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Old Tom Morris

Written by: Boynie | Date: Saturday, May 24th, 2008
Categories: Golf CoursesLifeMiscellaneous

Thanks to my friend John Boyne, a caddy at St. Andrews, for submitting this neat article on the 100 year anniversary of the death of Old Tom Morris. ~Tony

Old Tom MorrisOld Tom Morris is attributed with being the founder of modern golf as we know it in this the 21st Century. An extrodinary feat considering he died, at the age of 84, on the 24th May 1908. This year is the 100th annversary of his death in St. Andrews.

An extrodinary man, he was born in June 1817, in St. Andrews. He grew up playing golf and this may have been the overriding decision from his father to apprentice him, as a ball maker, to the most famous golfer of the time and the first ‘professional’ Allan Robertson of St. Andrews. He served with Robertson for a term of nine years at the end of which he was playing the great Robertson on equal terms.

It is said that Alan Robertson never lost a match where a cash prize was at stake. They never had many recorded head to head matches, reputations at stake one suspects, but as a pair/team they were unbeatable. And the stakes could be high. Records show that one famous high staked game was for £400 (pounds) = $800 today, against the Dunn brothers from Musselburgh. For the victors in 1849 this is a fantastic amount of money and would be worth thousands in real terms, good God I would be hard pressed to go any higher than a simple five pound nassau today! Ah….to have some gentlemen benefactors, as these golfing pioneers obviously did, and then go out and produce the golfing goods against the best opponents of the day managed to give them an aura of invincibility when the money matches were played over the original Scottish Links courses of Mussellburgh, North Berwick and St. Andrews.

Morris and Robertson parted ways in the golf business around 1846-7 over the contencious issue of the making of the golf ball. Robertson hung onto the ‘featherie’ ball, which he produced, requiring many man hours stuffing poultry feathers into cow/sheeps hide then sewing the package into a rolled ball shape. It has been noted that a practiced featherie maker could produce four balls a day, and that Robertson’s men (including Tom Morris at the time) were close to production of 2000 a year by 1844.

The great split between these men occurred with the introduction of the ‘gutta percha’ golf ball which produced a consistent round ball due to it’s latex rubbery gum which could be moulded when immersed in boiling water and then retain that shape when cooled.

Old Tom MorrisThis is the first real impact that, outwith his growing golfing prowess, Tom Morris had on golf. Tom opened his own golf shop in St. Andrews producing the ‘gutta percha’ golf ball which would produce around 100 balls a day, and this shop is still there, adjacent to the 18th green of the Old Course, in St. Andrews.

Every round I complete as a caddie on the 18th at St. Andrews, which is named ‘Tom Morris’, always fills me with a sense of achievement for my golfer, foremost and then, as I replace the 18th flag and glance across to Old Tom’s shop, I do feel a curious sense of his being. Strange, it certainly is, but his prescence is there in that moment on the final green at St. Andrews.

In 1851, at the age of 30 years, a Colonel Fairlie of Coodham persuaded Tom to move across and south to the west coast of Scotland whereupon he took on the duties of custodian of the links of Prestwick. He remained at Prestwick for 12 years and was one of the original eight competitors to play in the first Open Championship held at Prestwick in 1860 and won by his great golfing rival Willie Park of Musselburgh. Between them they won seven of the first eight Opens and then in 1868 Tom’s son Tom Jr. appeared at the age of 17 to start his amazing winning streak of four consecutive victories and his father became known as Old Tom. And Tom Senior did become the oldest golfer ever to win the Open Championship at the age of 46.

St. Andrews lured Old Tom back in 1863 with the incentive of a then vast £50 pounds annual salary as the custodian of the green. He continued to play first class golf into his 60’s and even competed in the Open until aged 75. Old Tom’s legacy lives on not only in his and his son’s golfing achievements but also with the stunning golf courses he designed, added or adjusted to over the years. These include St. Andrews Old Course (tweaked), St Andrews New course, Crail Balcomie, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Cruden Bay, Nairn, Machrihanish, Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down and Lahinch to name a few.

He passed away at the age of 87 after a nasty fall down the stairs of the New Club never regaining conciousness. It is said that he was going down to the cellar for a bottle of wine. His funeral saw schools closed, shops shut and flags flying at half mast. Crowds massed the streets and the coffin was followed by old friends and caddies, St. Andrews University professors and many members of the Royal and Ancient and local golf clubs. He was buried alongside his son and close to his old golfing rival Allan Robertson.

Today many golfers that come to play at St. Andrews make the short walk to the old Cathedral graveyard to pay their respects to Old Tom Morris and his son Tom Jr. All golfers should thank them for the gesture.

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