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Today is Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Open heads to Portrush - but it all began in 1860 at Prestwick in Ayrshire


The Open heads to Northern Ireland for only the second time in its history. Royal Portrush plays host to the oldest Major championship of them all, The Open Championship, also known outside the British Isles as The British Open.

This event has grown to become the biggest golf tournament on the planet, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators, tens of millions of TV viewers and of course all the big names in golf looking to get their hands on the famous claret jug. Rewind nearly 160 years to Prestwick in Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland on an October day in 1860 to find 8 golfers playing the links and looking to become the Champion Golfer of the year.

The tournament had been arranged following the premature death at age 43 of Alan Robertson of St. Andrews in 1859. Robertson was one of the first golf professionals to make a living from playing for bets, caddying, ball & club making and instruction, and was considered the best golfer at the time. In fact, he was so good that tradition has it he never lost when playing for money.

Following Alan Robertson's death, the members of Prestwick Golf Club agreed a competition should be held to see who would follow Robertson as the Champion Golfer. In due course, the first Open Championship was held at Prestwick on October 17, 1860 and played according to the Rules of Prestwick Golf Club. Eight professional players competed for the prize of a red Morocco leather belt with silver clasps and an ornamental silver buckle.

The impressive girdle cost £25 and was paid for by the club's members. It eventually rested on the hips of Willie Park of Musselburgh who recorded a score of 174 for 36 holes (three rounds of 12 holes) bettering Old Tom's tally, who represented Prestwick, by two strokes. It was said that the 36 holes including Lunch at The Red Lion pub in Prestwick took just four and a half hours, a far cry from the time it takes modern professionals to play 18 holes these days.

Old Tom would have his day and went on to win the championship four times, as did his son Tommy who secured three consecutive wins (1868 -1870), his first win aged 17 by beating his father by three strokes. The rules stated that he was allowed to keep the belt for achieving this feat. Because no trophy was available, the tournament was not held in 1871. Young Tom Morris also recorded the Championship's first hole in one and a modern-day albatross or double-eagle on Prestwick's 578-yard opening hole – an unbelievable achievement considering he played with a "Gutty", a Gutta Percha Ball without dimples which travelled way shorter than modern golf balls. The original scorecards on which these achievements are noted are among the most treasured items in Prestwick's archive collection. A copy of the Red Morrocan leather belt is exhibited at the foyer of the spacious Prestwick clubhouse.

Prestwick presided over the first 12 Open Championships, which was then held jointly with The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Each of these clubs each contributed £ 10 to buy a new trophy, the famous Claret Jug, made of the style of the jugs used in the 19th century to serve claret, a dry red wine produced in the Bordeaux region. Young Tom Morris' name was the first to be engraved on the trophy which is officially named "The Golf Champions Trophy". Prestwick went on to host 24 Open Championships with the last being held in 1925 when Jim Barnes from the US secured the first prize of £75.

In 1882 Prestwick's golf course was extended to 18 holes but with The Open gaining more and more public interest there was not enough space in Preswick to accommodate the masses. So Prestwick gave up its place on The Open rota but remains on the bucket list of golfers from all over the world. For the first sixty years of The Open's history, the Championship's visits to Ayrshire in the southwest Scotland were confined to Prestwick. In 1923 however, all that changed; The Open came to Royal Troon for the first time, and since then it has become a regular venue having hosted the Championship on nine occasions. There have been some big name players that have won at Troon with the likes of Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Henrik Stenson and is often mentioned as being one of the sternest tests on the Open rota.

Turnberry is situated 25 miles (40 km) south of Prestwick and has hosted only 4 Open championships to date, however the famous Ailsa course with its signature Lighthouse has delivered some of the most exciting climax to an Open there's ever been. The Duel in the Sun, where Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had their famous battle on a beautiful Scottish summers day in 1977. Fast forward a number of years and Tom Watson almost became the oldest winner of a major at the age of 59 when he just missed out to Stewart Cink in a play-off ten years ago.This area of Scotland certainly packs a punch in terms of history of the game, along with hosting many major championships (only to be outshone by August National). There are nearly 50 golf courses on the Ayrshire coast, from famous Open courses, links courses embedded in the small towns, and golf on one of the islands just off the coast. Ayrshire has everything to offer the visiting golfer that will make you want to return time and time again.

Ayrshire Golf
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