PictureThe Open Championship was first played on 17 October 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. The inaugural tournament was restricted to professionals and attracted a field of eight Scottish golfers,[1] who played three rounds of Prestwick's twelve-hole course in a single day. Willie Park, Sr. won with a score of 174, beating the favourite Old Tom Morris, by two strokes. The following year the tournament was opened to amateurs; eight of them joined ten professionals in the field.

Prestwick Golf Club, the venue for the first Open Championship in 1860. Willie Park, Sr. wearing the Championship Belt, the winner's prize at The Open from 1860 to 1870. Originally, the trophy presented to the event's winner was the Champion's Belt, a red leather belt with a silver buckle. There was no prize money in the first three Opens. In 1863, a prize fund of £10 was introduced, which was shared between the second- third- and fourth-placed professionals, with the Champion still just getting to keep the belt for a year. In 1864 Old Tom Morris won the first Champion's cash prize of £6. By 2004, the winner's cheque had increased one hundred and twenty thousandfold to £720,000, or perhaps two thousandfold after allowing for inflation. The Champions Belt was retired in 1870, when Young Tom Morris was allowed to keep it for winning the tournament three consecutive times. Due to having no prize, the tournament was cancelled in 1871. In 1872, after Young Tom Morris won again for a still-unmatched fourth time in a row, he was awarded a medal. The present trophy, The Golf Champion Trophy, better known by its popular name of the Claret Jug, was then created.

Prestwick administered The Open from 1860 to 1870. In 1871, it agreed to organise it jointly with The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. In 1892 the event was doubled in length from 36 to 72 holes, four rounds of what was by then the standard complement of 18 holes. In the same year the prize fund reached £100. The 1894 Open was the first one held outside Scotland, at the Royal St George's Golf Club in England. Because of an increasing number of entrants, a cut was introduced after two rounds in 1898. In 1920 full responsibility for The Open Championship was handed over to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club.

The early winners were all Scottish professionals, who in those days worked as greenkeepers, clubmakers, and caddies to supplement their modest winnings from championships and challenge matches. The Open has always been dominated by professionals, with only six victories by amateurs, all of which occurred between 1890 and 1930. The last of these was Bobby Jones's third Open and part of his celebrated Grand Slam. Jones was one of six Americans who won The Open between the First and Second World Wars, the first of whom had been Walter Hagen in 1922. These Americans and the French winner of the 1907 Open, Arnaud Massy, were the only winners from outside Scotland and England up to 1939.

The first post-World War II winner was the American Sam Snead, in 1946. In 1947, Northern Ireland's Fred Daly was victorious. While there have been many English and Scottish champions, Daly was the only winner from Ireland until the 2007 victory by Pádraig Harrington. There has never been a Welsh champion. In the early postwar years The Open was dominated by golfers from the Commonwealth, with South African Bobby Locke and Australian Peter Thomson winning the Claret Jug in nine of the 11 championships from 1948 and 1958 between them. During this period, The Open often had a schedule conflict with the match-play PGA Championship, which meant that Ben Hogan, the best American golfer at this time, competed in The Open just once, in 1953 at Carnoustie, a tournament he won.

Another South African, Gary Player was Champion in 1959. This was at the beginning of the "Big Three" era in professional golf, the three players in question being Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer first competed in 1960, when he came second to the little-known Australian Kel Nagle, but he won the two following years. While he was far from being the first American to become Open Champion, he was the first that many Americans saw win the tournament on television, and his charismatic success is often credited with persuading leading American golfers to make The Open an integral part of their schedule, rather than an optional extra. The improvement of trans-Atlantic travel also increased American participation.

Nicklaus' victories came in 1966, 1970 and 1978. This tally of three wins is not very remarkable, and indeed he won all of the other three majors more often, but it greatly understates how prominent he was at the tournament throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He finished in the top five 16 times, which is tied most in Open history with John Henry Taylor and easily the most in the postwar era. This included seven second places, which is the record. Nicklaus holds the records for most rounds under par (61) and most aggregates under par (14). At Turnberry in 1977 he was involved in one of the most celebrated contests in golf history, when his duel with Tom Watson went to the final shot before Watson emerged as the champion for the second time with a record score of 268 (12 under par).

Watson won five Opens, more than anyone else has since the 1950s, but his final win in 1983 brought down the curtain on an era of U.S. domination. In the next 11 years there was only one American winner, with the others coming from Europe and the Commonwealth. The European winners of this era, Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, who was the first Scottish winner in over half a century, and the Englishman Nick Faldo, were also leading lights among the group of players who began to get the better of the Americans in the Ryder Cup during this period.

In 1995, The Open became part of the PGA Tour's official schedule. John Daly's playoff win over Italian Costantino Rocca began another era of American domination. Tiger Woods has won three Championships to date, two at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005, and one at Hoylake in 2006. There was a dramatic moment at St Andrews in 2000, as the ageing Jack Nicklaus waved farewell to the crowds, while the young challenger to his crown watched from a nearby tee; Nicklaus afterward decided to play in the 2005 Open when the R&A announced St Andrews as the venue, giving his final farewell to the fans at the Home of Golf. In 2002, all Open wins before 1995 were retroactively classified as PGA Tour wins. Recent years have been notable for the number of wins by previously obscure golfers, including Paul Lawrie's playoff win after the epic 72nd-hole collapse of Jean van de Velde in 1999, Ben Curtis in 2003 and Todd Hamilton in 2004. All three missed the cut when defending the title the following year, as did Mark Calcavecchia in 1990 and Mark O'Meara in 1999.

In 2007, the Europeans finally broke an eight-year drought in the majors when Pádraig Harrington of the Republic of Ireland defeated Sergio García by one stroke in a four-hole playoff at Carnoustie. In 2008 at Royal Birkdale, Harrington retained the Claret Jug with a final round of 69 to win the tournament by four shots from Ian Poulter, with a total of 283 (+3) after 72 holes. In 2009, 59-year-old Tom Watson turned in one of the most remarkable performances ever seen at The Open. Leading the tournament through 71 holes and needing just a par on the last hole to win, Watson bogeyed, setting up a four-hole playoff, which he would lose by six shots to Stewart Cink. In 2010, Rory McIlroy set a new record for best opening round of an Open Championship, shooting a 9-under-par 63 at St Andrews.