Craig, Stu and I played the Prestwick course on 3 June 2010 at 1000 hrs. I mention the starting time because my 2 intrepid pals had already played 2 other courses that morning and had another 18 holes to play after Prestwick. What it must be to be young, fit and ambitious again. Prestwick was my 88th round since retiring on 29 January 2010, but I was content to do just the one round. After all, I'd a retirement dinner to attend in Glasgow that evening, so I needed to conserve energy and I'd certainly more than one further "round" in the day to plan for!
Prestwick was the original home of the Open Championship and has hosted the event 24 times, a number surpassed only by the Old Course at St Andrews. Prestwick is undoubtedly still one of the greatest courses in Scotland and a suitable venue to commemorate what would be my 300th Scottish course and the 100th played by Craig and Stu. We played Prestwick in perfect weather (23 degrees, clear sun and no wind). The Prestwick club were tremendously helpful in setting up our game and before going any further, I must thank the club for all of the arrangements, including the outstanding condition of the course, the weather and letting us out before a seemingly endless run of fourball visitors and their caddies. We weren't pressed from behind. Indeed, the fourball immediately behind us were just coming down the 15th as we left the car park after our visit to the 19th. Prestwick is obviously a "must play" for visiting golf tourists and whilst the resultant pace of play might occasionally be a problem for Prestwick members, those same members are highly privileged. I've already played some of Scotland's greatest courses, including the Old Course, Carnoustie, Loch Lomond, Kingsbarns, Muirfield and others, but I think that Prestwick is probably my favourite Scottish course so far. Quirky, complex, bizarre, unfair, amazing, silly and other less printable descriptors came to mind during the round, but my overall impression was one of sheer pleasure. If there's a reader of this blog who hasn't played here yet, I'd offer just one piece of advice. Play it and think yourself lucky to have the chance. The green fee is not for the faint-hearted, but Prestwick will present a challenge that is both formidable and subtle.
Prestwick is 6544 yards and a par 71 off the white medal tees that we played from. The par 4 1st hole is only 346 yards long, but looks improbably narrow off the tee, with a railway line and out of bounds all the way down the right. Stu and Craig had already carved their balls out of bounds, but although I'd hit a good drive, my wedge to the green had to avoid greenside bunkers. Here's the second shot I had. I decided to run my ball in off the left side, not realising that behind an innocent looking knoll lurked a devilishly deep bunker. I got the ball out, but the green was fast running, so a 7 was a disappointing start. The 2nd was a 167 yard par 3. My 5 iron found another hidden bunker, 10 feet to the left of the hole. An excellent sand iron to the top of the rise almost ran down to the hole, but trickled slowly back into the bunker. No problem, just a wee bit harder next time. Same result, back in the bunker. Still early in the round, no pressure, try yet again, same result. Play my 5th shot, hit the ball even firmer and it finally stays above ground. Miss a 15 foot putt, and I'm 7 over after 2 holes. There's a big black cloud in a hitherto almost cloudless sky and it's following me onto the 3rd tee. I try to stay composed but come on, level 7s after 2 holes, rated 11 and 17 on the Stroke Index? I was beginning to feel that it could be a very, very long day. The 3rd hole is simply magnificent. Shallow waste areas are commonplace in desert courses, but the scale and depth of bunkering on this hole is simply awesome. I played the hole well and escaped with a bogey. The 4th required a straight drive with a distant bunker as my target. I'll need to stop aiming at hazards, however far away they look, as the same ball that had found refuge at the 1st and 2nd had again ducked for cover. Still, at least I could hit the ball long and straight! A silly double bogey followed and my handicap had gone in the first 4 holes. A blind 206 yard par 3 (Stroke index 5) was next. Here's the view from the tee. Stu had been having an even more difficult start but if you enlarge the photo you'll see a white disc in the middle of the wooden wall topping the dune. Craig had suggested Stu aimed at the disc, but we hadn't expected such spurious accuracy. Stu managed to hit this target, no more than a foot wide, so I'll not be taking him on at darts any time soon. A bogey followed for Stu but I hit a decent 7 wood onto the green for my first par. However, that turned out to be the highlight of the front 9. I was out in 50, still had my first ball and was having a great time. My personal target, having been 81, had slipped to 99 or better!
Although my par at the 5th was looking increasingly lonely with each passing hole, I was at least avoiding real disasters on the back 9. I'd hit a really good drive at the short 362 yard 14th and had got it to 3 feet and here's Stu's approach putt to that green. Sadly, I just left my par putt short, an unlikely outcome, given the pace of the excellent greens. The 15th at Prestwick is called "Narrows" and is a fearsome prospect from the tee, with gorse (never good news!) on both sides, requiring a blind drive over a rise in the fairway. I hit what seemed to be a great drive up the left side. I'm not a great fan of hidden bunkers, but this beast was 30 feet wide and much the same depth below the fairway, but at least I'd a lovely view of the sky (and nothing else!) Another bogey followed and my search for a second par continued. The par 4 392 yard 17th ("Alps") was my favourite hole at Prestwick. I'd hit another really good straight drive and had an easy 6 iron over yet another sand dune. Thankfully, I was a few feet short of the summit of this dune, as this was what awaited on the other side. Bunkers that have 70 degree walls and flights of steps to get into are never going to be easy so I was delighted to escape with a bogey, avoiding this massive pit. At only 284 yards, the 18th is weak by modern standards, but Prestwick is not about such modernities. It's a course steeped in history, tradition and good old fashioned values. Play to your handicap here and you've done very well. I was happy enough to reach the 18th tee with the same ball I'd started with, despite issuing it with a couple of stern warnings about its tendency to favour bunkers to fairways. The 18th is only 284 yards, but since it's played in front of the clubhouse windows, the sense of theatre is akin to the 18th at the Old Course or at the many other courses where an audience is so obviously present. Thankfully, another good drive saw me only 20 yards short of the green. An easy par and I'd gone round in 94, net 84, or 13 over net par. We'd also had a great time and had played one of the best courses we'd ever played, anywhere. I've now played 300 courses and am almost halfway to playing every course in Scotland, and although there are many still to play, I'm certain that Prestwick will be in my personal top 5. Prestwick is no longer part of the Open Championship circuit due to crowd control and course length concerns, but it remains, for my modest playing ability at least, a supreme test. Complex and subtle, full of surprises, full of joy. Just play it. Please.