A look back at legendary ‘firsts’ at iconic Muirfield ahead of Women’s Open
The Open Championship has made its way to Muirfield 16 times, ranging from 1892 to 2013.
However, the best in the women’s game will head to the iconic links course for the first time this week.
As we prepare for another of the game’s best to make history in Scotland, let’s look back at five legends who captured their first claret jugs at Muirfield:
1959 – Gary Player
A 23-year-old Gary Player headed to Scotland in 1959 to qualify for The Open Championship. That’s right, there was not a single player exempt into the field. Qualifying took place the final two days of June and included 18 holes at Muirfield and 18 more at the number 1 course of nearby Gullane Golf Club. The maximum number of qualifiers could be 100, and ties did not qualify. When the sun set on June 30th, 90 players had a spot in The Open, which teed off the next morning at Muirfield.
Player found himself outside the top 10 after the first two days of the three-day event – the final day was 36 holes – after beginning his championship with rounds of 75-71. A 2-under-par 70 in the third round moved Player into a tie for 10th and pulled him within four shots of the leaders, Fred Bullock and Sam King, with 18 more holes to play that afternoon.
King would shoot a final-round 76, with Bullock bettering him by just two shots over the final 18 holes. The poor play from the leaders left the door open for Player to fire a final-round 4-under 68 to win by two shots, claiming the first of his nine major championships and the £1,000 prize that came with it.
1966 – Jack Nicklaus
The Golden Bear had five major championships to his name when he headed across the pond in 1966 for The Open Championship at Muirfield, but was still in search of the career Grand Slam. It was the first time The Open was played over the course of four days as opposed to three, making the 54-hole leader – Phil Rodgers – the first player to ever sleep on the 54-hole lead at The Open. The event was contested Wednesday through Saturday and wouldn’t change to a Thursday through Sunday schedule until 1980.
Nicklaus was alone at the top of the leaderboard at the halfway point, but a third-round 75 dropped him two shots back of Rodgers headed into the final round. Arnold Palmer entered Saturday just two shots further back of Nicklaus.
A final-round 1-under 70 was enough for Nicklaus to leapfrog Rodgers and ultimately win his first claret jug by one shot over Doug Sanders and Dave Thomas.
The eventual 18-time major champion loved Muirfield so much, that when he decided to develop a championship golf course in 1974, he named it “Muirfield Village,” which now hosts The Memorial, an annual stop on the PGA Tour’s calendar.
1987 – Nick Faldo
Nick Faldo turned 30 years old on July 18, 1987. The next day, he hoisted the claret jug for what was the first of his three Open victories and six major championships. It was the first win by an Englishman at The Open since Tony Jacklin won it in 1969.
Faldo opened in 3-under 68 to sit T-5 after Thursday’s first round, and that was as low as he would find himself on the leaderboard all week.
Through 54 holes, Faldo was 5 under par and just a shot behind overnight leader, Paul Azinger.
An even-par 71 in the final round in tough conditions was enough for Faldo to claim the crown, as Azinger finished just a shot behind with a final-round 73.
It was a star-studded leaderboard, with other big names finishing inside the top 10, including Ben Crenshaw, Payne Stewart, Tom Watson, Nick Price, Craig Stadler and Ian Woosnam.
Faldo enjoyed his week at the famous course so much that he showed back up in 1992 – the next playing of The Open at Muirfield – and lifted the claret jug once again.
2002 – Ernie Els
Tiger Woods was a massive favorite entering the 2002 Open Championship. He had captured seven of the previous 11 majors, including that year’s Masters and U.S. Open.
Along came mother nature and Ernie Els.
Els was a two-time major champion, having won the U.S. Open in 1994 and ’97, and the sweet-swinging South African was tied for the lead at the halfway point with four other players, all of whom were just two shots clear of Woods when the grounds cleared Friday night.
Saturday, however, was survival of the fittest. A front came through, bringing with it sideways rain and bitter cold.
The result for Woods was a shocking 10-over 81, the first time he failed to break 80 in his professional career.
That opened the door for another of the game’s greats to focus on the task at hand without having to worry about Woods catching fire, which he so often did.
Els was happy to walk through that door, shooting a third-round 1-over 72. Par was relative that day, as The Big Easy went from T-1 to a two-stroke lead heading into the final round despite dropping a shot on that cold Saturday.
It wouldn’t be a coast to the finish line, though, for Els. He could manage only a 1-under-par 70 in Sunday’s easier conditions, leaving him tied with Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet at the end of regulation.
The four players would head to a four-hole aggregate playoff, which resulted in Appleby and Elkington being eliminated, and Els and Levet heading to sudden death.
Levet could only muster a bogey after finding a fairway bunker with his tee shot, and Els got up-and-down from a greenside bunker to capture his first claret jug.
It was, and still is, the only major championship that has had a four-way playoff.
2013 – Phil Mickelson
43-year-old Phil Mickelson showed up to Muirfield in 2013 still chasing his first Open Championship. It was easily the major where lefty had the least success in his career to that point, owning just two top-5 finishes in 19 previous appearances.
Mickelson did come in with confidence, though, having won the Scottish Open the week prior.
Zach Johnson led after Day 1 at 5 under par, but that was as low as the scores would get all week.
As it often does in Scotland, mother nature decided to make an appearance, which kept Mickelson in contention headed to the weekend despite a second-round 74 that took him out of the top 10.
It still looked like a long shot, but Mickelson was within striking distance after a third-round 72 left him at 2 over for the tournament, five shots back of Lee Westwood, who was in front by two through 54 holes.
Then, everything came up Mickelson Sunday afternoon at Muirfield.
Westwood faltered with a 4-over 75. Tiger Woods and Hunter Mahan, who both entered the final round two shots back of Westwood, shot 74 and 75, respectively.
In fact, the only other player to finish in the top 10 and break 70 that day was Ian Poulter, who finished T-3 after a Sunday 67.
It was a near flawless final-round 5-under 66 for Mickelson, as six birdies – including at 17 and 18 – were offset by just one bogey.
What started as a five-shot deficit ended in a three-shot victory for Mickelson to capture his fifth major championship and the third leg of the career Grand Slam.