Ask a hundred golfers to rank the best Open Championship venues, and you’ll probably get a wide range of responses.
We asked three-time Ryder Cup captain and Golf Care ambassador Bernard Gallacher to do just that. Here’s what he said…
1. St Andrews – Old, Fife
St Andrews is just one of those places that’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
How many golfers would choose the Old if they could only play one course for the rest of their lives? A very large number, you imagine, for this is the home of golf—where the great game has been played since the 15th century.
With its double greens, crossovers and gaping bunkers, there’s nowhere else quite like it in the world. Throw all that history into the mix, its famous landmarks and iconic holes, and you have golf’s undisputed number one golf course, never mind the best Open Championship venue.
This is the most popular of all the courses on the Open rota for both players and spectators. The Old Course is the quintessential seaside links course, with its iconic double greens, wide fairways, cavernous bunkers, and a capricious North Sea wind that’s ready to spring up at any time.
It’s my favourite course in the world!
2. Royal Liverpool
Royal Liverpool (or Hoylake, as it’s often referred) has hosted The Open 13 times, including 2023. One of the most historic golf clubs in the country, there aren’t many better as far as Open Championship venues are concerned.
At the tip of the Wirral peninsula and set on fairly flat ground, it may lack the dramatic views other Open Championship venues, but it’s no less mesmerising and makes wonderful use of its natural contours.
Royal Liverpool returned to the Open fold in 2006 after a 39-year gap.
It’s mostly a Harry Colt designed course, but Donald Steel, Martin Hawtree, and, more recently, Martin Ebert have all updated the course over the years to create today’s masterpiece.
It’s a true links course with fast fairways, penal rough, and excellent greens.
The course always produces outstanding winners—Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Peter Thompson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to name a few.
3. Muirfield, East Lothian
For many, Muirfield, which first hosted The Open way back in 1892, offers the fairest test of all the Open Championship venues. Two circuits of nine rotate in opposite directions, the back nine looping inside the front nine, ensuring that golfers never face the same wind direction on two consecutive holes.
The layout might be slightly unusual for a Scottish links course, but it’s near-perfect—a little eccentric, maybe, but a masterpiece nonetheless, with the fairways and hazards beautifully designed. Then there’s the clubhouse, which, like the course, has its own special atmosphere.
The golf course, which was originally laid out by Old Tom Morris, lies on the southern banks of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian.
It’s always a difficult test for the best golfers in the world with its narrow fairways, impenetrable rough, and fast greens.
Jack Nicklaus won the first of his three Opens here in 1966 (completing his Grand Slam in the process) and named his course in America Muirfield Village to commemorate the occasion.
I also have fond memories of Muirfield myself, having won the inaugural Scottish Stroke Play Championship here in 1967—when I was just 17. How time flies!
4. Trump Turnberry Resort – Ailsa, South Ayrshire
Any mention of Turnberry and it’s hard not to picture 1977’s famous ‘Duel in the Sun’, when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson went head-to-head for the Claret Jug. Watson edged it, of course, but he did suffer heartbreak here, too, when in 2009, aged 59, he lost a play-off against Stewart Cink.
The Ailsa course features one of the most spectacular par-3s on the Open rota—the par-3 9th, in particular, which plays over the cliffs and crags to a green right by the famous lighthouse.
Some of the holes by the sea here will take your breath away, as will the halfway hut, which isn’t your typical stopover. We’re talking serious wow-factor from start to finish.
This very scenic course on the banks of the Firth of Clyde overlooks the Isle of Arran.
The Ailsa Course has hosted four Opens, with the most famous by far being the 1977 Duel in the Sun when Tom Watson held off Jack Nicklaus to win by a stroke. The two golfers were so far ahead of the rest of the field that Hubert Green, who finished third, was 11 strokes behind the winner!
5. Carnoustie, Angus
If you like a tough test, they don’t come much sterner than ‘Car-nasty’. This is where Jean van de Velde succumbed to the treacherous 18th hole in 1999, and no doubt many more will fall victim to this brute in the future.
Weak holes simply don’t exist on this Angus links, where the narrow fairways are protected by gorse, streams and devilish bunkers. It might lack the spectacular sea views that some of the other Open Championship venues can boast, but there’s arguably nowhere better to test your game. The finishing stretch will live long in the memory, that’s for sure.
In my opinion, Carnoustie is the toughest of all the Open courses. A long course with narrow fairways and penal rough, Carnoustie has a flat surface that’s exposed to the vagaries of the wind, which just adds to the difficulty.
It’s the only course on the Open rota where water comes into play over the final holes. The infamous Barry Burn caused countless problems for Jean van de Velde here back in 1999!
The signature hole is the par-5 sixth hole, renamed Hogan’s Alley after Ben Hogan’s Open victory in 1953, when he fearlessly skirted the out of bounds on the left every day with his drive to give himself the best approach to the green.
6. Royal Birkdale, Southport
The North West of England is a links hotbed, with an array of excellent courses supplementing its three Open Championship venues—although not everyone will agree how the trio should be ranked.
Royal Birkdale first hosted The Open in 1954, and has since become the second most regular venue behind St Andrews. This venue is blessed with some of the most stunning dunes in the country, which frame the holes beautifully—anyone who plays here will remember them—of course, alongside the par-4 1st, without doubt one of the hardest openers on the Open rota.
Royal Birkdale has hosted the Open no fewer than ten times, with the last winner being Jordan Speith in 2017.
The fairways here lie between huge sandy dunes, which act as a perfect amphitheatre for spectators. Like all seaside courses, it becomes a very tough test when the wind kicks up.
I played my first Ryder Cup here in 1969 and witnessed Jack Nicklaus conceding a two-foot putt to Tony Jacklin on the last green, meaning the match finished as a draw. This moment is still considered one of sport’s greatest gestures, and rightly so.
7. Royal Portrush – Dunluce, County Antrim
Royal Portrush is stunning, and there’s every chance those who have played it would rank it even higher than we have. Shane Lowry, who landed a famous Open victory here in 2019, might be one of those.
This Harry Colt masterpiece is characterised by towering dunes and an array of standout holes. The par-4 5th tops the lot for many—a hole where you tee off from an elevated tee before following the fairway towards the sea. In truth, every hole here feels dramatic in some way.
This course is steeped in history. Max Faulkner, a friend and early mentor of mine when I turned professional in 1968, won the Open there in 1953, and it would be another sixteen years before another British golfer, Tony Jacklin, would follow him and win the Open. Needless to say, Max dined out on his famous victory for many years!
Royal Portrush has two excellent courses, The Dunluce Links and the Valley Links.
The Dunluce Links is the Championship course, which was updated by Martin Ebert to accommodate the large crowds at the 2019 Open.
The course has many outstanding holes, but arguably the signature hole is the 16th—otherwise known as Calamity Corner. This 236-yard par-3 is played over a valley with a huge drop off to the right, played usually into the prevailing wind. It comes late in the round and has the potential to be a real card wrecker!
8. Royal St George’s, Kent
Located on the Kent coastline, this windswept links course, which is regarded as one of the strongest layouts in the UK and Ireland, will test your ball-striking and course management to the limits.
One of its best features, as well as its undulating terrain, is the fact that the holes all point in different directions. As a result, golfers face ever-changing wind directions, just to make things more interesting.
St George’s is one of the finest Open championship venues. It’s hosted the tournament many times, and some outstanding golfers have won it here—including my good friend Sandy Lyle.
In fact, he and I shared a house when he won it in 1985 and became The Champion Golfer of the Year, but I can’t claim any credit for his victory!
9. Royal Lytham & St Annes, Lancashire
Royal Lytham & St Annes is an iconic Open Championship venue that boasts many of the tournament’s most memorable moments—Seve Ballesteros’ recovery shot from the car park in 1979 to finish three shots clear, and his third Open title in 1988 being among them.
The pot bunkers and sprawling gorse will strike fear into anyone who plays here, and its difficulty cranks up a notch when the wind blows in from the Irish Sea.
This tricky course features narrow fairways and 167 strategically placed bunkers to catch wayward drives and mishit second shots.
It’s a links course but it now lies half a mile inland! The opening hole is a difficult long par-3, which is unusual. In fact, I cannot think of another Open Championship course that starts with a par-3.
Other than that, it’s a typical classic links course with the first nine holes heading away from the clubhouse and the last nine heading back.
I played Jack Nicklaus in the singles here in the 1977 Ryder Cup, and, without meaning to be too boastful, I managed to beat the ‘great man’ on the last green. It was my best Ryder Cup moment!
10. Royal Troon – Old, South Ayrshire
Royal Troon is designed in the traditional out-and-back manner of the Old Course at St Andrews. Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson put on a show here in 2016 that was reminiscent of the Watson, Nicklaus duel at Turnberry—and much of the credit for that epic showdown can be attributed to the qualities of this superb links course.
It has three distinct sections: the first six out and along the coast; the middle part a technical test through the dunes; and a tough final third that’s generally played into the wind. The standout hole? There can’t be many better short holes on the Open rota than the famous Postage Stamp.
Players needs to make their score over the first 12 holes here because the last six can be extremely long and challenging, especially into the wind.
The par-3 8th, nicknamed the Postage Stamp, is one of golf’s most famous holes. It’s only 123 yards long, but its small green steep fall off on the right and deep bunker on the left can challenge even the world’s best golfers, especially when you factor in the wind.
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