Celebrating Prestwick – The Home of the First Professional Golf Tournament

  13 Oct '23   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Extract from Stphen Proctor’s The Long Golden Afternoon, Chapter 1: ‘Terrible Things’

October 17 marks the anniversary of the first professional golf tournament, held at Prestwick Golf Club. Since then, Prestwick has been home to many momentus events in golfing history, including the victory of John Ball, the first English player to win the Open Championship in 1890. In this extract, Stephen Proctor recounts Ball’s victory, and the seismic effect it had on golf at the turn of the century.

Horace Hutchinson, the famed English amateur, had just slogged in from his final round in the 1890 Open Championship when he heard the news that was spreading like wildfire around the links of Prestwick. The talk was about John Ball Jr, a gentleman golfer from Royal Liverpool. At that moment, Ball was playing his homeward nine and, as Hutchinson recalled, doing ‘terrible things’.

Hutchinson, of course, meant ‘terrible’ in that peculiarly British sense of the word that defines an accomplishment so unexpected as to be unthinkable. Ball was playing with such machine-like precision that the unimaginable might well happen. Hutchinson and his friend, Dr William Laidlaw Purves, both influential leaders in the rapidly growing world of English golf, hurried off to catch up with Ball and follow the nation’s rising star home.

By 1890 competitive golf had been played for a century and a half, and in nearly all that time the gentlemen who ran the game lagged far behind professional players, often laughably so. The best of the amateurs had come closer in recent years, but those watching the Open still must have raised an eyebrow when Ball started the Championship with twin nines of 41. His tidy 82 left him a stroke off the pace set by St Andrews professional Andra Kirkaldy, the heavy favourite. Ball’s admirers would not have been surprised. He entered the Open in magnificent form. Three months earlier he had won the Amateur Championship for the second time in its five-year existence.

In the afternoon round, as Kirkaldy struggled, Ball marched steadily along, making the proper figure on every hole. By the time he reached the 16th, it had become clear to Hutchinson, Purves and everyone else at Prestwick on that afternoon of 11 September 1890 that only an unforeseen calamity could prevent the Englishman from doing ‘the most terrible thing that had ever yet been done in golf – he, as an amateur, was going to win the Open Championship.’

Exactly the sort of catastrophe that might yet derail Ball had befallen his playing partner, Willie Campbell, three years ago on this very hole. The ill-fated professional from Musselburgh had a two-stroke lead in the 1887 Open when he stepped up to the tee of the 16th. Playing boldly, Campbell tried to carry his shot over a fairway bunker. It fell short, ending up mired in gnarly grass that rimmed the hazard. He needed five shots to get out and tossed away his best chance to become Champion Golfer. Not long afterwards, Hutchinson had seen poor Campbell and his caddie sitting atop upturned buckets in the professional’s shop, weeping uncontrollably. Ever after that sinister pot bunker would be known as Willie Campbell’s grave.

No such disaster would befall John Ball. In the end, he would win the Open by three strokes with matching scores of 82, for a total of 164. As the inevitability of his victory dawned on the two pillars of English golf, Hutchinson remembered, Purves turned to speak to him. ‘“Horace,” he said to me in a voice of much solemnity. “This is a great day for golf.”’ Even those forward-thinking men had no idea just how great a day it was. Golf had been growing slowly but steadily in England since the institution of the Open Championship and the rise of the game’s first superstar, Young Tom Morris of St Andrews. Ball’s historic victory at Prestwick turned that smouldering fire into a conflagration.

The quarter century that followed would witness the game’s coming of age. It would see golf’s popularity explode – in England and Ireland, in the Americas and Europe, in Africa and India, and in Australia and New Zealand.

It would see the emergence of professional golf tours, and the anointing of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews as the game’s governing authority and guiding light.

It would see the beginning of a relentless quest to make golf easier that has shaped the game from that day to this, as well as the blossoming of a literature that remains the envy of other sports.

And it would see, against all odds, the first period in history in which the gentlemen golfers who had ruled the game since time immemorial could actually compete against the professionals whose prowess had always humbled them, even as they sneered at the men as ruffians. These revolutionary changes unfolded against the backdrop of something else Hutchinson sensed on the 18th green at Prestwick as he, Purves and the crowd lustily cheered John Ball as the first amateur to be hailed Champion Golfer of the Year.

‘What interested me much at the moment,’ Hutchinson wrote, ‘was the attitude of the professionals towards the result. I had expected that they would feel rather injured by seeing the championship which they had regarded as their own going to an amateur. To my surprise that did not appear to disconcert them in the least. What they did resent, however, so far as resentment may be carried within the limits of perfectly good sportsmanship, was that it should be won by an Englishman.’

That autumn afternoon at Prestwick stoked a rivalry as passionate as any in sport. Scotland now had a genuine competitor at its national pastime. In the years leading up to the First World War, the battle between Scotland and England for supremacy on the links provided the dramatic backdrop for this transformative generation.

Stephen Proctor has served as a senior editor at The Baltimore SunThe San Francisco Chronicle and The Houston Chronicle. He is an avid golfer and has spent the past decade studying the history of the royal and ancient game. He is the author of Monarch of the Green (Shortlisted for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards 2020 Biography of the Year) and The Long Golden Afternoon (shortlisted for the Sunday Times 2023 Sports Book Awards for Best Sports Writing, and the USGA Herbert Warren Wind Book Award) and lives in Malabar, Florida.

  • Hardback | Pub: 16 Jun 2022

    Shortlisted for the 2023 Sports Book Awards for Best Sports Writing of the Year Shortlisted for the USGA Herbert Warren Wind Book Award The Long Golden Afternoon tells the story of the transformative generation of golf that followed the rise…

  • Paperback | Pub: 01 Jul 2021

    Shortlisted for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards Biography of the Year ‘A splendid new biography. How good was young Tom Morris? Stephen Proctor makes his case cogently. Young Tom Morris was one of the greatest of them all’ – Allan…

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