PRESTWICK, Scotland — In all other respects, it was just an ordinary October Wednesday in Prestwick 162 years ago. But at the local links level, a golf competition was about to be born. Three weeks before Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th President of the United States and just months before America indulged in the ultimate oxymoron, a civil war, eight contestants, seven Scots and one Englishman, were preparing to to play.
The tournament was played over 36 holes and there was no halfway cut (so no world ranking points were awarded). But it was the start of what is now golf’s most historic event, the open championship. Which was, at least for this first game, a misnomer. No amateurs were allowed in, only professionals.
It was not until the night before the second performance of the event in 1861 that it was decided that the event would be open to the world. This reference is still found in the Prestwick Golf Club minute book and probably led to the expression ‘the Open’. The first event, however, was actually not an Open. It was by invitation, much like the Masters and simply an effort to find a successor to Allan Robertson, the so-called ‘champion golfer of Scotland’ who had died the previous year.
“Robertson was the first player to beat 80 on the Old Course at St. Andrews,” said Ken Goodwin, Prestwick secretary. “He never lost a money game by playing his own ball. He never lost a money match with a Morris as his partner. The members of Prestwick, more for their own amusement than anything else, thought it would be good to have an event to identify the new champion. There was no enthusiasm from St. Andrews or Musselburgh, so they did it themselves. Most good players would come to Prestwick to caddie for their gentlemen in the fall medal. So they would be there anyway.
Play started at noon on October 17, 1860 – late for this time of year in Scotland – but there was no risk that golfers would recover before dark. After two loops of the 12-hole circuit, they even had time to take a break at the Red Lion Inn before returning to the course for the third round. All done in four and a half hours.
The Prestwick club’s ‘green keeper and club and ball maker’, Old Tom Morris, had designed the layout nine years earlier and was a heavy favorite to win the top prize, the Moroccan Championship red belt which cost £25 to hosts. But that was not to be the case. With a score of 174—55-59-60—Willie Park Sr. of Musselburgh claimed the first of what would be his four Open victories, two strokes ahead of Morris.
“Old Tom’s approach to course design was interesting,” says Goodwin. “There are two versions. In one, he walked around with a pocket full of feathers. And in the other, a pocket of sticks. He went out and looked for good places for the greens, which he marked with a feather or a stick, depending on which version you believe. Then he walked away and found another. And another. If there was a sand dune or depression in the way, it was up to the golfer to negotiate it. Either you cross it, or you go around it.
This fundamental strategy continues to apply today to Prestwick’s now 18-hole layout, which uses six of the original 12 greens. The course remains decidedly old-fashioned, a scenic and quirky mix of bumps, dips and blind strokes. And, luckily, one hole survived Day 1. The 17th par-4 (“the Alps”) the members are playing today is the one played in the first Open. The second on the 12-hole course, it is 385 yards and neater now than it was then. But golfers always play on the same hill. The Sahara bunker is still in front of the green. And the green is always marked by an extreme slope. It is the oldest existing hole in major golf championships.
Either way, starting October 10 and for two weeks this month, the original Open layout, recreated like never before, will be available to a mix of members, media, and, at least a few days, of visitors.
“We always had a good idea of where the greens were and the routing,” Goodwin said. “The big problem was that we didn’t have the equipment to do the job. So the whole thing was really quite rudimentary. It took a long time to prepare. But now we have the equipment that allows us to cut large sections of rough. We did it. Take the first/12th hole. A year ago the fairway was covered with 18 inch long grass.
Inevitably, some compromises had to be made when trying to recover or recover the original course. At the seventh court, “Green Hollow”, where the semi-blind putting surface is in what was rough, the construction of a putting green was necessary. So it won’t be the same condition as the original. But even the worst green is probably better than the best green in 1860. And yes, the fairways are still a little rough in places. But that was how it was back then. At that time, we played a lot of golf in the winter. In the summer cattle and sheep were used to graze and maintain the grass as much as possible.
Another characteristic of the 19th century will be highlighted this month. Rather than the usual flags, the pins will be topped with baskets, something that will be more than familiar to those who have visited Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia, which has hosted the US Open five times.
“Back then, you could use whatever you wanted to indicate the position of the holes,” Goodwin said. “Some courses used rags at the end of the sticks. But Prestwick preferred the baskets, which were probably originally small fishing nets. Sometime in the early 20th century we stopped using baskets and moved to flags. But this month, we’re recreating the original feel. Hugh Wilson, who would go on to design Merion, visited there in 1910 and brought the idea back to the United States.
Another fun feature is the scorecard for the original 12 holes. For some reason, officials at the Prestwick club weren’t content with mere yardages. Not precise enough. Take the first hole, ‘Back of Cardinal’, which is played from the cairn just beside the entrance to the club to what is now the 16th green and where, in 1870, young Tom Morris started his third consecutive Open victory with a remarkable 3. On the map, the hole is listed as a “bogey six” and a “stroke rating one” befitting the toughest hole on the course. And the distance from the tee to the basket: 578 yards, one foot and nine inches.
Indeed, there is no need for rangefinders at the “old” Prestwick. Other examples: The second longest hole on the original Open course is the fourth, “Wall”, which measures 448 meters, two feet and five inches. The eighth, “Station”, (where Young Tom made the first open hole-in-one in 1869) is 166 yards and four inches. And the 10th, “Lunch House”, is 213 meters, one foot and two inches.
One last thing: in 1851, when the course was first introduced, health and safety issues were clearly not part of Old Tom’s thinking. On the 314-yard, one-foot-nine sixth hole, “Tunnel (White)”, golf is a dangerous activity. From the tee, the route to what is also the third green on “Tunnel (Red)” means sharing space with those playing the fifth, first and 12th holes, then entering what locals colloquially refer to, “the murderous zone”. There, the players of the second, ninth and seventh holes interfere with each other.
However, let’s not be too harsh. Given what the Open is like today, it’s hard to argue that Prestwick’s men got it too wrong.