He could be the patron saint of golf – few people had more influence in elevating golf from its adolescence than Old Tom Morris (1821-1908). Born and reared in St. Andrews where — as he is attributed to have said — “we were all born with webbed feet and a club in our hand,” it is no surprise that he would devote his life to many different facets of the game.
His legend built in the heady, halcyon days of golfing antiquity. He is fondly revered as an epic golf champion, one of the first club professionals, a clubsmith and greenskeeper and the architect of some of the world’s most fabled links courses. Linked to him by history, as the reputations of St. Andrews and the Open Championship grew, so did Morris’s. But Morris also overcame severe personal and professional hardships. The road to immortality had humble beginnings and was built over many failures and reassessments. Even after blossoming into the face of the game at that time, Morris still endured heartbreaking tragedy as well.
By 1837, Morris began his career in golf making featherie golf balls as an apprentice to Allan Robertson, according to legend the “world’s first golf professional.” Unfortunately, featheries were expensive (half a crown a piece) and fragile. The featherie ball’s shortcomings tended to limit the game’s appeal, so in 1848 when Reverend Doctor Robert Adams Paterson’s newly invented gutta percha ball debuted, everyone in golf with some semblance of self-preservation knew it proved a clear and present threat to Morris and Robertson’s livelihood. Everyone except Robetson, who, in hopes of protecting his featherie business, condemned the new ball remarking “Bah! That thing’ll never fly.”
Morris, however, recognized gutta as the future, embraced the technology and parted ways with Robertson, opening his own shop making clubs, featheries and gutta balls. In terms of embracing technology, perhaps those NXT Titleist commercials with John Cleese are not as impudent as they seem. Even though Morris left his job with Robertson, the two men occasionally played professionally as partners in money matches until Robertson’s untimely death at age 44 in 1859, with legend saying they never lost as partners.
But the economic threat of the gutta ball was just the first in a string of hard knocks from which Morris would strive to overcome.
In 1850, Old Tom’s first son died at the age of four. Morris’s life didn’t begin to settle down until 1851 with the birth of his second son, Young Tom Morris — who would eclipse his father as a professional golfer — and with Old Tom’s appointment as the first greenskeeper at newly formed Prestwick Golf Club.
According to the club, “Prestwick Golf Club was founded in 1851 by a group of members who met at the Red Lion Inn, Prestwick. Colonel Fairlie of Coodham brought Old Tom Morris to Prestwick from St.Andrews to be Keeper of the Greens and Ball and Club Maker. The members purchased two cottages opposite the Red Lion Inn, one for Tom and his family, and the other as a clubhouse.”
That was the moment when Morris had successfully secured his financial future, and with a second stroke of luck, the evolution of the railway, first to St. Andrews in 1952 and then to other stops later on, golf’s popularity with the masses soared.
The resulting economic upswing for the game made professional careers in the design, care and upkeep of golf courses more profitable than in the past.
Morris was integral in laying out the golf course and Prestwick is a showcase of many of the design elements for which Morris is famous. The course is unsettling to many American players who have preferred their golf neat and clean with no surprises. Morris loved blind shots, long and difficult par 3s, flash-faced sandy hazards and pot bunkers so tiny they only seem to fit one frustrated golfer, his wedge and his ball. The third hole, for example, features the enormous and deep Cardinal bunker, which was among the first to be bulkheaded with railroad ties and which inspired Pete Dye to import the design staple. The Bridge is a short par-4 which dog-legs around a burn, but features terrific risk-reward options.
Himalayas is a totally blind par 3 measuring over 200 yards long. Its length makes it more fearsome than its sister blind par 3, The Dell at Lahinch, also designed by Morris. Finally, the Alps hole is a par 4 with a blind approach that must carry both the mountainous dunes in front of the green and a hidden trap behind it, a bunker so large it is called Sahara.
Sadly, when such great design features are imported to America — Tobacco Road for instance — the design meets with some harsh criticism. If Prestwick were built today, it would be dismissed as quirky, but it is centuries old and has history on its side.
Initially, Prestwick had only twelve holes, so when the Open Championship began in 1860, the players competed over thirty-six holes, or three times around. Indeed, before St. Andrews ever hosted its first Open Championship, the honor belonged exclusively to Prestwick, which hosted the first 12 tournaments.
The Open Championship
The first Open, organized by the members who spent £25 (or five guineas, if you prefer) to buy a red Moroccan belt with silver clasps, was won by Willie Park of Musselburgh. Morris finished second, but then began a remarkable streak of winning four Open Championships in seven years, winning in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867.
Morris still holds two British Open records — oldest champion (age 46 in 1867) and largest margin of victory (13 in 1862). Morris played in almost every Open Championship until 1895, when he competed at the age of 74. So much for needing a senior tour or forward tees.
After winning the 1864 Open, Morris returned to St. Andrews and was appointed Custodian of the Links and Professional of the club, receiving £50 per annum and £20 budget for the upkeep of the Old Course, positions he held for nearly 40 years until he reached retirement age in 1902. In 1866 Morris’ clubmaking business was established by the side of the 18th green of the Old Course. The business continued to run during his lifetime and consistently created employment for six skilled craftsmen, one of which, Bob Martin, was a double winner of The Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1876 and 1885.
Perhaps Old Tom’s greatest source of pride was also his greatest source of sadness. His son Young Tom did not merely follow in his father’s footsteps, but surpassed his father’s professional records in every way at the most tender of ages. According to historical sources, Young Tom won his first exhibition match at Perth at the age of 13. In 1867 at the age of 16, he won a professional event at Carnoustie, beating Willie Park and Bob Andrew in a playoff.
This had to sting Park in particular as when the Morrises arrived, Park asked Old Tom, “What have ye brought the laddie for, Tom?”
“You’ll see what for soon enough,” Old Tom responded.
In 1868, Young Tom began a stretch of four consecutive Open Championship victories, a feat never yet equaled. He won the Championship Moroccan Belt three successive years from 1868 to 1870 (his father finished second in 1869 — still the only time a father-son tandem finished 1-2) and it thus became his property. (A replica Belt was presented to Sandy Lyle, the winner of the 125th Anniversary Open at Royal St. George’s.)
In 1872, Prestwick, St.Andrews and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield) joined forces to purchase the current Claret Jug for £30 as a trophy. When the Championship was revived in 1872 (there was no tournament in 1871) Young Tom won again.
The unprecedented run caused Old Tom to observe, “I can cope with Allan [Robertson] myself, but I cannae cope wi’ Tommy.”
Three years later, though, the golf world lost Young Tom Morris at the age of 24. Old and Young Tom were playing a match against Willie Park and his brother Mungo at North Berwick when a desperate telegram was given to Old Tom, stating that his son’s wife and child were dying from birthing complications. They died later that night as the Morrises were crossing to St. Andrews Bay by boat.
Golf course architect and golf historian Stephen Kay notes that, “according to historical sources, Young Tom despaired. He stooped eating and withered away.”
Some sources also say alcohol played a part in his deterioration. Young Tom died three months after his wife and child, on Christmas Day, 1875.
Legend blames a broken heart, but Old Tom is reputed to have said after Young Tom’s passing, “People say he died of a broken heart; but if that was true, I wouldn’t be here either.”
Old Tom would endure this kind of tragedy one last time in 1906 when his third son Jamie predeceased him.
Morris spent his prime and twilight years designing the world’s most epic links and setting standards for architectural design features for centuries. The list of his courses reads like an honor roll. Carnoustie, Crail, Ladybank, Machrinhanish, Muirfield, Perth, Prestwick, Royal Dornoch, St. Andrews – New Course, Lahinch Golf Club – Old Course, Rosapenna and Royal County Down are just some of the courses that claim to be his designs.
He would frequently design a course for as little as £5 plus expenses.
Sources disagree, but the number of courses supposedly designed by Morris is anywhere from 35 to 65, a prolific career regardless of the actual figure.
Historical sources also disagree on how much of a role Morris played in the design of certain clubs. For example, some golf historians proclaimed Muirfield as being Old Tom’s exclusively, but primary sources indicate otherwise. “The Golfing Annual, 1892” states that Morris laid out the original Muirfield in 1891 and when it was played in the 1892 Open, most everyone hated it:
“As one of the three promoting clubs the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers were strictly with their rights in changing the venue, [from Musselburgh] but we question the wisdom of the change. Muirfield is an excellent private course — in fact we know of none better — and the putting greens are magnificent; but there is a sameness about the 18 holes and they are not such a reliable test of golfing ability as the nine holes at Musselburgh.”
But according to John Kerr in the “Golf Book of East Lothian” the course was altered by superintendent Mr. P.R. Don Wauchope prior to the 1896 Open. Only the first four holes remained the same as what Old Tom Morris had originally routed and they were lengthened.
Muirfield aside, the lasting effect Morris had on designers who followed him was even more important than the size of the body of his work.
Old Tom, recognizing the importance of natural features in the strategy of golf, leaving in play the sundry elements he found naturally existing on the land such as sand dunes, stone walls, wooden bulkheads, burns, heather and gorse. He worked in concert with the natural contours of the land, located greens in natural settings, carved sand pits from existing depressions for bunkers and devised stacked-sod walls to stabilize bunker faces. Using these natural hazards, he made players think their way around the golf course.
Kay called Morris a master of both routing and strategic placement of hazards: “As they’d say at St. Andrews, Mother Nature designed it, but Old Tom fine tuned it. Whether St. Andrews or Lahinch or most anywhere else, he decided how wide the greens would be, or where the bunkers would be dug and shaped. People showed him the property, he’d place the clubhouse, then the holes—he’d make all the routing decisions. As for strategy, I still use a lot of Old Tom’s tricks in my designs. One of my favorites is bunkers in the middle of a fairway. This gives you more strategic options. Say it’s a long par 4. You have to decide which way to go.”
Even today, Morris’ designs echo into the present as they combine both penal and strategic golf. For example, at Machrihanish, Morris designed what many call the best starting hole in the world. With the heroic tee shot over the beach on this cape hole, Morris left the beach as a lateral water hazard, thereby relaxing the players on the tee and tempting them to be more bold with their tee shots as being on the beach is not worse than being in one of the right bunkers.
Bite off as much as you dare, but pick the line carefully. It’s quintessential Morris.
Keeper of the Green
Morris even constantly tweaked the Old Course incessantly while greenskeeper, much like his protégé Donald Ross later did at Pinehurst No. 2. One of the most popular anecdotes involves the infamous Hell Bunker. In 1882, Hell Bunker was much smaller than the enormously deep and wide behemoth it is now. One irreverent wag of a member blustered about course conditions to Morris, commenting that he had one good lie all day — at the bottom of Hell Bunker – and that he hit a wooden club from it.
Morris’ response was predictably reactionary. He sent a work crew to the 14th with instructions to make Hell Bunker so big and so deep no one will ever escape from it with a wood again.
Morris also set the standard for greenskeepers that followed after.
Morris is also credited by some as the first to “top-dress” the putting green with sand to smooth the surface and encourage new growth. He helped pioneer flash-faced bunkering to emulate a natural windblown effect.
Morris’ efforts brought many golf courses, some several hundred years old, up to the standards of conditioning that he set first at the Prestwick Golf Club and later at St. Andrews.
“Most importantly, I think Tom’s greatest contribution is what Old Tom didn’t do,” Kay said. “At a critical moment in the game’s history and when he had the golf world’s ear, he didn’t standardize golf courses — all golf courses are different. Tom was a big proponent of letting the land speak to the architect and dictate the design of the course. The game could be totally different if golf was required to be played on a standard field.”
Architect Brian Silva has a similar philosophy.
“Golf course design is supposed to be an exercise in free thinking,” he asserts with more than a little fervor. In this regard, golf is still unique among sporting pastimes.
Passing of Tom
Old Tom Morris died on May 24, 1908 at age 86. He sustained a fractured skull after falling down the stairs in The New Club at St. Andrews and passed away shortly thereafter from complications.
Old Tom had gained so much respect that his funeral was attended by hundreds.
“Tom was regarded with a peculiarly intimate feeling of esteem,” read a newspaper account after his death. The funeral procession itself spanned the length of South Street in St. Andrews. It was a deserving sendoff for true pioneer.
Old Tom had lived through the ups and down of the major transitions of the game as well as his personal life. Like the advent of the gutta ball and the emergence of railway for transport to the links, Old Tom Morris’ course designs, club designs and greenskeeping breakthroughs brought golf from parochial popularity to global recognition. His contributions to our great game are everywhere and cannot be overstated.
This article first appeared on GolfObserver.com