The 37th Open | 1897 Royal Liverpool

Hilton wins sensational Open at home

Harold Hilton had a superb career in the game of golf, ranking as one of the finest amateurs to ever play the game. But undoubtedly his finest hour came in The 37th Open Championship in 1897.

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In the history of The Open, only three amateur players have ever won The Open Championship. Two of them hailed from the same club and, in 1897, both Hilton and John Ball had the chance to win their second Championship around their home links at Royal Liverpool.

Hoylake was spoiled in the late 19th Century for world class golfers. By 1897, Ball had established himself as not just the best amateur in the country, but a genuine contender for the world's best player. Ball won The Amateur Championship four times from 1888 to 1894, and won on his first appearance proper in The Open at Prestwick in 1890 at the age of 29. 

Not only was Ball the first amateur to ever win The Open, but he was the first Englishman to do so too. Eight years Ball's junior, however, the young upstart Hilton was inspired and spurred on by his club mate to try and achieve similar success. 

Despite not possessing Ball's pedigree at the time, Hilton produced a performance for the ages in 1892 to not only become the second amateur and Englishman to win the title, but also to pip Ball to the post in the first ever Open contended over 72 holes. 

On the final day, Hilton shot rounds of 72 and 74 to come from 10 strokes behind Horace Hutchinson at the start of the day, and two strokes behind leader Ball at the start of the final round, eventually winning by three strokes from Ball, Sandy Herd and Hugh Kirkaldy. Journalists proclaimed that 'no praise was too high' for Hilton's performance, as he delivered the type of final-day showing that goes down in folklore. 

The brilliance of the Royal Liverpool men surely had an impact on the hosting of the 1897 Championship being awarded to the club, and anticipation was high amongst the local faithful, with many believing Hilton could pull off a victory again, particularly after the first day's play.

The weather was wonderful for day one at Hoylake, and at its conclusion Hilton lay in solo second position after two rounds, just one stroke behind James Braid and four strokes ahead of Ball who sat in fourth. 

In his third round on Thursday morning, however, Hilton hardly got off to a good start. A heavily heeled shot was lucky to yield a four on his first hole, before three-putts on the next two holes put Hilton well behind the curve. Four straight fours from the fourth helped, but seven fives on his back nine, including five in a row to finish, left Hilton with an 84.

In the end, however, 84 proved far from nightmarish, with only James Kinnell breaking 79 on the Thursday morning. Some commentators at the time speculated as to the pressure owing to being in contention explaining the high scoring, as conditions remained good for play, if not as perfect as the previous day. Indeed, many played their way out of contention, including Ball, who to the surprise of many onlookers returned an 88. 

Another player also feeling the pressure was overnight leader, James Braid. The Scotsman shot 82 in round three, leaving Hilton just three shots off the lead once more in fifth place.  

Playing in just his third Open, Braid was aiming to break the longest run to date without a Scottish triumph in golf's original major, three consecutive years, and ease the growing concerns among many Scottish golfing aficionados that the balance of power in the game was shifting south. 

Despite eye-catching play rendering him the overwhelming final round favourite, however, Braid would falter in round four, and Hilton produced another round of brilliance when it mattered. 

A final round of 75 for Hilton, just when he needed it most, left a very difficult target for Braid to beat. The Scotsman then had the added pressure of playing later in the day, with reports of over 1,000 people following his group given Ball and Hilton had already finished.

In the end, Braid could not quite match Hilton's total, despite a gallant putt at the last, giving the Englishman a one-stroke victory with a total of 314. The amateur's legacy as one of the best clutch players in the earliest years of the Championship was secure, and his victory at his home club went down as one of the most popular in The Open's history. 

Although John Ball would win eight Amateur Championships, and five before Hilton had even won the first of his four in 1900, Hilton claimed two Opens to Ball's one, and established himself as an amateur on par with his compatriot, with perhaps the unique extra gear required for Championship strokeplay. 

Royal Liverpool's star players helped establish Hoylake as one of The Open's most popular venues for the next half-century. Fittingly, the only other amateur to win The Open, Bobby Jones, claimed his third and final Championship at Hoylake in 1930. 

Hilton had four more top-six finishes in the Championship, as well as winning those four Amateur Championships and a U.S. Amateur title. His Open success in 1897, however, was likely unsurpassed in the Englishman's great career.