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Origins of the Open: Prestwick’s Place in History

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Prestwick Golf Club is located in South Ayrshire, Scotland, approximately 30 miles southwest of Glasgow. Founded over 160 years ago, the club has been the site of many significant events in golf history, including the first Open Championship, contested by just eight players. Prestwick was home to 24 Open Championships, with 1925 being its last. Prestwick was also the site of the golf’s first recorded ‘albatross’ by Young Tom Morris in 1868.

The course’s original 12-hole layout was designed by Old Tom Morris and then expanded to 18 holes in 1882. The routing was characterized by its use of the natural, undulating terrain, which was common among the few dozen golf clubs worldwide. Morris created a unique layout with several fairways crossing each other, including shared greens, such as the third and sixth holes.

In this article, we will delve into the rich history, prominent events, and notable characteristics of Prestwick Golf Club. We will also explore the club’s unique location, its architectural features, the stunning landscape that surrounds it, and why it remains a monument to the history and tradition of golf. The images in this post are simulations, as always, to set the scene and provide context. I have linked some great sources for further reading, packed with photos of Prestwick and other great links courses.

prestwick open

Origins and History

Prestwick Golf Club’s inception dates back to July 2, 1851, when 57 golf enthusiasts gathered at the Red Lion Inn in Prestwick, shortly after the railway between Glasgow and Ayr opened. The Earl of Eglinton, the club’s first Captain, presented a gold medal for competition, a tradition that continues today. The club’s founders included Major James Ogilvie Fairlie, a key figure in organizing a Grand National Tournament at St. Andrews, which further solidified Prestwick’s place in golfing history.

Old Tom Morris, who was the “Keeper of the Green, Ball, and Club Maker” from 1851 to 1864, was instrumental in shaping the early years of Prestwick Golf Club. Morris, originally from St. Andrews, moved to Prestwick to design and build the course, which measured 3,799 yards, with the first hole alone being 578 yards. The course originally had 12 holes and was expanded to 18 in 1882.

Six of the original greens and three of the original holes are still in play on the current 18-hole course, which includes the 17th (Alps), 3rd (Cardinal), and 13th (Sea Headrig). The club’s proximity to Royal Troon and Turnberry makes it prominent in a region rich with golfing heritage. The iconic first hole, aptly named “Railway,” with out-of-bounds and a railway line hugging the right, was not part of the original design.

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The Open Championship

The first 12 Open Championships were held at Prestwick. It hosted a total of 24 between 1860 and 1925. The first event in 1860 was by invitation, with eight local clubs invited to send their best man. Willie Park Sr won and was awarded the Challenge Belt. The following year, it was decided the event would be “open” to the world. Young Tom Morris holds the record for the lowest score in Open history at Prestwick, shooting a 36-hole total of 149 in 1868.

After his third successive Open win in 1870, Young Tom was permitted to keep the winner’s prize, then a championship belt. The membership then created the gold medals still presented each year and readied the new prize, the Claret Jug. Morris won again in 1872, his fourth straight Open, but the Claret Jug did not debut until 1873. Notably, the winner is not formally called the “Open Champion” but is referred to as the “Winner of the Gold Medal and Champion Golfer of the Year.”

Other notable winners include Willie Park of Musselburgh, who triumphed over Old Tom Morris in 1860, and Old Tom himself winning in 1861. Other winners include John Ball Jr., Harry Vardon, and James Braid. Prestwick’s final Open Championship in 1925 attracted a crowd estimated at 15,000.

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Did You Know?

The Open Championship stopped being held at Prestwick Golf Club due to serious overcrowding problems. The last Open at Prestwick in 1925 saw many spectators, reports of over 15,000, and the course was deemed unable to accommodate such large crowds. The course’s layout, with holes tightly packed together, would have made crowd movement between holes impossible, especially as interest in watching the Open grew.

Bernard Darwin reported after the 1925 Open that there were too many people, and despite the efforts of the Prestwick stewards, he doubted whether a championship should be played there again. This sentiment was echoed by others who felt that while the course presented a severe challenge, it could no longer handle the crowds that had become part and parcel of staging a major golf event.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews saw interest growing, increased the tournament to 72 holes, and replaced Prestwick with Carnoustie as the third Scottish course. It is worth noting that some sources state that no reason was ever given for Prestwick’s removal from the Open Rota.

prestwick bunker

Other Notable Tournaments

In addition to The Open, Prestwick has hosted a number of other significant tournaments. The club has been the setting for eleven Amateur Championships between 1888 and 2001. Michael Hoey won the most recent Amateur Championship at Prestwick from Shandon Park, Northern Ireland. Prestwick has also hosted the Scottish Amateur Championship on eight occasions, with three of its own members among the winners: J. Robb in 1920, WD Smith in 1958, and KW Macintosh in 1979.

The last professional tournament staged at Prestwick was the Penfold-Swallow in 1958, won by Harry Weetman in a playoff against Harry Bradshaw. Christy O’Connor won the Dunlop Masters two years earlier with a score of 277. Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was filmed on multiple links courses in the UK, including St. Andrew’s, and I can’t help but feel like that was a missed opportunity to showcase the course during the 1960s.

Prestwick has recently hosted important amateur tournaments, including the 2013 British Ladies’ Amateur Championship, the 100th Scottish Ladies Amateur Championship, and the 88th Boys’ Amateur Championship.

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The Course

Prestwick is, of course, a classic links course, built on the rolling sandy land between the beach and the hinterland, near the Prestwick airport, with some holes running along railway tracks on the eastern side of the course. It plays to a par 71, is known for its distinctive landscape and natural features, and remains a testament to the traditional design principles of golf. When author Jeff Wallach asked his caddy who built the course, the caddie responded, “God. With a little help from Old Tom Morris.”

The course is often described as a moonscape due to its unique terrain. It features large undulating greens with a routing that snakes to and fro through rugged dunes and rippled fairways.  The course is less than a mile from the beach, resulting in significant coastal winds.

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“The Railway,” the opening par- 4, is renowned for having an out-of-bounds wall running down the right-hand side from tee to green, a distinctive feature that amps up the nerves on the opening tee shot. Also notable is the 5th, the template Himalayas, a world-famous blind short hole. The prevailing wind can push the ball toward five bunkers on the left side of the green. Other memorable holes include the 2nd hole, known as “Tunnel,” the 10th hole, known as “Arran,” and the 12th hole, known as “Wall.”

The 17th, “Alps,” was originally the 2nd hole and is the oldest existing hole in championship golf. It is a template copied repeatedly, notably at National Golf Links of America and Old MacDonald. A drive to a narrow fairway sets the blind second over the “Alps” to a green guarded by the “Sahara” bunker. The infamous bell sits adjacent, a signal to the next group that the green is clear.

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Prestwick Today

The prefix ‘Royal’ is granted to golf clubs by the reigning monarch, usually when a member of the Royal family is invited to be a patron or an honorary member, or when the club applies for the title. The title is typically bestowed upon institutions of eminence, long standing, and secure financial position, and those devoted to national, charitable, and scientific objects. Think Royal Troon, Royal Dornoch, Royal Portrush.

Prestwic, while a historic and significant club, has not been granted the ‘Royal’ prefix. The reasons for this are not explicitly clear; however, it’s important to note that not all clubs that apply for the ‘Royal’ status receive it. The granting of the ‘Royal’ title is at the discretion of the reigning monarch and is considered a significant honor. Prestwick has not hosted the Open Championship since 1925, which may also be a factor.

Today, Prestwick Golf Club continues to be a premier destination. The club is known for providing exceptionally friendly service and an impeccably maintained golf course. The clubhouse is steeped in history, with wood-paneled rooms and picture frames of old champions, club professionals, and administrators. It is a private members’ club, but visitors may book to play the course on most days of the week. The club maintains an amazing reverence for its history without the attitude that could come with having such a vital place in golf.

Despite changes, the spirit and sense of living history remain. The club’s rich history, unique course design, and role as the origin of The Open Championship solidify Prestwick’s place in the annals of golf history. 

Visit Prestwick online at https://www.prestwickgc.co.uk/.

prestwick bell

Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Beyond the Fairway
by Jeff Wallach

Summary: “Beyond the Fairway” by Jeff Wallach offers a unique exploration of golf that transcends the traditional focus on scores and performance. Wallach presents golf as an avenue for self-discovery and adventure, inviting readers to consider the spiritual and mental aspects of the game. The book takes readers on a journey through some of the world’s most extraordinary and challenging golf courses, providing insights into the inner attitudes and Zen lessons that can be learned from the game.

I have read the first chapter of this book titled “Well Connected Golfing in Scotland,” at least a dozen times. Jeff visits Prestwick, enjoys a good meal, plays a few rounds, and makes me jealous.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

the open book

The 150th Open
by Iain Carter

Summary: The 150th Open is the official book celebrating the sesquicentennial (seriously, that’s a thing) of golf’s oldest major championship, produced in partnership with The R&A and capturing the history and stories that make The Open unique.  From its 1860 origins in Prestwick to today’s iconic venues, the book chronicles The Open through archival images and interviews with past champions, reflecting on characters, courses, and moments that have defined this revered event over 150 years. The comprehensive narrative and visual history in The 150th Open commemorates The Open Championship’s illustrious past and enduring prestige as golf’s most beloved tournament.

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