What makes an Open champion? An Aristotelian appreciation for mathematics. The guile and the stamina of a wolf. A sailor’s defiance of the wind and the rain and the fool’s belief that anything is possible.

An Open winner requires all four and then some more. He needs the stubbornness to keep plugging away. Sometimes he is a demented grouse beater, at others he displays the swish and elan of a fencing master. He possesses the mental fortitude of a Tibetan monk and the sheer, bloody-mindedness of a champion. In short, he is an amorphous mass of contradictions.

But who is the first among equals? It is a question that has dominated gin-addled chats in clubhouses across the land, it is the lifeblood of internet polls and magazine features and, now, it is the subject of a television broadcast to be seen this evening.

Golf has never been a sport to stand still so the best in digital technology has been harnessed to ensure the programme captures the triumph and tragedy of moving day using footage spanning five different decades.

More than 300 pieces of archive have undergone enhancements to adjust grading and colour balance. Hundreds of corrections have been made to clips. Caddies, playing partners and errant golf balls have been removed fron original footage and tracers applied to shots to ensure the viewer feels

what they are watching is actually happening in front of their eyes.

In The Open For The Ages, commentators Nick Dougherty, Butch Harmon, Ewan Murray and Iona Stephen provide the colour, analysis and statistics that will help to identify the winner. A further 10,000 golf fans have already voted to bring a result that will be announced at the end of a three-hour spectacle across the Old Course at St Andrews.

Jack Nicklaus, who will feature later in this piece, once said: “If you’re going to be a player people remember, you have to win The Open at St Andrews.”

At his first Open at The Old Course, the legendary Bobby Jones walked off after taking four shots to get out of a bunker, ripping up his card but playing out his round nonetheless. Afterwards he declared he hated the course. The American would later go on to lift the Claret Jug at the fabled Fife venue in 1927, undeterred from his misery six years previously.

Nicklaus is right in one way, every golfer wants to win at St Andrews – even Jones came to love it – but he also called Muirfield, home to his first Open victory, “the best golf course in the world” and so enamoured by it was he that he named the first course he ever designed – Muirfield Village in Ohio – after it.

Yes, it’s romantic to win at the home of golf, but those who have won it elsewhere will contend that it took just as much effort to win theirs.

Here we outline the five players we think must be on the shortlist for greatest Open champion of the modern era.


Severiano Ballesteros (three wins)

Seve was a links golfer before he even knew what the term meant. The young Spaniard would bunk off school to practise on the beach near his home in the tiny Cantabrian fishing village of Pedrena, thwacking pebbles into the Bay of Biscay with a 3-iron. The youngest of five golfing brothers – one died in childhood – he was the son of a farmhand so he knew the value of hard work; more crucially he was an improviser. At night, he’d jump the wall at Pedrena Golf Club with only the moonlight to guide his path around the course; it made for an instinctive, swashbuckling golfer. At 19, he finished runner-up to Jonny Miller at Royal Birkdale having led the third round by two shots. By the age of 20, he was a winner of five events on five continents; two years later he was Open champion by three shots from Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw at Royal Lytham, memorably playing out of a car park at the 17th on his way to victory.

The home of his converted farmhouse in Pedrena was adorned with a carved door ornament in tribute to the iconic image of him celebrating his winning putt at St Andrews in 1984 with a trademark punch of the air.

“The first time I played it I didn’t like it,” said Ballesteros of the Old Course but he would later tell friend and compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal that his daring approach shot at the Road Hole and subsequent putt at 18 to beat Tom Watson was “the sweetest moment of his career”. He would win another Open four years later, again at Lytham, to bring up his fifth major but it was the beginning of the end.

A back injury sustained while boxing as a young boy curtailed his later years and he was never the same again despite swing changes to combat a chronic loss of confidence. A more insidious fight lay in store as he entered middle age; diagnosed with the brain tumour that would eventually claim his life at the age of just 54.

Gary Player (three wins)

One of only four golfers to win The Open across three decades and one of five to win the career grand slam alongside Woods, Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan.

The South African makes it on to our list ahead of Arnold Palmer, his fellow member of the ‘Big Three’ along with Nicklaus, by virtue of his three Open wins as opposed to Palmer’s two.

Those wins came at Muirfield in 1959, Carnoustie in 1968, and Royal Lytham in 1974. Famous for his “the harder I practise, the luckier I get” idiom, Player (right) had the rewards to show for his graft and he did it the hard way.

He did it the hard way: “I went through the torture cell. My mother died when I was eight, and my father worked 8,000 feet down the mine. My brother went to war at 17 to fight with the British, while my sister went to boarding school. I’d come all the way home from school each night, by bus and tram, to a dark house, nobody there. I was eight. I’ve got to cook my food, iron my clothes, get up in the morning at five. I lay in bed every night wishing I was dead, crying. It’s the reason

I became a champion: because I knew what it was to suffer. To struggle.”

As such, he was a kind of beacon for links golf which he said he loved because it required “balls”.

‘The struggle’. A motto for every golfer who has ever picked up a club.

Jack Nicklaus (three wins)

For a man who had alchemy in his fingers, it was fitting that Nicklaus should study pharmacy at Ohio State. He was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pharmacist but as his achievements on the course started to mount up he changed course, opting for a life on the Tour. It was a judicious choice. Over the next two decades he swept all before him, claiming his first major in 1962. His idol was the legendary American Bobby Jones, himself a three-time winner of The Open. His first success came in 1966 at Muirfield and he would prevail twice more, both wins coming at the Old Course. It was a sign of how American attitudes towards The Open had changed that the big guns now came as a matter of course – with good reason. The cheque that accompanied Nicklaus’ first win in ’66 was £2100 but by the time he lifted the Claret Jug again, four years later, that figure had more than doubled to £5250. He proved more of a stalker than a frontrunner in 1978 – his final win – as he emerged from the pack on day three with a 69, which he followed up with the same score 24 hours later to leave four players two strokes behind in second.

It was redemption for the Duel In The Sun a year earlier and a final hurrah of sorts. Having adapted his grip to strengthen his left hand on the advice of his coach Jack Grout in the run-up to the tournament, he had also pushed back the day of his return flight to the States to help with concentration issues. The twin changes paid dividends.

“I won this tournament without a putter,” he said. “I’m a better player in more ways because I’m not as strong as I was and I can’t overpower a course as I used to.”

He did not win another Open, despite a US Open and USPGA in 1980 and a Masters in 1986, and he was right in his assertion that he was no longer the force he was. When he crossed the Swilcan Bridge in 2005 for his last Old Course visit, he received a 10-minute standing ovation and there were tears everywhere, except on the face of the Great Bear. Instead, he helped Watson compose himself for a final putt that allowed his great friend to make the cut that year.


Tom Watson (five wins)

The most prolific winner of The Open in the modern era, the genial American lies one victory behind Harry Vardon on the all-time list, hated links golf in the beginning.

“I was an ‘American golfer’ who wanted to hit the ball through the air and then stop the ball quickly. Links golf didn’t fit into that paradigm. I changed my mind during The Open Championship of 1979. I was not playing well at Royal Lytham and I was blaming the golf course and blaming links golf for my poor play, which was not the truth obviously; the blame lay with my poor play. I finally figured out that my poor attitude was holding me back. Even though I had won a couple of Open Championships I still had not embraced links golf. In 1979 I told myself to stop fighting the golf course and start enjoying it.” said Watson.

A psychology major from Stanford, where he played on the golf and table tennis teams, when he sorted out the mental side of things and alloyed it to an imperious all-round ability, he became

a perennial Open challenger. He possessed a fine short game, played with length, accuracy and aggression.

But he was sublime with putter in hand, too, and renowned for his near-extraterrestrial powers of recovery around the green. Indeed, years later Tour players would call a hole where they had got out of jail a ‘Watson par’.

A winner in 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983, it was the second of these triumphs that is remembered as the greatest in The Open’s pantheon, maybe even in golf history. The theatrically named Duel In The Sun, played out in tit-for-tat

fashion on the scorched fairways of Turnberry has been portrayed as a gunfight between two old cowboys from the Wild West. Yet, for all the intensity of the rivalry, Watson and Nicklaus were friends, the former describing the latter as the greatest to ever play the game. In 2009, he came within a shot of becoming the oldest major champion of all time, again at Turnberry, when he lost in a play-off to Stewart Cink.

He falls down on Nicklaus’ measure that to be a memorable Open champion one must have won at the Old Course. But, with five wins and two second places, it’s a perceived shortcoming that can easily be overlooked.

Tiger Woods (three wins)

His victories – two at St Andrews and one at Royal Liverpool – were indicative of the utter domination that the American yielded over the sport around the turn of the 21st century. In his first Open win at St Andrews in 2000,

he did not hit a single bunker over four days of golf on a course notorious for its tiny, round-wrecking, hidden traps. The three bogeys that sat on his card came in the final two rounds by which time he had built a virtually unassailable lead over a chasing pack including Thomas Bjorn, Ernie Els and David Duval. Five years later, on his return to the Old Course, he went wire to wire to win by five shots from Colin Montgomerie.

A year on, at Hoylake, he broke the course record – one of four men to do so – set a day earlier by Graeme McDowell, who was himself bettering a mark of 67 achieved by Argentine Roberto De Vincenzo 38 years previously – took over the lead and again didn’t look back to win by two shots from Chris DiMarco. It meant that over the course of eight rounds he had sat outside the lead in just one. The win came just two months after the death of Woods’ father Earl and he wept uncontrollably on the shoulder of caddie Steve Williams. At that point, he had redefined the sport and seemed set to smash Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors. Yet, despite winning the USPGA a month later, and a year after that, this was to be his last Open championship win. He would add a US Open in 2008 before a thrilling and redemptive Masters win at Augusta last year following years of back problems and a high-profile divorce from his wife when the once seemingly-invincible Tiger suddenly appeared mortal.

The Open For The Ages will be televised on Sky Sports Gold at 11am tomorrow.