Prestwick Golf Course
In a land replete with centuries-old castles, dark and forbidding lochs and tales of brutal and bloody battles, it is fitting that the Scots have their own monument to the game they gave the world.
That shrine is not a statue. Nor a gravestone. Nor a memorial. Any one would be too maudlin for a sport lived and breathed by a large percentage of the hardy populace. No, the monument in question is a golf course.
And it isn't St. Andrews.
Fife's "auld grey toon" may justifiably claim to be the "Home of Golf," but Prestwick, on the opposite coast, is the unquestioned home of championship golf. This gnarled old Ayrshire links is to golf what Ebbets Field once was to America's national pastime, baseball; what the old Madison Square Garden in New York was to boxing.
Consider this. Prestwick Golf Club, founded in 1851, nine years later hosted the game's first major championship. In fact, the club was the venue for the first 12 British Opens. Let's put that in perspective. A small Scottish fishing town became the center of the competitive golfing universe a generation before the USGA came up with the New World's national championship. That's more than five decades before Long Jim Barnes became the first PGA champion. And nearly three quarters of a century before a man called Bobby Jones built a course called Augusta National.
History abounds at Prestwick. Indeed, the place is something of an anachronism in the modern game. It is, after all, no ordinary golf course. For one thing, the course used to have 12 holes- now it has a more traditional 18.
The number of blind and semi-blind shots reaches easily into double-digits. One green, the third, is golf's equivalent of the lost city of Atlantis, so inaccessible is its location. On his first visit to Prestwick back in the 1970s, former Open champion Tom Weiskopf needed three guesses before correctly working out exactly where he needed to hit his approach. Another hole, the 15th, barely has a fairway at all. All that is visible from the tee is a wasteland of rough and gorse.
Eccentric is the word that comes to mind. Still, because of all that it means to the game, Prestwick has become the golfing equivalent of Mecca as far as any self-respecting course architect is concerned. Many famous names have made their way there to pay homage to the short 5th, the "Himalayas" and the classic 17th, the "Alps" at the original home of the "sleeper" or railway tie.
"They all go away having learned something new - or old if you want to be precise," says long-time club professional Frank Rennie. "One told me that he had been in the design business for four decades. In all that time he had never built a blind hole in his life, but here at Prestwick he had just had the most fun he'd ever had on a golf course."
Some things have changed over the years, of course. Just not recently. The original 12-holer lasted until 1883 when Old Tom Morris laid out the 18 holes which, apart from a few new back tees, is the same course played by the members today. Morris's connection is appropriate. His son, Young Tom, was the undoubted master of the "old" course. The St. Andrews native was a youngster of 17 when he won his first championship belt in 1868. Two years later he completed his hat trick and the belt was his forever.
1870, in fact, was a vintage year. Morris won the championship by a yawning 12 strokes - Tiger eat your heart out - with the unbelievable total of 149. On the 570-yard first hole he had an eagle three. Considering the equipment and balls at his disposal, Young Tom's score that day has to be one of the finest performances ever.
"The ball, remember, could only go about 190 yards," says Rennie. "To make a three at the first he had to have holed a full shot with his longest club. He must have been some player."
The Open, of course, is no longer played at Prestwick. Today, there just isn't room for all the people, cars and tents needed to stage the world's most important championship. Having said that, the Open left not because of any doubt about the quality of the course but because of what happened to Macdonald Smith back in 1925.
Standing on the first tee before his final round, the Carnoustie-native knew that a score of 78 would be enough to give him the title. Fifteen thousand more of his fellow countrymen knew that too - and they were there to watch him do it. But it wasn't to be. Sadly, amidst scenes that ranged from wild to unruly, the mob distracted Smith to the extent that he shot 82.
"Despite the unselfish and valiant efforts of the Prestwick stewards, I gravely doubt whether a championship should be played there again," wrote Bernard Darwin afterward. "Golf can be altogether too popular."
Today, all that is left to remind the world where the Open began is a cairn marking the spot where the old first tee used to be. It reads: "Prestwick Golf Club 1th hole 578 yards First Open Championship 17th October 1860."
Lest we forget…