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The Coming of The Open - History of The Open Golf Championship

Upon his untimely death in 1859, the question arose as to who would succeed Allan Robertson and lay claim to the title as the finest golfer in the land. Professor David Purdie traces the history of golf’s oldest championship to the day that question would be answered, at the Prestwick Golf Club, on Wednesday October 17, 1860

In September 1859 Allan Robertson, aged only 43, died at St Andrews. In his day without question the finest golfer in Scotland, he was also a feathery ball maker and both employer and playing partner of the then young Tom Morris Sr. Allan, known as “The Laird of the Links” had been, literally, one of the driving forces of the game. But now he was gone – and a question arose. Upon whom should the mantle fall as the finest player in the land? Some averred that it must be Morris, now Keeper of the Green at Prestwick, from whom Allan had differed over his assistant’s adoption of the newer gutta-percha ball in place of the lucrative but fragile feathery.

However, many said no, the greatest player now is clearly Willie Park of Musselburgh. At this the clamour grew that Andrew Strath of St Andrews deserved consideration, as did Robert ‘the Rook’ Andrew of Perth, Charlie Hunter of Prestwick St Nicholas and George Daniel Brown, down in London at the Blackheath Club. The issue clearly required a settlement. Came the hour – came the man. Enter the father of the Open, Major James Ogilvy Fairlie of Coodham. Fairlie, joint founder of Prestwick GC in 1851, was a remarkable man: soldier, landowner, sportsman, captain of the R&A in 1850 and already a championship innovator.

Allan Robertson (clubs under his arm) was regarded as the finest golfer in the land. His death in 1859 was the catalyst for a tournament to identify his successor.

In July 1857 he had been the driving force behind a ‘Grand National Golf Club Tournament’, the first ever national club competition. This was a foursomes matchplay event held at St Andrews under the auspices of the R&A and won by the Blackheath Club from London. The competitors having all been gentlemen amateurs, the next step which occurred to Fairlie and his friends was that a national competition might be held in stroke play rather than matchplay format, to determine the champion professional.

It should be remembered that in the mid-Victorian era, professionals as we know them today did not exist. The landed gentry who belonged to the great clubs had been adding to their staffs of huntsmen, jockeys and gillies the new phenomenon of the caddie cum playing partner who would evolve into the modern professional golfer. Such were Allan Robertson and Tom Morris, who until 1859 had both been integral to the running of the St Andrews amateur tournaments. But now Robertson was dead and the newly proposed tournament would at least go part way to ranking the professionals. It would also place the crown – or buckle the belt as it turned out – on the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’, a title still applied each July to he who hoists and kisses the claret jug.

In May 1860, the Prestwick club minutes begin to speak about the organisation of the first Open Championship. The prize was to be a decorated red morocco belt costing £25 – the equivalent of £1,100 today. It would be retained by the club or (on deposition of a bond ) by the winner for a year. Should a winner repeat his victory in the two succeeding years, the belt would be his to keep. The similarities with the belts awarded to boxers are unmistakable, this being the era when gentlemen might retain prize-fighters for the big-money, bare knuckle contests much patronised by the landed gentry.

And so it came to pass that a decree went out from Lord Colville, Prestwick’s captain, to the clubs of the golfing world that “known & respectable Cadies” (note the term) might enter a competition to be held on Wednesday October 17, 1860. This was during the week of Prestwick’s Autumn Meeting, at which the competitors would also caddie for members, a useful financial incentive since no prize-money accompanied the belt. Caddying during the Meeting would also allow the outsiders to get a feel for the layout of Morris’s great and unique Prestwick links.

Directly across the town’s Main Street from the cottage of Tom and Agnes Morris, there sits to this day the Red Lion Hotel. It was then a preferred watering hole of the Ayrshire Yeomanry Regiment of which Major Fairlie and other Prestwick members were officers. Indeed it had been following a Yeomanry Field Day nine years previously on July 2, 1851 that there assembled, at the Red Lion, a group of 57 professional men and gentry. Headed by Fairlie, then captain of the R&A, they proceeded to inaugurate Prestwick Golf Club, the first great links club of the west of Scotland.

As first captain they elected Archibald William, 13th Earl of Eglinton & Winton and head of the great Ayrshire family of Montgomerie. The noble Earl, in return for granting leave to the Glasgow & South Western Railway to cross his estates, had extracted the right to command any train carrying him, or indeed not carrying him, to stop. It would then be required to embark, disembark, or otherwise deposit him, anywhere. His Lordship was thus ensured of door-to-door delivery of himself, his playing partners and entourage from Eglinton Castle to a convenient hundred yards from Prestwick’s original first tee.

The competitors were instructed to assemble before the Red Lion Inn on that very first morning of the Open. They were eight in number, the longest journey having been G.D. Brown’s from London, the shortest Tom Morris’s, who had only to cross the road. The tournament would consist of three rounds of the then 12-hole Prestwick links. I am obliged to Michael Flannery the distinguished golf historian for the observations that since the course measured 3,800 yards, the tournament was thus played over 11,400 yards, or the equivalent of two 18-hole rounds of a 5,700-yard course. (In an 1895 long-driving competition, using gutty balls, at St Andrews, William Anderson (222 yards) landed ahead of Laurie Auchterlonie (220) and D Simpson (218). If this is factored into a comparison with modern driving with averages around 260/70 yards, then Prestwick in reality played to a length of 7,200-7,400 yards.)

This image captures a scene from the 1925 Open – the last to be staged upon the hallowed links. A ‘must-play’ for any connoisseur

Play would begin at noon. The first two rounds would be followed by amid-afternoon lunch back at the Red Lion and then a final afternoon round. It is just as well that slow play was then unknown, since sunset at Prestwick on October 14 falls at just a quarter past five, by which time three rounds had to be completed. Sunset was at 17.16 hrs GMT. (British Summer Time was not inaugurated until 1916.)

No effort was spared to police the matches with appropriate rigour. The Rules of the Prestwick Club were read to the competitors by the Umpire, Sir Robert Hay of Hay Lodge, and the pairings – each with their markers – were announced.

The 39-year-old Morris would lead off with Robert Andrew (Perth) accompanied by their marker, Andrew Gillon Esq., of Wallhouse. They would be followed by Willie Park Sr. (Musselburgh) & Alex Smith (Bruntsfield), Marker: Capt. James; Wm. Steel (Bruntsfield) & Charlie Hunter (Prestwick St Nicholas), Marker: Capt. Pratt; George Brown (Blackheath) & Andrew Strath (St Andrews) Marker: Maj. Fairlie.

Willie Park went straight in to a three-stroke lead after the first round and held on to it at lunch. The final afternoon round saw Morris catch up one shot, but the championship and the belt went to Musselburgh. Park finished on 174 – or 6 under fives – two strokes ahead of Morris, Prestwick’s Keeper of the Green and six ahead of Andrew Strath.

The Ayrshire Advertiser reported that, ‘…the most veteran frequenters of the Links will admit that in all their experience of Morris, they never saw him come to grief so often, because it is well known that the battle of Bunker’s Hill is an engagement which he has very seldom to fight’.

From this we may surmise that it was in sand laid by himself in Prestwick’s bunkers that Tom Morris’s challenge had perished, the reporter’s allusion being to the first great battle of the American War of Independence on Boston’s Bunker Hill some 85 years previously. Who caddied for Morris is not recorded in his written account of the day which is held in the Prestwick Club’s archives.

Sadly, the truancy records for the Autumn Term of 1860 at the neighbouring great school, Ayr Academy, have not survived to tell us if a certain 10-year-old pupil, one Thomas Morris Jr., was unaccountably absent from class that day…

It will be noted that, strictly speaking, the first Open was a rather closed affair. Professionals only had competed and Major Fairlie moved quickly to propose that the Prestwick Club should, literally, open the 1861 competition to include gentlemen amateurs. The advertisement stated that the Tournament was now “Open to the whole world”. It worked. There was a 50% increase in the field – to 12 – which including Fairlie himself. The belt now returned from East Lothian to Ayrshire with Tom Morris winning the first of his four Open Championships. Fairlie led the gentlemen players and was thus the first ever leading amateur. That title remains a great honour to this day, the presentation ceremony at each Open beginning with the R&A awarding the silver medal to his latest successor.

Thus began the first and still the greatest of the major championships. The number of holes have doubled to 72 and the prize fund increased to a value beyond the conception of those first eight competitors. However, to this day the Open remains a stroke play competition open to amateurs as well as professionals and is always held upon a great Scottish or English seaside links course over four tremendous days of high summer. And there is not a small boy standing today with a putter in his hand and a ball at his feet who does not say to himself, as we all have done: “Right – this for the Open.”

On an Open Championship Sunday, a proud man will have his name engraved upon that old claret jug. He will stand in proud and lineal succession to Willie Park Sr., of Musselburgh, who stood before Major James Ogilvy Fairlie of Coodhamall those years ago on that windy autumn day of fitful sunshine upon the links of Prestwick.

The Greatest Game,
Professor David Purdie & Hugh

Published by Birlinn

Guide: £25 HB / Limited Edition: £150

ISBN: 978-0-95144-707-9


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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