Royal Birkdale was back in Open action in 1961 when Arnold Palmer, a.k.a. ‘The King,’ the man credited with saving what had become an ailing event, crossed the Atlantic to lift the Claret Jug at just the second time of asking, having finished runner-up on debut at St. Andrews and going on to successfully defend at Royal Troon the following year.
Royal Birkdale enjoyed the honour of hosting the 100th staging Open Championship, in 1961 when ‘Super Mex,’ Lee Trevino took the course apart in favorable conditions before going on to continue the theme of launching a successful defence at Muirfield in 1962.
The ‘Blonde Bombshell,’ American Johnny Miller, who has become one of the televised golf’s most respected pundits won the Open at Birkdale in 1976, but there was no successful defence, Tom Watson edging out Jack Nicklaus the following year at Turnberry in the epic ‘Duel in the Sun.’
Watson himself was to successfully defend his 1982 victory at Royal Troon with victory at Royal Birkdale the following year, while Thomson’s compatriot Ian Baker-Finch was to lift the Claret Jug at the Lancashire Links in1991.
American Mark O’Meara won the 1998 Open Championship at Birkdale, the only one of the nine championships held there to date to require a play-off, before, a decade later, Irishman Pádraig Harrington came to Royal Birkdale to defend the title he had won the previous year in a dramatic playoff against Sergio García at Carnoustie.
If Harrington’s victory was memorable, the genial Irishman whose amiability disguises a fierce will-to-win, saying afterwards with Claret Jug in hand, “I had a great year as the Open champion, so much so I did not want to give it back." Then the shot that clinched it for him was truly momentous, a low cutting five-wood to within three-feet on the 575-yard, Par-5, 17th, putt holed, eagle three, the job was done.
Playing with an injured wrist, with Ryder Cup teammate Ian Poulter on the charge, and his playing partner, the legendary Greg Norman was also in serious contention. Harrington was under pressure with a capricious wind blowing on the toughest hole on the golf course. If there has been a better single shot in the history of ‘Major’ golf, I’ve to see it.
But, can Harrington turn back the clock and win a third Open Championship, and a second at Birkdale this year?
Probably not, as he is showing few signs of form, but returning to the scene of an epic victory can often spur a player on to great things - at 165th on the OWGR, 45-years-of-age, anything is possible.
His compatriots, notably Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry look better equipped than the man with three ‘Major’ titles already to his name, although McIlroy now needs another Open Championship more than the Open needs him to win it, especially following his capitulation at the U.S. Open last month.