Prior to 1860, Alan Robertson of St Andrews was considered to be the best golfer of the time. Robertson was one of the first professional golfers who in those days made a living from playing for bets, caddying, ball and club making, and instruction. Tradition has it that Robertson himself was never beaten as an individual when playing for money. He was the first golfer to break 80 over the Old Course at St Andrews and on his death in 1859 the members of Prestwick Golf Club decided to stage a competition to see who should follow him as the Champion Golfer.
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, which cost £25 and was paid for by the club’s members.
The winner was Willie Park of Musselburgh. His score of 174 for 36 holes (three rounds of 12 holes) bettered that of Tom Morris Senior, representing Prestwick, by two strokes.
These two players continued to dominate the Championship over the next seven years with ‘Old’ Tom (playing shot on left) winning four times and Willie Park twice (Park also won once more in 1875).
The Morris name again appeared as the winner in 1868 but this time it was Old Tom’s son, Tom, (below) who won the Belt and did so again in 1869 and 1870, earning him the Belt outright for three consecutive wins.
In 1869, he achieved the Championship’s first hole-in-one, holing out at the 166-yard eighth. The following year, he went one better by starting his first round with a three at the 578-yard opening hole: a modern-day albatross given the hole would have been a par six.
The original scorecards recording these achievements feature among the most treasured items in Prestwick’s own archive collection.
His first round score of 47 (over 12 holes) set a new record which still stands.
When Young Tom won again in 1872 at Prestwick (there was no Championship in 1871), Prestwick had been joined by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in agreeing to host the event and paying for a new trophy, a Claret Jug (below), which cost £30.
Prestwick hosted the Open 12 more times between 1875 and 1925. 1884 saw the first time that the championship at Prestwick was staged over two rounds of 18 holes, subsequent to the new lay-out of 18 holes in 1882.
In 1893, Prestwick witnessed its first Open over 72 holes, the Championship being won by Willie Auchterlonie.
Other notable winners at Prestwick have included John Ball Jr., the first amateur to win the Open in 1890 – the last one being the legendary Bobby Jones in 1930 at Hoylake; Harry Vardon, who holds the record with six wins, three of which were at Prestwick in 1898, 1903 and 1914; and James Braid in 1908.
Prestwick’s final Open was in 1925 when the size (and enthusiasm) of the crowd, estimated at 15,000, overshadowed proceedings in the final round. Local favourite Macdonald Smith (an expatriate Scot based in the USA) started the final round knowing that a 78 would be good enough to win. His first three rounds were 76, 69 and 76.
However, he slumped to an 82 to finish fourth, losing out to the eventual winner Jim Barnes (right), himself resident in the USA but a Cornishman by birth. Bernard Darwin described how the crowd influenced the occasion:
"They wanted the Scotsman to win and all that was wrong was that too many of them wanted it too much."