Sunday, November 19, 2006

North Berwick and Prestwick - The Cradle of Golf

North Berwick

Two of the unquestionably best golf courses in the world, both located in Scotland, are curiously not ranked in the world's top 100. North Berwick, located a couple of miles south of Muirfield on the east coast and Prestwick, located immediately adjacent to Royal Troon on the west coast.

Perhaps it is because the courses are too short - Prestwick is 6,554 yards and North Berwick 6,420. Or perhaps because they don't host championships any more, they are overlooked. Or perhaps those that rank the courses for the magazines sadly underweight history and tradition.

Both courses were clearly great 100 years ago. The famous British amateur champion of that era, Horace Hutchinson, wrote at the time - "A man is less likely to be contradicted in lauding Prestwick than in singing the praises of any other course in Christendom." The question is, are they still great courses today?

If you like courses with a lot of cement cart paths or if you like Donald Trump over-hyped golf courses, you won't appreciate these so you can stop reading now. If, however, you are a student of the game, appreciate tradition and want to have some of the best golfing experiences of your lifetime, I highly recommend both courses.

Prestwick Golf Club

Prestwick Golf Club, founded in 1851 is the birthplace of the Open Championship (British Open). The first Open was held at Prestwick in 1860 and was won by Old Tom Morris. Prestwick hosted the first 12 Open Championships and in total has hosted 24 Opens, second only to The Old Course at St. Andrews.

Playing at Prestwick is like going back in time. The course has a timeless feel to it and is hallowed ground for golfers.

1st hole
One of the best opening holes in golf

The first hole at Prestwick is one of the world's great starting holes, even to this day. It is a short par four at only 346 yards. The name of the hole is Railway, and it is aptly named. You tee off about 10-15 steps from the clubhouse, usually with caddies or other players watching. It is also not uncommon to have members sitting in the smoke room who are also watching through a large picture window. As is typical in Britain, since there is no driving range, you have to hit your tee shot without warming up. The right side of the hole is out of bounds from tee to green since a railroad line runs down the coast toward Turnberry. Between you and the railway there is a stone wall the entire length of the hole. Making the hole even more difficult is the fact that the left side of the fairway is protected by a large swath of gorse bushes, taking away the potential strategy of playing to the left. It is a good test to see if you are on your game, hitting an iron under these conditions. I rank it among the top three first holes in the world (the other two being the opening tee shots at Merion and The Old Course at St. Andrews).

The British golf writer Henry Longhurst has said of the first at Prestwick - "A tremendous wind is blowing and the slightest letting up will see your ball sailing away like a seagulls feather across the down platform of Prestwick station."
1st gren
The first green at Prestwick
Horace Hutchinson also wrote extensively about the first - "The crime against which we have to chiefly be on our guard is that of slicing. There is apt to be an engine snorting loudly on the other side of the wall just as we are playing a critical and curly putt and the said putt is none easier from the engine having liberally besprinkled the green with cinders."

Fortunately, the trains are now all electric so we don't have to contend with cinders. But the sensation of playing the first hole remains with the modern golfer. Dell Leigh wrote eloquently about Prestwick's first hole in 1925, "Caddies, who have carried the clubs of champions, lean on the iron railings of their pen behind, taking stock of you. All along your right (or slicing hand), in terrible proximity, runs the railway line, over which rush whistle-blasting engines. Was it not Vardon who put his first two balls out of bounds on these same railway lines, and won the championship in spite of that?. Even if you play warily to the left here you have a grimly narrow opening to the green, and you are off the line of entry."

Detractors of Prestwick will tell you that they don't like the course because you can hit an iron off too many tees and granted, the eighteenth hole is a weak finishing hole. They will criticize the blind par three fifth hole, named Himalayas. The critics are wrong in my view. The place is worthy of being ranked among the top golf courses in the world. I will guarantee that you will think about Prestwick long after the memory of other courses fade. The sixteenth green, "Cardinal's Back":

16 green

It is interesting to note that when early American golf aficionados came to study the courses of The British Isles, among the courses they studied were Prestwick. Charles Blair Macdonald replicated two of the holes at Prestwick in his ideal golf course - The National Golf Links of America: the third hole, Cardinal, and the seventeenth, Alps. While some holes at Prestwick haven't stood the test of time, these two most certainly have. Both are excellent risk/reward holes that demand well played shots over difficult and massive bunkers.

17 bunker

The Alps hole is built on such a massive scale, it remains better than all attempts to copy it around the world. The seventeenth is seen greenside, below:

17 greenside

Pete Dye was also influenced by Prestwick where apparently he was inspired by the railway sleepers (ties as we call them in America) used to shore up bunkers. The course remains an important place in the history of the game and for this reason architects continue to study it.

Prestwick also allows you to appreciate its history to the fullest extent possible. If you book in advance, you can have lunch in the member dining room, shown below. You must wear a jacket and tie, and the hastle of changing into them is worth the trouble. You sit at a long table that seats 32 with dozens of pictures of past club captains in the dark green room. After lunch you can enjoy a Kummel (nasty) and a cigar as you contemplate your afternoon round and subliminally think - don't slice off that first tee.

North Berwick Golf Links

Similar in many respects to Prestwick, the West Links at North Berwick is an old, traditional golf course in the links style, founded in 1832. It is home to the most copied golf hole in history: the 15th hole at North Berwick is the original Redan hole. A Redan hole is a long par three (this one is 192 yards) that has a large bunker in front of the green and a deep bunker beyond the short side of the green. The green generally slopes from front-right to back-left. It is a hole that is approached diagonally and is quite difficult. At least 15 courses ranked in the top 100 have a Redan hole and I have heard often about how various Redan holes are better than the original. I don't agree with any of it. The original is the best.

One of the defining features of the North Berwick West Links are the stone walls that are throughout the course. In several instances you have to hit your shots over the stone walls. On the 13th hole, a stone wall protects the green. If you hit your shot to the right (wrong?) spot on this hole you will have to either chip or putt off the green through an opening in the stone wall. It is a lot of fun.

Humps in fairway 2
The 2nd fairway at North Berwick is indicative of the course's contours

The sixth hole is also a very good one. It is a short par four where more likely than not you will be hitting your second shot from a downhill lie, over a small burn to a green that slopes down to a burn that is hidden to the golfer off the tee.

13 from 14 tee
The hole every golfer loves, the 13th, with the green set beside a stone wall. Crazy, but fantastic!

Redan from the tee
The Redan hole from the tee. The puzzled golfer will be excused for standing on the tee scratching their head, dumbfounded on where to hit the ball

As you approach the green, you see what what you couldn't from the tee. Pray that you are not in the bunker left which is at least 15 feet deep and a true test of skill

The 16th hole, close to The Marine Hotel, which looms over the course from a promontory nearby, has one of the most interesting greens you will ever encounter. The green is bisected by a gully which creates two distinct tiers that are separated from one another. If your ball is on the wrong side of the gully, you will have a miniature-golf style putt. Think it's silly? It's not, it's a blast.

16th green (2)
Grab your ankles if you're ball is not in the right spot on the 16th green

Hutchinson captured the essence of North Berwick and it still rings true today - "It is an exceptionally good school in which to learn the art of approaching." Clearly, at 6,420 yards, driving is not of paramount importance, but hitting good and often creative approach shots, is.

North Berwick, like Prestwick, does have some weak holes, most notably the first and finishing holes. Its detractors will tell you that it is not a good test of golf. No doubt, these detractors have never played the course when the wind is up, which is the real defense of links courses. There are few places in the world to play like North Berwick that are magical and will inspire you to keep going out again and again to play.

North Berwick Golf Club Scorecard

North Berwick Golf Club Web Site

Prestwick Golf Club Web Site

Credits: The sensational pictures with the sun shining in this posting that capture the spirit of North Berwick are from Golf Club Atlas.


David Sucher said...

"Two of the unquestionably best golf courses in the world, both located in Scotland, are curiously not ranked in the world's top 100."

It is good to learn that these "Top 100" lists should not be taken too seriously at all; it's not as though North Berwick and Prestwick are obscure and hidden away at the antipodes on a private estate. So one should not go overboard and spend tens of thousands of dolars, several years and perhaps (?) a great deal of social capital on getting to play The List as The List is flawed from the outset!

This post makes your quest to play the Top 100 all the more quixotic: even when succeed, you do not.

I love it.

Top 100 Golfer said...


I like it. I'm thinking of renaming the blog "the quixotic golfer." The definition perfectly sums me up: extravagantly chivalrous or romantic; visionary, impractical, impracticable impulsive and often rashly unpredictable.

Robert Thompson said...

No doubt in my mind that both Prestwick and North Berwick should be on any Top 100 list. It is just wrong that they are not...

The London Golfer said...

I hate that wall infront of the green. I've hit it a number of times... and the one later on across your drive after the Redan style par 3.

North Berwick is a stunningly good course.

And btw, you've played a hell of a lot of courses! Where on earth do you find the time?!?

Top 100 Golfer said...

London Golfer - thanks for the comments. Life's purpose is to play golf, how does one not find time to play all these courses?

MacBoube said...

N. Berwick and Prestwick are two fine examples of really classic old courses that define the meaning of the word FUN as it pertains to golf. I played over 17 tracks in Scotland on my last trek to the UK and these two exemplify Classic and really FUN, links golf. Mr. Top 100 will know just how copied a lot of the finest holes in the U.S. are from these two tracks alone.

MacBoube said...

P.S. - Mr. Top 100. Please forget about the "Quixotic" moniker. It is lame. I totally agree about your purpose in life, as I feel mine is the same.

Anonymous said...

North Berwick is one of the best courses I have ever played
You walk past Ben Sayer's original workshop, and even the first hole tells you that you are playing a course that was played before what we call "golf" was invented - lots of trouble round the greens, non linear layouts, beach on the right...
The split green is superb, and having a fun short closing hole leads you to a most friendly clubhouse.
Marvellous golf.

To echo previous posters, how this most historic of links can not be in the top 100 beggars belief, but we could draw up the top 100 in scotland alone and still have arguments. the fact that you can probably play the top 100 in the Hame o' Gowf for less than the top 20 in the world is food for thought ... = )

dan, jersey

Anonymous said...

Just played The Glens at North Berwick Tuesday after the 2009 Open Championship and was told by many that this course rivals and/or exceeds North Berwick - any comments on this ? The Glens was a spectacular Links course even though it rained hard the entire round. Very affordable at 35 lbs for twilight play - the let us go at 1p even though twilight starts after 2p.

Anonymous said...

Corection to the last post - the correct name is "The Glen at North Berwick"

Pls read the following:

Anonymous said...

Minor correction. The North Berwick short par with the approach shot across a burn is the 7th, not the 6th.

Point of interest - the 16th green is a Biarritz design. Lots of members would love to fill in the gully I'm sure!

Unknown said...

These 2 need to be incorporated into any golf trip to Scotland, they're more fun than all the open course except St. Andrews old.

foxygen said...

Having just played North Berwick in absolutely abominable (and...enjoyable?) conditions, there is no question that this is a top course in the world. Its exclusion tends to support the fact that top course rankings are, ultimately, arbitrary and should be used as a point of reference rather than taken as the gospel truth. This was a day on which nearly every member cancelled their times (as my caddie informed me) and roughly a 5 club wind was needed on approach shots whilst playing the front 9. Even with these factors, my group still had a fantastic time...laughing and enjoying our misery the whole way around.

The final 6 holes are incredibly satisfying - and a true testament to what links golf demands of you. 10/10 and would love to play again.

Art said...

I am especially pleased that you include North Berwick among the great courses. The ultimate goal of golf is to enjoy oneself. The adjective I have heard most often applied to North Berwick is "fun." I heartily agree. When I look back on my decades of golf at some of the greatest courses in the world, North Berwick always brings a smile to my face. I had to restrain myself from running to the next tee from the previous green.

You failed to mention the looming presence of Craigleith off shore - a memorable distraction.

A wonderful, wonderful place!

Anonymous said...

Prestwick and North Berwick are both exceptional.
You clearly have a soft spot for links golf.