10 Best Golfers Ever in the British Open

Tom Watson putting on a British Open course

Who are the best golfers all-time at playing the British Open — those golfers who most excelled in this particular major championship? In this article we rank the Top 10.

You won't find any of the earliest legends of the tournament on our list, not even Young Tom Morris. That's because the fields were so small in the first couple decades of the Open's history, and scores so (relatively) high. All three members of "the Great Triumvirate" make it, however, and they all started their British Open careers in the 19th century.

We certainly do give preference to later golfers, however, who played against bigger and much deeper fields. We couldn't find room on the list, though, for four-time winner Walter Hagen and three-time champ Bobby Jones — we just didn't feel they played the tournament enough times to warrant inclusion. But we certainly respect the opinion of anyone who feels different.

Let's count them down, the greatest British Open golfers, starting and No. 10 and working our way to No. 1.

10. James Braid

Braid, along with J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon (both of whom we'll see below), made up the "Great Triumvirate" of British golfers in the late 19th/early 20th century. Between them, they won 16 Open Champions in a span of 21 tournaments from 1894 through 1914. Braid was the late bloomer of the trio, and packed his five Open wins into the shortest span — 1901 through 1910. He also had four runner-up finishes over his Open career.

9. Bobby Locke

Locke was a 4-time British Open champ from the late 1940s into the 1950s, and he also recorded eight other Top 10 finishes in the tournament, including a pair of second places. He went head-to-head with Peter Thomson for tourney domination in the 1950s, but Locke came out second-best in that showdown.

8. J.H. Taylor

From his first tournament appearance in 1893 until his 17th appearance in 1909, John Henry Taylor did not finish outside the Top 10 in a British Open. His five wins were spread over a longer period than those of his Great Triumvirate compatriots; in fact, he holds the British Open record for longest span between first and last wins (19 years). Taylor also shares the post-1900 tournament record for largest margin of victory; and had six runner-up finishes, second-most.

7. Nick Faldo

Faldo's 13 Top 10 finishes in the British Open spanned a long time period: His first was in 1978, he last in 2003. He had three victories in there, and five Top 5s, including one runner-up finish. Before Tiger Woods came along, Faldo held the tourney record for lowest winning score in relation to par.

6. Henry Cotton

Cotton won the Open three times in the 1930s and 1940s — he finished in the Top 10 in 12 of the 13 Opens played from 1930 to 1948 — but it well could have been more: In six of Cotton's prime years the Open wasn't played because of World War II. He won twice before the war and once after. Following his final win, in 1948, Cotton skipped five of the next six Opens; in the one he did play in that stretch, he finished fourth. His first British Open Top 10 was in 1927, and his last in 1958. When Cotton won his first, in 1934, he shot a then-record 65 in the second round. That score was so famous in its day that it inspired the naming of one of the best-known golf balls of its time, the Dunlop 65.

5. Tiger Woods

Through the 2013 Open, Woods had played the tournament 15 times as a pro and finished in the Top 10 in nine of those starts. That included three victories, and Woods set some scoring records in those wins. In 2000, Woods' 19-under final score set the tournament record for lowest score in relation to par (he was 18-under in winning the 2006 Open); his margin of victory in 2000 was eight strokes, tying the best since 1900. His pace has slowed since 2013 due to injuries and other issues, but Woods had another Top 10 in 2018, tying for sixth. And if Woods wins again? We'd probably jump him up to No. 3.

4. Harry Vardon

Vardon is the all-time leader in British Open wins with six. From 1894 to 1908, a span of 15 tournaments, Vardon won four times and finished no lower than ninth. He added two more victories in 1911 and 1914. Vardon was 44 years old for that last one, which remained the tournament record for oldest winner until 1967. He also finished second in four other Opens.

3. Peter Thomson

Thomson replaced Locke as the tournament's dominant player in the mid-1950s, then continued as a contender for many years to come. A 5-time champion, Thomson is the only golfer since the dawn of the 1900s to win three consecutive Opens, doing so in 1954-56. From 1952-58, Thomson finished first or second every year. And in the 21 Opens from 1951 through 1971, he was outside the Top 10 only three times. Thomson's final victory was in 1965.

2. Jack Nicklaus

Nicklaus won "only" three Opens (his fewest wins in any of the majors), so why do we have him ahead of Vardon, who won six, and Thomson, who won five? Partially, timing. Vardon played in the 1890s through the 1910s, a period when there was far, far less depth and quality in professional golf. Thomson was a generation ahead of of Nicklaus and most of his Open wins were in a period when few of the best American golfers played the Open. But Nicklaus' three wins are joined by a streak of incredible performance over time in the British Open. In the 20 Opens played from 1963 through 1982, Nicklaus finished outside the Top 10 just twice, with a worst showing of 23rd. From 1966-80, Nicklaus was in the Top 10 every year, and in the Top 5 all but one year. In addition to his three wins, Nicklaus was runner-up a tournament-record seven times.

1. Tom Watson

Surprisingly, outside of his five Open Championship wins, Watson finished in the Top 10 in only five other Opens. But he's the last (so far) of the 5-time winners, which means he did it against deeper, stronger fields. Watson won the first British Open he played, in 1975. He packed his five wins into a stretch of nine Opens, from 1975 through 1983. One of those victories is iconic in golf history: the so-called "Duel In the Sun" against Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977, when, playing together over the final two rounds, Watson shot 65-65 to Nicklaus' 65-66 to win by a stroke. Watson also had two runner-up finishes. He won his first Open in a playoff; nearly 35 years later he was in another Open playoff but lost in 2009 at the age of 59.

Photo credit: Jonathan Palombo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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