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In 1851, a 12-hole course was founded at Prestwick Golf Club with Old Tom Morris as “Keeper of the Green”. Nine years later in 1860, the British Open Championship was born and didn’t move away from Prestwick until it went to St Andrews in 1873. The Open has been hosted here no fewer than 24 times, although the most recent championship was held in 1925. St Andrews is the only venue to have hosted more Opens (26) than Prestwick and obviously the Old Course is still on the Open circuit.
The first eleven Opens were contested for a red Moroccan belt, which was won outright by Young Tom Morris after he successfully won three consecutive titles between 1868 and 1870. There was no Open Championship in 1871 because there was no trophy to play for until the Claret Jug was purchased for £30 and offered for annual competition in 1872. Ironically Young Tom Morris was the first winner of the Claret Jug. Six more holes were added to Prestwick’s original 12-hole layout in 1883.
The course is a traditional monument, an authentic affair with a layout of holes that snake to and fro through rugged dunes and rippled fairways. There are numerous blind holes and cavernous sleepered bunkers with wooden steps to take you down to the bottom. The greens are notoriously firm and fast – some are hidden in hollows whilst others are perched on raised plateaux. The majority are quite small and all of them have wicked borrows to negotiate.
One of Prestwick’s great strengths is the quality and variety of the holes. The 1st is one of the most intimidating holes in golf, a par four called “Railway”. The railway tracks run all the way down the right-hand side of the hole, waiting to gobble up a right-hander’s slice. The 3rd is a short par five (stroke index 1) called “Cardinal” and is famous for its deep, deep bunker, propped up by railway sleepers. The 5th is a blind par three called “Himalayas” – your tee shot must carry over a huge sand dune.
Perhaps Prestwick's most famous hole, which C.B. Macdonald replicated at the National Golf Links of America, is the 17th, Alps, which Darwin described as; "The most spectacular blind hole in all the world."
There are so many great things to say about Prestwick. The best thing to do is to play the course and judge it for yourself. Every student of golf course architecture simply has to tick this one off their list.
Bernard Darwin brought Prestwick to a close much better than we ever could in his book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles: “So ends Prestwick, and what a jolly course it is, to be sure!”
Prestwick in my opinion is the most under rated course in Scotland. Right from the first tee you realize you are in for a crazy fun day. I'm so thankful my 3 hybrid typically doesn't get higher than the rock wall height. Ha 2 is a nice short par 3 well bunkered. 3 is a dynamic par 5 which depicts where Pete Dye got the idea of RR ties. 4 is a challenging par 4 with the continuation of that pesky boundary on the right. 5 just hit it over the rock, what a great par 3. 6 is a great par 4 7 thru 11 are all very good par 4's which challenge you. 12 is a par 5 straight away but is best played down the right side. 13 is a beast par 4 14 is a good par 4 15 is a short par 4 with a very challenging green 16 is another par 4 which seems routine but is anything but. 17 is maybe my favorite par 4 in the world. The Alps, often copied but never duplicated. I'm still waiting for my chance to not be in the Sahara. So far I am 0 for 3. 18 brings you home with a drivable par 4 which has an ever so slightly raised fairway and a clubhouse in play. If you get a chance, drop everything and go play the place the first 12 Opens were played at. The staff is exceptionally welcoming.
Outside of a visit to the Old Course at St Andrews, I’d consider a day at Prestwick to be the next most sacred excursion that a golfer can make. A tour of the clubhouse alone makes Prestwick bucket-list material for any history buffs whilst the course itself is the embodiment of quirk. Prestwick is golf design from a bygone era so if you’re easily offended by blind shots and the odd unlucky bounce, then there will be other designs across Scotland that play more to your tastes.
Personally, I found segments of the course just incredible, but simultaneously felt that there was an inconsistency across the full eighteen that prevents me from sharing the same passion for Prestwick as others. The first three holes are magnificent. The amazingly eccentric starting hole tees off beside the train station to a green jammed-in beside the railway wall, and after the pretty 2nd, the Cardinal hole at 3, with its back-to-back sleeper-tied deep bunkers and a gorgeously bumpy fairway ensure that Prestwick starts with a bang.
The Himalayas at 5 is always going to be a novelty; not my favourite hole on the course, but blind par threes always provide their own sense of theatre as you crest the top of the hill to discover the outcome of your tee shot. But after that, I generally found the Elysian Fields through which 6 to 9 play a tad underwhelming. There’s a stark contrast to this run of tough par fours that play across flatter land adjacent to the dual carriageway and in full view of the airport that’s a poor contrast to the fun and wacky section of the course that’s played on the other side of the dune. I will admit that this run of holes is brilliantly well bunkered, but visually these won’t be the holes that bring golfers back for repeated visits. I also found 10 something of an uphill slog, so other than the first three holes, I was surprised to be approaching almost two-thirds of the way through the round and yet to be wowed by Prestwick’s charms.
The course really takes off with the approach shot that plays between humps to a beautifully peculiar green at 12. Then after this, it’s sheer pandemonium. Sea Hedrig comes next, a hole that has the most crumpled of links fairways in advance of one of the most phenomenal greens I’ve seen. There’s less of a false front to the left-side of the 13th green, and more of a sheer drop. It just wouldn’t be taken seriously if a modern day course designer proposed anything similar yet we flock to places such as Prestwick to see such oddballs.
Narrows at 15 is another delightful hole, my favourite on the course. I love the complexity of this hole as it threads itself across several elevation changes, around sandy hillocks and grass filled coffins. 16 and 18 are both driveable fours, 16 being particularly good and sees a reintroduction to the Cardinal bunker, whilst 17, the Alps hole, is the last of Prestwick’s famed golf holes. Another hugely narrow but this time particularly penal fairway is just the first challenge as you then play blind into a pudding basin of a green site where you’ll need to fly your ball over a tall dune and the famous Sahara bunker. Whilst it’s a hole like no other (before CB MacDonald came to visit in any case), I can’t help but feel a slightly more generous landing strip for the tee shot would be more visitor friendly on what’s otherwise a beautifully outrageous, but all the same, intensely challenging hole.
The moral of the story at Prestwick is to not end your round early when you’re returned to the clubhouse at the 14th green as the final loop is in the discussion amongst the best final stretches in golf. But whilst Prestwick over the years has been hugely influential on golf course architects, the eighteen holes as a collection are just a little too inconsistent for me to be considered amongst the very best.
Great and insightful review.
However, if Prestwick is not among your very best on-course links golf experiences, which courses would be on that list?
Hi Gustav, I always think this website’s rankings gives a pretty fair overview of the best on-course experiences but to look for a less obvious lower ranking Scottish choice to your question, I think the experience at Brora with the remoteness and tranquility of that location, combined with the uniqueness of the course makes it pretty hard to beat. Different strokes for different folks though. Tom.
I also tend to look at Top100 rankings before deciding which courses to prioritise, at least when I am choosing between courses I have not yet played. This does not prevent me from enjoying Prestwick more than Troon, despite the latter clearly being a better test for tournament golf.
This brings another thought: if they could bring the Irish Open to Lahinch with its blind par 3, perhaps some enterprising soul would think of bringing or moving a big televised tournament to Prestwick. Think it would work well in a time that big crowds are out anyway.
Golf had been played for years over the links at Prestwick before officially forming as a club on July 2nd, 1851. 57 prospective members purchased two cottages opposite the Red Lion Inn, with one of the cottages reserved for a clubhouse while the other would house the club’s Keeper of the Green, club and ball maker, the legendary Old Tom Morris.
Old Tom would uproot his family from St. Andrews and lay out the original 12-hole “cross-routed” design, one that would eventually host the first Open Championship in 1860, making Prestwick the “Birthplace of the Open Championship”.
Old Tom and his family would return to St. Andrews in 1865 but he would return once again in 1882 to help Prestwick expand to 18 holes after the club purchased more land to the north of its original layout. The cross-routing was eliminated as a result but six of the original greens are still used to this day, including those on the current 3rd (Cardinal), 13th (Sea Headrig) and 17th (Alps) holes.
The Open Championship has been contested at Prestwick 24 times, second only to The Old Course at St. Andrews, but hasn’t hosted the event since 1925. The list of Open Champions at Prestwick is incredibly impressive and includes most of golf’s great players from that time, including Old Tom Morris (four time Open Champion at Prestwick), his son Young Tom (four times), Willie Park Sr. (four times), Harry Vardon (three times) and James Braid (once).
While the course would likely still be a challenge for the world’s best, the land upon which the course lies and the surrounding infrastructure simply isn’t large enough to host an event of that magnitude any longer. Prestwick continues to regularly host major amateur championships, including the British Amateur, which has been played 11 times at the club, most recently in 2001.
Prestwick lies just off the Ayrshire coast and shares its northern boundary with Royal Troon GC. The course is well-known for its quirk, with many blind shots and some absolutely audacious features.
Prestwick is a private club but liberal about allowing guest play most days of the week, calling it “The Prestwick Experience”. It’s an appropriate moniker, as you know you’ve taken a step back in time, so to speak, the minute you walk on the property. Every part of your day, whether it’s on the course or in the clubhouse, is special.
The clubhouse is a virtual museum, with replicas of the Claret Jug and Young Tom Morris’s Open Championship belt proudly displayed near the pro shop and many more precious artifacts located throughout the clubhouse and locker room areas. We played 36 holes on this day, breaking for lunch upstairs in their casual dining area and it was here where I sampled Kümmel, a very popular liqueur in the UK, for the first time.
That all said, the links at Prestwick are the real star. I will say that this course won’t enchant those that prefer to play a course where “everything is there right in front of you” – quirk and blind shots abound and you will need a bit of a whimsical approach to playing your game at Prestwick. The course contains so many famous holes but I’d still submit that Prestwick is much greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s been a few years since I visited and my thoughts on my experience at Prestwick grow stronger by the day. It’s an experience you simply can’t miss if you find yourself visiting the Ayrshire coast.
For a full hole-by-hole course profile and pictorial, please visit Now on the Tee at https://nowontheteegolf.com/2019/01/31/prestwick-g...
Prestwick's original 12 hole course was expanded to 18 holes in 1883, and while many of the quirky features of the old course were retained it is only the seventeenth hole (Alps) which remained intact. Seven green complexes remain, although some are played to from different directions than originally designed. Importantly the famous Cardinal & Sahara bunkers survived the makeover.
Playing Prestwick really is a step back in time. The clubhouse oozes history, and the course bears no resemblance to the modern Open Championship courses. It is short and quirky and blind shots abound.
I always look forward to the start and finish at Prestwick, and feel like I have wandered on to another golf course when I get to some of the flatter terrain further from the clubhouse. There are decent holes out there but without the same sense of adventure as those closer to home.
The start is quite unique- a short par 4 appropriately named Railway, with the railway line very much in play along the right perimeter- it seems so close to the green! The second hole is a testing par 3 (Tunnel) with bunkers front and back- you need to pick the correct club... Hole 3 (Cardinal) is a unique par 5 and features the famous Cardinal bunker and Pow burn- it really feels like an achievement to reach this green in regulation.
I always look forward to the blind par 3 fifth hole (Himalayas) as well- they just don't make them like this anymore..
And the finish is just grand with the star of the show being the strong par 4 seventeenth hole (Alps) with the blind approach needing to clear the Himalayas dune AND the unseen Sahara bunker.
After completing the round I am always tempted to ask whether I could slip out again and play a short replay loop consisting of the first three and last 3 holes- wouldn't that be cool?
Prestwick gives us a glimpse of what golf was like in it's formative years. It is quirky, and testing, and great fun. Every golfer should play Prestwick.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Disclaimer...this course is not for everyone, and I can fully understand people not enjoying it, or getting it (without sounding patronizing). I loved it. Everything about it. It's fun, quirky, a great challenge, it allows you to be creative, it doesn't hurt you if you veer off but is difficult to get right. It has bag loads of charm and history and a fantastic clubhouse. If you like big, glitzy beefed up links with views of the sea then Turnberry, only 45 minutes up the road, will serve you better. Prestwick to me is what golf as designed to be. A focus on using the ground and not just the air, a fascinating use of the space (despite it being very different to its original layout) and designed to be played in the breeze.
The first is a shaky start, with the railway line and wall lining the entire right side and firmly imprinted in your mind as you stand over the ball on the tee. The second a good par 3 before the course heads towards more open ground and a succession of strong holes, from longer par 4's to shorter par 4's to the 5th hold, Himalayas, a blind par 3. Again, this wont be to everyone's liking but for me it was pure joy. Pick your spot, trust the club and see what awaits as you head over the dune. You then reach what is in my view the weakest section of the course, before it comes alive again on the back nine. From 10 to 18 its a tour de force of quirks and beauty. There's huge variety to the holes as you're led back towards the clubhouse.
The layout is great, and it is the type of course that I personally could play day in, day out. That said, a day at Prestwick is about more than the golf course. We did the Prestwick experience, which allows for 36 holes and a great lunch in the middle. Get there early, settle in and enjoy one of the greatest days you can have at a golf club.
Prestwick is one of my favourite Links courses, where the old cliche "they don't make 'em like this any more" is probably truer than any other essentially flat Championship Links. From the stressful first which gets narrower and narrower, to completely blind par 3's, humungous bunkers, greens hard up against water to playing onto a green seemingly from the wrong direction - there are many things that should make you hate Prestwick but you come off smiling and wanting to go round again. The history is obviously amazing, and do have a bit of a read up before going - "Tommy's Honour" would be a good start. You are able to work out where the old first was when Prestwick was 12 holes - 578 yards in those days, and Young Tom Morris got a 3 in 1870 with hickory and gutta percha - stupendous. Great conditioning even in shoulder season, this friendly club is a rare treat.
Prestwick is one of the most natural, quirking, interesting golf courses I have ever played. Add the history of the hosting the early Open Championships and you have a must play golf course.
If Machrihanish Old has the self-described best opening hole in golf, then Prestwick just might have the scariest with the train line so close all the way down the right side with very little rough between the fairway and the wall to the train line. It requires a carry of some 160 yards although some times it appears to be longer so you can't just ease your tee shot out there.
I actually like how the club's scorecard provides the acceptable times for a four ball to play the course in under four hours. In actuality, given the routing, a round should take no more than 3:30 hours unless the wind is up and adding difficulty to the golf course.
If you survive the first hole with a fairly flat green compared to some that are to come, the second hole is relatively easy as a par three at 164 yards. It is well bunkered so a shot at the middle is the line.
The third hole is one of the more memorable holes on the golf course, a dogleg par 5 of 513-541 yards with a blind second shot over the Cardinal bunker, which is enormous with railroad ties spanning across the entire fairway. The Pow burn runs down the entire right side. It is a marvelous par five with the added bonus of good mounding in the fairway on the second shot as well as a green that if you go too long, you will fall off the back.
The Pow burn is also down the right the entire length of the 4th hole, a medium length dogleg right that has bunkers left and right to consider for the tee shot. Don't miss the green to the right due to the steep slope. It is a very natural looking hole.
The 5th hole, known as Himalayas, is perhaps the first or second most famous hole on the course, a long 206-231 par three over the hill. The blind tee shot must follow the directional marker at the top and cannot have a draw on it or be placed left due to the five bunkers placed left. The green itself is not difficult. It is a fun hole due to the guessing game of which club to hit and in which direction. Obviously, once you find your ball on the other side you realize there is some luck involved in this hole, but nevertheless it is a lot of fun.
One critique of the course could be that holes 6 through 10 are all long par 4's with the shortest being 432 yards and the longest being 484 yards. However, the member tees on 6 and 7 are quite a bit shorter. The sixth hole is pretty straight forward while the seventh is very difficult as the longest hole with three pot bunkers on the right side of the fairway and two additional pot bunkers fronting the green while several more are to the side. It is a difficult hole to get to as there is a ridge in the fairway to navigate but one of the easier greens.
The eighth hole goes to the farthest point of the course and it is also difficult due to ten bunkers lining the fairway and the green. It has one of the better greens on the golf course.
If ten bunkers was not enough, the ninth hole offers eleven as well as a sloped fairway and a sloped green. It is a very natural looking hole.
The tenth hole has you looking at the Isle of Arran and the bunkers drop down to seven, but three go across the fairway. It is an interesting hole in that the green complex has no bunkers.
The eleventh is a long par 3 with more bunkers left than right and a green that pushes your tee shot towards those bunkers.
After that difficult stretch of holes the twelfth seems to be a bit easier as long as you avoid the six bunkers short of the green on the left on this medium length par five. The fairway is tilted to the left. It is yet another very natural looking golf hole.
After catching your breathe on twelve, you are back at the long par 4's at the thirteenth with a hidden fairway bunker about 250-265 yards out. It is yet another demanding par four but very natural with a rolling fairway.
The fourteenth finally brings a short par 4 at 405-363 yards but it is well bunkered by the green to defend itself as the green itself if pretty flat.
The fifteenth, thankfully, is an even shorter par four at 353 yards but once again is very well defended through the bunkers but mainly through a very sloped green front left to back right. I found it to be the best green on the golf course.
The sixteenth brings one to another short par 4 of 290 yards, but you cannot miss your approach shot to the green to the right due to the Cardinal bunker pinching in. Big hitters will easily drive the green. I found this hole to be the second easiest on the course.
Seventeen is probably the most famous hole on the course, known as Alps for the blind second shot from a narrow fairway over the ridge with the huge Sahara bunker fronting the green at the bottom of the ridge. If you like blind shots, this is perfect.
Unfortunately the eighteenth is the weakest hole on the golf course, but after the stretch of 6-12, even through the finish has been both shorter and easier, you likely are okay with the finish on this short par 4. It can be easily driven by the big hitter and should be a birdie chance for nearly every player depending on the wind.
What I like most about Prestwick is the naturalness of it as well as the use of bunkers. Some of the greens and fairways have quite a bit of slope to it. When you are on the golf course, if the train is not running nearby, it is just you and nature as well as the conversation between you and the other participants. The course is uneven in the sense that the holes in the middle are very hard and the finish is a bit of a let down both in length and in quality of the green complexes. However, as indicated, it is a golf course you should play at least twice, if not more.
A recent round at Prestwick with caddies followed by lunch in the member’s dining room was one of my all-time top UK golf experiences. This was despite the greens not being at their best on the day, having had a very recent brush with the verti-cutter.
However, this was not important next to the opportunity to examine one of the true legends of golf. For me an added pleasure was to be able to conduct the examination without ever having to wait on the course, a luxury you can normally only dream of at courses of this calibre.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have chosen to disregard both the temporary dip in conditioning and the fast pace of play when deciding to rate Prestwick at the highest level. Prestwick deserves it because of the originality of the course design, which goes way past its place in the history of the Open Championship.
There are many detailed descriptions of the course, among Top100 reviews below and other sites dedicated to golf architecture, so let me just take one example: you can play holes like Sea Hedrig (13th) and Alps (17th) time and time again with the same strategy and face different lies on the fairway and on/near the green every time.
Some of that is undoubtedly down to luck, or the lack of it. Therefore, if you subscribe to the “a good course should reward good shots and punish bad ones” philosophy then you should perhaps stay away from Prestwick and leave it to those of us who have fallen in love with this timeless icon of links golf.
As an aside, consider taking the train here. The walk from the station platform to the clubhouse and the first tee is among the shortest in golf.
Prestwick certainly has the history but overall it's a quirky links course that has some of everything -- long par fours, blind shots, massive bunkers, drivable par 4's, etc. It feels somewhat constrained as like some other links courses we played on the trip you are close to the seaside but rarely get to see the ocean (although did have people walking across the course to get to the beach). Conditions were great, the weather was warm, sunny, and mildly breezy and the clubhouse staff and caddies were excellent. Worth a visit to experience the history but not rushing back to play this again when there are other options in the area.
I played Prestwick in January 2019, on a cold Monday morning. I literally had the place to myself, with only one other tee time booked, later in the day. The starter couldn't have been more helpful and history within the clubhouse walls was fantastic to see.
The real joy however started when I set off. The first is not for the faint hearted, especially those of us who fade/slice the ball. Fortunately with a passing train my ball flew parallel to the tracks and remained in play. A few courses leave you wanting to return, right away, to face their challenge again, this was very true and in particular with a few truly great holes, 1,2,3,5,13,15,16 & 17. People complain about the course being short but on a windy day this isn't too noticeable, at 6500 yards from the back it is a good test. Both the Cardinal and the Sahara bunkers were special, I didn't visit either but could say that I regret having not visited them as a par save from either would have been excellent.
A few of the green complexes were very reminiscent of the courses of Old Tom Morris, a fine touch is required to combat the severe undulations, lucky for me the greens were playing slow in the winter conditions.
I cannot wait to go back and have another go, I would recommend that anyone playing arrives in plenty of time to enjoy the clubhouse and history.
Good luck and I hope you get a calm day!