After several visits to Ayrshire without visiting this much-lauded venue I finally made it to the birthplace of The Open Championship this summer and although I can firmly say it was worth the wait I was a little sceptical as to whether this was going to be the case halfway through my round.
That’s not to say the first two-thirds of the course isn’t up to much – indeed it makes an excellent start before you face a series of strong par fours - but after hearing so much about the quirky nature of Prestwick I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.
In the end I was bowled over thanks largely to the rousing finale that Prestwick produces with three world-class holes featuring in the last six. This booming finish begins with the 13th “Sea Headrig” which is simply an amazing golf hole from start to finish; the drive from close to and along the shoreline to a heaving fairway, with just Willie Campbell’s hidden bunker to avoid, is excellent but this is topped by the shot to the angled and frantically undulating green fronted by a hogs-back approach. It’s one of those greens where you know that only the purest of strokes has a chance of finding the putting surface and that the odds are stacked heavily against you. Where to miss, or rather where not to miss, is a very important consideration before playing this shot and should you get it wrong all types of chaos could ensue.
Before we reach this masterpiece there is much good golf to play but Prestwick definitely saves the best for last. The first four holes are impressive but on a more understated scale and prove that strategy is far from dead in modern day golf. The opening hole, a mere 345 yards, epitomises this and rewards the player who dares play farthest and closest to the stone wall at the boundary of the course, running adjacent to the famous railway line down the right; not an easy task with your first blow of the day.
The dog-legging and partially blind par-five third "Cardinal" also has lots of options on drive, lay-up and approach with the mother of all bunkers to avoid as well as Pow Burn. And if neither of those gets you the humpy-bumpy ground short of the green will perhaps deviate your ball from its intended target. And then you have the innocuous looking fourth, another modest two-shotter, but with a pair of fairway bunkers to pierce, and the same burn to skirt, a player who plays safely to the left will face a much harder and longer approach to a green that falls from front-to-back and from left-to-right. The famous Himalyas hole – a totally blind par-three of over 200-yards - is next. Played over a gigantic dune it is what it is, you’ll either love this type of thing or hate it. For me personally I’m not a fan but can accept this type of hole in small doses.
The start at Prestwick is very good but not great and just when you hope the course will start moving through the gears it stalls and really just coasts along for a few holes. Each of six, seven, eight, nine and ten has their merits but you can find this type of golf on any number of top links courses throughout the UK. I came to Prestwick for something different and these five holes, as good as they are, don’t really give you that.
An approach from the left is required at the sixth, deep (as they are throughout) and hidden fairway bunkers must be avoided at the next whilst keeping your ball under the hole at eight is a priority. The ninth is the best of this quintet with a sweeping fairway that then plays partially blind to a wonderful green that slopes wickedly away from the player and to the right. Ten is also a very solid hole which plays up the hill and brings us close to the coast. Whilst these five holes are individually very good I must admit I had a feeling of going through the motions.
We get a peep of the sea as we walk onto the 11th tee and this rouses the senses and from here on in you will play some of the finest links golf in the world. Holes 11 and 12 promptly pick up the pace; a short hole followed by a long one. Watch out for the hidden bunkers to the right of the 11th; I suspect these may be some of the most visited in Scotland because effectively they are just where you want to land your ball in order to feed it onto the green with a Westerly blowing off the Firth of Clyde. The approach to the 12th green is also wonderful with lots going on in terms of undulations and bunkers; played as a three-shotter it should be an easy five but gamble on going for it in two and you'd better avoid the cluster of traps.
The aforementioned 13th is simply epic and whilst the 14th, which brings us back to the clubhouse prematurely, is not of the same gravy it does allow us to catch our breath, and perhaps a birdie chance, before we embark on a sizzlingly hot stretch of golf.
The 15th called Narrows does just that with a tiny slither of fairway to find from the tee and with three bunkers to avoid there is a feeling that there is more sand than grass on this hole. You then play to a blind green that we soon find falls steeply away from us. The hole is just 350-yards long but it has the potential to be a card-wrecker, however, regardless of what you score on this hole you‘re still likely to walk away the green with a big smile on your face.
I loved the driveable 16th too, which shares a fairway with the 13th, and whilst it’s not in the same league as 13, 15 and 17 it’s a fabulously strategic, fun and engaging hole with any number of ways to tackle it. In fact matchplay over this entire closing stretch must be mindboggling good fun.
The 17th is the original 2nd hole from the notorious 12-hole layout created by Old Tom Morris and is called Alps. The drive is inspiring to a fairway lined by large sandhills that eventually rises but then ends abruptly at the foot of the largest dunes; the Alps. We must play blindly over these and when you crest the hill as a first time visitor your jaw will drop in a mixture of amazement and bewilderment. I use the word cautiously but this is an orgasmic moment in golf. A fluid green with a large backstop is hidden amongst more dunes but fronted by the mammoth ‘Sahara’ bunker. It’s one of the finest green settings I’ve ever seen.
In a similar manner to St. Andrews, Machrihanish and North Berwick the 18th returns us to town and at less than 300 yards is a rather timid finish but should allow you to end your round with a four at worst.
There was a definite softness to the par 71 course – 6,908-yards from the tips – on my visit and there was a real greenness in places due to recent rainfall. Some of the fairways even had stripes running down them more akin to parkland golf but the links held up well to the ground game although at times Prestwick calls for the aerial route much more than at other links.
Prestwick, whose history stretches back over 160 years to a time when golf was in its infancy, certainly has its moments of sheer brilliance although in my opinion it doesn’t flow particularly well and is a little stop-start throughout. The highs are very high and because of this I think any lows can be forgiven. It has five or six green complexes that you could literally spend hours just chipping and putting around and these really are as good as they come.
Prestwick has its own identity for sure but if you are a fan of places such as North Berwick, Silloth, Rye, Brancaster and the like you are sure to enjoy golfing here because there are undoubtedly similar traits.
It's a long time since I've walked off a golf course and been as impressed and surprised, compared to what I was expecting, than at Newbiggin.
A family holiday brought me to Whitby Golf Club. After stuffing myself with fish & chips, losing most of my money on the penny slots and catching umpteen crabs in the harbour it was time for a round of golf!
Planning a round of golf in late October can be a dicey affair, especially in my home county of Yorkshire where the vast majority of courses are built on heavy soil or clay, so it was very refreshing to discover when venturing down south how well East Berkshire played at this time of year.