St. Andrews is hosting his 30th British Open starting on Thursday, in celebration of the 150th Open Championship. The Old Course has hosted more Open Championships than any other venue, which isn’t too surprising. It bills itself as the birthplace of golf and is scheduled by the R&A, which oversees the Open, to host the event every five years.
What is surprising is that the course in second place, Prestwick Golf Club, synonymous with the star player Old Tom Morris and the advent of the championship itself, has hosted 24 championships, but has not had one since 1925.
Prestwick is not alone in having been dropped from the rota, or schedule. Three other courses that have hosted Opens seem to be permanently removed: Musselburgh Links, Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club and Prince’s Golf Club. And there’s one more, Turnberry Golf Club, which has featured famous duels for the trophy, the claret jug.
There is understandably a lot of focus on the courses in the rota. St. Andrews, Royal Liverpool, Troon, Royal Portrush, Carnoustie and Muirfield have all hosted memorable Opens. Still, what happened to knock those other, historic courses off the open rota?
Prestwick Golf Club
Prestwick, in Scotland, is where the Open began. Old Tom Morris, the first international golf star, designed Prestwick. He sent the original invitation to the best golfers in Britain to crown the champion golfer of the year. And then he won four early Opens there (though not the first one, which Willie Park Sr. claimed).
The club helped steer the early formation of the Open, and it more than pulled its weight with 24 Opens from 1860 and 1925. It also played a role in creating the claret jug, which the champion takes possession of for one year. Limiting it to a year was important. Young Tom Morris, Old Tom’s son, after winning three Opens in a row at Prestwick, was entitled to keep the tournament’s prize: a red leather belt. Beltless, the organizers came up with the claret jug in 1872.
But in 1925, Prestwick’s run of Opens came to an end. It wasn’t dramatic; it was logistical. The storied club could not accommodate the growing number of fans who wanted to watch in person.
While Jim Barnes, an Englishman who lived in the United States, won the claret jug, it was more about who lost it — and how.
“In 1925 it was horrible crowd control that cost Macdonald Smith a chance to win,” Stephen Proctor, a golf historian and author of “The Long Golden Afternoon: Golf’s Age of Glory, 1864-1914” said of the Scottish player who was in contention. He was loved to death by the crowd. They really wanted a Scotsman to win. The whole crowd followed him for the final round. The theory was the crowd just agitated him.”
The problem of space, crowds and growing interest in watching the Open was an issue at a tight, small course like Prestwick. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, who organized the Open at the time, saw that interest was growing. (In 2004, the golf club created a separate group, the R&A, to oversee its championships, including the Open.)
“The holes are tightly packed together, so movement of the crowds between holes would have been impossible in the 1940s and onwards,” said Roger McStravick, a golf historian.
Despite its short length for the modern game — just under about 6,500 yards — and its out-of-the-way location, Prestwick has its backers.
“It’s a mistake that it hasn’t hosted a major since then,” said Ran Morrissett, co-founder of Golf Club Atlas, a golf architecture forum. “It has some of the meatiest, biggest par 4s in that stretch from holes six to 10. But tastes in architecture change with time.”
Mike Woodcock, a spokesperson for the R&A, said in explaining the route that the Open “requires a large footprint to be able to stage it as well as an outstanding links golf course, which will test the world’s best golfers and the necessary transport infrastructure to allow tens of thousands of fans in and out each day.”
“That’s a high bar to hit.”
Musselburgh, also a Scottish course, was home to the Park family. Willie Park Sr., who won the first Open in 1860, hailed from there. He won the Open three more times, with his last in 1875. His brother Mungo Park won it in 1874. And his son Willie Park Jr. won the Open in 1887 and 1889.
Willie Jr.’s win proved significant: It was at the last Open held at Musselburgh. The course had significant limitations, even in the 19th century. It was only nine holes, and it was tough to get to. As the format of the Open expanded to 72 holes, it was just too small.
It was also St. Andrews and the R&A asserting itself as the new home of golf that led to Musselburgh being removed from the original rota, which also included Prestwick and St Andrews.
“In 1892 it was the turn of Musselbrugh to host the Open,” said Mungo Park, an architect and descendant of the Parks. But in 1891 the Honorable Company [of Edinburgh Golfers] had bought Muirfield. They had the right of running the Open wherever they wanted, and they took it to Muirfield.”
“My uncle, having won the 1889 Open, was a man of some influence in the golfing world,” Park added. And he wasn’t afraid to challenge the gentlemen. He said this is not right. You can’t take it from Musselburgh. But they arguably had the rights to take it with them and they did.”
Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club and Prince’s Golf Club
Between them, they hosted three Opens. Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club nabbed two and Prince’s Golf Club one.
Royal Cinque Ports is in Deal, an English town with small, narrow roads. The modern Open is a large production. And there are other, more amenable venues in England. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful golf course,” Morrissett of Golf Club Atlas said. “The fact that it can’t host an Open in any way detracts from the merits of the golf course.”
In 1932, Prince’s Golf Club in England put on a show with its one and only Open: The great American player Gene Sarazen, who would win all four majors in his career, won his only Open there. He beat Smith, who had lost the last Open at Prestwick in 1925.
The case of Turnberry in Scotland is different. It’s a stern test of golf that has hosted four championships. In 1977, the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry pitted Tom Watson against Jack Nicklaus, with Watson eventually prevailing. It last hosted an Open in 2009.
But in 2014, Donald J. Trump bought Turnberry and renamed it Trump Turnberry. The course’s place on the rota was put on hold.
“Turnberry will be missed because of the super television optics and sea views,” said David Hamilton, author of “Golf — Scotland’s Game.”
While politics have often played a part in where the Open goes, today it’s also about convenience and infrastructure. And that’s what caused many of the other courses to be dropped.
“The Open has gotten bigger and bigger, which ruled out courses over time,” McStravik said. “Some were too short. Some were inaccessible. Some clubs’ fortunes changed, so it went to a neighboring course.”
He added: “You like to see the heroes of the day play on the same links that the legends played on. The magic of the Open is that it directly connects Old Tom Morris to Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Seve [Ballesteros] to Rory McIlroy.”