Old Tom Morris
St Andrews’ own Old Tom Morris was golf’s first professional. In addition to winning four Open Championships, Old Tom was a greens keeper, club maker, ball maker, shopkeeper, instructor and course designer; he was involved in every possible aspect of the game.
A replica of a portrait of Thomas Mitchell Morris is feature prominently at Monarchs House and is displayed here. The original painting by Sir George Reid hangs in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
In 2008, Golf Magazine published the story, Old Tom’s Rise & Fall marking the centenary of his death. We are happy to reprint it here. The author, Kevin Cook, wrote a wonderful book about the Morris Family and in particular about Tom’s son, Young Tom. A link to the book can be found here. It is highly recommended reading for those wishing to learn more about the beginning days of professional golf.
Old Tom’s Rise & Fall
By Kevin Cook
On a Sunday one century ago, Old Tom Morris got up to go to the loo.
He was 86, a gray warhorse who had lived from the age of the featherie golf ball — a leather pouch stuffed with goose feathers — to the age of automobiles and aero planes.
Now he spent his days sitting by a window overlooking the Old Course at St. Andrews, letting the sun warm his bones as he reminisced.
He often remembered the first Open Championship. That was back in 1860, 48 years before, when only eight players showed up. One of them spent the night before the tournament in jail, sleeping off the whisky he’d drunk that day.
Several were illiterate — they signed the players’ register with X’s. The golfers looked so shabby that the host club gave them matching jackets to play in, checkered coats that made them look like lumberjacks.
Tom was the runner-up in that first Open. He lost to Willie Park, a long-driving tough whose go-for-broke style would make John Daly look like Chip Beck. Park grew up poor, swinging a tree branch he’d carved into a golf club. As a boy he beat the local baker in matches played for pies. Later he took out newspaper ads daring any man to play him.
Park also liked to sneak into Scottish towns where no one knew him. He’d play the local pro while hopping on one leg, swinging with one hand — and take every shilling the man had.
Morris and Park won seven of the first eight Opens but got more attention (and money) for their one-on-one matches. Golf was interactive in their day: Fans shouted and hissed; stood in greenside bunkers to watch the players putt; bumped the competitors while they swung.
During one riotous match, Park’s supporters kept kicking Old Tom’s ball backward. “This isn’t golf,” Morris said. So Old Tom walked off the course, sat in a pub and sipped a drink while the crowd howled.
His son Tommy, the Tiger Woods of the 19th Century, won four Opens in a row — a feat no one else has matched. Bold, dashing Tommy teased Old Tom about his yips (“You’d be a fine putter, father, if the hole were always a yard closer”), and always teamed with him in foursomes matches.
One day they played Park and his brother Mungo at North Berwick, across the Firth of Forth from St. Andrews. A telegram arrived: Tommy’s wife was in labor, in danger of dying.
Old Tom kept the news from his son while they finished the match. This is usually portrayed as an act of mercy: Don’t tell the poor boy. But it was a big-money grudge match, and Old Tom likely delayed, in part, because he was dying to win.
And win he did. The Morrises rallied to beat the Parks, then commandeered a boat and sailed all night. But they got home too late. Tommy’s wife was dead, her child stillborn. That seemed to knock the spirit out of Tommy.
Three months later, on Christmas morning, 1875, Old Tom found his 24-year-old son dead in bed.
Golf ‘s “Grand Old Man” carried on for 33 years. He made rulings on balls stuck in golfers’ beards (drop, loss of stroke) or smacked through top hats (buy the man a new hat).
He laid out famous courses including Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down, Machrihanish and the New Course at St. Andrews, though his £1-a-day work wasn’t what Tom Doak does today.
Morris would walk the links, saying, “Put a green there, a bunker here,” and finish by lunchtime. All the while he kept his son’s memory alive, sometimes giving an important visitor a holy relic: “Take this,” he’d say. “It’s Tommy’s last putter.”
Of course Old Tom, the game’s best publicist, had a locker full of Tommy’s “last” putters.
After he retired in 1903, the R&A commissioned a portrait. When the famed painter Sir George Reid asked him to strike a golfing pose, Old Tom stood with his hand on his hip. Reid asked what he was doing. “Waiting for the other man to begin,” he said.
That portrait still hangs in the R&A clubhouse, but the real Old Tom preferred his sunny corner at the comfy New Club.
“I have not lifted a club for a good while now,” he wrote in 1901, after turning 80, “though I still take a great interest in the game, which I think is the best that men — aye, and ladies, too — can play.”
On that spring Sunday in 1908, he trudged from church to his stiff-backed chair overlooking the Old Course. After tea, he made for the loo. Stepping into a dark hallway, he faced two doors.
One was the toilet door. The other led to a stone staircase to the cellar.
He opened that door, took a step and fell.
They heard the clatter upstairs. They carried him up and laid him out on a table, but Old Tom had fractured his skull. With his passing, the dawn of professional golf was over.
Kevin Cook is the author of Tommy’s Honor and the upcoming Driven: Teen Phenoms, Mad Parents, Swing Science and the Future of Golf, both from Gotham Books.