The Birth of The Open Championship
On the eve of the 2010 Open Championship, David J. Whyte tells the story of the Open’s inauspicious beginnings and the course on which it was first played.
The Golf Club of Ayrshire (later to become Prestwick Golf Club) was founded in 1851 by a group of local gents who met at the Red Lion Inn, a hostelry that still stands on Prestwick’s busy Main Street today opposite the Town Cross. The game was already well established on Scotland’s east coast and Tom Morris, who hailed from St Andrews was engaged by the fledgling club to assist them in setting up their club and course.
Morris had been working as apprentice to Allan Robertson, considered the game’s first ‘professional’ as well as a renowned club and featherie ball maker. Robertson more or less ran the links at St Andrews and relished playing with Tom, his skilled golfing apprentice. The two became known as ‘The Invincibles’ and were indeed unbeatable. But in 1851 Robertson, whose business depended largely on supplying labour-intensive featheries to the gentry, fired Morris on the spot when he found his employee playing with the new Gutty Percha ball. After 16 years, Morris and Robertson parted company, leaving Morris and his young family to find a new position.
It was the recently established railway network that brought golf and indeed Tom Morris to Scotland’s west coast. As the popularity of the game spread in part due to increased accessibility via the railways, it became apparent just how well suited Ayrshire’s sandy coastline was for the game. Morris was drafted in from Fife accompanied by his wife Agnes and young son Tommy. The Prestwick club pooled resources to buy two cottages directly opposite the Red Lion Inn, one for the Morris family and the other as a clubhouse. In practice, the Red Lion remained the effective clubhouse (with drink on tap) while the cottage next to Tom’s was used simply as a bag store. Both these cottages still stand now disguised as a restaurant and council office.
Morris was employed as ‘Keeper of the Green’ as well as ball & club maker. But first he had to construct a golf course, which he readily set about and in a few weeks the new club had 12 rudimentary holes carved between the dunes.
The Open is Born
How Prestwick Golf Club gave birth to TheOpen Championship is another captivating tale. The idea was no doubt hatched in the Red Lion Inn, (I intend to spend more time in the Red Lion in search of new ideas). It was 1860, only 9 years after the founding of the club and invitations had been sent out to the leading clubs of the day, mainly on Scotland’s east coast asking them to send their three best ‘caddies’ or ‘professionals’ to compete in a competition. The only problem was they’d left the posting of the invites a bit late. In October 1860, a somewhat disparate band of eight players showed up at Prestwick Station with their clubs and gutties ready to for action. The competition got underway, three rounds on the 12-hole course in a single day. After 36 holes Willie Park of Musselburgh prevailed over home favourite, Tom Morris with a score of 174.
No prizes were awarded but following the event the members of Prestwick, feeling a trophy should be organised to mark the occasion, dipped into their apparently well-lined pockets again to purchase a red Morocco leather belt, extravagantly adorned with a silver buckle the size of a small dinner plate.
Golf’s Greatest Get-Together
The following year the competition was declared “open to the world”. A grand total of 18 golfers, amateurs and professionals alike showed up, a rather inauspicious start to what was to become golf’s greatest get-together. The ‘Open’ idea was fundamentally a sound one though and the founding fathers persevered. Through the following years ‘The Open’ became established as an annual event throughout Scotland, shared on a rotating basis between Prestwick, Musselburgh and St Andrews. Muirfield and its Honourable Company were included on the rota in 1892.
Tom’s son, Young Tom, reared on the links of St Andrews and Prestwick, won the event three times in a row from 1868 to 1870 and was allowed to keep the
Champions Belt, forcing the Open committee to find yet another prize, this time a silver Claret Jug. By the way, Old Tom is still the oldest ever British Open winner at 46 and Young Tom is the youngest, at the age of 17. The original Champions Belt is now in safekeeping in the R&A in St Andrews - as is the original Claret Jug. (The one we see hoisted and smooched each year is but a replica)! Prestwick displays a replica of the Champion’s Belt upstairs in the clubhouse’s Cardinal Room.
Prestwick Golf Club continued its reign as an Open venue until 1925 when its humps and dells proved a little tricky for galleries let alone golfers. Golf writer of the day, Bernard Darwin wrote of that particular event, "It was a thoroughly exciting championship but hardly a pleasant one, since there were altogether too many people. So many, indeed, that despite the unselfish and valiant efforts of the Prestwick stewards, I gravely doubt whether a championship should be played there again." Sadly, golf’s first notable writer was right! Due to the Open’s growing popularity and Prestwick’s difficulties in accommodating the ever-increasing crowds, this was to be the last Open Championship to be played on the course of its origin.
And so we travel 150 years forward in time to 2010 and the 150th anniversary of the Open Championship. With such a rich sense of history I entered the hallowed portals of Prestwick Golf Club on a fairly cold, late March morning with the threat of snow in the air. The clubhouse was rattling with the cacophony of guests and accompanying Prestwick members heaving golf bags and hanging up golf attire in the antediluvian locker rooms. We were all in eager anticipation of Prestwick Golf Club’s ‘Fun Day’. Annually the club invites the great, good and indifferent connected with Scottish golf and I was grateful to be one of them.
Present-day Prestwick’s clubhouse retains much of its original character. It’s certainly a welcoming place. A drink at 11.30am? Oh well, if you insist! That’s the thing about days like these; the abandonment of one’s usual moral stringency. Our host suggested a glass of Kummel, a sticky, liquorice-flavoured liqueur that, after a first tentative sip immediately hit the spot. I got chatting with Club Steward David Bennett whose mother and father commenced stewardship of the club back in 1968. David continues the tradition and has worked at Prestwick Golf Club for 27 years as steward and chef along with his wife Anne who looks after the bars and staff. He was a man clearly happy with his work.
“The member’s are fantastic,” he told me. “They really are good to work with.” How did Kummel become so popular I enquired? “Back in the old days the members used to have a wee nip in the locker room before they went out and always put a couple of drops on their hands to give a better grip on the leather. They used to call it the ‘putting mixture’!” It’s still a very popular drink today. “You can’t come to Prestwick and not have a Kummel,” David added. Prestwick Golf Club is the biggest purchaser of Mentzendorff Kummel – in the world. “We buy it by the pallet-load!”
Before golf, a lunch; a splendid buffet the likes of which I’m sure they dish up most days here. With a bottle of red on the table, I could see everyone being seduced by the heady atmosphere, the surrounds and gracious company. Our Team Captain was a superb host making sure everyone had plenty to eat, drink and discuss. It surprised me how, at an appointed moment in the proceedings, as if activated by a subconscious trigger, everyone seemed to quit the small talk, leave half full glasses of claret and rise together towards the greater purpose of the day, a game of golf.
I’d played Prestwick’s Old course only once before. The course was a conundrum to me then and I suspected it might remain so today. The format was ‘sixsomes’, an arrangement unique to Prestwick but fairly straightforward in practice; like foursomes, a two-player combo plays alternative shots and the best score of the entire team is recorded against the other sixsomes. The great benefit of this arrangement, besides is sociability is simultaneously fitting 108 people onto the course and getting them round in around 3 to 4 hours. By 1.30pm, the teams were at their appointed tees and without so much as what happened to the coffee and cigars, we were off!
Renowned for its blind shots into 'deep dells', its dips and turns amongst the ancient sand hills, fairways abruptly and mysteriously terminating into yawning buttressed bunkers, Prestwick is a course you really need to know to appreciate. If you don’t…hire a caddy! We had one between the six of us – Vince, a somewhat stoic, heavyweight smoker with a penchant for repeating himself. It was my playing partner who had engaged a caddy’s services but he seemed happy enough to grant me the benefits of his wisdom.
After two or three holes it struck me most of his prescribed lines seemed a bit bizarre. I’m inherently suspicious of Scottish caddies! Being a Scot myself and chary of how much these guys really know about ‘actually playing the game’ (it was clear from his girth Vince didn’t do marathons) I was sneakily taking 4 or 5 degrees off the recommended trajectory hoping he wouldn’t notice. As you will no doubt have anticipated, his advice on every occasion unquestionable.
Our starting hole in this silent shotgun start was number 14th and so we scooped up some of the course’s most interesting challenges early on, basically a good part of the original 12-hole layout. The 17th for instance has remained unchanged since the 1850's with its blind second shot across a high ridge of dunes and a great ' Sahara' bunker hiding just short of the green. Playing that second shot reminded me of Beechers Brook at the Grand National, a leap of faith into the wild unknown. Happily all three of our team balls landed on the correct quadrant and we were putting for Par.
Then it was the 1st. I was actually grateful we’d had a chance to warm up before taking on this cheeky little devil. Cheek to jowl with the main Glasgow to Ayr railway line, Prestwick Station is only a wall and wire fence away from the tee box. “The next train to arrive at Platform – ‘Fore!’ Excuse me Sir. Yes you on the tee. If you would just try and complete your backswing, you might cure that infernal slice of yours and avoid derailing one of our trains.” It’s a frightening place to stand and swing a golf club let alone the first swing of the day. Vince convinced me it wasn’t that hard a hole, if you know what you’re doing. In spite of his reassurance, I pulled my shot well away from the train tracks and into beckoning gorse bushes.
The 3rd is probably the course’s most difficult, certainly the most complicated. Standing on the tee of a Par 5 and being told to put the driver away was confusing enough. “It’s a dogleg so you have to break it down into three sections,” said Vince pensively lighting up another smoke. “Just take a long iron or one of yir rescue thingies and get it into that middle ground.” With closer inspection through squinting eyes, I could see the fairway stopped abruptly and tumbled into the yawning Cardinal Bunker backed by a buttress of railway sleepers. Not only that, the Pow Burn flanked the right side with tough tufts of rough defining the left, again not exactly too comforting a prospect from the tee. Then there’s the blind second shot. “You see that flag there?” Vince told my playing partner as he lined up for a 3-wood to fly the high, wooden battlements. “That’s not yours - but hit it that way anyhow and you’ll be in good shape.” We looked at him askance, wondering if this was a joke at our expense. But no! Hey Presto! As if by magic Vince had us in reasonable position to approach the now visible 3rd green. I was beginning to like his candour. “See that greenside bunker – hit straight towards it,” Vince gruffed at the 5th. I thought I’d reach it but he knew I couldn’t. The ball landed well in advance, bounced to the right and trundled onto the green. I liked him even more!
On many holes, Prestwick is a barrage of blind drives, elephantine dunes and unpredictable bounces. And they say that the present-day course isn’t nearly as 'sporty' as it used to be! Like an Agatha Christie novel, nearly every shot Vince had me play had a twist to it. I began to realise you needed to break each hole down into chewable chunks. Forget what the Strokesaver or indeed what your eyes tell you! This is golf akin to pioneers crossing the Rockies. You just won’t make it without a guide.
As we strolled on, the sun breaking through and offering glimpses of the craggy heights of the Isle of Arran, Vince and I chatted about his usual customers, mainly visitors from the USA. “Americans like to take divots,” he confided. “And I can tell you how long they’ve been in Scotland … just by looking at their divots.” I pictured him on one knee, studying the broken earth like an Indian scout. “If they’re still taking divots, they’re fresh off the plane; if not - they’ve played a few Scottish links courses already and their wrists are aching.” Prestwick’s turf is firm, even after a good soaking and you need to learn to ‘nip’ the ball neatly with the tiniest of divots - otherwise suffer the consequences.
Another anecdote came from Peter, our team captain as we played the 6th. Prestwick Golf Club is literally next door to Prestwick International Airport and an American visitor once commented, “You know, this is a mighty fine golf course you’ve got here - but why on earth did you build it so close to the airport?”
Overall, Prestwick is a course of two sections, the old and the newer. The original 12 holes or at least that area that they occupied is lumpy and complex, mainly the work of Old Tom carved out from gnarly dunes. The newer holes, added in the early 1900’s are more open and longer.
A Game of Love & Hate
And so our round moved towards its conclusion, a casual cavalcade of happy-hearted golfers following other such groups, little figures hobbling across the links like a Lowry painting. By the time we reached the 13th, my group’s finale, I had completely warmed to the place. I could also understand why many used to more tolerant tracks would find it frustrating. “People either love or hate Prestwick,” Peter confided.
We got to the 13th, a tiny, wedding cake green at an odd angle to the fairway with barely a flat spot to stick a pin in. It was clearly out of kilter with the rest of the generally accommodating links greens and a very tricky proposition to hit and hold. “Why don’t they just flatten and rebuild it?” I suggested as we rolled across the sandy waves towards this oddity, even for Prestwick. Peter looked at me as if I’d just blasphemed the Queen. Somewhat stiffly he informed me, “This hole’s an institution,” he said. “One of the original holes! And besides, this is Prestwick laddie, this is Prestwick!”
Enough said! Prestwick will never change and neither it should. This is one of the originals and a course every golfer should aspire to play. I came off with a high degree of satisfaction following any good round of golf. There was a strong desire to go out again on my own and try to apply the knowledge (I thought) I’d just gained. But then I thought better of it. Prestwick is a course that would never play the same from one round to the next, a genuine antique. It can be quirky at best and sometimes, especially if troubled with a bout of wind, downright cantankerous.
Back in the clubhouse, showered and shiny in our jackets & ties, it was time for another drink - this time for me orange juice (I had a two-hour drive back to the east coast). Peter showed me round the clubhouse and some of its treasures; an ancient map of the Old Course in St Andrews signed by notable players of the past century, a replica Champions Belt and a plethora of other ancient items from this historic club’s past. The very rooms themselves were redolent of golf’s great history. If you love this game, you need to appreciate its precedents and Prestwick Golf Club is clearly one of the most important node on golf’s great time line.
What You Need To Know
Prestwick Golf Club
Tel: 01292 477404
Location: In Prestwick town centre, just off A79 just past rail station. Prestwick Airport is one mile north.
Statistics: 18 holes, 6544 yards, Par 71, SSS 73
Designer: Old Tom Morris & James Braid
Green Fees: Weekdays: £120 per round, £175 per day
Weekends: £145 per round
Facilities: Changing rooms & Showers, Full Catering & Bar, Pro Shop & Teaching Professional, Trolley Hire, Caddie Hire, Club Hire.
Visitors: Visitors welcome Monday to Friday except Thursday afternoon and pre-booking is essential.
Where to Stay - We stayed at South Beach Hotel in Troon, only 5 miles from Prestwick. Owner Stewart Watt and his son are both keen golfers and will keep you right for playing any of Ayrshire’s excellent links.
South Beach Hotel
Tel: +44 (0)1292 312033