Royal Birkdale may have been plagued with bad weather for The 90th Open Championship in 1961 – but that was not going to stop the crowds turning out to see one of the world’s most exciting golfers of the early sixties - the charismatic Arnold Palmer.
The handsome American arrived on British shores with the aim of mastering links golf and capturing his first Claret Jug. He badly wanted to emulate the success of his fellow countrymen Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan before him.
By the end of the week, he had not only achieved that feat, but went on to make it back-to-back victories in The Open when he returned to defend his title at Royal Troon a year later.
At Royal Birkdale Palmer’s quest for glory was threatened by high winds and torrential rain. The weather devastated the spectator tents and marquees as well as the course, forcing the cancellation of play on Friday. In an unprecedented move by The R&A, it was announced that the Championship was to conclude on Saturday whether four rounds were completed or not.
But while others struggled, Palmer delivered. And on Thursday, in gale force winds, he struck a shot so sublime that a plaque was erected in honour of it.
A wayward drive at the 16th left Palmer’s ball buried under blackberry bushes at the bottom of a sandy ditch. The sensible approach would have been to hack it out onto the fairway and take the hit of an extra stroke on his scorecard. But Palmer, who played with a “swagger that tilted him between triumph and disaster” (The Times, 1961), was not about to drop a shot just to play it safe.
Palmer selected his six-iron to the surprise of the following crowd, climbed into the rough, and smashed his ball onto the green. It was as if he knew it would come down to one shot…
On Saturday morning Palmer recorded a score of 69 which put him three shots ahead of the rest going into the final round. But Welshman Dai Rees had his heart set on hunting down the American and staged a fightback that brought him to within one shot of a play-off.
While that was enough to scare Palmer, the Claret Jug always looked destined to join his winner’s collection that year. With his wife Winnie by his side, Palmer delighted all in attendance as he showed off golf’s most iconic trophy to his fans in front of the famous Royal Birkdale clubhouse.
Palmer’s popularity was evident on both sides of the Atlantic and his decision to attack links golf, encouraged by his business partner Mark McCormack a year earlier, pleased his European admirers as well as his followers at home in Florida.
Palmer was already a leading name when he pocketed £1,400 for his Open win at Royal Birkdale. But by lifting the Claret Jug, he had secured his status as a true global golfing superstar.