Who was Old Tom Morris and in what ways did he shape modern golf?

June 16, 1821. The day golf’s greatest figure was born. Thomas Mitchell Morris became universally known as Old Tom Morris, the father of Young Tom, and is also often referred to as The Grand Old Man of Golf.

Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom. Picture: Phil Sheldon/Getty Images.
Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom. Picture: Phil Sheldon/Getty Images.

“He’s Scotland’s greatest golf icon, he really is,” said Roger McStravick, a St Andrews-based golf history writer, as he spoke with boundless enthusiasm about Morris on the occasion of his 200th birthday.

“There isn’t one element of golf that he hasn’t touched upon in his own lifetime and still reverberates today, right from being a caddie as a boy up to being a player and, in later life, he set that formula as a golf professional who designs courses. He did so many fantastic things.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The son of a weaver in the Fife town, Morris was educated at Madras College before he started to work for Allan Robertson, one of the game’s first professionals, when he was 18.

St Andrews-based golf history writer Roger McStravick won the USGA's Herbert Warren Wind Award for the first time with his book, 'St Andrews: In The Footsteps Of Old Tom Morris'

“By then, he would have been a superb golfer,” said McStravick of the man who came second in the first Open Championship in 1860 before landing four wins in sport’s oldest major - in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867.

The second of those successes was by virtue of a resounding 13 shots, which stood as a record in the majors until Tiger Woods romped to a 15-shot victory in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach.

“He said that as soon as he could walk, he was down at the links,” added McStravick. “The St Andrews that Tom knew as a boy was an exciting one. The town was undergoing a revolution thanks to Hugh Lyon Playfair.

“Houses were being built to appeal to the middle class ala the New Town in Edinburgh. Playfair's vision was the Metropolis of Golf and that vision is what we see today with hotels, good golf, tourism facilities etc.”

Old Tom Morris

Playfair's revolution of the town went hand in hand with Old Tom’s work on the links, having returned to St Andrews in 1864 after a spell in Prestwick to become the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s keeper of the green and professional.

He created a new front nine on the Old Course by increasing the greens and clearing whin to open up the fairways. He was also responsible for new first and 18th greens and changed the direction of play to anti-clockwise.

Despite an influential stint at Prestwick, it’s St Andrews, where he was born and also died, that the spirit of Old Tom is at its strongest.

“You almost can’t pass a street in St Andrews without having an Old Tom reference or influence or something that has happened there,” observed McStravick, the author of St Andrews: In The Footsteps of Old Tom Morris. “He sort of reverberates around the town.

Old Tom Morris pictured in 1880. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

“I think the people of St Andrews are fantastic when it comes to remembering Old Tom in particular, helped by David Joy performing as Old Tom as an actor, and that’s how I got into Old Tom.

“Even in St Andrews Golf Club, where he was a member, or the New Club, where he was also a member, I think the memory of Old Tom is so important and he is revered still as one of the town’s own.

“What I found really interesting was how he could talk equally to a caddie, and they, of course, considered him as one of their own, and to royalty like Price Leopold, Queen Victoria’s son, and the gentleman golfers.

“It was amazing how he could traverse across all those different classes and at his funeral in particular they had professionals like Ben Sayers there but also gentleman golfers there as well as the working class.

Old Tom Morris and James Braid at Leven.

“It takes a rare skill to talk freely and be respected by all the classes. He was a working-class boy who didn’t have much of an education and yet when he died he had the equivalent of £2 million in his bank account but was still grounded and didn’t flaunt his wealth.

“He was loved by the people of the town and I think that affection they had for him at the time still resonates today and the people are very protective of Old Tom.”

In later life, Morris created or re-designed over 100 courses, giving hazards on the Old Course biblical names like Hell Bunker or Valley of Sin. There also seems to be a fair few optical illusions on his courses i.e. what is uphill is downhill and what looks 120 yards is 160 yards.

“He had a great sense of drama in his work,” said McStravick, a two-time winner of golf’s top literary prize, the USGA’s Herbert Warren Wind Award, the first time for his tale on the mark made in St Andrews by Old Tom. “I think he had a wee bit of devilment in him, too!”

Next year, St Andrews will play host to the 150th Open, with three-time winner Gary Player fearing the Old Course will be defenceless to big-hitters like Bryson DeChambeau.

“I think Old Tom would titter at all the fuss that is being made,” said McStravick. “Tom was ahead of the curve. He was sort of a moderniser. For example, when he created the ladies’ putting course and he was pro ladies playing golf,that was in a fairly misogynist era and that definitely wasn’t the common train of thought at the time.

Old Tom Morris playing at Montrose Links.

“But Tom was all for it and when he created Prestwick the opening hole was 578 yards and people had some driving competitions some 30 years later by hitting the ball 222 yards, which gave you an idea of how far they hit the ball back then.

“He was definitely a sort of moderniser and I think he would chuckle at all the hoo-ha. It’s just another generation having something they think is the end of the world and it’s really not.”

A message from the Editor:

Get a year of unlimited access to all of The Scotsman's sport coverage without the need for a full subscription. Expert analysis, exclusive interviews, live blogs, and 70 per cent fewer ads on Scotsman.com - all for less than £1 a week. Subscribe to us today https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions/sports

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.