Above: Bob Charles’ best performance in four appearances at Birkdale was a tie for 18th in 1971 when Lee Trevino became the fourth man to complete the US Open/British Open double in the same year.
The year 1954 is significant in the history of New Zealand golf. In November ’54, an 18-year-old amateur named Bob Charles stunned a field that included reigning British Open champion Peter Thomson to win the New Zealand Open.
A few months earlier, the inaugural Commonwealth Amateur Teams tournament was staged at St Andrews with teams from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and South Africa taking part.
Many of the golfers who took part in that event tried to qualify for the British Open at Royal Birkdale, and one of the New Zealanders –Ron Timms from the St Clair Golf Club in Dunedin – made it into the final field.
There had been previous instances of New Zealand players trying to qualify for the Open, and of New Zealand-based professionals of British origin successfully qualifying. (For example, Auckland-based professional Alex Murray tied for 76th in 1949). But in the Open’s official records Timms is recognised as the first man to play in the tournament proper as a representative of New Zealand.
This 1954 championship was the first Open at Birkdale. Timms started with an 80, but on the second day, when only the Englishman Syd Scott broke 70, he carded a highly respectable 72 to miss the cut by just a shot. The next day Peter Thomson became the first Australian to win the championship. In the ensuing years Birkdale developed a reputation as a course where British Open history is made.
Never was this more true than in 1961, the second Open at Birkdale, when the great American Arnold Palmer won the first of his two claret jugs. Palmer’s pivotal role in re-establishing the tournament as a true Major is undeniable. This was Bob Charles’ second British Open, and as with his first (in 1958) he missed the cut, but few recognised at the time a base was being built. Charles was fifth at Troon in 1962 and then champion, after a playoff with American Phil Rodgers, at Lytham in 1963. He was the first New Zealander to win the Open and the first left-hander. Little wonder the British papers called him ‘Charles the First’.
Charles’ British Open record is far superior to any other New Zealand golfer — featuring one win, two seconds and three other top-10 finishes. His best performance in four appearances at Birkdale was a tie for 18th in 1971 when Lee Trevino became the fourth man (after Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan) to complete the US Open/British Open double in the same year.
In 1971, five New Zealanders (Charles, John Lister, Walter Godfrey, Alastair Palmer and Alan Snape) made the Open field, a record at the time and later matched in 1998 at Birkdale (Greg Turner, Michael Campbell, Michael Long, Frank Nobilo and Steven Alker) and 1999 at Carnoustie (Nobilo, Campbell, Long, Turner and 63-year-old Charles) but never beaten. In the most recent Open at Birkdale, in 2008, New Zealand was represented in the final field by Campbell (T51) and David Smail (missed cut).
Turner’s T15 finish behind Mark O’Meara in 1998 remains the best by a New Zealander in an Open at Birkdale. His opening round 68, which put him three behind joint leaders Tiger Woods and John Huston, is still the low round by a Kiwi at Birkdale. Nobilo, who shot 69 on the final day in 1991, is the only other New Zealander to break 70 at Birkdale during an Open.
In 2017, reigning New Zealand Open champion Michael Hendry and Ryan Fox will become the 20th and 21st New Zealand golfers since Ron Timms to appear in a British Open, and the 16th and 17th to play an Open at Birkdale. It will be Hendry’s first Major and Fox’s second Major after a T-49 at the 2015 British Open.
Ominously, only one Kiwi has made his Open debut at Birkdale and reached the final round: Ross Newdick, who finished 46th in 1965. More promisingly, the only golfer to win the New Zealand and British Opens in the same year — Peter Thomson in 1965 — won the British title at Birkdale.
Perhaps most encouragingly of all, consider the names of the winners of the New Zealand Open in the years the British Open was staged at Birkdale:
1954: Bob Charles
1961: Peter Thomson
1965: Peter Thomson
1971: Peter Thomson
1976: Simon Owen
1983: Ian Baker-Finch
1991: Rodger Davis
1998: Matthew Lane
2008: No tournament
Charles, Thomson and Baker-Finch were past or future British Open champions. Owen might have missed the cut at his only Open appearance at Birkdale in 1976, but he did tie for second behind Jack Nicklaus at St Andrews two years later. Davis was tied for second behind Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1987. Lane never appeared in a British Open.
Seven times the winner of the New Zealand Open in the year the British Open was played at Birkdale had enjoyed or would enjoy a win or second-place finish at the British Open.
History or coincidence?
Maybe a prelude for Michael Hendry.