For Professor David Purdie, a native of the Ayrshire town and a well-respected author and after-dinner speaker, the quest to produce the missing link in the pictorial history of the game's most celebrated contest is almost complete.
"The germ was planted over 40 years ago and when I was just getting into golf as a boy in Prestwick, I remember asking my grandfather 'the first Open was here?' and he said, 'Yes, the first several Opens were here'," recalled Purdie. "I asked if I could see it but he responded by saying 'it's funny, but I've never seen an image'. It wasn't until I was doing a book on the history of golf years later, and I began a serious hunt for an image from that first Open, that I realised there was nothing. That has since been confirmed by the R&A and Prestwick Golf Club."
Utilising historical records, archive material and the kind of sleuthing that would make the work of Poirot look shoddy, Purdie has commissioned the distinguished Scottish painter, Graeme Baxter, to produce "Opening Drive", a substantial oil on canvas that will be the end result of a period of intense research into one of golf's most momentous occasions.
At noon on Wednesday, October 17, 1860, the first tee-shot of the first Open was struck by Old Tom Morris and Baxter's painting, which is to be unveiled in late March, will depict the scene on Prestwick's first tee in meticulous detail, from the assembled players, caddies and officials to the "fitful sunshine" and the level of the tide.
"I called the hydrographic department at the Adiralty and asked where the tide was on Prestwick beach at noon on this day in October 1860," said Purdie, who grew up on Links Road just yards from the first tee and remains a member at nearby Prestwick St Nicholas. "A very posh voice responded and said 'could you give us a couple of hours.' They called back and said 'one hour below high water'. This was confirmed by The Herald, which, for God knows how long, has carried high water at Greenock. You could calculate from high water at Greenock if it was high water at Prestwick and it matched. That was important for the accuracy of the painting."
The one aspect of the painting that remains conjectural, however, is the presence of Young Tom Morris, who would go on to win four consecutive Opens at Prestwick from 1868.
Purdie added: "We don't know who caddied for Old Tom Morris, we hoped it would have been his son, Young Tom. He was a pupil at Ayr Academy and I phoned the rector and asked if they had the truancy records for October 1860 . . . sadly they did not. The painting, therefore, will depict Old Tom being caddied for by a young boy who may or may not be Scotland's greatest ever golfer."
The inaugural Open was won by Willie Park, who topped a field of eight professionals at the end of 36 holes – three rounds of 12 – that were completed in one day.
"By God, they were fast," said Purdie. "I phoned the Met Office to ask when the sunset was on that day. It was 5.14pm. So they started at noon, whizzed round three times in between lunch at the Red Lion pub, sorted the championship out, presented the belt and were away hame by the back of five. There was no slow play in those days."
Above: Entrants from one
of the early Open Championships, back, from left, Willie Park, MR Johnston, Young Tom Morris, Old Tom Morris,
GD Brown, David Park, Willie Dow, Charlie Hunter, Bob Andrews. Front: Andrew Strath, Walter McDonald