Ranking the Open rota courses

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TROON, Scotland -- It could be argued that Royal Troon, site of the 145th playing of The Open this week, was the first "modern'' golf course used for the championship. It replaced nearby neighbor Prestwick because the original venue used to stage the tournament was deemed insufficient to handle the growing number of spectators.

Of course, Troon's debut was way back in 1923, when several other Open venues had yet to find their way into what is now a list of 14 venues that have staged the world's oldest championship. Troon -- which got the Royal distinction in 1978 -- is not the most famous, certainly not the most picturesque, but it has plenty of qualities as well as one oddity: Americans have won the past six Opens played at the venue on Scotland's West Coast, including out-of-nowhere champion Todd Hamilton in 2004.

Where it ranks is the subject of considerable debate, a task that comes with no correct answers -- but we'll take a crack at it below. Keep in mind that it is unclear at this point whether Muirfield and Turnberry are out of the Open's future -- it could very well be temporary -- as four others are clearly no longer in use.

No. 14: Musselburgh; Musselburgh, Scotland (six Opens; first: 1874; last: 1889)

Someone had to be last. A visit to the still-operational course remains a treat, but it is the venue furthest removed from hosting the championship, last doing so in 1889. The nine-hole course is a loop which is mostly contained within an existing horse race track, and it played a big part in the early days of the championship, as for a time it was rotated between Musselburgh, St. Andrews and Prestwick.

Did You Know? Because of the race track, the course has a local rule that deals with the possibility of a ball landing in a hoof print -- from which you get free relief.

No. 13: Prince's; Sandwich, England (one Open: 1932).

Located adjacent to Royal St. George's, the course put three Open venues within a few miles of each other and got its one and only Open in 1932, when Gene Sarazen set a scoring record that stood for 18 years. Much of the course was destroyed during World War II as the Royal Air Force used it for bombing target practice. Although the greens were left mostly intact, the Open would never return.

Did You Know? Sarazen led the only Open at Prince's after every round and defeated Macdonald Smith by 5 strokes.

No. 12: Royal Cinque Ports; Deal, England (two Opens: 1909, 1920)

Located a few miles from Royal St. George's, Deal, as it is commonly called, would have hosted the championship far more often were it not for world events. It lost out due to wars in 1915 and again in 1938.

The 1949 Open scheduled for Cinque Ports was moved to Royal St. George's because of flooding. An interesting moment in golf history occurred at Deal in 1920, when Walter Hagen defied orders to change in the pro shop -- as required of all professionals at the time. Pros were barred from the clubhouse, but Hagen had his limo driver park at the flagpole, where he would change his shoes each day. Hagen won The Open four times.

Did You Know? When George Duncan won the championship at Royal Cinque Ports in 1920, he did so despite opening the tournament with consecutive scores of 80.

No. 11: Royal St. George's; Sandwich, England (14 Opens; first: 1894; last: 2011).

Jack Nicklaus once allegedly said that the Open venues get worse the farther south you go, implying that St. George's was his least favorite. The first course in England to host the championship and also the nearest to London, St. George's has also been the site of the Open more than any other club south of the Scottish border and ranks fourth overall in total Opens hosted. Located near the Kent coast, on a clear day you can see France from the surrounding area.

Did You Know? In his 1959 novel "Goldfinger,'' author Ian Fleming used Royal St. George's as the inspiration for "Royal St. Mark's," the course on which James Bond and Goldfinger play a round.

No. 10: Royal Lytham & St Annes; Lytham St. Annes, England (11 Opens; first: 1926; last: 2012).

The venue is approaching the stage where The Open has outgrown it because of logistical concerns. It starts with a par-3 and is not overly long, but it can be exacting, especially when the wind blows. Adam Scott bogeyed the final four holes to lose the championship to Ernie Els in 2012. Bobby Jones won the first Open at Lytham in 1926 and it took until 1996 for another American, Tom Lehman, to win at the course on England's northwest coast.

It is also where England's Tony Jacklin became the event's first home-grown winner in 1969. Before the final round of the 1926 championship, Jones had forgotten his competitor's ticket and was refused access to the course by an unknowing attendant. Jones simply paid for admission. He went on to win the first of his three Opens.

Did You Know? When Lytham staged The Open in 2012, it marked the first time in Open history that the championship was played in England in consecutive years. (It was at Royal St. George's in 2011.)

No. 9: Royal Liverpool; Hoylake, England (12 Opens; first: 1897; last: 2014)

The place where Bobby Jones won the Open in 1930 -- the year he won the Grand Slam -- Royal Liverpool, often referred to as Hoylake, went on a long stretch without hosting the championship. The Open returned after a 39-year absence when Tiger Woods won in 2006, doing so by hitting just one driver. The previous Open to that was won by Roberto De Vicenzo in 1967. Rory McIlroy captured his lone Open title at Hoylake in 2014.

Did You Know? In 1897, Hoylake was just the second course used in the Open rotation outside of Scotland.

No. 8: Royal Troon; Troon, Scotland (eight Opens; first: 1923; last: 2004)

Located next door to Prestwick, Troon, the site of this year's Open, became a more logical place to stage the championship due to crowd and logistical issues. Troon has an out-and-back configuration similar to the Old Course, and the prevailing wind allows for a rather benign start followed by a fight to the finish.

The famous "postage stamp'' eighth hole is where Gene Sarazen made an ace at age 71 in the 1973 Open.

Did You Know? Mark Calcavecchia's 1989 victory was achieved during The Open's first four-hole playoff. He defeated Wayne Grady and Greg Norman, who had birdied the first six holes and shot a course-record 64, a mark that still stands.

No. 7: Royal Portrush; Portrush, Northern Ireland (one Open: 1951)

The one and only Open to be played outside of Scotland or England was at Royal Portrush -- and the R&A finally decided to go back. The home course of current European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke -- as well as a frequent place of rounds for Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy -- Portrush will return to the rota in 2019 after several changes were made to the course to deal with logistical concerns. It is known for its stunning beauty and immense difficulty when the wind howls.

Did You Know? Fred Daly, born and raised in Portrush and a member of the club, was the only Irishman to win the Open until Padraig Harrington's triumph in 2007. Daly won the title in 1947 at Hoylake.

No. 6: Prestwick Golf Club; Prestwick, Scotland (24 Opens; first: 1860; last: 1925).

The original home to The Open, Prestwick still rates because of its impressive beginnings, even though it is no longer suited to host a major. The first 12 Opens were played at Prestwick, and 15 of Prestwick's 24 Opens were played on a 12-hole layout that was not revamped until the late 1880s. Today only four of the original holes remain, but the quirky layout is filled with history.

Did You Know? In 1870, Tom Morris Jr. won for the third straight time and started the tournament with a 3 on what was then a 578-yard opening hole that played as a par-6.

No. 5: Carnoustie Golf Club; Carnoustie, Scotland (seven Opens; first: 1931; last: 2007)

Considered one of the toughest courses in the world, Carnoustie would have more than the seven Opens on its résumé were it not for logistical concerns that kept the tournament from being played there for 24 years. Ben Hogan won his first and only Open at Carnoustie in 1953. Tom Watson won the first Open he played in 1975 at Carnoustie. Jean Van de Velde became infamous in 1999 for his final-hole implosion and a playoff defeat.

Did You Know? When Hogan won the title in 1953, he was not exempt for the tournament. He, like everyone else, had to first endure 36-hole qualifying, which he accomplished at nearby Panmure. Hogan won and never returned to Scotland.

No. 4: Royal Birkdale; Southport, England (nine Opens; first: 1954; last: 2008)

Located along northwest England's finest stretch of links golf, Royal Birkdale is a relative newcomer to the Open rotation and arguably the best of the four venues that are located in England. The course didn't have its first Open until 1951, when Australian Peter Thomson won the first of three straight, but it will host the championship for the 10th time next year. It is where Padraig Harrington won the second of consecutive Opens in 2008, surging past 52-year-old Greg Norman over the final nine holes.

Did You Know? Not only will Birkdale host The Open for the 10th time next year, it has staged the Women's British Open on six occasions, the most recent in 2014.

No. 3: Turnberry, Ailsa Course; Turnberry, Scotland (four Opens; first: 1977; last: 2009)

This is the most picturesque of the Open venues, hence such a high ranking for a course that has hosted the championship just four times. The last to join the rotation in 1977, Turnberry has yet to disappoint, with Tom Watson's "Duel in the Sun'' with Jack Nicklaus in 1977, followed by Greg Norman's first major title in 1986, a memorable finish for Nick Price in 1994 and Watson's remarkable run at becoming the oldest major champion at age 59 - which ended in a playoff defeat to Stewart Cink -- in 2009.

Photos of the Ailsa Craig off the Turnberry coast are some of the most popular in golf. New owner Donald Trump has poured millions into a renovation of both the hotel, clubhouse and course, including a dramatic shifting of holes along the course that promise to make the venue even better. Trump's controversial remarks have put future Opens on hold.

Did You Know? During both World War I and World War II, Turnberry was used as a military air base, with the hotel turned into a hospital for the wounded.

No. 2: Muirfield; Gullane, Scotland (16 Opens; first: 1892; last 2013)

Muirfield is one of the oldest clubs in the world and often cited as the fairest of the Open venues. From a playability standpoint and offering a championship test, many players refer to it as the best course in the rota. Its status as a future host remains in doubt because of the club's recent decision to not accept any female members, although that is said to be under review.

Opened in 1891, it became a frequent site of The Open, replacing nearby Musselburgh. The list of winners at Muirfield says it all: Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.

Did You Know? Muirfield is the golf course but the club is properly known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

No. 1: The Old Course; St. Andrews, Scotland (29 Opens; first: 1873; last: 2015)

You would be hard pressed to leave the home of golf from the top of any list ranking The Open venues. It might not be the most scenic, certainly is not the most difficult. But its place in the game, its identity, its iconic nature and the way the golf course is part of the fabric of St. Andrews all conspire to make it No. 1.

It is virtually the same course taken care of by Old Tom Morris in the late 19th century, and has also produced some of the biggest winners in the game, including Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods twice each. Last year Zach Johnson won in a memorable Monday playoff at the Old Course in which Jordan Spieth -- bidding for the third leg of the Grand Slam -- missed by a single shot.

Did You Know? The R&A Clubhouse, which sits behind the first tee and 18th green, was built in 1854 and became home to golf's governing body (outside of the U.S. and Mexico) in 1897.