Palmer's legacy at Royal Birkdale
The 146th Open will be the first staged since the passing of two-time Champion Golfer of the Year, Arnold Palmer
Palmer's presence at The Open, and in particular Royal Birkdale, is eternal. His desire to compete at St. Andrews in 1960 was a big step in elevating the championship to a greater global stage.
The Open, and particularly St. Andrews, was admired by Americans in earlier decades. But by 1959, not a single American player was in the Open field at Muirfield. Players stateside bemoaned the ocean voyage to the U.K. and a relatively small purse compared to the U.S. Open.
Palmer felt differently however. When he made the trip to St. Andrews to compete in 1960, he was already a Masters champion and his stardom was taking off. Palmer's motivation was to win an event that boyhood American idols like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones had triumphed.
Despite a final-round 68, Palmer would fall short to Australian Ken Nagle by a shot. The drama made his next Open appearance at Royal Birkdale in 1961 that much more captivating to sports fans everywhere. High winds and torrential rain greeted Palmer and the field in Southport.
Palmer's go-for-broke playing style was one of the key reasons Arnie's Army was often many rows deep, and that was the case in the United Kingdom, as well. Huge crowds followed him around as he hovered near the lead.
The second round of the event was played in gale force winds. At the par-4 16th, Palmer's drive missed the fairway and came to rest under a blackberry bush at the bottom of a sandy ditch. Surprising even to the onlookers used to Palmer's risky playing style, he passed on chipping out and instead banged a 6-iron onto the green.
After Friday's round was cancelled due to weather, Palmer ultimately prevailed on a 36-hole day on Saturday by one shot over Dai Rees. Palmer won £1,400 at Birkdale, but more so, his status as a global sports superstar was cemented. His shot at Birkdale's 16th was another notch to his legendary fearlessness.
Palmer's star power was a catalyst in the Open regaining its stature globally as one of the four "majors." More and more American players followed Palmer over, and many signature moments in the careers of American hall-of-famers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson came on British links. The 2017 Open prize fund exceeds $10 million and the winner's share is $1.845 million.
For Birkdale, Palmer's large crowds in 1961 led to several design modifications of the clubhouse and course to accommodate large galleries. The Open returned to Birkdale in 1965, and since 1954 when it first staged the Open, it's been among the most regular hosts to the tournament outside St. Andrews.
To those in attendance for the 146th Open at Birkdale this week, see if you can find the small plaque in the ground off the 16th fairway that commemorates Palmer's shot. Or, if you happen to be playing your own golf on the links around England's Golf Coast and find your ball beneath a blackberry bush, ask yourself what would Arnie do?