He was the first professional to rise from the caddy ranks, won the inaugural British Open, and is regarded as one of the pioneers of professional golf. Willie Park Sr. was one of the greatest golfers of the 19th century. His story and the story of his brother, Mungo, and son, Willie, are an integral part of golf’s heritage.
Park first appeared on the golfing scene in 1854, challenging Allan Robertson, the greatest player of his time, Tom Morris or Willie Dunn to a match with Â£100 at stake. George Morris, Tom’s brother, accepted the offer instead and was beaten soundly, causing Robertson to say, “Willie frichtens us wi’ his long driving.” Brother Tom tried to win back the family honor over 36 holes and lost by five holes. This was the first of many matches between Park and Morris when “Challenge Matches” were far more popular than the Open Championship.
"And now I come to Willie as a putter. Here he was not merely good, not merely excellent, but brilliant. ...So deadly was he when within three or four yards of the hole." - A.H. Doleman
Although the game was typically the preserve of the wealthy due to the cost of hickory shafted clubs and ‘featherie’ golf balls, there was still opportunity for ordinary folk to enjoy the game. Park learned to play with one club, a curved stick, and with it became a long and straight driver and excellent putter. In a Golf Illustrated feature upon his death in 1903, A.H. Doleman wrote: “And now I come to Willie as a putter. Here he was not merely good, not merely excellent, but brilliant. …So deadly was he when within three or four yards of the hole.”
Park was tall and lanky and played with a gambling style. Such was his flair for the game that Park often played matches using only one hand and standing on one leg. He reportedly lost only once. On another occasion, he accepted a challenge to play a round playing all his tee shots from a watch face. The watch was unscathed at the end.
In 1860, Park won the inaugural British Open, contested among the eight leading professional golfers of the day. They went around the 12 holes at Prestwick three times in one day. Playing with the gutta percha ball, which had just been invented three years earlier and flew a maximum of 190 yards, Park shot a 174.
The original prize was a “Challenge Belt,” a red Moroccan leather belt with silver clasps. He won again in 1863, 1866, and in 1875, he received the Claret Jug that still is awarded to the “Champion Golfer of the Year.”
Indeed, the rivalry between Willie Park Sr. and Tom Morris Sr. kept the tournament alive through its formative years until the arrival of Young Tom Morris; in its first eight years Willie won three times and Old Tom won four. Moreover, in the same time frame, Willie was runner-up four times and Tom twice. It is small wonder that these two men were revered in Scotland and everywhere that golf was played.
Born in 1833 in Wallyford, near Musselburgh, Scotland, seven miles east of Edinburgh, Park was the most accomplished golfer among one of the game’s foremost sporting families. Park’s brother, Mungo, won the Open in 1874 when it was staged at Musselburgh for the first time. He partnered his brother in many challenge matches including the infamous one at North Berwick when Young Tom Morris received the sad news of his wife’s imminent death.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Wille Park Jr. became one of the most respected and successful golfers in the history of the game. In his widely-praised instructional book, Park Jr. wrote, “a man who can putt is a match for anyone.” He made a name for himself designing courses too. Besides his best known course, the Old Course at Sunningdale, Park Jr. designed Olympia Fields Golf Club in Chicago, site of the 1928 and 2003 U.S. Opens.
The Park family is a golfing institution and its legacy in golf’s history is renowned and revered.