The tee shot over the Cardinal bunker on the Alps
If you asked me for a list of courses which I would recommend you go visit to go learn about golf architecture, I would include Prestwick as quickly as I would the Old Course at St. Andrew’s. The Old Course contains the foundation for most of the principles and strategies of golf course architecture. The lessons of the old course are well documented and well copied, but Prestwick is the course where an architect goes to learn that sometimes you need to ignore convention and push your boundaries in order to create a more interesting game. It’s the place where Pete Dye had the epiphany that lead to the greatest recent change in the way courses are designed.
It doesn’t take long for a golfer to realize that Prestwick is different from most golf courses. The first hole at Prestwick is very narrow and bordered on the entire right by a long wall that separates the golf course from the railway. Out of bounds is definitely a huge consideration on the first tee, and yet you need to be tight to the wall to get a view to the green site. Rather than have clear visibility of the green, the bunkers in front also hide the green. Play to the left off the tee and a large knoll blocks the view to the green and the surrounds.
The 3rd hole features a massive bunker complex called the Cardinal bunker. The tee shot involves judging your distance up to the full blind beginnings of the hazard. The second shot is over the massive expanse of sand and bulk heading that makes the shot completely blind to the fairway or the green. The fairway is full of moguls from one end to the other meaning the ball can bounce anywhere.
The 5th hole hits blindly over a 40’ dune, 210 yards away to a green surrounded on the sides by bunkers with the green falling hard to the left into a deep bunker. The 7th hole is 440 yards up hill down the narrowest fairway on the course. The 9th plays 440 yards into a green that falls at least 3 to 4 feet from left to right where a bounce in approach is the only chance of staying on this blind green. The 13th is a 460 yard par four to a very small green raised 4 feet above the surrounds and featuring a four foot false front. The real treat is the green features shaved banks around the sides making all but the finest shot not good enough. This is also proof that par is sometimes irrelevant to a great hole. The 15th fairway is completely blind and as narrow a fairway as I have ever seen surrounded by gorse, but somehow seems natural an. The approach is blind over a hill with the green dropping 4 to 5 feet from front left to back right. The 17th is the famous Alps with a shot over a 30 foot dune, over a five foot deep revetted bunker and to a green with wild undulations.
The false front at 13
By now you must be wondering how I find this course so charming, but it all magically fits together. Part of it is the history and our ability to accept quirkier work from the past and not from the present, but most of it has to do with the overwhelming number of fascinating details that are almost unmatched by any other course. The golf course is so full of brilliant little moments that the parts may exceed the whole in this rare case. As architects we are always looking for ideas and they are much easier to find in small bits rather than in entire courses or even holes. Often our epiphanies come from the subtle use of a roll or a small minor feature rather than an 18 hole visit. Prestwick is so full of little unusual and interesting ideas that I think one walk and one playing has likely only unraveled half the actual charm found at Prestwick. I’m quite certain I could go there year after year, enjoy each round a little more, and learn something new on every play. That is the definition of greatness in my book.