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- Old Tom Morris
Old Tom Morris
In 1835, at the age of fourteen, Old Tom was apprenticed to Allan Robertson, who most historians consider as the first golf professional, and he worked in his mentor’s St Andrews workshop making golf balls and clubs. It’s said they were never beaten in a challenge match when paired together – especially in high stakes matches such as one for £400 against the Dunns of Musselburgh in 1849.
Old Tom assisted Robertson when he built the original course at Carnoustie, with ten holes crossing and re-crossing the Barry Burn. Unfortunately, they had a major disagreement when the gutta percha ball first made its appearance. Robertson insisted on playing the old, more expensive, featherie ball (which his firm supplied) but his protégé realized that the future lay with the new ball and so they parted company, with Old Tom heading off to become Keeper of the Greens at Prestwick in 1851.
He set out a 12-hole layout inside a rather confined property extending to around fifty acres, with crossover holes requiring multiple blind shots. ‘The course went dodging in and out amongst lofty sand hills,’ wrote two-time Amateur champion Horace Hutchinson. ‘The holes were, for the most part, out of sight for the approach, for they lay in deep dells among those sand hills. You lofted over the intervening mountain of sand, and there was all the fascinating excitement, as you climbed to the top of it, of seeing how near to the hole your ball may have happened to roll.’
Today, only four of Old Tom’s holes remain in play at Prestwick: the 2nd, 3rd, 13th and 17th, with six of his original greens still in use.
As a player, Old Tom won four of the first eight Opens, which were all held at Prestwick. His son Young Tom, who he would outlive by 33 years, then won the next four titles in consecutive years, but he passed away broken-hearted at the age of 24 on Christmas Day in 1875, only months after his wife and baby had died during childbirth.
Old Tom Morris had returned to St Andrews a decade earlier, in 1865, to look after the upkeep of The Old Course, which had apparently fallen into a state of disrepair. Applying techniques he’d developed at Prestwick, he built two new greens on the 1st and 18th and re-turfed the fairways on both holes. Top dressing was a favourite ploy of his, dumping tons of sand on greens to promote firm and fast playing conditions on the putting surfaces. He would remain in post until 1903, a total of thirty-nine years.
From around the death of Young Tom until his retirement, Old Tom was involved in the design or remodelling of more than sixty courses around the British Isles. He travelled far and wide on commissions, from Dornoch in the north to Royal North Devon in the south, taking the ferry to set out courses in the Western Isles, the Isle of Man and Ireland.
Old Tom was a mentor to architects like C.B. Macdonald, Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast, who spent time with him in St Andrews before making their golfing mark in America. And another famous designer, Alister MacKenzie, also paid tribute to Old Tom in his book The Spirit of St Andrews when he wrote: “No professional since his time has ever grasped the real sporting spirit of golf architecture like he did.”
In The Golf Course by Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten, the authors have this to say about Old Tom: "Those who knew him described Old Tom as a man it was impossible to dislike. Throughout his productive life, he refused to play golf on Sundays and kept the Old Course closed on that day, feeling it needed a rest even if the golfers didn’t. His philosophy in regard to putting maintenance embraced “sand and more sand” as a top-dressing.”
Some have criticized Old Toms’s work, arguing that his green designs were overly geometric and his routings were unconventional, with crossing holes and little variety in length, but it must be remembered the era in which he operated, when it was virtually impossible to alter the existing contours of the landscape he was working with.
In the book The Evolution of Golf Course Design by Keith Cutten, the author has this to say about Old Tom: “It is wrong to solely view Old Tom’s legacy through the dual prism of the golf courses he crafted and his considerable playing success. Arguably, of greater importance was his effect on the growth of the game, and his influence upon future golf course architects. Old Tom became the figurehead of golf throughout the British Isles, and so many golfers made the pilgrimage to The Old course to visit him and hear stories about the game.”
From Keepers of the Green: A History of Golf Course Management by Bob Labbance and Gordon Witteveen: “After struggling with various greenkeepers in part-time positions, the R&A had decided to appoint ‘a custodian at a salary considerably larger than that hitherto given,’ and that ‘the entire charge of the course should be entrusted to him.’ For this they were willing to pay £50 a year, with an additional £20 for expenses incurred in maintaining the course. According to the R&A minutes book, Morris was hired on January 9, 1865, to ‘make the holes, look after the flags and mend the turf,’ and allowed him ‘one man for two days a week when heavy work such as carting was to be done, plus barrel, spade and shovel.’
But Morris longed to accomplish much more. At the time, holes were changed every Monday or before the monthly meetings and Sunday was a day of rest for the course. A deeply religious man who read the Bible daily and later became an elder in his church, Morris believed that even if the golfers refused to admit they needed a contemplative day on the Sabbath, there was still no playing of golf on Sundays. ‘The Links needed a rest, even if the golfers didn’t,’ was his official position. The course was closed to play and open to the townspeople for strolling and socializing.
Under his care, the course flourished, but like today, the changes he instituted were not advances without opposition. Some argued the constant smoothing of surfaces was unnatural and that golf must be played without changing the natural habitat. Members like the variety of putting surfaces, defended the wild untended areas encroaching on the line of play and embraced the random nature of the hazards. Still, Morris went about creating the opposite. He widened the cultivated fairway surfaces expanding them from 40 to 100 yards in breadth, outlined and defined the bunkers, allowed the worms to remain on the greens and their holes to serve as aeration, raised and returfed the greens, used metal cups to line the holes, supported tabled areas with turf bricks and top-dressed to increase green sped and uniformity.
Morris capped off his first five years as steward of St. Andrews with the drilling of the first well for watering the greens. In 1870, a well was sunk adjacent to the 6th green and a plentiful supply of good-quality water was found. In the years to follow, additional wells were opened until, in 1997, every green had a water supply and the turf was provided for, even during the drought periods. This final ‘tool’ allowed Morris to bring the Old Course to a new standard in the final twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. It drove Horace Hutchinson to glow: ‘The High Priest of this hierarchy of professional golf is, beyond question, the custodian of the green for the Royal and ancient Golf Club of St Andrews – at the present time (and long may he continue to hold office!) Old Tom Morris. If not possibly the most lucrative, it is certainly the most distinguished position to which the golf professional proper can aspire.’
Hutchinson went on to detail all the attributes of Old Tom – attributes that all topflight greenkeepers should aspire to, a manifesto that still applies in the twenty-first century. ‘He will need to have some knowledge of turf-cutting, and the technical knowledge generally necessary for keeping the turf on the putting greens in fine order. He will need to be an observer of the growth of grasses… to look after the ground, arrange the tees, and read the Riot Act to small boys who play off the greens with their irons, and generally to act as custodian. He will also be an the overseer of one or more horny-handed sons of toil who, under his directions, roll, sweep and mow the greens and fill up iron-skelps and other wounds in the ground.
He will need, in the first place, to be a man of not unpleasing manner, or strangers will naturally be disgusted at their reception; for it is him that they will probably first address themselves. He will need to have a certain power of organization, and moral influence over the forces – the caddies and the professionals – who are more or less under his orders. And he will need to have a thorough knowledge of the theory and practice of the game of golf, so as to be able to tutor aright the young idea.’ Morris possessed all these attributes, but it was his friendly accommodating manner that welcomed travellers and locals into the St. Andrews fold. He set a maintenance standard that was copied by the thirty clubs in existence when he began his tenure at St. Andrews and by the dozens more that were opened during his long career.”
There are many good biographies about Old Tom, including:
The Golf Course of Old Tom Morris: A Look at Early Golf Course Architecture, published in 1995, by Robert Kroeger
Tommy's Honor: The Extraordinary Story of Golf’s Founding Father and Son, published in 2011, by Kevin Cook
Tom Morris of St Andrews: The Colossus of Golf 1821-1908, published in 2012, by David Malcolm and Peter E. Crabtree