rounds of the 12-hole links course on the same day.
Morris Snr had the honour of hitting the first tee shot, but it was Musselburgh’s Park Snr who led after the first round, shooting 55 to take a three-stroke lead over his rival.
Little could separate the pairing over the next 12 holes as Morris kept in touch with his rival by matching his second-round 59, leaving him three shots back with one round to go.
Another 59 from Morris saw him take the clubhouse lead with a total of 176 despite finding too many of the bunkers that he created and tended by his own hands over his final 12 holes.
But the ever-confident Park came down the final hole knowing he needed to get up and down from 30 feet for a one-shot victory as a crowd of players and onlookers surrounded the green.
Given the conditions, three putts would have been entirely reasonable in the circumstances. He only needed one, however, as Park rolled his ball across the bobbly surface and into the cup.
With a closing round of 60, he finished on a total of 174 to be crowned the inaugural Champion Golfer of the Year by two strokes from runner-up Morris, with Andrew Strath in third.
Forging a new Open legacy
What started as a simple idea, quickly began to gather momentum after the inaugural running of The Open as the Championship returned to Prestwick the following year.
This time it was opened up to amateurs as well as professionals and 18 players contested for the title of Champion Golfer as Old Tom exacted sweet revenge over Park Snr.
Morris Snr’s four-shot victory over his rival in 1861 was the first of his four Open titles, beginning a tug of war between the pair which saw them trade the Challenge Belt on multiple occasions.
In fact, they claimed seven of the first eight Opens between them before Morris Snr’s son, Young Tom, began his own spell of domination – winning four in a row between 1868 and 1872.
Prestwick presided over the first 12 Opens, which were held jointly with The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers from 1871.
And a simple stone cairn to the west of Prestwick’s clubhouse still marks the spot where Morris Snr struck the first Open Championship tee shot all those years ago in 1860.
The Open was up and running and the Claret Jug soon became part of the tournament’s illustrious history in 1872 after Young Tom won his third title to claim the Challenge Belt outright.
While the trophy wasn’t ready for when Morris Jnr won his fourth Open, his name was fittingly the first to be engraved on it before Tom Kidd was the first Champion Golfer to be presented with the trophy at St Andrews in 1873.
The iconic prize has since gone on to be lifted by many of the greatest players to ever hold a club, including the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods.