Tom Morris Tribute

Apart from winning four Opens,
Apart from winning four Opens, ‘Old’ Tom was the leading course designer of his generation and the inventor of top dressing and hand mowing for greens

It was on Monday, May 25th, 1908, that the good people of the ancient city of St Andrews awoke to learn that their fellow citizen, Tom Morris, Sr., had died just 12 days shy of his 87th birthday.

On the day of his death, on Sunday, May 24th, Morris and his great friend George Murray had attended a service at St. Mary’s Church in Market Street and then ambled down to the New Club for a glass of Black Strap ale and a chat with the local worthies.

At about 4.00pm, the sprightly octogenarian rose to visit the lavatory but on the way fell through an open hatch leading to the cellar and sustained a serious head injury from which he never recovered. He was found unconscious at the bottom of a stairwell and rushed by horse-drawn ambulance to the town’s New Memorial Cottage Hospital only to be pronounced dead soon after his arrival.

The next morning, the news of Morris’s tragic death was reported the length and breadth of Scotland and a large group of dignitaries, including a former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, and a future one, Henry Asquith, queued up to eulogize about the man and his career.

“Tam was a guid [good] man,” confirmed Balfour. “It will be a while afore we see anither like him and a damned sicht [sight] longer afore we’ll see another ane [any] better.”

The former Prime Minister might also have added that Morris’s tragic accident brought to an abrupt end a remarkable chapter in the history of golf, one that is unlikely ever to be forgotten. His death is now more than a century in the past but his reputation as the ‘grand old man of golf’ has not diminished.

Far from it, in fact! In 2004, when the Royal Bank of Scotland commemorated the 250th anniversary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, it issued a special £5 note with a picture of ‘Old’ Tom on it. The 18th hole on the Old Course is still named in his honor and the history books are crammed with stories of how both Tom Morris, Sr., and his son, Tommy, dominated the rudimentary competitions of their day.

‘Old’ Tom is sometimes described as the godfather of modern golf and that is no idle claim because he played a seminal role in the development of the game in the years that straddled the turn of the 20th century.

His father was a hand-loom weaver by trade, then a mailman, but Morris started his own working life as an apprentice “featherie” (golf ball) maker to Allan Robertson, who is sometimes described as the world’s first professional golfer. Robertson became his mentor, friend and playing partner until the pair fell out over Morris’s endorsement of the new gutta-percha ball. In later years, Morris, Sr., was employed as the keeper of the links at both Prestwick and St Andrews (among other things, he invented top dressing and hand mowing for greens), was the first ‘honorary professional’ of the R&A, and became a course architect (his creations include the New Course at St Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch and Royal County Down). But it was as a player, and then as the father of ‘Young’ Tom, that this legendary figure made his most indelible marks.


Tom Morris, Sr. lived to within 12 days of his 87th birthday and was mourned at his funeral by two british prime ministers

‘Old’ Tom’s name is synonymous with the birth of what is now referred to as the Open Championship. He made his first appearance in the inaugural tournament back in 1860, when he finished second behind Willie Park of Musselburgh, and was to make his last some 36 years later at Muirfield. He won the title four times (in 1861, ’62, ’64 and ’67) and remains both the oldest champion (46 years and 99 days) and the oldest competitor (74 years, 11 months and 24 days). His stunning 13-shot victory at Prestwick in 1862 was particularly impressive but he was soon to be eclipsed by the genius of his son, who made his Open debut in 1865, aged just 14 years, 4 months and 25 days, and, for an all-too-short period, was to dominate the Championship like no one else before or since.

Some feats are likely never to be repeated and one of those is the achievement of a son (‘Young’ Tom) succeeding his father (‘Old’ Tom) as Open champion. In 1868, when the former secured his first Open title at Prestwick, it signaled the start of an unequalled run of four successive victories in the space of a memorable five-year period. He secured his second title in 1869, his third in 1870, when he was awarded the original Championship Belt in perpetuity, and then, after no championship was played in 1871, he returned to Prestwick in 1872 to complete the set with his fourth and final victory.

Thereafter, the closest ‘Young’ Tom came to duplicating those successes was in 1874 when he came second, behind Mungo Park, on the Championship’s first visit to Musselburgh. It remains unclear whether he entered the 1875 Open at Prestwick but what we do know is that little more than three months later he suffered a tragedy which is said to have destroyed his will to live.

On September 2nd, 1875, the Morrises, father and son, had just defeated brothers Willie and Mungo Park by a single hole in a ‘money match’ at North Berwick when Tommy was handed a telegram informing him his wife of less than 12 months, Margaret, had developed complications after going into labor. One of the match sponsors, Mr. John Lewis, immediately put a schooner and a full crew at the Morrises’ disposal, but just as they were leaving the harbor a second telegram arrived with the grim news that both mother and child had died.

“What can one say at such an hour,” the Rev. William Tulloch wrote many years later in his biography, The Life of Tom Morris. “I will never forget the poor young man’s stony look, stricken was not the word: and how, all of a sudden, he started up and cried, ‘It’s not true!’ I have seen many sorrowful things; but not like that Saturday night.”

Tulloch went on to report that Tommy never recovered from the double bereavement. He started to drink heavily and all but ceased to play golf although, in November, he did accept one last challenge match against an English amateur, Arthur Molesworth from North Devon who, foolishly, had let it be known that, upon receipt of “a third”, or six shots over 18 holes, he would play any professional in Scotland for money.

The match was played over three days, with two rounds a day, and while Morris won, the driving snow and blinding sleet it was played in was clearly too much for him in his weakened state. Indeed, it might have been the final straw because, just over a month later, on Christmas Eve 1875, he passed away in his sleep. Earlier that evening, he had eaten with friends and then returned home to 6 Pilmour Links to bid goodnight to his invalid mother, Agnes, or Nancy as she was more often called.

He did not surface the next morning and the subsequent post mortem examination revealed his death had been caused by a burst blood vessel in his right lung. However, many who knew him thought otherwise. They attributed his passing to a broken heart.

We shall never know what ‘Young’ Tom might have gone on to achieve but for the tragic loss of his wife and child, but his father never doubted he possessed a unique talent which put him head and shoulders above all his peers.

“I could cope wi’ Allan [Robertson] myself, but never wi’ Tommy,” he once said. Certainly, his son’s performance in winning the 1870 Open suggested this was no exaggeration.

That year, on his way to being awarded the Moroccan belt outright, the younger Morris posted scores of 47, 51 and 51 to claim a 12-stroke victory over the rugged 12-hole links at Prestwick. To put that performance into perspective, his 149 aggregate was six shots better than anyone else achieved during 18 Opens contested over that circuit and was no fewer than 21 shots lower than the total his father had achieved while winning the title just three years earlier. The sole modern equivalent might well be Tiger Woods’ monumental 15-shot victory in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Tommy was laid to rest on December 29th, 1875, near to the walls of the ruined St Andrews Cathedral and alongside his beloved Margaret and stillborn son. There was no golf that day in St Andrews.  Shops and businesses closed in his honor and hundreds of mourners followed the funeral cortege, headed by ‘Old’ Tom, the Reverend A.K.H. Boyd (the minister) and representatives from many of the golf clubs where Tommy had played.

‘Old’ Tom might well have asked himself why he was the only member of his immediate family to enjoy a long life

Time is a great healer, but ‘Old’ Tom was to endure considerably more heartache before he passed away 33 years later on that Sunday afternoon in May 1908. Ultimately, the great Custodian of the Links of St Andrews outlived his entire immediate family. His wife died just eleven months after Tommy; John, his paraplegic son, died in 1893, aged 33; Elizabeth, his daughter, in 1898, aged 45; and James, another son, in 1906, aged 50. During moments of quiet contemplation, ‘Old’ Tom might well have asked himself why, among his immediate family, he was the only one to enjoy a long life.

Certainly, the name Tom Morris seems to have been particularly cursed. Incredibly, ‘Young’ Tom was not just named after his father, but also an older brother, Tom, who had died in 1850, aged just four; and he then went on to name his stillborn son Tom.

But despite the misfortunes that befell so many of its owners, the revered name of Tom Morris is sure to live for as long as men and women are able to play golf.

‘Old’ Tom MorrisPrestwickSt. AndrewsTom Morris