Golf: A hole new ball game

The Anniversary: The first professional golf tournament teed off at Prestwick 138 years ago

THE multi-million-pound extravaganza known to the world as the British Open and to purists as the Open Golf Championship was an impoverished whim when it stumbled into life at Prestwick 138 years ago this weekend.

Golf's first official professional competition was contested by a mere eight players for the underwhelming prize of a red Moroccan leather belt with a silver buckle. The fledgling tournament had only been conceived four and a half months earlier during Prestwick's Spring Meeting by a prominent member, Colonel J O Fairlie, who proposed that all the leading clubs should subscribe to a gold medal to be competed for by professionals over the 12-hole Ayrshire links.

In September 1860, Col Fairlie recommended that in order "to avoid any objectionable characters [entering] we ... write to the secretaries of all the golfing societies requesting them to name and send their best professional players". The Prestwick captain, Lord Colville, underlined this sentiment on 3 October by stating that "the players must be known and respectable caddies".

Despite the mounting paranoia, at 11.30am on 17 October, the day after Prestwick's Autumn Meeting, the first players teed off. Three rounds (36 holes) later, the Musselburgh professional Willie Park was declared the winner with 174 strokes - two fewer than Tom Morris Snr, the resident professional but formerly of St Andrews. One of the contestants, George Brown, had travelled from as far as Blackheath, in south-east London, though his total of 192 left him fifth.

Prestwick's length was 3,799 yards and its bogey (in those days there was no such thing as par) was 48. The longest hole was the first (578 yards) and the shortest the 11th (97 yards).

According to the amateur golfer Horace Hutchinson, writing in 1890, the course "went dodging in and out among lofty sandhills. The holes were, for the most part, out of sight when one took the iron in hand for the approach; for they lay in deep delves among these sandhills, and you lofted over the intervening mountain of sand, and there was the fascinating excitement, as you climbed to the top of it, of seeing how near to the hole your ball might have happened to roll."

Col Fairlie became the first amateur to enter the following year, finishing eighth behind Morris and perhaps initiating the "Open" concept. Seven of the first eight championships were won by either Park or Morris but it was not until Morris's third victory in 1865 that any prize money was declared for the winner, in this case pounds 6 - a mere pounds 299,994 light of Mark O'Meara's cheque last July.

One of the original rules was that if anybody won the Challenge Belt three times in succession, he could keep it. The precocious Tom Morris Jnr duly pulled off this feat from 1868 to 1870. On the first occasion he was only 17 years, five months and eight days old - still the youngest age for a major winner. On the second occasion, his third-round 49 was the first under 50. And on the third occasion, his opening 47 was the first round to beat bogey.

Young Tom's permanent appropriation of the Belt caused such confusion among the organisers over the far from insignificant matter of financing a replacement trophy that no championship took place in 1871. Indeed, it was only two days before the start of the 1872 tournament that the members of Prestwick, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (based in those days at Musselburgh and not Muirfield) came up with a solution while dining together.

As apocrypha has it, they were passing the wine round the table when it was suggested that a silver claret jug might do the job. Although the hallmark proves today's hallowed trophy was not actually purchased until at least a year later, reportedly for pounds 30, the tournament went ahead.

Needless to say, Young Tom won again. He was only 21 at the time, but it was his last victory. Just over three years later, while grieving over his wife's death in childbirth, he died on Christmas morning of alcohol poisoning, his body discovered by his father.

The other two developments from the night of the claret jug were agreements that the event should remain open to amateurs thus confirming it as the Open, and that it should rotate every three years between Prestwick, St Andrews and Musselburgh - a chain unbroken until 1894 when it moved South of the Border for the first time to St George's in Kent.

By then, however, the days of the Prestwick Belt were but a distant memory.

l For more on the history of the Open Championship, visit the British Museum of Golf at St Andrews, which supplied information for this article.

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