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|Prestwick is the most historic golf course on earth (as in the entire planet). Yet the clubhouse is as friendly as a visiting golfer could hope for. (Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)|
Scotland's Prestwick Golf Club is one of my favorite golf courses on earth - but it might be my very favorite golf club.
The difference is important, especially since we Yanks have bastardized the meaning of the term "club," which originally meant something like when we were kids and we had a clubhouse with a secret handshake. Golf clubs were formerly a place for like-minded people to get together and not just play golf, but also drink, eat, drink, play cards, drink, make merry and generally have a good time while hiding from their wives. Today many clubs embrace the better halves, but at least in Scotland and Ireland, little else has changed.
In America, a golf club is more typically one of two extremes - a place you "belong" to, because you can play golf and keep a handicap, or a place you belong to because you can and others can't and that makes you feel important. The latter type of club is also the kind that non-members can't play no matter how interested they are in the course, a list that unfortunately, includes just about every U.S. Open and PGA Championship venue, along with many, many PGA Tour stops.
In the British Isles, "private" clubs have long been just about anything but, and with a few very rare exceptions (and these, like Loch Lomond, typically go broke) welcome outside play. With even rarer exceptions (heinous Royal Troon anyone?), they welcome visitors into their heart, soul and clubhouse. But none that I have seen take it quite as far as Prestwick, especially since this is the one Scottish golf club that could justifiably get snotty if any Scottish club could.
With the exception of the Old Course at St. Andrews, which is not a private club and has no members, Prestwick is the most historic golf course on earth, as in the entire planet. It is one of the oldest golf courses, and has several of the most famous and recognizable holes in the game, largely unchanged from the way Old Tom Morris himself designed them. But most significantly, Prestwick invented and begat the Open Championship, golf's first and, for a long time, only Major, which we like to call the British Open. Again, other than the Old Course, it has hosted more majors than any course you or I can play, and it simply oozes tradition. But for all that, it fits the visitor like a favorite pair of well-worn slippers.
First, let's dispense with the golf. It is quirky, which links golf should be, and if it were built today it would be decried as unfair and gimmicky and all sorts of things. But since it was not built today, and it was built by Old Tom Morris on real linksland, any such comments reveal the critic as an idiot. It thrives on blind shots, holes that seem to go the wrong way, bunkers the size of beaches and railroad ties used to a degree that would make Pete Dye blush if he tried it. Memorable holes include Himalayas, a blind 206-yard par 3; the Cardinal, a reachable par 5 whose fairway is split by the vast Cardinal bunker, which you would think was the biggest you'd ever seen, but is in fact only the second largest at Prestwick; the Bridge, a par 4 that doglegs along a burn, with a short dangerous route and a long safe route, the ultimate risk/reward hole and one of the greatest par 4s ever; The Wall, a par 5 with the third shot over a ridge or wall, playing so much longer than you think that caddies joke about visitors reaching it with "a driver, three-wood and taxi." The Alps is the oddest and most famous of them all, a par-4 hole with a blind second shot over a ridge, not just to an unseen green, but also over the amazingly huge yet completely hidden Sahara bunker, virtually a desert on the Scottish coast.
That's why you have to play the course, in a nutshell. Oh, and spring for a caddie.
First, they are friendly and seem to love Americans, so much so that it makes you wonder if they are really Irishmen masquerading as Scots. This makes for an especially stark contrast to the least welcoming of all British Open venues, Troon, which is practically next door.
Secondly, they love playing golf, and it is contagious. This is reflected in their unusual and quite reasonable all-day greens fees, and it is easy to get around twice. In summer, when Scottish light wanes around the time I usually go to bed, twosomes who play at local speed can even get around three times, which alone makes it worth the trip.
But my number one reason to visit Prestwick is lunch.
Lunch you ask? In Scotland? Okay, with the exception of fried Mars bars, the country is not known for its cuisine (and shouldn't be). And no, this is not the best food in golf, but it may well be the best meal. At least if you remember to bring a coat and tie. If you do, you are welcome, and I mean really welcome, to join the locals in the Members Bar and Dining Room, as it is formally known, or the Captain's Table, as regulars call it.
That's because it is one communal 30-person table, bringing to mind the egalitarian notions of King Arthur's round table. You will eat and drink in good company and better conversation, regaled with stories and peppered with questions, all the while taking in a museum-like treasure trove of golf memorabilia, championship trophies, and an endless array of engraved "thank you" gifts from clubs like Pine Valley, whose members have learned of Prestwick's hospitality firsthand. I honestly cannot remember what I ate, but lunch was superb.
Consider the club's Web site (www.prestwickgc.co.uk), which on the same understated first page that briefly describes its rich history, pointedly notes:
"Prestwick Golf Club is a relaxed and friendly club that enjoys hosting golfers from all around the World. Visitors are encouraged to use their temporary membership to its full capacity, and enjoy the full lunch in the lavish Dining room or just a snack in the relaxed Cardinal room."
Temporary membership? How much cooler is that than visitor? If for some reason you forget your coat and tie, your golf shirt will ensure that you will still eat, drink and play well, enjoying the informal Cardinal Lounge, but you won't make it to the big table. And that would be a mistake. Because it would be a real shame to go anywhere near Prestwick and not play it, and just as big a shame to play it and not experience it. So, bring the coat and tie.
October 19, 2009
Larry Olmsted has written more than 1,000 articles on golf and golf travel, for the likes of Golf Magazine, T&L Golf, LINKS, Golf & Travel, Men's Health, Men's Journal, USA Today, and many others. He broke the Guinness World Record for golf travel and wrote Getting into Guinness, as well as Golf Travel by Design. He was the founding editor of The Golf Insider, and the golf columnist for both USA Today.com and US Airways Magazine.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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