The Open Turns 161 Today
Professional tournament golf was born 58,805 days ago. Pros of the world, please thank Willie Park, Old Tom Morris, James Ogilvie Fairlie and Prestwick for paving the way.
Happy Birthday, The Open. You’re looking good for the big One-Six-One. And mighty impressive how you’ve grown and adapted to the times, too. You’re on TikTok. How many 161-year-olds can say that?
The Open’s initial gathering of eight—yet another limited-field, no-cut deal—took place on October 17, 1860. Led by James Ogilvie Fairlie, members of nine-year-old Prestwick Golf Club offered a £25 Challenge Belt and no prize money. Willie Park Sr. went wire-to-wire to beat Old Tom Morris, then Prestwick’s Keeper of the Green, Club and Ball Maker and course designer. Park finished two ahead after 12-hole scores of 55-59-60 and a 174 total.
The following year’s competition was declared to “be open to all the world”. And voila, The Open became the name. That all-important piece of golf phraseology is safely stored and protected in Prestwick’s club minutes:
I had the honor of looking at various documents vital to those early days, including several old scorecards from the early Opens. Below is Young Tom Morris’s scorecard when he aced the 8th hole in 1869 when it was a 166-yarder called The Station Hole. The par-3 arrived near the infamous Alps (then the 2nd, and now the 17th). The hole finished in the vicinity of today’s 15th fairway crest. This story from the Prestwick website has more details on the historic hole-in-one. The card:
Other than the R&A clubhouse in St Andrews—from what I’ve seen through the windows and in a book devoted to their collection—Prestwick has the game’s most significant historic artifacts. One key difference: golf visitors to Prestwick can take it in, adding to a welcoming experience inspired by the members and Club Professional David Fleming. If you are fortunate enough to make the journey to Prestwick, reserve a few minutes to look at the encased ephemera and photos. Included is this map of the original 12 holes:
Also featured is a pencil-crafted design of the first Challenge Belt, highlighted in this Andrew Lochhead story about the inaugural Open. (Thank you to Andrew for protecting the club’s incredible heritage and for clarifying details in today’s newsletter.) The club commissioned replicas of the original belt for the 125th and 150th birthdays of the first Open and those belts remain viewable. Here are close-ups from a replica displayed during the 2016 Open at Troon:
The Challenge Belt was famously retired when Tommy Morris claimed his third straight Open in 1870. It was replaced by the Challenge Trophy, now better known as the Claret Jug. Prestwick also displays Old Tom’s 1872 letter establishing the “agreement of understanding” regarding the belt’s replacement after Tommy’s historic victory. That must have been a fun letter for dad to sign!
Regarding the purse, The Open did not pay prize money until 1863. And when they initially did, it was only to the second, third and fourth place finishers. First place prize money was not paid until 1864. Initially, it was all about the belt (and the perks that went with becoming the Champion Golfer).
So while it doesn’t need to be said, I’m sure the world’s leading male professionals are waking up today in Madrid or Las Vegas and thinking about this specical day. Maybe when heading to the course or during their warm-up, they’ll be thanking Park, Morris and Fairlie for that day 161 years ago. Maybe the winners will mention it their speech. And surely toast protein shakes with their physio, with deep gratitude for those who started The Open. Or tell their private jet crew what happened on this day in golf history and paving the way for tonight’s flight home to happen.
Of course I’m kidding.
On October 17, 2021, Prestwick is hosting a once-every-five years triangular match with Prestwick St. Nicholas and Lanark golf clubs. The event was established in 2001 to celebrate the then-150th anniversaries of each club and their ties to Old Tom. The participants will undoubtedly toast the principals behind The Open, tipping back a Scotch whisky or the golfer’s liqueur, kummel (assuming the supplies haven’t dwindled).
But it was Bernard Darwin who best encapsulated the significance of what Prestwick’s members and professional golfers started 58,805 days ago.
“They little knew what a candle they were helping to set alight in Scotland and in all the world, such as should never be put out.”
A couple more photos…