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Keeper of the Green

It’s 1851, 57 gentlemen who regularly meet in the Red Lion Inn decide to create a golf club over the links at Prestwick.

Old Tom Morris was called to be the first “keeper of the green” and was given the chance to build his first links from scratch. Uprooting his wife and young son Tommy, (whom we’ll hear of later) he travelled down from St Andrews to begin his own legacy in golf.

Not having access to the type of earthmoving equipment commonplace today, Morris' approach to golf course design was to identify good places to site greens. It's thought he would walk the land with a top hat full of feathers, which would mark the positions where greens would lie. His route criss-crossed and the resultant course was a mixture of shots over sand dunes, humps and hollows. He believed it was up to the golfer to negotiate the challenge he had set them - where a sand dune was between the player and his target he had the choice of going over or around the obstacle depending on his skill level.

Old Tom was the pioneer of top dressing where it is believed that he discovered this by accident. The legend goes he was bringing a barrel of sand from the beach over to fix the Cardinal Bunker, when he spilt some by the 10th green.” With it impossible to pick up the sand, Tom spread it out and six weeks later noticed the grass in that area growing with increased vigour. When other areas of turf struggled he repeated the ‘accident’ and found that the results were replicated. His philosophy from then on was …"saun, saun and mair saun".

In jacket and tie, the day started in one of my favourite clubhouses. Prestwick Golf Club is packed with glorious nods to the rich history of our sport and especially The Open. That’s why we were all here, to celebrate the 150th Open Championship in the most incredible way.

Ken Goodwin, the clubs Secretary, started the day with a history lesson. He transported back in time as he walked us through the genesis of a club that changed the face of golf. It was a fitting welcome to a day that would become the greatest golfing experience of my life.

Ken told us how Allan Robertson, Old Tom’s employer until he took the job at Prestwick, was regarded as the best golfer in the world. Roberston died in 1859 which then begged the question who was the best golfer now? More for the entertainment of, and to satisfy the curiosity of the Prestwick members, it was agreed to invite clubs to send their best and most reputable caddies to take part in a competition at the club. It was decided that the tournament was to take part the day after the clubs autumn Medal. This would then of course settle who the champion golfer was. The winner of this tournament would be crowned Champion Golfer, a title still given to this day during that special mid-July week.

The basket pins of Prestwick Golf Club

The members lounge at Prestwick Golf Club

Prestwick Golf Club

The welcome was followed by a short talk from Mungo Park, the great grandson of Willie Park. A direct descendant of the first Champion Golfer was the kind of attention to detail that you expect from Prestwick. Speaking of which, the ever-glorious lunch experience of the club followed and then it was time for Golf. One more detail, we had the option of playing with hickories, an option that was a complete no-brainer.

I stood over the ball not knowing if I could even hit it. With a mashie in my hands and a yardage in my head I had no idea where this ball would end up. Slow and smooth, off it went, this most special round was underway.

Again, to press on the attention to detail of the experience, the flags were replaced with baskets. Most golfers associate pin baskets with Merion but that was a Prestwick, or certainly a Scottish original. Our first hole was the third which was a double green with the sixth. “You’re aiming at the white basket”.

The fourth hole, our second thanks to the shotgun start, was a brute. A dogleg up and over the cardinal and onto the green that most would know as the third green. Think it’s confusing already? This constant mixing around was a bit dizzying, but in the most glorious way.

The experience was a slightly odd one. I had played Prestwick a few times but this almost felt like being back in the junior section at Gleddoch when we used to make up holes at night. We were playing across holes and sometimes to greens that had been impressively rebuilt by Dave Edmonson and his greenkeeping team.

The fifth takes you along the route of the fourteenth hole and onto that most incredible of greens. The rollercoaster is even more difficult to navigate when you’re putting with a proper bladed flat-stick. After the fifth you start to move into the melee of holes criss-crossing. At this point the marshall's are earning their keep. Constant radio coordination, LED torches with red and green for stop and go, respectively, and then having to herd the over-excited golfers who are living a dream.

Under the care of Nicky and Gary, our forecaddies/Sherpas on the day, we navigated the strangely familiar yet new course. From the “Lion’s Den” to “Purgatory” the course had signposts everywhere which added to the whole experience. The walk to the seventh takes you through those two landmarks onto a green that caused Dave Edmondson and his team the most trouble. This green was mown out of pure fescue. It rolled beautifully and actually felt like the most authentic of them all. Most of the other greens are modern greens, they are sublime but you know that technology means the greens of today will be far removed from those of the 1860s.

The original twelve holes of Prestwick Golf Club

Greenkeeper at Prestwick Golf Club

Before the round started, we were told of “the kill zone” by Goodwin. A long wait at the tee of the ninth was required as the conditions needed to be just right before we could tee off. You see, standing at that tee you’re hitting over the seventh green and toward a shared fairway with the second. Once that’s clear and you’re ready for the second shot, or fourth in my case, you need to make sure the sixth, tenth and second are all clear. Yeah, these caddies are working hard!

The chat inevitably turned to the history of The Open. We considered the impressive course record of 47, set by Young Tommy (I told you you’d hear of him again) and that mind-blowing three at the bogey six first hole he had in 1870. That first hole is an absolute brute. Standing at the tee it seems like the basket is impossibly far away, especially so when you’re playing with hickories. Young Tom would come up a lot, his hole in one on the 8th in 1869 was another one of those seemingly impossible shots. This was, by the way, the first-ever recorded ace in tournament play.

Playing with the hickories have a sense of just how much more difficult the game was then. Only a slight one though as I was still playing my trusty Pro V1x and not a feathery. There are many special golf courses out there, bucket list courses that not many have played. To have the chance to play a course that doesn’t exist except in the history books and very very occasionally was an experience that I will savour as long as I live. It was the most captivating and enthralling day of golf that I have ever had and I cannot imagine it will ever be beaten. Once again, I have to express my immense gratitude to everyone at the club who have created this wonderful celebration of the original.

Words - Kenny Pallas

Photography - Stuart Currie


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