Imagine, if you will, driving into the ancient market town of Prestwick from the north, past what was once Scotland’s only international airport and, beyond, along Monkton Road towards the town itself. At the traffic lights turn right onto Links Road. Then about half a mile further and after the road passes under the railway bridge, turn right again. In Prestwick Golf Club. There, in 1860, the first open championship was played, a fact immediately confirmed by the memorial cairn which stands just inside the entrance.
At this exact spot, 162 years ago in October, the first tee shots of what was a 36-hole event were hit by Old Tom Morris and Robert Andrew. With a score of 174, Willie Park Sr. of Musselburgh won by two strokes over Morris, who was the only man in the eight-man group to break 60 in all three 12-hole rounds.
But that was then. Now the walk from the parking lot to the pro’s shop takes us past the clubhouse on our right and before that and in close succession the 14th fairway, 14th green, 15th tee, 18th green and a small putting green training. Just past the entrance to the building and outside the David Fleming Professional Club shop window is the ‘new’ first tee, right up against the wall separating the course from Prestwick station.
It’s, as club secretary Ken Goodwin puts it, “a small footprint,” which doesn’t leave much room for anything other than a few golfers and a few caddies. Perfect for 1860 perhaps, but the idea that a 21st century Open could be played in one’s ancestral home is indeed fanciful. There simply isn’t enough space to accommodate the vast array of infrastructure and huge crowds that are now an integral part of the game’s oldest league. Not even close.
It’s been almost a century since the infinitely eccentric links on the shore of the Firth of Clyde held their 24th and final Open. There is nothing that directly links the start of the Open to insufficient square footage, although that unchanging fact would have led to the course becoming the museum piece it is today. Although Prestwick remains close to the hearts of those who cherish eccentricity and eccentricity, it would hardly provide a suitable test for the modern ‘bombers’ who populate the sharp end of professional golf. Drive-pitch-and-putt would be on the agenda for all four days.
Yet it was certainly not lack of challenge that saw the championship gone for good in the wake of “Long” Jim Barnes’ victory in 1925. Winner of the first two PGA Championships in 1916 and 1919, as well than from the 1921 US Open, the transplanted Cornishman hit his ball 300 times en route to winning his fourth and final major title and the £75 top prize. 1920 Open champion George Duncan had the highest score (73) in a final round in which only 28 of 68 players beat 80. Prestwick at the time was no pushover.
Although no one said it out loud or even in writing at the time – neither the club nor the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, organizers of the Open – the fact that Prestwick never saw a 25th Open was almost certainly the fault of overenthusiastic fans. This year’s Open at St. Andrews, the event’s famous 150th game, is a sold-out affair for the first time. Such a precaution would have helped Prestwick around 1925, especially as the warning signs were clearly visible up to 11 years earlier.
Playing the third round of the 1914 Open, Harry Vardon and JH Taylor, two-thirds of the “Grand Triumvirate” completed by James Braid, were watched by around 5,000 people. But, as reported in The history of the Open Championship (1860-1950) this figure doubled in the afternoon when “the Lanarkshire miners turned up in force and their enthusiasm was so great that it was difficult for others to catch a glimpse of the game”.
Appropriate precautions before the 1925 championship could therefore have changed history. Indeed, the absence of such authority may explain the reluctance of anyone in authority to admit guilt.
“While there are print and online sources that cite overcrowding at the ties, particularly in the closing round, as the reason the Open did not return to Prestwick after 1925, I have been unable to find anything find in our archives that sheds more light on the matter,” says Kieran George, assistant curator at the World Golf Museum, located just behind the R&A Clubhouse in St. Andrews. “The Championship Committee minutes do not reveal if or when a decision to remove Prestwick from the open rotation was made. Anything about the Open host venues usually only states which course they plan to invite to host the Championship, with no reason given for the choice.
However, further research would suggest that the catalyst for Prestwick’s demise as an open venue was likely the popularity of an ex-Scottish patriot named Macdonald Smith. At least for this week, Smith was the 1920s equivalent of Tiger Woods in terms of fan appeal.
A quick look at his track record makes it clear that the Carnoustie-born naturalized American was one of the best players of the era. Although he hasn’t scored a win in any of the four most important men’s events in golf today, Smith has won 24 times on what is now the PGA Tour (an impressive feat that has so far only failed to induct him into the World Golf Hall of Fame) and recorded 17 top-10 finishes in the majors. That includes five top-five finishes at the US Open, seven top-five finishes at The Open Championship (and no less than one T-18 in nine total starts). In his only Masters, he was T-7. Strangely, he never played in a PGA Championship.
Statistically at least, Smith’s closest brushes to a major victory were a trio of second-place finishes. In 1930 he was beaten only by Bobby Jones at both the US Open and The Open. And two years later, he was Open runner-up again, this time ahead of Gene Sarazen. Invariably, it took a player of the highest quality to complete a Smith challenge.
But those numbers mask the certainty that his best chance came at Prestwick in 1925. Rounds of 76-69-76 gave Smith a five-shot 54-hole advantage over Barnes and Archie Compston, with 1912 champion Ted Ray and Abe Mitchell (whose image forms the figure at the top of the Ryder Cup) seven strokes back.
As at the time, 36 holes were played on the last day, the leaders not necessarily being at the bottom of the field. So it was that, largely in anonymity, Barnes was first in round three at 8 a.m. and started his final round 74 at 12:30 p.m. Those facts, and the relatively no-pressure nature of his day on the links, were key to the ultimate win, especially given Barnes’ recent history. Just three weeks earlier, he shot a freakish 85 in the final round of the US Open at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts (won by Scotsman Willie Macfarlane), which, at the very least, confirms that golf is the most capricious game. Away from the stress of head-to-head, head-to-head and eye-to-eye competition, Barnes was at the clubhouse by 3 p.m. holding his total of 300.
Smith started his final lap 30 minutes later alongside Tom Fernie and therefore knew for sure that a 78 lap would be enough to grab the pot for Bordeaux. And the round started quite well with pars on the first two holes. But soon things started to go downhill, thanks to a crowd that everyone believed was largely out of control. Although Friday is a working day, the lack of admission fees was too tempting for many fans. Hundreds of people took the train from Glasgow and jumped over the wall from Prestwick station to the first tee. It is estimated that up to 15,000 people attended that afternoon, the vast majority watching Smith.
“They wanted the Scotsman to win and all that was wrong was too many of them wanted him too much,” wrote Bernard Darwin. “It was a fatal misunderstanding and I doubt he ever got over it.”
That the marshals could not cope is clear. “There were occasions when players found themselves with such narrow corridors to play in that some couldn’t see the flags,” Arthur Leonard Lee said in The Guardian. The instructions advising marshals to “strive to keep spectators always on the right side of the course when exiting as well as entering” unfortunately got lost in the confusion.
“Smith was quoted as saying spectators got in the way on several occasions,” said Prestwick Golf Club archivist Andrew Lockhead. “There were holes where he had to play over people’s heads. Thus, the crowd has clearly invaded the playing areas of the course. The stewards couldn’t hold them back.
The irony, Lockhead notes, was that the onlookers were all on Smith’s side. “They were just too exuberant. They thought they were encouraging him. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to notice and his concentration was gone.
Equally damaging was Smith’s loss of control on the greens. Three putts on the seventh, eighth and 15th holes led to double bogeys. But it was a steady disintegration rather than a sudden, dramatic display of the dark art of suffocating under pressure. After his promising start, Smith was three over par for the next three holes and on his way to what was surely the biggest disappointment of a distinguished but unfulfilled career.
In the end, Smith’s 82 – “a tragedy of waste”, Darwin called it – was four shots too many. Alone in fourth place out of 303, he finished two strokes behind co-finalists Ray and Compston. Fifth out of 305, Mitchell was the only other man to finish within 10 strokes of the new champion.
“Poor Macdonald Smith was not unusually sad and bitter at the end of the day and blamed the crowd for his failure,” Darwin reported. “You have to admit that Prestwick is not a good course for spectators. The crowds are very large and very enthusiastic and some of them are imbued with the spirit of the holiday miner who traditionally said, “Players be damned.” I came to see. In addition, the ground, especially near the clubhouse, is very poorly adapted since the spectators watching one player mingle inextricably with those watching another.
This is how Barnes became Prestwick’s last Open champion. That there could have been a 25th if Smith had got over his nerves and how close so many of his countrymen were is anyone’s guess. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least one more Open would have been played at the event’s original home. Especially when the R&A didn’t blame the Prestwick club for the unfortunate scenes that surrounded Smith’s final round. A letter from the chairman of the championship committee, Norman Boase, specifies this.
“Your arrangements were excellent and I can’t think of anything more you could have done,” Boase wrote. “The stewards did their best.
All of this was cold comfort for Smith, who died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 59. But Prestwick’s men were clearly keen to see no repeat of the scenes that surely haunted him to his grave. More than a quarter of a century later, the program for the 1952 Amateur Championship at Prestwick contained a stern instruction for spectators: “Please obey the stewards and ensure that all players get clear and fair game.”
Somewhere, we can assume that Smith nodded in agreement.