It’s hard to believe that only 14 courses in Great Britain and Northern Ireland have hosted the Open Championship considering its status as the oldest tournament in golf dating to 1860. By comparison, 53 courses have hosted its American cousin, the U.S. Open, which came along 35 years later.
Such scarcity of venues in the Open rota makes for a relatively uncomplicated exercise when assessing the unique properties of various locales. Each has its own distinguished identity, its own reputation. Some are grand, others quirky, and still others enigmatic. We can argue the merits of the Old Course at St. Andrews as a test of golf compared to Muirfield, Carnoustie or Royal Portrush, but why add to that enormous anthology of debate?
Let’s drill down to specifics. And not necessarily those pertinent to the playing of the game. With input from the Golf Digest staff, we set out to compare points of interest among the Open courses and which of them stand out as possessing the most notable traits.
The best atmosphere
An aerial view of the Old Course and into town in St. Andrews.
Winner: St. Andrews. The melding of the golf course with the town is beyond compare. It is inspiring and overwhelming.
Runner-up: Royal Troon. Combined with neighboring Prestwick, site of the first 12 Opens, the course nestled by the Firth of Clyde on the southwest coast of Scotland exudes a classical feel.
The iconic Old Course clubhouse, home of the R&A, sits just behind the first tee box.
Winner: St. Andrews. Only the best will do for the Home of Golf. Nothing surpasses in scale and grandeur than the intricately designed stone building. Few ever see the inside except members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, but the Great Room, where the lockers of the oldest members are built into the walls, echoes to the past.
Runner-up: Muirfield. Smartly designed with many windows, the clubhouse for the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is a winner with a second-tier outdoor patio and a very cool “smoking room.”
Jordan Spieth holds the claret jug after winning the 2017 Open Championship with Royal Birkdale's clubhouse behind him.
Winner: Royal Birkdale. It’s touted as one of the world’s most iconic, but art deco style doesn’t inspire in a golf setting. James Bond blew up something of a similar design in “Spectre” didn’t he?
Runner-up: Carnoustie. Yes, there are clubhouse along the road beside the 18th hole. But the one behind the 18th green that is also a hotel, well looks like it could have once been a Super 8.
Best coastal views
An aerial view of the par 3, ninth hole on the Ailsa Course at Turnberry.
Winner: Turnberry. We haven’t seen it for quite some time (2009), but the Ailsa Craig—home of microgranite from which curling stones are made—is majestic.
Runner-up: Royal Portrush. The white cliffs and the Dunluce Castle come into view on the far side of the Dunluce Course.
Quirkiest architectural feature
View from the tee on the par-4, 17th Road Hole on the Old Course with the Old Course Hotel in the distance.
Winner: St. Andrews, 17th hole. The Road Hole. There are many blind tee shots in links golf, but nowhere else does it involve navigating over a building (technically a facsimile of an old railway shed) as it does at the Road Hole, where the Old Course Hotel on the right doubles as a hazard.
Runner-up: St. Andrews, ninth hole. Described as having perhaps the flattest green in golf at a course known for its many hills, rolls and hollows.
Most famous bunker
Henrik Stenson plays out of the infamous Road Hole Bunker on the 17th green during the third round of the 2015 Open Championship.
Winner: St. Andrews, Road Hole Bunker. The round pot bunker doesn’t have a cool name like the Principal’s Nose, The Beardies or The Spectacles, but no bunker is better known—or more consistently visited.
Runners-up: St. Andrews, Hell Bunker (No. 14) and Royal Troon, Coffin Bunker (No. 8). Peril obviously awaits the visitor to either one.
An aerial of the town of Portrush from the town end of Royal Portrush Golf Club.
Winner: St. Andrews. Again. It’s a lively university town peppered with historic landmarks, golf and otherwise.
Runner-up: Portrush. Just a charming little place set on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and known for its scenery and beaches.
Best group of winners
Phil Mickelson holds the claret jug with wife Amy and children Evan, Amanda and Sophia after winning the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield in 2013.
Winner: Muirfield. It’s not just the names Nicklaus, Player, Trevino and Watson that give the nod, quite easily, to the Honourable Company. We can also throw into the mix Faldo, Els and Mickelson of recent vintage and Vardon, Hagen, Braid, Ray and Cotton from days of yore.
Runner-up: St. Andrews. The Old Course has three immortals in Jones, Nicklaus and Woods, plus Faldo and Ballesteros.
Best off-the-course history nearby (golf)
The St. Andrews Cathedral ruins on the end of town, opposite the Old Course.
Winner: St. Andrews. A visit to the cathedral ruins that contain the gravesites of Old and Young Tom Morris at the edge of town is a requisite pilgrimage.
Runner-up: Musselburgh Old. The town has produced a handful of Open winners, including Willie Park, Jr.
Best off-the-course history nearby (non-golf)
The Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles played regularly in their early years together.
Winner: Royal Liverpool. Just go find the Cavern Club, where the Beatles performed in their earliest years, and you’ve entered a cool pop-culture time capsule.
Runner-up: Royal St. George’s. The Battle of Britain, one of the most important for the Allies during World War II, took place just off the coast.
Best streaker incident
Police officers subdue a streaker on the 18th green after Peter Jacobsen tackled him during the final round at Royal St. George's in 1985.
Winner: Royal St. George’s. If Peter Jacobsen doesn’t tackle a naked guy on the home hole in 1985, this wouldn’t be that memorable. Instead, it’s a classic moment in championship golf.
Runner-up: St. Andrews. A decade later, a man named Mark Roberts put an exclamation point on John Daly’s victory by running onto the green with a plastic set of clubs over his shoulder and words “19th Hole” and an arrow etched on his back that pointed “down there.”
Toughest finishing hole
Jean Van de Velde is smiling despite finding the Barry Burn with his third shot on the final hole of the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Winner: Carnoustie. Nerve racking par 4 with so much trouble all around—just ask Jean Van de Velde—but not as fearsome since the creation of the modern golf ball.
Runner-up: Royal Portrush. The 474-yard par-4 closer features an internal out of bounds left and an angled green with a large drop off on the left.