It’s all going down at the Old Course — a modern-day Open Championship necessitates the kind of epic production process that MGM executives embarked on with Ben-Hur.
Grandstands are sprouting here and there, and the clatters, batters, and clanks of frantic industry are making more noise than Charlton Heston’s chariot race.
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods’ announcement during the Masters last weekend that he’ll be at St. Andrews for the 150th showpiece in July sparked such a frenzy that the weather vane on top of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse almost birled itself crooked.
It should be a spectacular celebration of golf’s most cherished major. When the first Open was held at Prestwick in 1860, the Herald newspaper had already been in operation for 77 years. This fine auld organ has covered every championship since then. The only omissions were the Opens of 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, and 1870, for whatever reason.
“One is tempted to suggest that the sports editor at the time should have been fired retrospectively,” wrote the late, much-missed Douglas Lowe in The Herald Book of The Open Championship. Surprisingly, some readers have suggested that the current golf writer be fired immediately.
With St. Andrews gearing up for a major milestone this summer, let’s travel back in time to 1873, when the Old Course hosted the first Open Championship.
The Claret Jug was also officially presented for the first time. The previous year, young Tom Morris, the day’s superstar, had won the title for the fourth time, but there was no trophy to give him. Prior to the 1873 championship, his name was etched on the brand-new silver pitcher.
“Winning a trophy with Tommy Morris’ name on it was a real badge of honor,” said Roger McStravick, a renowned St. Andrews golf historian.
In 1873, Tom Kidd, a 25-year-old Open debutant described as a “jut-jawed powerhouse” who won by a shot over Jamie Anderson, earned the badge of honor – and the Claret Jug. Kidd played “a strong game, but if deficient in any way it is when on the greens,” according to the Herald’s fairly modest report, which was shoehorned under news of a miners’ strike at the North Motherwell and Braidhurst collieries.
“He was almost damned by faint praise,” McStravick added.
The weather had been particularly bad in the run-up to the championship, with biblical downpours leaving pools of water all over the course.
“Of course, back then, you played it where it lay,” McStravick observed. “There was no distinction between recreational water and hazardous water.” Only under penalty could players lift themselves out of the water. A great photo from the late 1800s shows Freddie Tait playing with a floating ball. It’s difficult for some of us to hit a stationary ball, let alone one that’s bobbing around in a puddle.”
The 1873 Open was held during the Royal & Ancient’s autumn meeting. It was clearly second fiddle.
“The pros in The Open were all working class, and they were effectively getting in the way of the gentlemen’s game,” McStravick said of the haphazard setup. “It’s like saying to Tiger, ‘Please hurry up, we’ve got our own golf to play.'” Back then, there were no course closures or major preparations. It could all get a little crazy.”
Kidd triumphed with rounds of 91 and 88. He’d etched basic grooves into his iron clubs to generate more backspin, which was a trailblazing move. “That wouldn’t have sat well with the purists,” McStravick said of Kidd’s innovative efforts to get a jump on his competitors.
Along with the Claret Jug and the plaudits, Kidd’s Open victory netted him about $15. Not quite the $2 million-plus that is now given out.
“He had to pay a deposit to receive the Claret Jug,” McStravick explained. “Officials would be concerned that he’d flog it because of his working-class status.”
Kidd did not achieve great fame or fortune. He died 11 years after his victory and is buried in St. Andrews in an unmarked grave.
However, as the Old Course prepares for a very special anniversary in July, a few bunnets will be doffed to the man who was both the first St. Andrews Open champion and the first to lift the Claret Jug.
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