PRESTWICK HOME OF THE OPEN
Once upon a time circa 1860, a group of golfers sat down and discussed organising a tournament to establish who the best player was. Prior to this date, Alan Robertson of St Andrews was widely acknowledged to be the champion, but upon his death in 1859 it was decided that some other mechanism was needed to arbitrate. Ultimately they would decide to do so, and agreed to host an event to settle the matter. The event would be open to anyone to contest, and location would be the Prestwick Golf Club. Suffice to say the claim is legitimate. Prestwick home of the Open and with it is the genesis of all tournament golf. The multi billion dollar industry that championship golf would become has its roots on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast and should be considered something of a pilgrimage for any visitor with a keen sense of the game’s history
Before we go onto to explore the first ever Open Championship however, it might be worth visiting the naming of it first, as this continually raises its head every July. Put yourselves in the position of these pioneers for a minute. What are you going to call your tournament?
Well the word ‘golf’ would probably help! so that’s a given. ‘Championship’? Well this doesn’t seem unreasonable given that you’re trying to establish who is the champion. So who can play in it? becomes the next question. Well in the days before corporate sponsorship and television deals you needed to attract paying entries to help fund the prize (a red Moroccan leather belt with silver buckle in this case).
The equation was simple. More players equals more money, equals greater popularity, equals more gate receipts. The sensible thing to do would be to make this ‘Open’ to anyone prepared to enter. So was born ‘The Open Championship of Golf’ and Prestwick Home of the Open. Not a difficult concept we’d suggest? The omission of the word “British” suddenly seems a whole lot more understandable. Do we call ‘the Masters’ , the ‘American Masters’ then?
Now promoting this event wouldn’t be easy. No internet, nor television. The telephone would be patented seven years later. In other words, this whole venture would be exploratory and borderline viable. Could the organisers reasonably have been expected to have foreseen back in 1860, what they had started? Is it reasonable to have expected that a dissenting hand should have been raised, and that someone should have suggested that perhaps the prefix ‘British’ be inserted into the name, just in case decades later, other countries might wish to run their own championships? Anyone even raising the issue would have been laughed down? In 1871 the event didn’t take place remember, as the sponsoring clubs struggled to assemble the money to purchase a new trophy (a claret jug)
So in 1860, just eight golfers lined up at Prestwick golf club on October 17th, to contest the inaugural Open Championship. With this, the names ‘Prestwick’ and ‘Willie Park’, from Musselburgh, are cemented in golf’s history. The event remained at Prestwick throughout the 1860’s, with Park and ‘Old Tom Morris sharing the prize
The Morris name again appeared as the winner in 1868, but this time it was Old Tom’s son, ‘Young’ Tom, who won the Belt. He did so again in 1869 and 1870, earning the belt outright for three consecutive wins.
In 1869, he achieved the Championship’s first hole-in-one, holing out at the 166-yard eighth. The following year, he went one better by starting his first round with a three at the 578-yard opening hole: a modern-day albatross given the hole would have been a par six back then. The original scorecards feature among the most treasured items displayed in Prestwick’s own archive.
When Young Tom won again in 1872 at Prestwick, the Ayrshire course had been joined by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Musselburgh) in agreeing to host the event. Musselburgh would eventually leave the roster when the honourable company relocated to Muirfield. In the 1894 the English made their first foray into the championship when Royal St Georges performed the honours.
Prestwick golf club hosted the Open a total of 24 times, and did so for the last time in 1925. The size (and enthusiasm) of the crowd, estimated at 15,000, overshadowed the final round. Local favourite Macdonald Smith (an expatriate Scot based in the USA) started out knowing that a 78 would be good enough to win. However, he slumped to an 82 to finish fourth, losing out to the eventual winner Jim Barnes, himself resident in the USA, but a Cornishman by birth. Bernard Darwin described how the crowd influenced the occasion:
“They wanted the Scotsman to win and all that was wrong was that too many of them wanted it too much.”
The London press was less forgiving and called for Prestwick to be stripped of the honour. In truth, the event had probably started to outgrow the course by now, but whereas Musselburgh went into decline upon losing the Open, Prestwick didn’t. It remained the same, and today it’s remarkably faithful to the layout of yesteryear.
Six of the original greens used back in 1860 are still in use today. Some of the blind shots that would send modern pros into cardiac arrest, notably the par 3 fifth, the Himalayas, have also stood firm against the onslaught of so-called progress. This particular ‘gem’ involves playing over the top of a hill, and requires the departing match to ring a greenside bell, to inform the following group that its clear
The signature hole, the par 5, ‘Cardinal’, is practically identical to the configuration used in 1860. It embraces so many terrific features, that it is the archetypal ancient links hole. A burn, heinous bunkers, and an undulating fairway which is a cross between an up-turned egg box, and a pinball machine.
The 13th hole, Sea Headrig, is another that is still in use, whereas today’s 17th, is actually the second on the original course.
Prestwick golf club accepted its annexation gracefully, and resisted the temptation to court redemption by over-modernising. The decision to ‘stay as we were’, allows you to inherit today. It would be wrong to say that it’s like playing golf in a time-capsule, but it’s pretty damned close in places. If you’ve ever wondered what challenges the games modern pioneers faced, then there are probably no better preserved examples on the planet than Prestwick Home of the Open
It would be remiss of us not to mention the clubhouse. It’s definitely worth arriving early and spending some time soaking up the atmosphere. It serves as a mini museum. Another thing that might surprise you to learn is the courses popularity amongst American visitors given that is so idiosyncratic. Prestwick is like no other course you’ll have played and a long way removed from urban parkland tracks. American’s however seem to embrace this eccentricity particularly well
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