Prestwick: Henry Ford said history is bunk, but here it’s all about the bucks
After my 36-hole indulgence at Turnberry, I suppose the following day at Prestwick was doomed to be a letdown. And when I think back on the experience, I can’t help but conclude that it was. But while timing clearly played a role, I’m convinced my impressions would have been tempered no matter when I paid a visit to the oldest of Old Tom Morris’ creations.
Four words explain why: ridiculously exorbitant green fee.
The Prestwick Golf Club dates back to 1851 when Old Tom mapped out its original crisscrossing 12-hole track. In 1860, it hosted the game’s very first Open championship—won by Musselburgh’s Willie Park—12 years before the arrival of the Claret Jug, the Open’s iconic trophy. That’s because in 1870, Young Tom completed his version of the threepeat and claimed the winner’s prize— a red leather belt with a decorative silver buckle—as his own. That forced the Open’s four founding clubs (St. Andrews, North Berwick, Musselburgh and Prestwick) to pool their resources and commission the fashioning of arguably the world's most famous wine decanter.
As such, Prestwick is drenched in golf history. Sadly, the current membership isn’t shy about trading on it. Now, granted, I got a heckuva deal at Turnberry. Thanks to my wife’s connections, I played the Aisla for just £60. But when I stepped into Prestwick’s pro shop, inquired about a game on a quiet weekday morning and was informed that the tariff would be £130, I was thoroughly gobsmacked.
I mean, what would Willie think? Instead of prize money for his victory 154 years ago, he received just one year’s use of the belt and its associated bragging rights. Now? His heirs are cashing in.
A Pound of Flesh
But what choice did I have? I made the 40-minute drive up the Ayrshire coast from Turnberry specifically to walk these hallowed grounds. Years later, that’s what I would remember, not the $210 dent in my bank account. So I guess the club knows what it’s doing by leveraging its course’s historical significance to the hilt. Unlike my previous day’s extravaganza, though, this was going to be a one-and-done affair. And that’s probably true for all of Prestwick's visitors. Hard to imagine anyone returning to have another go at that price.
The steep green fee also makes it tough to absorb the cost of a caddie, though if ever there was a course in need of a guide, Prestwick is it. Not much of Old Tom’s handiwork remains. But what does isn’t exactly intuitive at first blush. Thankfully, the caddie master indulged me with a quick run through of the holes, in particular those that present blind shots.
I did my best to remember his recommendations, then set off on my own at the 1st hole, a par 4 appropriately named Railway for the train tracks that threaten down the right side. The 2nd hole is a straightforward par 3, so nae bother there.
But the 3rd, aka Cardinal? This is where you get your first full dose of Prestwick’s quirkiness. It’s a par 5, but you want no more than about 200 yards off the tee to keep from running into one of two massive parallel cross bunkers. I managed that with a 5-wood. But the second shot was a head scratcher. I could see what I assumed was the green off in the distance and a hard turn to the right. But the landing area ahead was obscured by an intimidating Pete Dye-like embankment of railroad ties. I selected a hybrid and, trusting my instincts, trimmed a little off the corner of the dogleg. Good guess, as it turned out. I had just a sand wedge left to the green for an easy par.
In fact, I parred five of the first six holes. That includes the Himalayas, a long par 3 dead into the wind (at least when I played it) and directly over a dune that resembles its namesake, completely obscuring the green from view. To give you a fighting chance, the tee box marker indicates whether the pin is located in the front, middle or back of the green. And color-coded posts set into the dune offer a line to the center of the surface from your respective tee. I went with my magic 5-wood and nailed it, making for quite the satisfying feeling when I cleared the crest of the faux Himalayas and found my ball resting safely on the green.
The next three holes are solid but unremarkable, traversing ground that Old Tom didn’t put to use. It’s not until you set foot on the 10th tee and work your way toward and along the Firth of Clyde that you can sense the master’s presence once again. That’s especially true from the 15ththrough the 17th. The latter is known as Alps, a par 4 with a second shot that echoes the first on the Himalayas. Mind the markers, trust your swing and you just might be rewarded after you scale the dune and make your way to the green. It’s pretty darn cool, but also compelling evidence why the Open hasn’t been played here since 1925. Given today’s technology, Prestwick is simply no longer of championship caliber.
Reduced to Replicas
After the round, I set down my bag near the entrance to the clubhouse and wandered back in—this time in search of historical artifacts. This, too, was a disappointment. Prestwick only has a replica of the famous red belt. The original resides in St. Andrews, perhaps because that’s where Young Tom, its owner, made his home. The early Open scorecards in the trophy cases are also copies, the originals apparently tucked away in the club’s archives for safekeeping. And there’s no documentation to indicate which of the current holes are survivors from the first 12 and/or some idea of how Old Tom routed that course over the existing linksland. Golf purists like me come here in search of history. Is it too much to ask of the club to point us in the right direction?
In the end, I’m glad I made the trek. But I can’t deny that it's left a wee bit of a sour aftertaste. And unlike most of the links courses I've played, I can say for certain that I won’t—in the local vernacular—haste ye back.