Willie Park, Sr. was the first Open Champion. Born in Musselburgh, he was a rising star in golf by the age of 20 after starting out as a caddie and rising through the ranks. Since equipment was costly, Park used a curved stick as a makeshift club to master his long drive and learn to putt. His accurate putting was the envy of the course when he graduated to real clubs.
In 1860, Park won the inaugural Open Championship at Prestwick organized after Allan Robertson’s death. The field of eight included his rival Tom Morris, Sr. Although Morris was the crowd favorite, Park won the Championship by two strokes. There was no monetary reward, but the winner held the Challenge Belt for a year and after three consecutive wins, was allowed to keep it. Morris gained revenge by defeating Park by four strokes the following year and beating him in the Open again in 1862 and 1867.
Park rallied by defeating Morris in 1863 and 1875 and went on to win the Open title in 1866. The Championship provided a surge of media attention to the game and the tense matches between Park and Morris fueled even greater public interest. As the rivalry between Park and Morris grew, the two golfers played a marathon 144 holes in Park’s home town of Musselburgh. With only one hole separating them, Morris walked off in a rage during the match claiming the locals had been kicking his ball into the rough.
As St Andrews became the center of golf and Musselburgh gradually fell from favor, Tom Morris, Sr.’s career soared while Park’s faded. But his family carried on the family tradition. Park’s brother Mungo won the Open in 1874 and his son Willie Park, Jr. won the Open Championship in 1887 and 1889. The ongoing rivalry between Morris and Park remains not only one of golf’s great legends, but symbolizes the intense competition between St Andrews and the surrounding clubs during the early days of the game.