There’s barely a cloud in the sky over Prestwick Golf Club as we turn off Links Road and into one of the game’s great cathedrals.
The morning sunshine bathes the famous stone clubhouse in a golden glow and the white flags on the 14th and 18th greens, for once, hang limp in the absence of the breeze which so often whistles along this stunning stretch of Ayrshire coast. The vivid purple of blooming heather carpets much of the wild areas and dunes, making the verdant green putting surfaces stand out all the more. The setting is breathtaking.
Tradition and romance are synonymous with Prestwick. This is, after all, the birthplace of The Open Championship itself. It may have hosted the last of its 24 Opens in 1925, but the significance of this club to our game, and the aura which surrounds it, endures.
The sound of golfers giddy with a blend of nerves and anticipation fills the air as we approach the entrance to the clubhouse. The 1st tee sits no more than five yards away, directly beneath the secretary’s window. Immediately to the right of the tee is the Ayr-Glasgow railway line which runs the length of this wonderful short par-4. The practice putting green is so close that when you step on to the tee and stoop to place your ball on a peg, golfers there stop, fall silent and turn to watch the drama unfold.
For all those reasons and more, there can few more intimidating opening tee shots in all of golf.
Inside the clubhouse David Fleming, Prestwick Golf Club’s charming head professional, introduces himself. It’s a reflection of the prestige of the position that David is only the eighth head pro in the club’s history. Old Tom Morris himself was the first, having left St Andrews for Prestwick to design and shape the original 12-hole layout with little more than a wheelbarrow, some shovels and a labourer or two. Old Tom made do with the land Mother Nature gave him to create what was essentially the first golf course on Scotland’s west coast. Locals tell us he would go out with pocket full of feathers, marking potential green sites with a quill as he walked the links. Six of those greens are still in play for us today.
Chick, our charismatic forecaddy, steps out of the clubhouse and across to the 1st tee to introduce himself. Jokes are shared about the shots to come. “I’ve seen every shot in the book boys, and plenty more that aren’t,” he says with a broad smile. “I once caddied for Lee Trevino in the morning and a 40-handicapper in the afternoon – that was a fun day!” It’s just the ice breaker we need.
The opening five holes are a wonderful introduction to Prestwick Golf Club. The hand of history is never far from your shoulder as you walk this stretch, but that heritage is combined with a rare of sense of adventure and challenge as you navigate each shot. The par-3 2nd is one of the original greens dating back to 1851. The par-5 3rd is a timeless classic and features the epic Cardinal Bunker.
The 5th, known as Himalayas, is a famous blind par-3. Every hole is notable, each has a feature which makes you stop and think.
The turf is lively, the rippling fairways and quirky bumps full of possibilities and peril. The greens, however, are almost always full of interesting characters. As we stride up the 3rd we spot Robin Barr putting out on the 16th green. His great-grandfather was the inventor of Scotland’s other national drink: Irn-Bru. The early starters also include a 96-year-old gentleman who plays a few holes with his dog. And quite frankly, who can blame him? Why anybody would want to stop playing golf here if they were still able to is beyond me. It’s intoxicating.
The tee boxes, like the names of the holes at Prestwick, are wonderfully functional rather than fussy. Each is marked with the hole number, name – Railway, Tunnel, Cardinal, Bridge, Himalayas, Wall, Narrows, Alps and Clock to name a few – and stroke index, with three slots to indicate whether the flag is at the front, centre or back on any particular day. The truth is though, without our forecaddy we wouldn’t have enjoyed our round, played so well and lost relatively few balls. We’d highly recommend getting one if you have not played here before. The stories and good humour were worth the fee alone.
The finishing stretch at Prestwick is truly unforgettable. The 15th is a wonderful hole and outstrips the 1st as the most intimidating tee shot on the golf course. The clue is in the name: Narrows. “Left is dead, if you go right you can forget about it and you can’t lay back because the green slopes so sharply away from you that you need a wedge in. So just hit it dead straight.” That was the advice of our caddy. The bunkers down the left and right are fierce. The first of them requires a bunker shot of some 20 feet just to clear the brow and get back on the fairway. You have been warned.
The 17th – Alps – is spectacular. This is the oldest existing hole in championship golf, untouched since Old Tom Morris laid it out himself. The tee shot is demanding, another arrow straight drive required, and the approach shot is blind with markers on the Alp ahead of you. Check the tee box to see which marker on the hill to take aim at and then take an extra club. Anything short will end up in the vast Sahara bunker, the clue is in the name. To make matters worse, the green slopes sharply from back to front. All in all, it’s just a wonderful golf hole.
The final hole is fantastic too, a driveable par-4 which dares you to take dead aim at a green 288 yards away, which sits yards in front of the large clubhouse windows. Our caddy shouting, “go in”, as he watched the ball trundle just past the flag through his rangefinder was a moment I won’t forget in a hurry.
The routing has changed markedly since 57 members founded Prestwick Golf Club at the Red Lion Inn, in the heart of the town, in 1851. But the spirit and sense of living history remains. To the west of the clubhouse a simple plate marks the site of the old 1st tee. Nearby, a cairn of stones indicates where the first shot in the history of The Open was struck. Like the whole experience here, it is an understated, elegant reminder of Prestwick’s story and significance. The club hosted its first golf championship just nine years after its formation and it was prompted by the death of Allan Robertson of St Andrews, who until then had been considered far and away the best golfer of the age.
Old Tom Morris gathered seven other professionals to compete over three rounds of 12 holes at Prestwick, with lunch taken at The Red Lion. The story goes that the competition was finished in under five hours, including lunch. Willie Park of Musselburgh, a former caddy, won out that day. The members of Prestwick had paid the princely sum of £25 to buy a trophy for the new competition: a Moroccan red leather Championship Belt with a prominent, decorative silver buckle. And the first rule of The Open was that “the belt shall be safely kept and laid on the table at the next meeting to compete for it until it becomes the property of the winner by being won three times in succession.”
By 1870, Young Tom Morris had done just that. As a result, no competition took place in 1871 but the following year, Prestwick decided to host the tournament once again, this time jointly with The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and the Royal and Ancient Club of St Andrews – each club contributed £10 towards a new trophy, a silver Claret Jug. Prestwick hosted the first 12 Opens, St Andrews the 13th. Both trophies are on display on you right as you walk through the doors of the clubhouse here. Each are replicas with the originals kept at The R&A.
The clubhouse at Prestwick is a rich tapestry of memorabilia. It’s a place where incredible artefacts merge with anticipation and a plethora of different accents. You might expect the home of The Open to have an air of pomposity or pretentiousness but that isn’t what Prestwick Golf Club is about. Visitors are made to feel like members for a day and echoing laughter not hushed voices are the refreshing soundtrack. Every nook carries some significance. The locker room, for instance, feels like portal back to a simpler time with oak lockers dating back to 1882, still in use. As you go to hang your jacket in preparation for the legendary lunch, it’s hard not to feel the presence of the greats of the game around you.
The course itself is an intoxicating blend of fun and danger. Bernard Darwin, the great golf writer, said of it, “The Road Hole at St Andrews may possibly hold the individual record (for difficulty), but surely Prestwick comes first in point of collective devilry.”
The stereotype of Prestwick as a course lost to time, too short to test the better players, a quirky layout full of blind shots, is not only lazy but inaccurate. From the tips, Prestwick remains a fierce test at just under 7,000 yards, with eight par-4s measuring more than 400 yards. And while there are a handful of blind shots they are fun rather than frustrating. Prestwick, though, is about more than challenging shots and unique, original golf holes.
Prestwick Golf Club is an invitation to walk in the footsteps of the founding fathers of our game, to drink in the folklore and go in search of adventure on a course which, while changed, has been enshrined to give those who play it now, a glimpse of golf as it was. You simply must see it for yourselves.