Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Day's Journey from London to the Links of Prestwick

I originally published this article as part of a thread on the Golf Club Atlas discussion group on March 17, 2010.

I reach my spring break from my off-campus semester in London.  South of France? Greece? Italy?  Never.  Me?  I choose a week to see some great golf courses around the British Isles.  During some research on Denham Golf Club (which still has its own railway station) and railway golf clubs in the UK, I discovered that Prestwick has a rail station nearly at the clubhouse.  We have a Scotland trip planned for May, but, alas, we will not have time to see the West Coast.  However, I figured I could pull off a trip to Prestwick over break.  

Being the golf nut that I am, I decided to do some research on the trip.  It turns out that there is a 5:39 out of Euston Station to Glasgow.  With one change, I will make it to Prestwick at 11:49.  Half an hour later, I have a starting time on the first tee at Prestwick Golf Club!  Spend a few hours at Prestwick, catch the 17:19 back to Glasgow.  The Glasgow-Euston train gets in shortly before midnight.  Crazy? Probably.  But that does not mean I would not try it.

I made the ten-minute walk from my flat to Euston Station.  After a quick breakfast, I caught the 5:39 train from London Euston to Glasgow.  The ride up was fairly uneventful.  For one thing, I learned that there are a hell of a lot of sheep in Britain.  For another, beginning in the Lake District I realized that the mountains here are still covered in snow.  I reached Glasgow Central at 10:30.  Glasgow appears a very rough city from the train.  I would say that it is past its heyday, but from its appearance today I don't think Glasgow ever had a heyday.  After a quick Burger King stop (typical English fare), I boarded the 11:00 train to Ayr.

Glasgow is indeed glum, but the land opens up once you reach the countryside.  The train made a brief stint in the hills of Western Scotland.  The trip then turned magical as the train swung out along the Ayrshire Coast.  Gorgeous views of the sea are coupled with a tremendous look at some excellent links courses.  I caught a glimpse of Irvine, Glasgow, Western Gailes, and Troon.  Finally, we reached Prestwick Airport, a view of the Prestwick links, and, my final destination, Prestwick Town Station.  I alighted at 11:50 and made my way to the clubhouse.

I immediately went to the pro shop to check in.  I played Sandwich the day before, where I was greeted cordially but without great hospitality.  I expected much of the same here.  All Open courses must be the same, right?  To my surprise, I got a warm greeting from David Fleming, the head professional.  As I learned later, David is the eighth professional at Prestwick in its 150-year history.  The club clearly holds its pros, whose ranks include legends like Old Tom Morris and Willie Campbell, to a high standard.  David welcomed me to Prestwick and directed me to the caddiemaster to sign in.  The course was empty save for a few member groups.  I would essentially have free run of the place for my round.  I thanked them both, and after a few putts I trotted over to the first tee to begin my round.

The first hole at Prestwick is an experience unto itself.  It is a short par four of but 345 yards.  Yet a few factors conspire to make it a nerve-wracking opener.  First, the tee doubles as the front lawn of the pro shop.  It is always nerve-wracking to know that people will be watching and judging your every move on your first swing of the day.  Second, the boundary wall is unbelievably close to the fairway.  I had seen the pictures and read the accounts of the hole.  However, I just was not prepared for the view from the tee.  Third, a traveling golfer such as myself has just stepped off the train and is not all warmed-up for such a critical swing.

The sign by the tee directs the player to aim at the white marker on the far dunes.  This marker is in line with the left edge of the fairway.  Being the greedy, strategy-obsessed golfer that I am, I knew that the ideal line was along the boundary wall to the right.  I decided to aim down the right center and away from the advised line of play.  My decision meant that I would get off to the wildest start imaginable.  I did not hit my hybrid with the intended draw.  Rather, I blocked it solidly down the boundary line.  The ball neither sailed out of bounds nor landed in the fairway.  It remained ambivalent until the last possible second, when it landed squarely on top of the wall and caromed long and left back into the fairway.  It was truly an unbelievable start to the round.

            After the nerves of the first tee shot subsided, I was ready to settled down and play a great golf course.  The first hole concludes a partially hidden green filled with waves.  The first is my favorite starting hole to date.  Great golf continues for several holes.  The second is a beautiful downhill par three to a rippling green.  Next is the Cardinal, a slicing short par five around the burn that dominates the first few holes.  I had read much about this hole but never really understood the hype.  I gained full appreciation for the hole after hitting my second shot and scaling the massive Cardinal bunker.  The last 150 yards of the hole is home to some of the greatest golfing terrain in the world.  The fairway is filled with massive humps and bumps that lend unending interest to the hole.  Unfortunately, today's play was to a temporary green, but I still got a good look at the modified punch bowl green that is used in summer.

After the third comes a stretch of three unheralded but superlative golf holes.  The 4th is a brilliant strategic par four along the burn.  The golfer has worlds of room to the left.  The best angle into the lay-of-the-land green is from the right edge of the fairway, as close to the burn as possible.  The next is the Himalayas, a long par three over a two-story-high dune.  The hole itself is not particularly strategic, but hitting a tee shot and racing to the hilltop to see the result is great fun.  The 6th is known as “Elysian Fields”, and it opens up into a different, less rugged piece of property.  “Elysian Fields” is a beautiful mid-range par four.  The golfer must hug the left side to gain the best angle into the shelf green.  Approaches from the right side are partially blind and must contend with a wicked side-slope.  I had heard nothing about this hole before today, but it was one of my three favorites on the front nine along with 1 and 3.

Holes 7 through 11 are the most difficult stretch at Prestwick.  The golfer faces four long par fours at 7 through 10 and a long par three along the dune line at 11.  Amidst these holes, a few features stand out.  I enjoyed the steep green at the 8th.  I loved the look from the 10th tee, with the course's toughest par four rising up the dune with Arran Mountain as a backdrop.  Yet I found this stretch to contain the least distinctive holes at Prestwick.  While the first 6 were fun, these five were simply a long slog.  I began to doubt the merits and fun of Prestwick.  After the thrill of the first few holes, the rest of the course had become a letdown.

            Fortunately, the golf began to pick up at the 12th.  The terrain on this long par five is not as exciting as one might up.  Nevertheless, the strategy is still timeless: keep the ball on the high right side of the fairway, and you are rewarded with a good angle into the green.  The greensite is another solid one, a wrinkled shelf green fronted with one of Prestwick's deepest bunkers.  The course was turning in the right direction, and it made a full reversal at the par four 13th.  I recalled from Ran Morrissett's review of The Addington Golf Club that Addington's 12th hole is simply "man vs. nature."  It has no artificial hazards or contrived features.  I got this same impression at Prestwick's 13th.  A long hole made even longer by today's prevailing wind, the golfer confronts a crumpled fairway that leads to even more crumpled green.  The golfer faces the alternatives of the high right side, which shortens up a long hole, and the low left side, which gives the player an angle from which to hit the green in regulation.  Especially for a suspect writer such as myself, the green complex is impossible to describe in words.  I will say that my 30-yard running seven-iron to two feet to save five was one of my biggest thrills of the day.

The 14th, known playfully as "Goosedubs" returns to the clubhouse.  It rests on unexciting land, but it still managed to get my attention.  The hole has a beautiful right-to-left shape to it.  The green is fronted by a series of four bunkers that throw off depth perception and challenge running approaches.  The 14th green, 15th tee, and 18th green are within 20 yards of each other.  This configuration is one of the main reasons why Prestwick will never again host the Open.  However, the close proximity of these holes does not affect the great golf.  The 15th launches itself into the wildest terrain on the course.  Known as "Narrows," the hole requires precise driving to a disappearing fairway.  The right half of the fairway falls off into god-forsaken bunkers and gorse, while the left half feeds neatly into a strip of short grass between the dunes.  After a successful drive, the player faces a wild approach to an elevated punchbowl green.  This green is extremely difficult to hit downwind.  Any shots landing short will either kick backwards into a hollow or launch themselves long of the green.

Greatness continues at the short par four 16th.  The hole slides perfectly from left-to-right.  The fairway is a maze of hillocks, with a tiny bunker thrown in at the typical bailout spot.  The fairway is shared with the 13th, and the golfer again has tons of room left.  The enticing play is to blast a driver at the green and hope for the best.  Today, I ripped a driver downwind.  I walked up to the green and found my ball resting some 15 feet from the pin in one.  It was the thrill of the day.  Of course, this result will occur one out of ten times.  The crafty player will learn to lay out to the left and use the sideboards on the green to work a pitch shot close to the hole.  Like the 15th, the green runs from front to back and requires a well-thought out approach.  The green is also filled with history, as it was the green for the 578-yard first hole of the original 12-hole Prestwick layout.

From the 16th green it is but two steps to reach the most famous hole at Prestwick.  Known as "Alps," the 17th dives into a swooping, unguarded fairway off the tee.  While the fairway itself is quite narrow, the playing corridor is very wide and gives every player a chance to attempt the most thrilling shot on the course.  The approach plays over the high "Alps" dune to a half-pipe green fronted by the course's most dramatic bunker.  I think of nothing more fun than smashing a long iron over the Alps and scampering to the top to see the conclusion.  The green itself is smaller than I pictured, and its contours are simpler than I imagined.  Yet the green is still loads of fun.  One can stand around the green all day analyzing its backboard and ways to get the ball close to the hole.  My greatest sense of accomplishment on the day was saving a 4 at the Alps.

After putting out on the 17th, the golfer walks back to the 18th tee to finish his round.  The last hole is a 290-yard par four that slides from left-to-right.  The golfer emerges from the dunes onto the lawn of the clubhouse.  While not as exciting as the previous three holes, the 18th is still of great strategic merit.  No matter how far he drives it, the golfer must hug the mounds along the right to yield the best angle into the green.  All approaches should be played along the ground into a green that slopes with subtlety from left to right.  It is a quirky and fitting end to a very fun links.

             I finished my first 18 in less than three hours.  Since my train from Glasgow did not leave until 18:40, I decided that I should play some more golf.  I went into the shop, turned in a head-cover that I found on the course, and bought a sweater for my father.  I asked if I could play another nine holes for a few extra pounds.  The course was empty, and I would have no problems cutting over from the 3rd green to the 13th tee.  I was told it would be no problem, they would be happy to have me play a few more.  Of course, I pumped my tee shot over the wall on number 1.  After reloading and firing a good one down the fairway, I was greeted by one of the club members.  He thanked me for finding his head-cover and introduced himself.  I was wearing a sweater from the venerable Swinley Forest Golf Club in London, and he commented that SF was a great club and course.  He wished me luck on the course, and I was on my way.

         The third nine holes made 27 total for the day.  I played 1-3 and 13-18.  I got a chance to re-experience my favorite holes on the course.  I spent at least 10 minutes around the greens on 15, 16, and 17, trying different types of short game shots and having tons of fun.  After I finished I went back to the clubhouse to have a look around.  David Fleming showed me one of the clubhouse rooms, which was filled with history from past tournaments, players, and the fateful 1925 Open Championship.  One of the staff informed me that the member that I had spoken with earlier wanted me to have a drink on him for finding his head-cover.  I enjoyed my drink (not kummel, unfortunately) while learning more about Prestwick.  Once I was done, it was 4:30 and time to leave.  I left through the front and made my way easily to the train station.  I made it back to Glasgow at 17:30.  After a short layover, I took the 18:40 from GLC to London Euston.  I got in at 11:20.  A short bus ride and walk later, I was back at my flat.  19.5 hours in total.

The train ride back was anticlimactic, but it allowed me to reflect on my experience at Prestwick.  The golf course itself is phenomenal.  I enjoyed more than I did Sandwich, and possibly more than I enjoyed Deal.  It has a few weaker holes in the middle of the course.  Yet the great holes, particularly 1, 3, 6, 13, 15, 16, and 17, are more fun than any golfer could ever dream.  Furthermore, the hospitality at the club was unprecedented for my stay in the UK.  I must compare it with Sandwich, next year’s Open Championship venue, which I played the day before.  The pro, staff, and members at Prestwick did everything they could to make me feel welcome.  I was just a lowly American student up for a day from London.  Yet I was treated like I was a lifetime Prestwick member.  They were thrilled to have me there.  At Sandwich, they would have been just as thrilled to see me leave.

Was the trip worth it? YOU BET.  It was the experience of a lifetime.

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