Birthplace Of The Open Championship
By Gill Sherry
Sandy Lyle, Payne Stewart, Tiger Woods, Paul Lawrie… I’m certainly in the company of greats as I
chat with Ken Goodwin, Club Secretary of Prestwick Golf Club.
We’re in the Card Room where photographs of golfing legends line the walls. Some I recognise, some I don’t, but Ken is more than happy to put names to the less familiar faces. He’s also happy to share the story of the club’s illustrious past, something he does with great enthusiasm.
“Prestwick Golf Club was founded in 1851,” he begins. “On 2nd July 1851… 57 gentlemen met in the Red Lion Inn and agreed to form a golf club. In those days, you had two distinct classes of golfer. The gentlemen who played for sport and then those who made a living from golf… caddies, makers of clubs and balls, keepers of the green….”
Keepers of the green? Sounds very grand!
“Tom Morris was the first keeper of the green. Morris was considered one of the best golfers around. He laid out a 12-hole course, the first official course at Prestwick Golf Club.
Fast forward to 17th October 1860 and Tom Morris took part in a competition with seven other caddies from clubs across Scotland.
“Everyone expected Tom Morris to win because he knew every blade of grass. It was actually won by Willie Park… he won that first Open.”
The prize was a red Moroccan leather belt with a silver buckle, a replica of which is on display in the club’s reception.
“That was the start of The Open,” says Ken. “But that first event was almost an invitation event in that the club had asked other clubs to send their best caddies.”
The following year, it was unanimously agreed by the club committee that the event would be open to the whole world, hence the term ‘The Open’.
The Open was played at Prestwick on that 12-hole course 11 times from 1860 to 1870. Tom Morris won four times and is still the oldest winner of The Open (aged 46). His son, Tommy, won in 1868 aged 17 and remains the youngest winner of any major golfing championship. Tommy won again in 1869 and had the first hole in one in The Open. And, he won again in 1870, scoring a record of 47 on the 12-hole course. That’s some family achievement!
It also presented the club with a problem.
“The belt had been put forward as a prize by members of the club,” explains Ken. “They said that if anyone wins three years in succession the belt becomes their property. Tommy won the belt outright.”
So, in 1871, there was no prize. Keen to involve other clubs in organising and running the event, agreement was reached with R&A of St Andrews and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers that they would take turns to hold The Open.
“They each paid £10 to buy a trophy which everyone calls the Claret Jug. Its real name is the Golf Champion Trophy.”
But, when Tommy won the competition again in 1872, the new trophy wasn’t yet ready. He was awarded a gold medal instead, a tradition that has continued to this day.
“After that, The Open moved around from club to club. I think there have been 14 different courses used up to now.”
The last time The Open was played at Prestwick was 1925.
By that time, Tom Morris had laid out an 18 hole-course. Ken explains why the competition has never returned.
“By modern standards, the crowds weren’t huge… maybe 17,000. They just got in the road of the golfers. The course was still long enough and hard enough for the players but it occupied too small a footprint to be able to have golfers and spectators.”
He shows me a photograph on the wall, taken at that last event in 1925. Spectators dominate the shot, spilling onto the green. I’m not surprised when he tells me the club asked not to host the competition again. It was, however, played here a total of 24 times and Prestwick will always be known as the birthplace of the Open Championship.
In fact, the club only yesterday (23rd October) finished celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Open.
“We recreated Tom Morris’ original 12-holes, which wasn’t without its challenges,” says Ken. “We’ve had various events… we invited the captains of all the clubs that have hosted The Open to a golfing event. We had an event with the R&A and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers because we were the three clubs that paid for the Golf Champion Trophy.”
Members and visitors were also invited to join in the celebrations and were afforded the opportunity to play with hickory clubs – ancient clubs with wooden shafts. Ken himself played three rounds with hickories admitting they’re ‘very different’. I take that to mean they’re inferior when compared with today’s metal or carbon fibre clubs.
I ask Ken how often he gets to play with his own, modern clubs.
“I try and play with the members on a Saturday. The way it works here is… the members just turn up, they don’t have pre-organised games. We do a draw… and make sure no-one’s left on their own.”
The club has 640 members, including around 130 international members who live abroad.
“It’s an international game,” he says, when I show my surprise. “We’ve had overseas members for a long time now. Most of the big championship clubs will have overseas members.”
There’s no doubt Prestwick remains a popular choice for foreign visitors. In fact, the club boasts a ‘warm welcome’ to all visitors who are encouraged to join members in the traditional Smoke Room or grand Dining Room before or after their round.
I’m granted a brief tour of these rooms and can understand why Ken refers to himself as a ‘museum keeper’. The clubhouse if full of prized golfing memorabilia including a framed portrait of every single club captain since it was founded in 1851.
“It will be our 175th anniversary since we were founded in four years’ time… 2nd July 2026,” Ken informs me. “Whether it’s me that’s doing it or not, I don’t know.”
His statement is unexpected. He has been Club Secretary for twelve years and admits it’s a wonderful place to work.
“Every day is different. I’ve got a good membership to work with… I meet a lot of really interesting people…”
“I might have retired by then. I don’t know. Never say never. It would be nice to be a participant rather than an organiser.”
Well, he has four years to decide. In the meantime, he will continue to welcome visitors to the birthplace of the Open Championship and to impress them with his knowledge.
“This is still a popular Mecca for visiting golfers,” he says, proudly.
Not a bad parting shot.