A century ago the legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin stated that “a man is less likely to be contradicted in lauding Prestwick than in singing the praises of any other course in Christendom”. How times have changed as nowadays, there are few courses as famous that attract more contention. Put simply, not all first-time visitors fully appreciate that this a links like no other.
Prestwick is in many ways a museum piece, a shrine to the days 150 years ago when it hosted the first Open Championship – and indeed 23 further ones between then and 1925. Not even its fondest admirers would deny that several of the holes would have no place on a contemporary championship course.
But then quite why they should is another question, and in any case who is to say that the modern version of the game is any better than that which the likes of Old Tom Morris, appointed keeper of the greens here in 1851, Willie Park and Young Tom Morris excelled at all that time ago?
Taken at face value, it is an extraordinary course, packed with holes that to the modern eye are nothing less than outrageous. Take the opening hole, which some believe would be better if it came at any other point of the round.
Measuring a modest 335 yards, the railway line runs up the right-hand side a matter of yards away from the fairway throughout, and there is barely room to pull a trolley between the boundary wall and the right-hand edge of the green.
Up the left is gorse, making the opening moments of the round a test of nerve as much as golf. A mid-iron followed by a semi-blind short-iron is all that is generally required but even the best players breathe a sigh of relief having found the green in regulation.
Then there is the 3rd, a short par 5 played over the gigantic Cardinal bunkers that then doglegs to the right. At the par-3 5th, Himalayas, you take aim at a marker post on the towering dunes in front and fire into oblivion, trusting there is a green on the other side.
For anyone with a golfing soul, who has a sense of adventure and is prepared to engage their brains, it remains quite simply a must-play.
On the back nine is a green the like of which you can never have encountered before – because it is unique. The 13th, Sea Headrig, is 460 yards but its putting surface that resembles the Irish Sea on a bad day can seem impossible to hold with a pitch, let alone a long iron or wood.
At times like this, it must be borne in mind that the concept of par had yet to be invented when Old Tom originally designed the 12-hole layout that only became the 18 we see today in 1883. In other words, the challenge on each and every hole is simply to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible.
Treat the 13th as a par 4 on a day when it is played into a strong wind and you are likely to be disappointed, but on such a day other holes will be much more yielding. Sea Headrig is, more realistically, a par 4 1/2, but a few others, like the 16th and 18th, are no more than 3 1/2s, so it all balances out.
The 15th is arguably the most mischievous short four in golf. Called Narrows for a reason, there are really two ways of tackling it. The first is to hit no more than 175 yards from the tee to a comparatively wide and flat – such things being relative on this hole – piece of fairway and the second to dispense with caution and fire at the distant green that can be within range of a helping wind.
Either way, the green almost defies description, suffice to say there seems to be no good angle from which to approach it. The 16th is easier, but with Willie Campbell’s Grave (a bunker, in case you were wondering) perfectly placed to catch an overly cautious drive it is another hole that can make a fool of the unwary.
The final thrill comes at the 17th, Alps, where the hole seems to end around 275 yards from the tee. The green, believe it or not, is over the other side of a rough-clad hill, just beyond the Sahara bunker, whose name says it all.
In between and around these trademark holes, the golf is worthy, sometimes outstanding but never less than subtle. And unless you have played the course several times, completely overshadowed. It takes an open mind to get the most out of a visit here and if it is modern, championship golf you are after then, frankly, there are many other places you should consider first.
But for anyone with a golfing soul, who is in any way interested in the game’s past, who wants to get a flavour of the challenges posed many years ago, who has a sense of adventure and is prepared to engage their brains, it remains quite simply a must-play.