Thomas Mitchell Morris, born in June 1821 in St Andrews, influenced so many elements of modern-day golf, from the balls we use, to the clubs we swing, to the tee boxes, fairways and greens we play on, to the very popularity of a sport that is now played and famed the world over, writes Michael Atkinson.
He became a club-maker, ball-maker, competitor, Open champion, ‘Keeper of the Greens’, golf architect, coach and mentor, and was affectionately known as ‘Old Tom’.
Morris learned his craft as a young boy, using a ball made from wine bottle corks pierced with nails and a homemade club. In The Life of Tom Morris, W.W. Tulloch quotes Morris as saying, “You ken a’ St Andrews bairns are born wi’ web feet an’ wi’ a golf-club in their hands.” He continued to play the game throughout his childhood, started caddying and, in 1835, became an apprentice to the man widely regarded as the first-ever golf professional, Allan Robertson.
Robertson was the pre-eminent manufacturer of featherie golf balls (made from feathers packed tightly into a small hand-sewn leather ball) and golf clubs. He supervised the development of the links at St Andrews and would go on to lay out the initial structure of courses, now renowned the world over, Carnoustie amongst them. The best golfer of his era, in 1858, he became the first player to record a score under 80 at St Andrews. When he died in 1859, the Dundee Advertiser wrote that Robertson was “the greatest golfer that ever lived, of whom alone, in the annals of the pastime, it can be said that he was never beaten”.
Morris’ skills as a ball-maker and a club-maker were all learned from Robertson. Through him, Morris would be introduced to influential people connected to the game and it was Robertson that would initiate Morris in golf course design, Morris assisting Robertson in laying out the first ten holes at Carnoustie.
Whilst Morris and Robertson formed a strong relationship in business, they would also form a formidable partnership on the course. Morris became Robertson’s frequent partner for challenge matches. Back then, challenge matches were common – great golfers would directly and publicly challenge rivals to take them on, wealthy backers and supporters stumping up money to incentivise the match with bets being taken on the results.
These contests and the associated publicity would, over the following decades, be a large driver of the wider awareness and interest in the game of golf, reported in local newspapers, with large crowds following the play out on the course. In time, such challenge matches would attract national publicity and further promote the game.
Success in these matches helped elevate Morris’ profile. With their deeply historical connections to early golf in Scotland, the golfers of Musselburgh and St Andrews enjoyed quite a rivalry. In 1849, Robertson and Morris partnered in a foursomes match against rivals Allan and Willie Dunn of Musselburgh for £400, a staggering sum at that time.
The match was staged over the links of Musselburgh, St Andrews and North Berwick. The Dunns took the opening match at Musselburgh before Robertson and Morris squared it at St Andrews, placing much hype on the final match at North Berwick, which attracted a significant crowd as a result.
Despite making a poor start to the third and final match, Robertson and Morris slowly but surely clinched victory, the general consensus being that it was Morris who turned the match.
In 1851, Morris became ‘Keeper of the Greens’ at Prestwick. The move was, in part, the result of a fall-out with Robertson, who didn’t like that Morris had embraced the use of the new ‘gutta percha’ ball. Robertson was still in favour of the featherie, the gutta percha being damaging to his business.
Morris said of the dispute: “One day, I was out playing with Mr Campbell of Saddell, and I got stint of balls. Mr Campbell gave me a gutta to try. Coming in, we met Allan, and somebody told him that I was playin’ a grand game with one of the new balls. Allan said nothing at the time but I saw he didna like it, and when we met in the shop, we had some words about it. This led to our parting company and I took to making balls on my ain account’.
At Prestwick, Tom would alter the basic links into a 12-hole course and oversee its maintenance. He continued with ball and club-making and provided golf lessons, having become a sought-after coach.
Despite parting ways professionally, Morris and Robertson would continue to link up as partners for high profile challenge matches. It was during Morris’ time at Prestwick that the idea for an Open Championship developed, the concept originating from members of the Prestwick Golf Club, including the 13th Earl of Eglinton (and 1st Earl of Winton), Archibald Montgomerie, and his friend Colonel James Fairlie (captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1850). With Robertson having died in 1859, it was felt a competition was required to anoint the new greatest golfer.
The players would compete for the ‘Challenge Belt’, a red Moroccan leather belt featuring a silver buckle with a panel of golfing scenes. If a player won the belt three times in succession, it would become the property of that individual. The competition would be held over the links at Prestwick.
Invitations were distributed to clubs and societies throughout Scotland and England, encouraging participants to compete for the Challenge Belt. Eight professionals eventually participated. Willie Park (Snr) from Musselburgh won the first Open Championship in 1860, despite Morris being the favourite. Park had two putts for the win at the last hole to beat Morris from 30 feet but rolled in at the first time of asking for a closing total of 174, two shots clear.
Willie Park and Tom Morris had become great sporting rivals, participating in a series of challenge matches over the preceding years. Morris would claim his first victory at the Open Championship the following year in 1861. Indeed, it was in this year that the event would become a true ‘Open’, including amateurs.
Morris finished in dramatic style, the Ayr Advertiser reporting: “Driving a magnificent ball from the teeing ground towards home, it landed in a bed of fog at the edge of a pool of water . . . To come to grief at such a time was most provoking, and the spectators thought Tom would pick out the ball and forfeit a stroke, but with self-reliance, rising to the emergency, he dexterously sent it bounding into the air, and ultimately halving the last hole, finished in a splendid round of 53, and secured the national guerdon of golfing skill.”
Morris would also win the Open in 1862 and 1864. In 1862, he produced the largest-ever winning margin, 13 strokes - a record which stands to this day.
Morris’ Open wins cemented his reputation and, with the event played upon the course which Morris had designed, he would begin to forge demand as a designer of golf courses. Golf was accelerating in popularity and clubs were being formed throughout the British Isles.
Whilst he is most famous for his work on the Old Course at St Andrews, Morris would go on to design, extend or remodel many now famous courses, such as Leven Links, Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Cruden Bay, Royal Burgess and Panmure. The final course design project he undertook was Kirkcaldy in 1904.
In December 1864, Morris was lured back to look after the Old Course as ‘Keeper of the Greens’ at the invitation of The Royal & Ancient Golf Club and as their first official club professional. He would establish his ball and club-making business in the town, opposite the last green and the first tee.
His work on the Old Course was extensive and would prove to be the foundation for what has become the most revered golf course in the world.
He set about widening the fairways of the Old Course, removing whins, rough grass and heather, enabling greens to be approached from more angles; he separated, enlarged and moved some of the greens, with a focus on a steady improvement of their quality and smoothness, introducing the concept of top-dressing.
He also oversaw the banking of the burn, helping to prevent the frequent flooding of the course. He removed some bunkers, added others and improved the overall quality of these hazards. The 18 holes of the Old Course became the standard for courses around the world.
Morris’ final Open victory would be in 1867 at Prestwick, making him the oldest winner of the Open at 46 years of age. With his son, he is also the only father and son pair to finish as winner and runner-up, which happened in 1868. In that year, ‘Young’ Tom Morris claimed the title and would go on to win four consecutive Open titles, from 1868 to 1872 (there was no tournament in 1871). His win at just 17 years makes him the youngest-ever winner of a major championship. His three consecutive wins from 1868 to 1870 secured him the Challenge Belt in perpetuity.
Morris continued to compete and win professional matches into his seventies. He remains the oldest competitor in the Open at 74 years in 1896. In 1902, he was elected Honorary Vice Captain of the newly-founded Professional Golfers Association. He remained in his role at the Old Course until 1903, when he finally retired, although the Royal & Ancient continued to pay him his salary of £50 per year. They appointed him ‘Consulting Greenkeeper’ and he acted as starter for the Royal & Ancient’s medal competitions. Morris died in 1908, after falling down the stairs at the New Golf Club in St Andrews and sustaining a fatal head injury.
Harry Everard wrote this about Morris in the Badminton Library volume on golf: “Apart from his excellent play, he is described as a charming partner and an equally generous opponent; no amounts of ‘cross accidents’ could disturb his equable temper, and when steering an indifferent partner with consummate skill through the varying fortunes of the game, no irritable word or gesture was ever known to escape him, however valueless, not to say destructive, the endeavours of his protégé happened to be.”
Old Tom Morris. Ball-maker. Club-maker. Competitor. Open Champion. Keeper of the Greens. Golf architect. Coach. Mentor.
A remarkable life for ‘The Grand Old Man of Golf’.
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This feature first appeared in issue 185 of bunkered (May 2021). To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.