You can have the Masters and its impossible greens, the U.S. Open and its impossible rough and the PGA and its impossible dream (for the club pros, anyway). I'll take the British Open every time. It's the best major because, with players coming from all over the globe, the British is golf's only true world championship.
I also prefer the Open because, unlike the stately Masters or the stultifying PGA and U.S. Open, the British is unpredictable. The weather can be numbingly cold but is sometimes blazing hot. For every showdown featuring legends like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, who went head-to-head over the final 36 holes at Turnberry in '77, there's a duel between unlikely, but equally compelling protagonists, such as the playoff at the Old Course in '95 mat pitted John Daly against Costantino Rocca.
Something unusual always happens at the Open. Remember all the bizarre stuff that went on in '91, the last time the championship was played at Royal Birkdale? Richard Boxall of England swung so hard on a tee shot that he broke his leg. Ian Baker-Finch, whose name has become synonymous with slump, shot a course-record 64 in the third round and followed that with a 29 on the front nine the next day to clinch his finest victory. After missing the cut, a disgusted Mark Calcavecchia gave his irons to a stunned member of the grounds crew whose own clubs had been stolen. Astonishingly R&A officials actually listened to the players' complaints that the greens were spongy and inconsistent, and the putting surfaces were replaced the following year.
I think the Open's best because it's played on links courses where the bump-and-run shot—the shot that best reflects the origins and the soul of the game—is still important. Remember the shrewd bump-and-run by Nick Price in '94, when he won at Turnberry? Price pitched under some TV cables held aloft by marshals on the 14th hole in the final round to save par. It was a terrific recovery and a shot you'll never see at a U.S. Open, where slashing out of six-inch rough with a 60-degree wedge is somehow seen as requiring more skill.
The British Open is best because it's almost like going on vacation. Nancy and Larry Leonard, Justin's parents, couldn't make the trip to Scotland last July to see their son win at Royal Troon, but they're playing the course this week. (Travel tip: The parents of the reigning Open champ get preferred tee times.) Justin says he was tempted to play with them. Funny, but I don't recall any U.S. Open or PGA champs taking their families to Oakmont or Winged Foot for a good time.
The Open is best because the fans are the most knowledgeable. The game is appreciated and understood by a playing populace. "I remember the third round in '87," says Brandel Chamblee, recalling his first Open, at Muirfield. "It was the worst weather I've played in, and I had a really tough shot, a six-iron from out of the rough. My ball went 50 feet—and the people went nuts. They knew how hard that shot was and how hard this game is."
The Open is best because it is an exacting test. Royal Birkdale will be the first Open for Skip Kendall, but he has heard all the stories. " Bobby Clampett told me Birkdale has one of the toughest 1st holes he has ever played," Kendall says. "It's 450 yards long with a fairway so firm and narrow it's like hitting down a bowling alley." Luckily, Kendall is from Wisconsin, where bowling rules.
The Open is best because it's more than just a tournament. Dan Forsman was an early finisher on Sunday in '93, when the Open was at St. George's, so he walked back to watch the action. "I sat on a hilltop where the wind was blowing," Forsman says. "It was cold and rainy, and here's Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, two of the game's best, going toe-to-toe. Greg played so stud coming in. The 18th was 465 yards into a left-to-right crosswind, and he piped a drive way down there. Then he rifled a four-iron shot. The BBC broadcaster said, 'Oh, it looks like it's coming right at the flag. It's a marvelous looking shot....' Then the ball hit the green, and the place erupted. It was like a box canyon with the grandstands around the green. I still reflect on that moment. It was inspiring."
For me, the Open will always rank No. 1. The others aren't even close.