Willie Park Sr.: Golf's Very First Major Champion

golfer Willie Park Sr portrait circa 1850s
The British Open debuted all the way back in 1860, and Willie Park Sr. was its very first champion. He won the tournament three times in its first seven years, and later added a fourth victory.

Full name: William Park Sr.

Date of birth: June 30, 1833

Place of birth: Wallyford, East Lothian, Scotland

Date and place of death: July 25, 1903 in Levenhall, Musselburgh, Scotland

Nickname: Was often, in his time, called "Old Willie Park" (or "Auld Willie") to distinguish him from his son, Willie Park Jr. Unlike Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, however, we generally don't refer to the father-and-son Parks as Old and Young today, but rather as Senior and Junior.

Park's British Open Wins and Other Finishes

Willie Park Sr. was the very first Open Championship winner and, therefore, golf's very first major championship winner. In the tournament's earliest years, Park and Old Tom Morris traded off victories; Park won three of the first seven years, and he was the winner or runner-up in seven of the tournament's first eight years. In those years, Park won in 1860, 1863 and 1866, and finished second in 1861, 1862, 1865 and 1867.

Park also finished fourth in 1864 and 1868. He skipped it in 1869, finished sixth in 1870, and finally, in 1874, had his first finish outside the Top 10, placing 13th. But then he won his fourth British Open title in 1875, when he was 34 years old. It proved to be his last.

Park was third in 1876, and had four more Top 10 finishes after that, last in 1882. His last time playing the Open was in 1886. These are Park's four wins:

  • 1860 British Open: The very first Open Championship ever played, and Park won it by two strokes over Old Tom Morris. (All of Park's Open wins were by two-stroke margins.) Park reached the final green needing two putts to win, three for a playoff, and faced a 30-footer. With the bumpy conditions of greens at the time, that margin was not really a safe one. But Park didn't need two putts at all — he rapped that 30-footer right into the hole.
  • 1863 British Open: Park built a four-stroke lead over Morris with a 54 (over the 12-hole Prestwick) to Morris' 58 in Round 2, and once again won by two over Old Tom.
  • 1866 British Open: Willie's first-round 54 was the low score of the tournament, and he led by five after two rounds (24 holes). The runner-up was Willie's brother, Davie Park.
  • 1875 British Open: Park's first win in nine years, and his last. His fourth title matched Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris (neither of whom played this year) for the tournament best. Park's final-round 51 (all four of his wins were at Prestwick) was the tournament-best. Bob Martin was the runner-up, and Park's brother Mungo Park, the defending champion, was third.

Overall, Park had 15 Top 10 finishes in the Open Championship. As for his four-second place finishes, they were by four strokes to Old Tom Morris in 1861; by 13 strokes to Morris in 1862; by two to Andrew Strath in 1865; and by two to Old Tom in 1867.

More About Willie Park Sr.

Willie Park was born near Musselburgh, where his father had a farm, and the golfing Park family, after Willie became famous, became synonymous for a while with the Musselburgh links. Willie became a caddie on those links, and fashioned his first golf club as a young boy by carving a stick.

As a boy, Park was a familiar sight making putts on the so-called "baker's holes," a 4-hole practice green at Musselburgh.He developed the putting prowess there that later became one of his hallmarks, with a personal best score on the 4-hole arrangement of 5.

Willie's entry into the game through caddying is of historical significance: He is ofted referred to as the first great golfer to come out of the caddie ranks, as opposed to the club- and ball-making trades. (Much later in life, he started a club- and ball-making business, though.)

Willie Park Sr circa 1860 wearing the British Open Championship Belt

As he reached adulthood, Park grew into a tall, lanky frame, and he was able to use that frame to generate great length (relative to his time). According to the website of Prestwick Golf Club, Allan Robertson, by acclaim the greatest golfer of the pre-Open era, once said that, "Willie frightens us with his long driving."

The strengths of his game were his driving and his putting, and he was aggressive about both. His weakness was a penchant for over-aggressiveness that often got him into trouble with, say, an errant drive or a putt run far past the hole. He was also considered sub-par with iron-headed clubs.

In Peter Alliss' 1983 The Who's Who of Golf, Alliss wrote that Park Sr. "was regarded as the best putter of his day." In an obituary of Park published in Golf Illustrated, Scottish amateur A.H. Doleman, who knew Park and played against him, wrote that Park "was not merely good, not merely excellent, but brilliant" as a putter.

In the 1975 reference book The Encyclopedia of Golf, the authors called Park "a brilliant shotmaker and daring player."

Brashness, in his golfing and in his personality, was common from Park. One of the first times he generated press was in 1853, when he issued a public challenge for a match to Robertson. Robertson declined (although they faced each other in team matches several times).

When Robertson died unexpectedly in 1859, a debate emerged in Britain over who now deserved the title formerly reserved for Robertson — best golfer in the world. To settle that question, a new, national championship was created for 1860. That is how the Open Championship came to be. And, in 1860, Willie Park Sr. claimed the title of "champion golfer of the year" for himself.

But the brand-new Open Championship wasn't the competition format that generated the most news in that era. Challenge matches (basically, exhibitions on which a lot of betting money was placed, by spectators and participants alike) were the biggest thing going.

And Willie Park Sr. and Old Tom Morris were (after Robertson's death) the biggest names in challenge matches. The senior Park and Morris had a rivalry that last decades, and that other family members joined. The rivalry became even more famous after Young Tom Morris became a formidable golfer beginning at age 14. Willie and his brother Mungo often faced the Morrisses, Senior and Junior, in challenge matches, and Willie earned quite a bit more money from such matches over the years than from tournament golf.

It was during a match between the side of Willie and his brother Mungo Park vs. Tom Morris Sr. and Tommy Morris Jr. that Young Tom Morris received a telegram notifying him of his wife's death following childbirth.

As evidenced by his public challenge to Robertson back in the 1850s, Park was unafraid of issuing (or accepting) challenges. According to theopen.com, the official website of The Open Championship, "For 20 years he issued a standing challenge that he would take anyone in the world on for £100 — even playing left-handed or while standing on one leg."

Park Sr. was known as a tough, stern competitor on the golf course. Doleman (brother of William Doleman), in the Golf Illustrated obituary, wrote of Park that "when he played a match it was never merely for people's amusement, never a matter of indifference whether he won or lost, but a serious, stern reality. ... 'Auld Willie' could not play a slack match, a mere friendly match. With him it was always death or glory."

The last big money match Park and Morris played against each other, one vs. one, was in 1882 at Musselburgh. That was Park's home course, and Morris and the match referee became incensed at what they claimed was tampering with Morris' ball by partisans of Park. Old Tom and the ref called a halt and headed to the local pub, while Park waited on the course for them to return. After some time passed, Park sent word into the pub that if Morris didn't return and finish the match, Park would play out the holes alone and claim the prize money. And that's what he did.

The Park Family

Willie Park Sr. had two brothers who were well-known golfers themselves, and his son, Willie Park Jr., was quite famous as a golfer and later as a golf course designer. Brother Mungo Park won the 1874 British Open and had four other Top 10 finishes. Brother Davie Park had five Top 6 finishes in the Open, including runner-up to Willie in 1866.

Willie Park Jr., like his old man, was famous in his time for his prowess with the putter. And, like his old man, he was an Open Championship winner. Willie Jr. won the 1887 British Open and 1889 British Open, and had 10 other Top 8 finishes. Willie Jr. also became one of the first full-time golf course designers, one of the first "star" architects. His most famous designs include Sunningdale's Old Course near London and the Evian course in France; and, in the United States, Maidstone Club in New York, New Haven Country Club in Connecticut, and Olympia Fields in Chicago.

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