Prestwick Purgatory and the Lion's Den lead image

Between Purgatory and the Lion’s Den

A hole-by-hole walk through the birthplace of major championship golf: Prestwick’s original 12

Why did we never see the old twelve-hole course? It must have been utterly fascinating, as it wound its way from dell to dell; and the names of the old holes have a lovely ring. Some of them still exist; we can rejoice over the Alps and the Sea Headrig and the Back of the Cardinal, but there is no Green Hollow and that is the best name of all, for it brings instantly to the mind’s eye a picture of Prestwick in its most seductive mood.

—James E. Shaw
Prestwick Golf Club: A History and Some Records
(Glasgow: Jackson, Son & Co., 1938)

Despite Yogi Berra being lampooned for uttering “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” the phrase has long been a favorite of mine. It’s a daft nod to Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, that German egghead’s theory of events repeating infinitely across boundless time and space. It’s a brisk autumnal Monday morning in Ayrshire, Scotland, and the mystic chords of memory are oscillating across the universe near and far.

“Everything Has Led to This” was the 150th Open Championship tagline, and I am at the start of Everything. In 1860, 162 years ago to this day, the first Open Championship was held at Prestwick Golf Club as eight good men set out to decide the Champion Golfer, the man who’d take home the Championship Belt—that timeless red Moroccan leather fashion accessory put up by the host club. Upon the death of Allan Robertson the previous year, the members of Prestwick conceived golf’s first major, bidding to prove that their man, their Keeper of the Green, Tom Morris Sr., was the greatest star of the game. History does not tell us if the winner, Willie Park Sr., lamented the lack of matching shoes and prize money, although rumor has it that Morris took home £3 for his second-place troubles.

The R&A formalized the length of matches as 18 holes in 1842, but layouts of that day were dictated almost solely by the land. In this regard, Morris, Prestwick’s architect, was sui generis. Players of that day weren’t going to slide into a base layer, a comfortable pair of shoes and a lightweight waterproof jacket. Instead, as the Second Opium War raged—the British and the French empires pitted against the Qing dynasty of China—golfers pulled on tweed coats and hobnail boots. And because no one had thought to invent the golf bag, they carried in their hands the clubs they would employ on the 12-hole Prestwick layout conjured from the imagination of Old Tom.

To celebrate the anniversary of the 150th playing of the Open, Prestwick Golf Club had planned to re-create its original course in 2021, coinciding with the championship being played at St. Andrews and 200 years since the birth of Old Tom in 1861. Now, because of the pandemic, it is in sync with the former but not the latter, even though the Toms Morris, Old and Young, are much on everybody’s mind today. I am set to tee off on an ancient layout carved with expert and loving precision from Prestwick’s current 18, furnished with features, hazards and hollows with names like Slough of Despond, Zareba and Pandemonium. 

It’s Day 8 of the scheduled 14 of the original course being in use. This Monday, I am playing on the Prestwick side in a triangular match against the might and tweeds of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (their home better known as Muirfield), the three clubs having funded the purchase of the claret jug. When Young Tom Morris won his third consecutive Open, in 1870, he was given the red leather belt for keeps. This meant that in 1871 there was no tournament, as there was no prize. In 1872 Tommy won again, and was awarded the gold medal so familiar from today’s Open Championship ceremonies. The medal remained, but when Tom Kidd triumphed at the Old Course in 1873, he was the initial victor to receive the claret jug, albeit the first name to appear thereon was Tommy’s, for his win the previous year.

Annually, Prestwick plays a number of formal matches. For home clashes with the likes of today’s guests, the format is relaxed dining in a local eatery the evening before, where all the players get to know each other, and then, usually on a Saturday, two rounds of foursomes, with a mix-up game Sunday morning before the visitors even consider departing. All of this is punctuated with two lunches and a black-tie dinner at PGC’s long table, where the menu puts many fine restaurants to shame. As a consequence, the captain’s year in office is a test of mind, body and golfing soul, a series of triathlons involving the three classic legs: golf, food, beverages. After each repast, the port is passed—clockwise, please—and thereafter teams repair to the Smoke Room for kümmel and other energy drinks. 

Today’s match differs because, in homage to that first Open, it’s stroke play—games of three, featuring a player from each club. And while what follows is mostly the highs and lows from this match, I was also fortunate enough to play twice on the Saturday and once on the Sunday preceding it. It’s allowed me a much fuller appreciation of these 12 original beauties, while also sparing you many of the scorecard indignities suffered along the way.

Between Purgatory and the Lion's Den Prestwick No. 24
Prestwick remains a humble club—no marker exists on the course to commemorate the fact that it hosted the game’s first major championship weeks before Abraham Lincoln took office as president—but the clubhouse walls let visitors know the magnitude of the history it’s hosted and the club’s archive is a treasure trove of books and maps celebrating its past.

578 Yards
Bogey: 6 – Stroke Index: 1

Many who’ve played Prestwick can visualize the original first. Tee sited at the cairn left of the entrance and short-game area, it runs to the oldest target in championship golf, the current 16th green. On its way, the 578-yard behemoth snakes around the green at Sea Headrig (the dastardly 13th of modernity).  As I peer into the distance, beyond innumerable humps and hollows I see the pin, almost hanging in the sky like some ethereal infinity green. To add insult, the fairway starts to choke at about 220 yards, then narrows for another 100. So, with the wind at my back, it’s a 4-iron, leaving myself a mere 360 yards in. In the 1870 Open, Young Tom made a 3 here, a perverse early exemplar of strokes gained, but this Monday morning our group manages a 7, an 8 and a 9. I can report that I am the owner of the 7, and in golf’s early days the notion of par had not yet been conceived and calibrated. Instead, “bogey” was deemed the reasonable number of strokes for the good golfing gentleman to record on a particular hole. In old money, I am already 1 over.

[2] ALPS
385 Yards 
Bogey: 4 – Stroke Index: 3

Things are low-key at Prestwick. There is no plaque, no indication whatsoever that you are about to play major golf’s most ancient test. Indeed, the playing of the inaugural major was three weeks before Abe Lincoln entered the White House. So, we unceremoniously do battle with the same Alps (the modern 17th) from those days, culminating in a blind shot over the eponymous hill and the famed Sahara bunker.

As I’m lucky enough to have been playing this hole for more than 35 years, today is no surprise. Off my own or via a shared ball, I have hit everything into the green from 3-wood to lob wedge. I’ve played in winds so fierce and rain so hard that the green in regulation is more dream than reality, despite the card telling me it’s a mere 385 yards. Without the wind, a perfect drive would be laced down the middle, coming to rest somewhere between Purgatory and the Lion’s Den. Perversely, on my first playing of the 12 holes on Saturday, I took a 10. Later this afternoon, having driven into a stiff three-club wind and come out of my tee shot a smidgen early, I am forced to play a 9-iron out of the rough and up the fairway. Then I hole out from 107 yards for a birdie. It’s a funny game, the golf.

[3] TUNNEL (Red)
167 Yards 
Bogey: 3 – Stroke Index: 9

 In the name of safety, some of the tees in this setup are not quite next to the original greens, so the modern second plays as today’s third, with a stark difference: It’s a double green with a red basket right for the third hole and a white basket left serving as the sixth. Saturday’s red target was cut just below the top of a daunting swale on the right side of the green, a place I have never seen a pin here. I knocked an 8-iron onto the front edge, hit a putt that broke 6 feet left in the middle and then, in the last 8 feet of its journey, broke 5 feet right and toppled in for a 2. None could quite believe it. Although synonymous with Merion, baskets were used at Prestwick until around 1910, and it’s believed that when Hugh Wilson visited, he took the idea with him back to Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

[4] WALL 
448 Yards 
Bogey: 5 – Stroke Index: 2

 No. 4 is the modern third off a front tee, and another layup, this time shy of the Cardinal bunker (and the “island” ninth green). Once more, ancient golfing history meets the new, as Old Tom’s use of railroad ties (“railway sleepers,” as we call them) to shore up the small hill beyond the back of the traps influenced Pete Dye at TPC Sawgrass, PGA West and beyond. I have an iron in for my second shot, and I later learn that R&A Captain Clive Brown recorded a sweet eagle. I make birdie, but with a shorter putt on the same line in the afternoon, I miss right. Such is the power of lunchtime claret and port.

440 Yards 
Bogey: 5 – Stroke Index: 4

In Twitter parlance, No. 5 is a hole that’s not a hole, although it plays almost exactly like the modern 13th, except one starts from a front-left forward tee at the modern fourth, but going in the opposite direction.

On Saturday, I spent most of my first round as confused as that last sentence. In a stroke-play event, I was out with a local member and two pals from Columbus, Ohio, in a four-ball. Add a rotten three-club wind, plus lots of chat and tale-telling, and we were moving at the pace of a PGA Tour group with J.B. Holmes and Ben Crane. This is where the marshals came in. Due to the often perplexing crossovers required to play this routing, a series of marshals in highly visible attire were all over the course: one with each group, several roving ones and finally some stationed at the most trafficked (and potentially dangerous) locations. During that Saturday round, I had to step off my third shot thrice as our walking marshal, Gary, spoke to Terry, 150 yards east of me, on the walkie-talkie, asking if we were OK to play. So I was in an agitated state of flux as I faced my 220-yard approach to PGC’s craziest green. For the Monday triangular match, the wind is stronger, forcing a punch 6-iron from 116 yards.

[6] TUNNEL (White) 
314 Yards 
Bogey: 4 – Stroke Index: 5

 Until now, we’ve really just played extreme, sadistic versions of the modern 16th, 17th, second and third, and a modified version of the 13th. At the esoteric sixth, things get interesting or confusing, depending on how much kümmel one has had for lunch (or breakfast). For the lesser player, it’s a conundrum. Playing across the modern 13th and 17th fairways, the drive requires a carry over some very nasty heather before one turns right round a hill to open up the hole that now faces back to the modern second green and the white basket protected by a trap directly at the entrance of the hole. This is why group marshals, roaming marshals and static marshals are all key: We are playing across the fifth, 12th, first, 10th and ninth, then encroaching on the fourth while hitting to the green shared with the third. If it is tiring merely reading that, imagine playing it with a full tee sheet. It’s an underwriter’s cardiovascular event, a health and safety calamity waiting to happen, and while the marshals all appear to be wearing simple but fluorescent baseball caps, they are actually hard hats.

In previous re-creations of Prestwick’s original 12—last in 2001—play was controlled by flags, but on a typically gloomy Scottish autumn day it could be near impossible to work out what was red, what was green and for whom the signal was intended. This time around, someone’s brainwave was so great that even the R&A was impressed with the control of play: Flags were exchanged for LED flashlights that meant red or green signals could be directed at the recipient from afar. 

At 314 yards, and with the strong wind at my back on Monday afternoon, Alistair, my Muirfield playing partner, encourages me to “have a go.” I whip my drive too low to ride the full wind, but strike it well enough that it’ll be greenside. After being left with a 6-iron chip-and-run with about 15 feet of break, my ball comes to rest directly behind the hole, about 6 inches away. I tap in. Along with my holed 9-iron, things are looking up this afternoon.

144 Yards
Bogey: 3 – Stroke Index: 10

 A quirky short hole, this new green has been shaped out of the rough that comes into play on the modern 15th. As a benchmark of the attention given by the greenskeeping team in preparing the course, head super Dave Edmondson and his men cut out a patch of rough and replaced it with fescue taken from the range at the far end of the course, not too distant from Royal Troon. The result is a surface that putts true while presenting a rather slippery test, a sharp slope forming a kind of backstop for the aggressive player. Any tee shot landing left is a death sentence, as a brown hollow of pure heather awaits. Having made this exact mistake on Saturday morning, I spend my next three attempts clubbing up and favoring the right, which only then brings into play the perilous backstop.

At 6-foot-2, Edmondson might seem like an imposing figure, but his affable smile and congenial manner emphasize he’s a Lancastrian from Preston, England, who shares with the Scots a straightforward honesty steeped in a solid work ethic. Aside from Green Hollow, and maintaining the fairways, rough and five ersatz greens for a year—intensively for the final few months—another labor of love was the usually juicy, thick rough that lay along the left side of the modern 14th, a nasty bit of sward integral to both the first and final fairways of old. Years ago, this zone was a pond, but, committed to authenticity wherever possible, the greenskeepers mowed the turf with two different types of machine to reduce the grass to fairway level. It was no simple trick to use such modern tools to bring us squarely into the mid-19th century, but they pulled it off brilliantly.

166 Yards 
Bogey: 3 – Stroke Index: 11

Station makes the 17th at Pebble Beach look welcoming. We’re playing from the modern 16th tee down to the first part of the fairway at Narrows, the modern 15th, to the blind side of a plateau holding a target that fully slopes away. A bunker, aptly named Pot, presents a cavernous end for any ball short and right. Always facing a breeze, on my four attempts I hit 5-iron, 6-iron, rescue 3 and rescue 2. I make a single par, yet Michael Beamish, captain of the HCEG, records his second 2, the first achieved on Thursday, both drivers knocked stiff. Remarkable! But this challenging par 3’s greatest moment was when Young Tom recorded the first hole-in-one in major golf, at the Open of 1869. He also notched up his second win on the trot, along with the £6 first prize. 

[9] BURN
395 Yards
Bogey: 4 – Stroke Index: 7

An iconic hole of the original layout, the green rests in a near-island near the Cardinal bunker complex of the modern third. Although relatively short, the angles are discombobulating, as we are driving from the right side of the modern 15th, then down the modern 17th, where the fairway runs out at 260 yards. The bold (or insane) who attempt a big drive risk finding the heathery rough at 17, the pot bunker on the left side of the modern third or, if they turn out their tee ball early and ride the wind, the burn 300 yards away. A well-struck shot leaves anything from 150 to 100 yards into a blind target surrounded by sand. In my bounce game on Sunday, three of our four-ball were all in tight, less than 8 feet away. Three pars. It seems extreme to compare this place with Pine Valley, but it’s truly the only other test I have faced (and failed) like it.

Between Purgatory and the Lion's Den Prestwick No. 24
The original ninth requires a drive from the right side of the modern 15th down the modern 17th. It is no wonder that hard hats and three sets of marshals are needed.

213 Yards
Bogey: 4 – Stroke Index: 8

And now, finally, the madness of the modern 15th green is explained. Those who play it never forget it, as it slopes downhill almost uniformly at 30 degrees, left to right. On Monday it’s a driver, slightly uphill and, for 14 days only, into the heart of the now very welcoming green. Highlight of the day has to be Bruce from HCEG stiffing his approach from about 40 yards for a lovely birdie. Lowlight is me driving it pin high just on the left fringe, then, not entirely surprisingly, three-putting from 30 feet with 15 feet of left-to-right break.

[11] SHORT
132 Yards
Bogey: 3 – Stroke Index: 12

The penultimate test is a flick from a front tee at the modern 16th down to a hole that lies in the middle of that hole’s fairway. On Saturday, I clipped an easy 9-iron into 5 feet. This felt great until I realized I had 2 feet of break: cast-iron 3. On Monday, I record a 5 and a 4, both times flirting with the false left flank of the green. Nasty.

[12] HOME
416 Yards
Bogey: 4 – Stroke Index: 6

And now for surely the sternest test—and I’ve been using modern clubs and ball. The tee shot at Home is from the right side of the modern 13th fairway, but the player has to aim at the same narrow channel employed by the first hole, with the additional spice that it’s usually into the prevailing wind and that one attacks that small isthmus from 45 degrees. Straight through the breeze is not possible, requiring as it does a 252-yard carry over the rough beyond Sea Headrig. I have to imagine that originally the rough was less daunting, as I cannot see how even a gentle breeze allows for a “par” 4. During two rounds we found balls embedded in the rough as we came up the first, shots lost in the opposite direction as players headed for the final green. I narrowed the owner of a Monday find down to four people, as Stephen McAllister—two-time European Tour winner—had produced for his group some ancient sleeves of Titleist Tour 384 balatas. The best I can manage is a drive and a 4-iron just right and shy of the green, but I fail to get up-and-down. Rumor had it that no one made par at the 12th over the first week of play, but I’d like to think that’s an old caddie’s tale seeping through the ether in an effort to make some feel better. Being so used to finishing with par or birdie at Prestwick’s modern closing hole, the deflation of a hard-fought bogey or clumsy 6 highlights the power of Old Tom’s original layout and the greatness of the players who triumphed over it.

Later that night, Prestwick Captain Peter Graham speaks of our guests, celebrating their rich history and contributions to the Open. Beamish, he of the pair of 2s on Station, toasts Prestwick Golf Club and the good fortune we all have had to be playing over this singular links’ test. And Clive Brown, captain of the R&A, completes the proceedings: “Today has been a walk with history.”  

At top: Prestwick’s modern-day 17th green, playing as its original second.