St. Andrews may be the undisputed home of golf, but it’s not the birthplace of the sport’s oldest major championship.
That distinct honor belongs to the quiet town of Prestwick, on Scotland’s rugged, wind-battered west coast.
It was here in 1960 that Elvis Presley stepped onto UK soil for the only time in his life as the U.S. army plane he was traveling on refueled at the town’s airport.
But Prestwick’s sporting claim to fame goes back a century before “The King” touched down.
The first 12 editions of the Open Championship were staged on the Ayrshire course between 1860 and 1872, and the tournament returned to Prestwick a further 12 times in the years up until 1925.
“This is where it started,” says Prestwick club secretary Ken Goodwin as he shows CNN around the club’s oak-paneled dining room.
“Without Prestwick I don’t think there would be an Open in the same way that it is now.”
A test for the best
The 145th edition of the British Open will begin three miles up the road at Royal Troon Golf Club later this week.
And there is sure to be many a golfing fan making the short pilgrimage to the tournament’s first home.
Designed by the legendary golfer, Old Tom Morris, 12 of Prestwick’s original greens are still in use, ensuring modern players can walk in the footsteps of many of the game’s giants.
The railway line, which runs alongside the first hole, is an iconic feature of the course as are the giant bunkers and sand dunes that also remain from the glory days of Open Championships.
According to Prestwick head professional David Fleming, visitors from around the globe are a common sight on the course.
“Anybody who’s got any knowledge of golf will want to come and walk footsteps on this bit of land,” Fleming says.
“We’re very fortunate from that point of view.”
Fleming describes the Prestwick course as a “museum” but with winds regularly reaching 25 mph it remains a test, even for the best golfers.
“It’s a difficult course,” Fleming continues. A score of 66 (five-under par) is the lowest anyone has ever shot in the amateur championships that have taken place at Prestwick in recent years.
Giving up on the Open
Prestwick last staged the Open in 1925 when the competition was won by English-born golfer Jim Barnes.
But the course struggled to cope with the vast crowds that had arrived in the hope of witnessing expatriate Scot Macdonald Smith, who led going into the final day, lift the Claret Jug.
“The prospect of a Scots-born man winning The Open was such that the crowds flocked to the course … climbing over the walls and really the course couldn’t take it,” Goodwin explains.
“The estimates vary (between) about 18,000 and maybe 25,000 people there, without any control.
“After that, the Prestwick club thought, ‘realistically, we can’t control a big crowd so asked not to host the Open again.'”
Although there was talk of hosting a centenary Open at Prestwick in 1960, that prospect never materialized.
And when play gets under way at Royal Troon with the world’s best golfers competing to create their own bit of history, he admits there might be “a bit of envy there.”
But these emotions are tempered by the knowledge that Prestwick’s own place in golf history is already firmly assured.
“We know (who) we are,” Goodwin says.
“We are the birthplace of the Open and other than the Old Course at St. Andrews no other place has held more Opens than we have.”