Wednesday, July 17

The Wall Street Caddy: The Open at Royal Portrush and the Legacy of Allan Robertson

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By Mark Vigil

Guest contributor Mark Vigil is The Wall Street Caddy.

FOR ONLY THE SECOND TIME, The Open Championship, often referred to as the British Open, will be held outside of Great Britain. This year the tournament will be played in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, the host in 1951.

The fact that the tournament is being hosted at a venue outside of Great Britain has flamed the annual debate in the golf world, and the related teeth gnashing and Imperial pride as to the tournament's proper name.

Is it the British Open or The Open Championship? A London sportswriter is so aghast the event is not being hosted in Great Britain that he called it the United Kingdom Open!

Royal Portrush originally opened for play in 1891 and was christened a "Royal" in 1895 by the Prince of Wales. The current routing, the Dunluce Links, bears little resemblance to the original layout. From 1929-1932 Harry Colt re-designed the course, bringing to life a classic links challenge which meanders amongst the dunes and is populated with jaw-dropping views of the Antrim coastline.

Harry Colt was the first true golf course designer who was not a golfer; he was a lawyer by trade. In 1919 Colt worked with George Crump to design Pine Valley Golf Club in America, and in 1928 he partnered with Charles Alison, John Morrison and Alister MacKenzie to form Colt, Alison & Morrison Ltd., working their magic on over 300 golf courses worldwide.

Portrush is a quant seaside village located in County Antrim, and home to the Giant's Causeway, a geological wonder comprised of over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. Despite Colt's gem at the Dunluce Links, it is the Giant's Causeway that brings visitors to Portrush.

According to Irish mythology, the Giant's Causeway was built by two giants, the Irish hero Fion Mac Fionn and the Scottish giant Benandonner. Apparently, Benandonner challenged Fion to a duel and each giant built part of the Causeway over the northern channel to wage battle. Legend has it that Fion defeated Benandonner, and as Benandonner retreated to Scotland, he smashed the Causeway to prevent Fion from pursuing him. There is an identical matching causeway located in Scotland on the Isle of Staffa at Fingal's Cave formed by the same geological lava flow.

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The first time outside of Great Britain was in 1951 when the R&A hosted the Open at Royal Portrush. Max Faulkner hoisted the Claret Jug that year with a winning score of 285.

An interesting side note is the Claret Jug is not the original trophy. Nope, a Challenge Belt was awarded to the winner who was deemed the champion golfer of the year. Upon the tournament's inception, it was agreed that if anyone won the event three times in a row, they could keep the Challenge Belt.

In 1870 Young Tom Morris accomplished this feat (he won four times in a row!) and a new trophy was needed. The three clubs in the Open rota, Preswick, the R&A, and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, each contributed £10 to fund the cost of a new trophy, the Claret Jug, which is inscribed "The Golf Champion Trophy." It was made by Mackay Cunningham & Company of Edinburgh, and it was first awarded in 1873.

The Open tournament and the Challenge Belt's genesis are due to the unexpected death of Allan Robertson in 1859 at 43 from an attack of jaundice.

His death left unanswered as to who was the best golfer in the land. As such, in 1860 an "Open" tournament was organized and held at Prestwick, a 12-hole gem designed by Old Tom Morris, to crown Allan Robertson's heir as the Champion Golfer of the Year.

Twelve combatants played three rounds. Willie Park Sr. prevailed with a winning score of 174.

Allan Robertson (1815-1859) was Custodian of the Green at the Links of St. Andrews (only called the Old Course after 1895 when the New Course opened for play). Robertson was the preeminent feathery golf ball maker of his day, and without a doubt he was the best golfer of his era.

Allan Robertson
In 1843 Robertson famously defeated Willie Dunn Sr. in a challenge match played over 20 rounds in 10 days. Oral history tells us Robertson never lost a challenge match. For many years he teamed with Old Tom Morris, defeating all comers in foursomes. They were known as "The Invincibles." This partnership enabled both Robertson and Morris to elevate their financial status from near poverty into the Victorian middle class, another amazing feat! Robertson was also the first golfer to break 80 on the Links at St. Andrews.

Unfortunately, many golfers have never heard of Allan Robertson, nor do they appreciate his contributions to the grand game. Thankfully, the R&A has appropriately honored Allan Robertson by naming its new, state-of-the-art research and design center the Allan Robertson House.

However, it is the Open Championship which represents Allan Robertson's true legacy. So, is it the United Kingdom Open this year, the British Open, or The Open Championship?

Personally, I believe it does not matter. If it was up to me, I would call it the Allan Robertson Classic.

Mark Vigil is founder of Class 5 Advisors LLC, an advisory firm. He is a master caddy, and he is also a passionate links golf enthusiast who has traveled extensively throughout Scotland seeking out links courses. He is currently writing a book entitled, Searching for the Spirit of Old Tom Morris. You can follow Mark on Instagram at #golfbyrails

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