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Prestwick Golf Club

Setting for the triumphs and tragedies of pros from Tom Morris to MacDonald Smith, prim, unpredictable Prestwick is most notably the birthplace of the British Open

By: David Joy

Appeared in May/June 2003 LINKS

AN ARUA OF TRUTH AND TRADITION surrounds the compact linksland that is Prestwick Golf Club.

Peering through half-closed eyes—and ignoring Prestwick Airport in the distance—a visitor can see this famous links as it must have looked during play of the first British Open Championship in 1860. The distant clunk or click of a hand-hammered gutta-percha ball being struck by a leather-faced “playclub” (predecessor of the driver) might echo ’round the first tee, if you keep your eyes asquint and allow imagination to reel out the years.
Prestwick’s story begins in 1849, when the Glasgow and Southwest Railway linked with Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. Hardly a landmark in railway annals, but indeed a dramatic point in golf history, as suddenly this linksland was easily accessible. And, by coincidence, golf balls were affordable.

It was just then that the feathery ball was being eclipsed by the gutta percha. Casualties included Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson, who lost their livelihood as ballmakers in St. Andrews. Meanwhile, The Earl of Eglinton, who had claim to substantial ground and a castle on the opposite coast of Scotland, could be seen waving down the trains that had begun steaming through his estate and demanding free rides down to Ayr. The earl owned a patch of rough linksland about three miles to the north and decided, now that he had transport, he well ought to invite Tom Morris across to lay out a green (i.e., a course) for him. Robertson remained in St. Andrews, earning the reputation as the world’s finest golfer. It was accepted as fact that Robertson never lost a money match.

The earl’s great friend and foursomes partner, James Ogilvie Fairlie, knew of Morris’ availability. The next year, captaining the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Fairlie persuaded Morris to move to Prestwick with his family to be­come “Keeper of the Green”—a position Old Tom would hold for 13 years before returning to St. Andrews and maintaining the Old Course for nearly 40 years.

Morris laid out 12 holes in a cramped and restricted area, but he took full advantage of all the contours and ambience of the site, which included stunning views across the sea to the Isle of Arran. Shortly before he started work, 50 members, newly enrolled by Fairlie, met nearby at the Red Lion Inn. The group’s early days seem to have been “troubled,” as meeting minutes and treasurer’s books circa 1850 revealed a great reluctance by members to pay their annual subscription—of one pound!

The railway company built a station just 50 yards from Prestwick’s first tee and people arrived en masse to witness great challenge matches between Willie Park of Musselburgh and Tom Morris representing the home club. They played three rounds on the 12-hole course in a day for considerable prize money or “purse.” (Morris’ wages for the upkeep of the links at that time was 13 dollars, paid every three months.)

With the untimely death of Allan Robertson, aged 42 in 1859, Prestwick members decided to conduct a challenge the following year that would crown the land’s greatest golfer. Fairlie sent letters to Blackheath (England), Perth, Bruntsfield (Edinburgh), Musselburgh and St. Andrews, inviting a player known as a “respectable caddie” to represent each of the clubs on the 11th of October 1860 to compete for a challenge belt.

That may sound patronizing, and indeed it was, for in its early years, the Open was played more as entertainment for the members after their autumn meetings. The Earl of Eglinton presented a beautiful belt of soft red Moroccan leather with a detailed golfing scene engraved in its silver buckle. It was the type of trophy he and Fairlie would have competed for in archery or jousting 30 years before. In his way, the earl had become the first official sponsor of a golf tournament. Eight competitors lined up in the heavy foresters green-checked jackets that were normally worn by workers on his estate.

This marked the birth of the Open Championship. Willie Park emerged victorious and was declared “The Champion Golfer of the Year” with three 12-hole rounds of 55, 59 and 60. Reported as “going for every shot,” he beat Morris by two strokes and Andrew Strath, representing St. Andrews, by six. The length of the Prestwick course at that time was 3,799 yards, the 578-yard first hole being the longest and most formidable—for the average drive of a crack professional then was between 180 and 200 yards (all carry with very little run on the ball). The shortest hole, the 11th, was recorded as 97 yards. Many of the holes were blind shots from the tee or to the green, as sand hills or dunes had to be “lofted” over. It was imperative to keep the ball in play, as maintenance of the course was minimal.

Morris worked tirelessly to improve the course, without much support. He found sand to be a great protector of links turf against biting winds and hard frost. Old Tom discovered this by accident after spilling a barrow load of it at the side of a green he was having difficulty establishing. Having spread the sand around instead of shoveling it back into his barrow, he found two months later that the grass around this area “seemed to revive itself.” From that moment on, top-dressing was a standard greenkeeping practice and “sand, mair [more] sand” was Morris’ battle cry!

“Battles” were what Morris was used to at Prestwick—mostly when challenged by Willie Park. In the first eight Open championships, all played annually at Prestwick, he won four to Park’s three, with only Andrew Strath interrupting their monopoly in 1865. One of the many claims to fame of Morris (though not by him, for he was a modest man) was that he left the field trailing him by 13 shots in the 1862 Open. This is still a record-winning margin today; the fact that there were only four professionals playing that day was a minor detail from his point of view! He is still the oldest winner of the Open—46 at the time of his 1867 victory. Then the following year, along came his son Tommy—who became the Open’s youngest-ever winner, at 17 years of age.

Young Tom Morris was brought to Prestwick as a newborn in 1851. By the time he turned 16, Young Tom was hitting the ball with such venom that the balmoral bonnet would fly off his head on every drive or long iron. Shafts used to break just below his padded leather grips, such was the strength in his hands and his wrists. He was a three-time winner of the Open at Prestwick as a teenager, finishing first in 1868, ’69 and ’70. Defending his title in 1870, he opened with an eagle 3 at the first and set a course record of 47 on the 12-hole course that would never be beaten.

The Earl of Eglinton had stated that anyone winning three consecutive “challenges” would retain the belt, and although Old Tom’s name was on it four times, it was Young Tom’s to keep. The earl had died nine years before, so a new trophy was not forthcoming. Another blow to the club was that J.O. Fairlie, primary administrator of the Open, died shortly after the belt was presented to Tommy for the last time. The dilemma for Prestwick Golf Club: Where would a new trophy come from and who would run the tournament? Talks were held and a collection raised of £22 for a claret jug to be presented in 1872 at Prestwick—the same claret jug that British Open fields play for today. Young Tom won again and seemed invincible.

The Open moved from Prestwick to St. Andrews the following year, and on to Musselburgh, returning every three years to the place of its birth through 1893. With puddles on the course and the old “no preferred lies” rule in force, the wunderkind’s hope of five wins in a row here was foiled.

Surprisingly, Young Tom didn’t win at Musselburgh the following year, either, and withdrew when the Open returned to Prestwick in 1875. Both his wife and his first born had died in childbirth a month before that Open, a devastation from which Young Tom never recovered. He died on Christmas Day of the same year at the tender age of 24. He seemed to simply give up on life. In the twilight of his career, Tom Morris the elder reflected wistfully on Tommy’s demise: “People say he died of a broken heart, but if that was true, I wouldn’t be here, either!”

It is astonishing how few professionals Prestwick has employed over its 152-year history. After Charlie Hunter’s 53 years service to the club, ending in 1921, James McDowell, after a “brief” six-year stint, was replaced by Robert McInnes, who in turn, after 35 years service, handed over to Frank Rennie, who is there yet! Asked for an unbiased opinion of the course, if possible, Frank says, “Having played in events in many parts of the world, I know of no course that requires more caution than Prestwick. At 6,500 yards, it is not unduly long for a championship course, but any advantage that may exist on that score is more than compensated by the hidden disasters that await the unsuspecting player.”

Those “hidden disasters” include the Cardinal’s bunker and its facing of railway sleepers on the third, one of the signature holes of the course. It is a par-5 with a daunting tee shot that needs to be laid up short of the bunker. This was hole 4 of the original 12-hole course in 1851. Today’s hole No. 4 is named “Bridge,” and was described by three-time Open champion Henry Cotton as the best par-4 he had ever played. The par-3 fifth, called “Himalayas,” is a blind, 206-yard tee shot. Playing out past the “Elysian Fields” and “Monkton Miln,” you come to a classic hole named after the Earl of Eglinton. The 10th at Prestwick is the most picturesque—its backdrop is the Isle of Arran—and one of only two holes without a dreaded greenside bunker.

The 288-yard 16th is a unique hole with a very eccentric green and a hidden bunker called “Willie Campbell’s Grave,” 250 yards down the fairway. Willie Campbell came to grief in it when leading the 1887 Open. By that time he briefly represented Prestwick as probably the first “touring pro” (not that he traveled very far). The 17th, “Alps,” is another signature hole and was the original second of the first Open Championship. A blind approach is all carry over the massive “Sahara Bunker” protecting a green that is short in depth. So to the last hole,

“Clock”—aim on it! As at St. Andrews, it’s on the clubhouse wall.

The clubhouse, built in 1868, then extended from time to time, is well-run, and its records and memorabilia have recently been re-catalogued and converted digitally to disk. This includes gems such as sketches of the proposed Challenge Belt and the first printed scorecards, including all four of Young Tom’s winning cards. Hung around the club’s wood paneled walls are portraits of all the figures who left their mark not only at Prestwick but in the world of golf.

Around this time the Open and the reputation of Prestwick grew rapidly. Without the members knowing it, this ironically would become a huge problem for them by the time they hosted their 24th championship in 1925.

Significant wins at Prestwick include the first Open winner’s son, Willie Park Jr., emulating his father’s win in 1887. John Ball, the first Englishman to usurp the Scots in 1890, was also the first amateur to win. By 1893, the Open was played over four rounds in two days and a young Willie Auchterlonie from St. Andrews won with just five clubs (which he had made himself). He would be the last home-based Scot to win for 95 years.

Harry Vardon, the great English professional, had much to do with that drought for the Scots, winning three out of the four Opens hosted by Prestwick from 1898 to 1914. In the first of these wins he beat Park by a shot. Vardon won more convincingly in 1903 by six shots, but James Braid stopped his run, emphatically winning by eight strokes in 1908. The last Open before the war went to Vardon for a record sixth time, with J.H. Taylor as runner-up.
The British Amateur Championship had as much status as the Open until the turn of that century—and Prestwick shared in that prestige. The Open champion of 1890, Ball, had won the National Amateur Championship before this in 1888. He again figured in an epic final with F.G. Tait and emerged victorious at the 37th. A total of 11 British Amateur Championships have been played at Prestwick, most recently in 2001, producing a pair of popular American winners, Lawson Little in 1934 and Harvie Ward in 1952.

With the outbreak of the First World War and a couple of new venues joining the Open rota, Prestwick waited 11 years before its ill-fated 1925 Open. MacDonald Smith, a native of Carnoustie—but by then an American citizen—made the long journey across and found himself leading by six strokes with the final round to come. J. H. Taylor, a five-time winner, recalled that an estimated 15,000 spectators combined to waylay Smith.

“It was unfortunate for Mac that he was timed to start just when the Glasgow trains were disgorging their human cargo onto the inadequate Prestwick platform, the result being that thousands omitted the formality of tendering their tickets and jumped the intervening wall. Bustled and jostled and hemmed in by the whooping multitude, he was given little room to swing and not once was he allowed the opportunity of seeing the result of his longer shots.”
It was said that Smith walked off the last green tired, angry and embittered, having taken 82 and so lost to “Long Jim” Barnes, an Englishman who had also become an American citizen. The great golf writer Bernard Darwin said at the time, “I gravely doubt whether a championship should be played here again. Golf can be altogether too popular.” And so it was to be—despite its distinction as the original home of the Open, the club never again asked to host the championship.

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