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Opinion & Analysis

The Grandfather of Golf: Old Tom Morris

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I don’t normally do requests, but a GolfWRX reader asked me to consider penning an article featuring Old Tom Morris.

I was lucky enough to be a member of the New Club in St. Andrews for a few years while I worked in Edinburgh in the 1990s. The club and the town hold fantastic memories for me, and I considered my time playing there to be a privilege. Just by being in St. Andrews you get a sense of history. Golf is in the blood; it is part of the fabric of the town. The game that is now played all around the world really stemmed from here, and we have Tom Morris to thank for that. He didn’t invent the game, but you would be hard pressed to find an individual who made such an impact. So I feel like I have a link to the town and the man, who spent a lot of his later life in the New Club.

Imagine working a 12-hour day, including some heavy laboring, digging out gorse, humping sand from the beach, mowing the greens, repairing clubs, making golf balls, giving lessons and then acting as starter for some foursome matches and allocating caddies. Sounds like a busy day, right? But then imagine playing three rounds of golf the very next day (12-hole rounds) to win The Open. Well that’s what Tom Morris did in the 1864, beating 15 other competitors at Prestwick in the fifth British Open. The prize then was £6, a good return when you considered the average annual wage was just twice that. But you can bet Old Tom was back at work the next day. In fact, that seemed like the norm for the average club professional back then. There was little glamour and a lot of hard work.

Thomas Mitchell Morris was born in 1821 in St. Andrews and he started caddying and playing golf from a young age. His father was a weaver, but that industry was in decline and unusually he was hired as an apprentice at age 14 to Allan Robertson, generally regarded as the world’s first professional golfer. He worked with Robertson for several years, making balls and clubs, caddying and playing as his partner in matches. The team became known as “The Invincibles,” and they were never formally beaten. By the time Morris was in his early 20s, he was the second-best player in St. Andrews. He eventually left St. Andrews after falling out with Robertson over golf ball technology (the feathery vs. the guttie), and took a job on the West coast of Scotland at Prestwick in 1851. He returned to St. Andrews in 1865 and took over as Keeper of the Links. He remained at St. Andrews until his death at 87 years old in 1908.

It seems a bit far-fetched but Tom and his peers really were the early pioneers of the professional game of golf. Up to that point, the game was only really for the well-heeled. The landed gentry played their own championships, but it was generally acknowledged that the hacks (the caddies) had much more talent for getting the ball around in fewer strokes. These players, though, were generally socially shunned for various reasons, including raggedy appearance and alcohol use. But over time, and supported by an appetite for gambling, the gentry supported the early advances of the professional game. They found sport backing their favorites to do battle in exhibition matches. Tens of thousands would turn up to watch these matches, with partisan crowds and lots of gambling. Tom was at the right place at the right time and had the perfect combination of talent, hard work and personality to make it happen.

As a golfer, Tom was at least the equal of any man living for a great number of years. Although the first few Opens were rather limited in entrants, his achievements still stand the test of time. For the record, Tom won the Open Championship four times: in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867. He still holds the record of the oldest winner at 46 in 1867. And with his son, Young Tom Morris, he holds the record as being part of the only father/son pair to finish as winner and runner up (in 1869).

Tom would have won a lot more if he’d been a better putter. He suffered terribly from the yips, and it seemed to have cost him dearly. Put him 12 feet from the hole and not a better holer-out could be named. But his Achilles heel was 18 inches to two feet. In later life, he improved, but at one point it was a heavy reputation he had to shoulder. Even his son and foursome partner Young Tom was quoted as saying, in jest, “Gin the hole was a yaird nearer him, my fawther wad be a guid putter.” And a practical joker in his day, Wolfe Murray once went so far as to address a letter to “The Misser of Short Putts, Prestwick,” which the postman took straight to the champion.

Not only was he the best player in his day, he was a visionary in terms of club design, course design and green keeping. His use of sand on the greens was discovered by accident. He was carrying sand from the beach to fill a bunker when the wheelbarrow broke and his load was spilled out over a green. He brushed most of it up and got on with his task, but in the following few weeks he discovered a lot of growth in the area where the sand was. Accidentally, he’d invented top dressing. And he also introduced the concept of actively managing hazards (in the past, bunkers and the like were largely left to their own devices, becoming truly “hazardous”).

It’s all too easy to refer to people these days as legends. That status is given very freely, especially in sport and it dilutes the really great ones. But Old Tom was truly one of the legends of the game.

If this story has whetted your appetite, I can recommend a great book: Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son by Kevin Cook. I hear they are making it into a movie, and I hope they do. It should be great.

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Mark Donaghy is a writer and author from Northern Ireland, living in the picturesque seaside town of Portstewart. He is married to Christine and they have three boys. Mark is a "golf nut," and is lucky to be a member of a classic links, Portstewart Golf Club. At college he played for the Irish Universities golf team, and today he still deludes himself that he can play to that standard. He recently released Caddy Attitudes: 'Looping' for the Rich and Famous in New York. It recounts the life experiences of two young Irish lads working as caddies at the prestigious Shinnecock Hills course in the Hamptons. Mark has a unique writing style, with humorous observations of golfers and their caddies, navigating both the golf course and their respective attitudes. Toss in the personal experiences of a virtually broke couple of young men trying to make a few bucks and their adventures in a culture and society somewhat unknown to them... and you have Caddy Attitudes. From scintillating sex in a sand trap to the comparison of societal status with caddy shack status, the book will grab the attention of anyone who plays the game. Caddy Attitudes is available on Amazon/Kindle and to date it has had excellent reviews.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. doesnotno

    Jul 1, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Love the postman story!

    Andra Kirkcaldy (another old St Andrean of the era) once received a letter from Ben Sayers (clubmaker, runner up in the Open 1888) addressed to ‘Andra Kirkcaldy, Hell Bunker, St Andrews’.

  2. Jason

    Jul 1, 2016 at 12:00 am

    “Tommy’s Honor” was a book that I could not put down. Fabulous.

  3. Greg V

    Jun 30, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Fine article, Mark.

    If you want to read a comprehensive book on Morris, “Tom Morris of St Andrews: Colossus of Golf” is a wonderful book.

    • RedX

      Jun 30, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      Agreed Greg.

      “Tommy’s Honor” as Mark recommends is also a good read.
      I can’t comment (yet) as to the film adaptation released this year.

      I fear Chamblee would refer to Old Tom as having “never won on the PGA Tour” and being “incapable of contenting with strokes gained putting stats like those!”

      Thanks for the reminder Mark.

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Opinion & Analysis

What does it really take to play college golf?

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Much has been written and speculated about this question, both in popular media and by junior golfers and their parents and coaches. However, I wanted to get a more definitive answer.

In collaboration with Dr. Laura Upenieks of Baylor University, and with the generous support of Junior Tour of Northern California and Aaron R. Hartesveldt, PGA, we surveyed 51 players who were committed to play college golf for the 2021 year.

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