Back in October 1860, the first Open Championship was conducted in Ayrshire over a 12-hole layout that no longer exists – or at least it didn't until Prestwick uncovered it once more
On a windy Ayrshire links in the town of Prestwick, I took to considering the very essence of championship golf. If you were to strip it down to its roots, and get rid of the noise and the pomp, and the celebrity and the ceremony, what makes a championship?
Last summer, the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews blew me away with its scale and ambition. A festival of golf played out in dramatic fashion over my favourite, and perhaps the greatest, links. With a quarter of a million spectators on the ground and the scenes beamed to homes around the world, it was undoubtedly of ‘championship’ proportions.
It was the juxtaposition between that event and this which caused me to take stock last week, for I was stood on the 12th tee of the original championship course – Prestwick.
Prestwick was the birthplace of the Open. The place where, on the 17th October, 1860, eight challengers played 36 holes to determine who was the ‘Champion Golfer’ of Scotland.
For many years, Allan Robertson was the undisputed bearer of that grand title. Robertson was the keeper of the green and, for want of a better term, ‘head pro’ at St Andrews. Allegedly, he never lost a singles match for money, and was the first to break 80 around the Old.
When he died in 1859, the question of who would take up his mantle as the ‘Champion Golfer’ is one they decided to settle by way of a championship, and 162 years ago today, that score was settled.
Willie Park of Musselburgh pipped Old Tom by two shots, winning a red leather belt and the title of ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’. Of course, this is still the honour bestowed on the Champion today – and like many of the traditions, it started at Prestwick Golf Club.
The 12 hole links at Prestwick hosted the first dozen Championships. In 1870, Young Tom Morris, the first dominant force of the era, won his third Open in succession and kept the Champion Belt.
As the tournament had grown in stature and interest, Prestwick reached out to the two oldest clubs in Scotland to see if they’d share the investment in a new prize and future hosting duties.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews obliged, the three clubs contributing to a new ‘Champion Trophy’ – better known today as ‘The Claret Jug’. This was also the start of the first Open Rota. Championships were still 36 holes, but each course had a different number of holes.
Prestwick was the traditional three loops of 12, the Old Course was two rounds of 18, while Musselburgh (the home of HCEG until they moved to Muirfield in 1892) was four lots of nine.
Nowadays, Prestwick is 18 (and a fabulous 18 at that) but only one of the original Championship holes remains in its entirety.
To mark the 150th Open Championship, the club has gone to great lengths to reinstate the original 12 hole course. Rebuilding a green hidden under long grass and bramble. Cutting fairways left untouched for a century – this hasn’t been a task lacking in ambition.
If the modern Prestwick links is full of the quirk and eccentricity, ‘Old Prestwick’ is certifiably insane. Old Tom moved little land when he laid out 12 holes that tested all aspects of your game, imagination and patience.
Traversing the undulating land with alacrity, holes cross one another, play blindly over hills and require a team of marshals to shepherd us safely around. Whilst it was a routing from a bygone era, the test was as relevant as ever.
The round starts with a 578 yard ‘bogey 6’, a hole where Young Tommy once recorded a 3. With my hickory clubs and modern golf ball, the green was well out of range for my third shot. If I’d also been dealing with a gutta percha golf ball, his feat felt beyond belief.
Other heroics by the young Champion included a hole in one on the long par 3 8th. Again, no pushover, it’s almost 180 yards of carry over heather and hell – as formidable a par 3 as any on the modern rota.
So, as I stood on the Home tee, it felt appropriate to consider the genesis of championship golf. In almost every way, it has changed beyond all recognition.
Yet, the best players of the day still battle over seaside landscapes of quirk and charm. They still use their great skill and imagination to will their ball into distant holes, and they still fight for the honour of being the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’.
In short, nothing that matters has changed a jot.