The British Open (officially known as the Open Championship) hasn’t seen too many actual Brits hosting the famed Claret Jug in recent years. There has been some UK representation of late (Rory McIlroy in 2014, Darren Clarke in 2012—both hailing from Northern Ireland.) But the last Englishman to win was Nick Faldo in 1992.
This year’s iteration is at famed Royal Birkdale in northwest England. While the public is always welcome to play (as is the case nearly universally throughout the UK, even at their finest and most prestigious courses) we will confine our discussion to public-access courses stateside.
Here are a smattering of exceptional open-to-the-public facilities that hold a special place in the hearts of the last five Champion Golfers of the Year. (The super-cool moniker given to the winner of the Open Championship.)
Ernie Els (2012), Phil Mickelson (2013), Rory McIlroy (2014), Zach Johnson (2015), and Henrik Stenson (2016) have combined for ninety-one wins on the PGA Tour, and sixteen major championships. They have also won, in most cases multiple times, on venues that welcome the paying public. Below are some of the highlights:
Both Mickelson and Stenson have captured the so-called ‘Fifth Major,’ (Phil in 2007, Henrik a couple years later in 2009). The Stadium Course was to be “the most democratic course in the world,” according to management, testing all aspects of one’s game. It was to have short and long par-3s and par-4s, reachable and unreachable par-5s, holes bending both left and right, and no two consecutive holes heading in the same direction, so that a prevailing wind would always make holes play differently. Though it serves as the flagship event on the PGA Tour, and annually attracts the single strongest field in professional golf, it is even more famous as a public-access venue. Eager patrons from all over the globe fill the tee sheet, waiting for their crack at the island green 17th, hoping to flip their short iron over water and onto terra firma. Splashing the tee shot can ruin an otherwise good round, or conversely, a ball that finds green-grass safety can put a smile on the face of a golfer who had been struggling to that point.
Ernie Els won there twice, and Mickelson also captured Arnold Palmer’s ‘home game.’ Water provides much of the rigor at this Orlando institution, the view from the third tee is the first indication that massive ponds are in prime position to wreak intermittent havoc with the scorecard. The third, sixth, eleventh, thirteenth and most famously, the eighteenth, all pose danger for either an errant tee ball or approach shot.
Home of the Honda Classic, which has been captured by both Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy, this is the marquee facility of the quintet of courses found in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (The Fazio, The Squire, The Palmer and The Estate round out their other offerings.) The course has a championship pedigree, having played host to the 1983 Ryder Cup, and the 1987 PGA Championship. The course is best known for a tough three hole stretch near round’s end. The par-3 15th, par-4 16th, and par-3 17th holes are known as ‘The Bear Trap,’ named after the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, who redesigned the course some twenty years after inception.
Phil Mickelson has a stranglehold on this most-desired public venue. The other Open winners under discussion have never tasted victory on the Monterey peninsula, but Phil has won there on four separate occasions. (1998, 2005, 2007 and 2012 for those scoring at home.) Phil knows as well as anyone (other than perhaps Mark O’Meara, also a four-time champ at Pebble and a British Open winner) the majestic beauty and valiant shot-making challenges that make this the single most sought-after tee time in the world of public-access golf. From the flip wedge (or perhaps seven iron, depending on the wind direction) of the magnificent par-3 seventh, to the heroic approach over a chasm of the roiling pacific on the eighth, to the nervy, seaside tee shot on the par-5 finale, no one fortunate enough to play Pebble ever forgets its myriad charms and challenges.
This is where Rory took home the first of his two PGA Championships in 2012. (He also triumphed at Kentucky’s Valhalla Golf Club in 2014.) Although it will always be most closely associated with the 1991 Ryder Cup, which came down to the very last putt of the final match on the final day, The Ocean Course is slated to hold the PGA Championship once again in 2021. Visitors, even hardened Tour pros, are always amazed at the scale of the golf course, which is absolutely massive. It’s fairly narrow, and always in close proximity to the beach, but stretches almost three miles in length. But the fact is that the dedicated turf on the course is just 55 acres. The vistas, seascape, wetlands, sand and trouble occupy an area six or eight times that size. Brawny as the golf course appears, with generous fairways and oversized greens, it’s dwarfed by the majestic natural panorama that envelops it.
Everyone loves Hawaii, and Zach Johnson (2014), Ernie Els (2003) and Phil Mickelson (1994, 1998) are no exception. Their ‘working vacations’ included hard-fought triumphs at the PGA Tour traditional season opener, the Tournament of Champions, only open to those who won an officially sanctioned event the season prior. This Maui must-play features panoramic ocean and mountain views, and the final few holes are almost as steep as an intermediate ski run. The only par-73 on the PGA Tour, the Plantation Course has seven holes longer than 500 yards, but also six par-4s under 400 yards. It’s a beguiling mixture of power and finesse in one of the loveliest golf settings on the planet.