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The mystery behind Prestwick's disappearance from the Open rota

The Scottish club hosted the first Open in 1860 and 23 of the next 59. So what happened in 1925 that caused the R&A to say goodbye forever?
July 06, 2022
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Imagine, if you will, driving into the ancient burgh of Prestwick from the north, past what used to be Scotland’s one international airport and, beyond that, along Monkton Road towards the town itself. At the traffic lights, make a right onto Links Road. Then, maybe half a mile along and after the road slips under the bridge carrying the train track, turn right again. Into Prestwick Golf Club. There, in 1860, the first Open Championship was played, a fact immediately confirmed by the commemorative cairn that sits just inside the entrance.

On that very spot, 162 years ago in October, the opening tee shots of what was a 36-hole event were struck by Old Tom Morris and Robert Andrew. With a score of 174, Musselburgh’s Willie Park Sr. won by two shots over Morris, who was the only man in the eight-player field to break 60 in all three of the 12-hole rounds.

But that was then. Now, the walk from the car park to the professional’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 practice putting green. Just past the entrance to the building and outside club professional David Fleming’s shop window lies the “new” first tee, hard against the wall that separates the course from Prestwick’s railway station.

It is, as club secretary, Ken Goodwin, says, “a small footprint,” one that doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything other than a few golfers and the odd caddie. Perfect for 1860 perhaps, but the notion that a 21st century Open could be played at its ancestral home is fanciful indeed. There simply isn’t enough space to accommodate the vast array of infrastructure and huge crowds that today are an integral part of the game’s oldest championship. Not even close.

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The original Open Championship Belt and the Claret Jug photographed on the commemorative cairn that is placed where the first shot in Open Championship history was hit on Oct. 17, 1860.

David Cannon

It’s been almost a century since the endlessly eccentric links on the shore of the Firth of Clyde held its 24th—and last—Open. There is nothing directly linking the Open’s departure to inadequate acreage, although that immutable fact would have led to the course becoming the museum piece it is today. While Prestwick remains close to the hearts of those who cherish eccentricity and quirk, it would hardly provide an appropriate test for the modern “bombers” who populate the sharp end of professional golf. Drive-pitch-and-putt would be the order of the four days.

Still, it most certainly was not lack of challenge that saw the championship depart for good in the wake of “Long” Jim Barnes’ 1925 victory. Winner of the first two PGA Championships in 1916 and 1919, as well as the 1921 U.S. Open, the transplanted Cornishman hit his ball 300 times en route to claiming his fourth and last major title and the £75 first-place prize. George Duncan, 1920 Open champion, had the best score (73) in a final round in which only 28 of the 68-player field broke 80. Prestwick back then was no pushover.

While no one said so out loud or even in print at the time—not the club and not the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, organizers of the Open—the fact Prestwick never saw a 25th Open was almost certainly the fault of overly enthusiastic fans. This year’s Open at St. Andrews, the celebrated 150th playing of the event, for the first time is an all-ticket affair. Such a precaution would have helped at Prestwick circa-1925, especially as warning signs were in clear view as many as 11 years earlier.

Playing the third round of the 1914 Open, Harry Vardon and JH Taylor, two-thirds of the “Great Triumvirate” completed by James Braid, were watched by an estimated 5,000 people. But, as related in The Story of the Open Championship (1860-1950) that figure was doubled in the afternoon when “Lanarkshire miners showed up in force and so great was their enthusiasm that they rendered it difficult for others to get a glimpse of the game.”

So suitable precautions before the 1925 championship could have changed history. Indeed, the absence of such perhaps explains the reluctance of anyone in authority to admit culpability.

“Although there are sources in print and online that mention the overcrowding of the links, in particular during the closing round, as the reason why the Open did not return to Prestwick after 1925, I have not been able to find anything in our archives that sheds any further light on the matter,” says Kieran George, assistant curator at the World Golf Museum, based 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 rota was made. Anything relating to Open host venues typically only states which course they plan to invite to host the Championship, with no reason given for the choice.”

More research, however, would suggest the catalyst behind the demise of Prestwick as an Open venue was likely the popularity of an ex-patriot Scot named Macdonald Smith. At least for that one week, Smith was the 1920s equivalent of Tiger Woods in terms of fan appeal.

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Macdonald Smith and Tom Fernie walk past the first green during the final round of the 1925 Open at Preswick. Little did anybody know this would be the last of the 24 Opens played at the Scottish links.

Kirby

A quick glance at his record makes it clear that the Carnoustie-born naturalized American was one of the best players of the era. Although without a victory in any of what are today golf’s four most important men’s events, Smith won 24 times on what is now the PGA Tour (an impressive fact that has so far failed to gain him entry to the World Golf Hall of Fame) and recorded 17 top-10s in majors. That includes five top-fives in the U.S. Open, seven top-fives in the Open Championship (and no lower than a T-18 in nine total starts). In his one Masters, he was T-7. Strangely, he never played in a PGA Championship.

Statistically at least, Smith’s closest brushes with a major win were a trio of second places. In 1930, he was beaten only by Bobby Jones in both the U.S. Open and the Open. And two years later he was again runner-up in the Open, this time to Gene Sarazen. Invariably it took a player of the highest quality to see off a Smith challenge.

But those numbers disguise 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 champ Ted Ray and Abe Mitchell (whose image forms the figure atop the Ryder Cup) seven strokes back.

As was the way of things back then, 36 holes were played on the final day, with the leaders not necessarily at the back of the field. So it was that, largely in anonymity, Barnes was first off in the third round at 8 a.m. and started his final-round 74 at 12:30 p.m. Those facts, and the relatively pressure-free nature of his day on the links, were a key to ultimate victory, especially given Barnes’ recent history. Only three weeks earlier, he shot a grotesque 85 in the final round of the U.S. Open at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts (won by Scotsman Willie Macfarlane), which, if nothing else, confirms golf as the most fickle of games. Far from the stress of head-to-head, face-to-face and eye-to-eye competition, Barnes was in the clubhouse by 3 p.m. clutching his total of 300.

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The popular Macdonald Smith was all but overrun but the massive crowds cheering him on at Prestwick.

Kirby

Smith started his final round 30 minutes later alongside Tom Fernie and so knew with certainty that a round of 78 would be enough to clinch possession of the claret jug. And the round began well enough with pars on the opening two holes. But soon things started to unravel, courtesy of a crowd that, by all accounts, was largely out of control. Despite it being a Friday workday, the lack of an admission charge was too much of a temptation for many fans. Hundreds took the train from Glasgow and hopped over the wall from the Prestwick station onto the first tee. It is estimated that as many as 15,000 people were in attendance that afternoon, the vast majority watching Smith.

“They wanted the Scotsman to win and all that was wrong was that too many of them wanted it too much,” wrote Bernard Darwin. “It was a fatal misunderstanding and I doubt if he ever got over it.”

That the marshals were unable to cope is clear. “There were occasions on which the players were left with such narrow lanes to play along that some could not see the flags,” was Arthur Leonard Lee’s verdict in The Guardian. The instructions advising marshals to “endeavor to keep the spectators always to the right hand side of the course both going out and coming in” were sadly lost in the confusion.

“Smith was quoted saying the spectators got in the way many times,” says Andrew Lockhead, Prestwick Golf Club’s archivist. “There were holes where he had to play over the heads of the people. So the crowds clearly overran the playing areas of the course. The stewards couldn’t hold them back.”

The irony, Lockhead notes, is that the spectators were all on Smith’s side. “They were just over exuberant. They thought they were cheering him on. Sadly, he didn’t seem to realize that fact and his concentration was gone.”

Just as damaging was Smith’s loss of control on the greens. Three putts at the seventh, eighth and 15th holes led to double bogeys. But his was a steady disintegration rather than a sudden and dramatic exhibition of the dark art of choking 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 frittering,” Darwin called it—was four shots too many. Alone in fourth place on 303, he finished two shots behind the joint runners-up, Ray and Compston. Fifth on 305, Mitchell was the only other man to finish within 10 shots of the new champion.

“Poor Macdonald Smith was not unnaturally sad and bitter at the end of the day and blamed the crowd for his failure,’ Darwin reported. “It has to be admitted that Prestwick is not a good course for spectators. The crowds are very big and very keen and some of their number are imbued with the spirit of the miner on his holiday who traditionally remarked, ‘Players be damned. I’ve come to see.’ Moreover, the ground, especially near the clubhouse, is very ill adapted since the spectators watching one player get inextricably mixed with those watching another.”

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Jim Barnes (left) became the 24th—and last—Open champion to win the claret jug at Prestwick.

Kirby

So it was that Barnes became Prestwick’s last Open champion. That there could have been a 25th had Smith overcome his nerves and the proximity of so many of his compatriots is open to conjecture. But it is 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 attach any blame to the Prestwick club for the unfortunate scenes that surrounded Smith’s final round. A letter from championship committee chairman, Norman Boase, makes that clear.

“Your arrangements were excellent and I cannot think of any more you could have done,” Boase wrote. “The stewards did their best.”

All of which will have come as little consolation to Smith, who died of a heart attack in 1949 at 59. But the men of Prestwick were clearly keen to see no repetition 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 see that all players get clear courses and fair play.”

Somewhere, it is safe to assume, Smith was nodding his head in agreement.