June 16, 2021 – 200th birthday of Old Tom Morris

By Jim Davis

Most of us know of Tom Morris and his son and golfing prodigy, Tommy. Tom is considered as golf’s Grand Old Man for so many reasons, not the least of which was his genuine love of the game, and for the Old Course at St. Andrews which he looked after as Keeper of the Green for 39 years. Tom was a clubmaker, a ball maker and, with Allan Robertson, combined to create one of the most feared competitive teams that ever existed in golf. There are several books on his life and may more articles. Of late, Roger McStravick with his three books on Old Tom has given us a clear and complete look at a man whose equal will never be found.

As the 200th anniversary of Tom’s birth approaches, on June 16, 1821, we invite golfers everywhere to raise a glass in his honor and recall with gratitude his many gifts to the game that continue to enhance our joy of it to this day.

Here’s a brief, very brief, look at Old Tom’s work.

He came second in the first Open Championship in 1860, and won the following year. He followed this up with further victories in 1862, 1864 and 1867. He still holds the record as the oldest winner of The Open Championship at 46. Also, he was part of the only father/son couple being winner and runner-up. Morris held the record for the largest margin of victory in a major championship (13 strokes in the 1862 Open Championship), which stood until Tiger Woods won the 2000 US Open by 15 strokes. He became the second player to break 80 over the Old Course, scoring 79; Robertson had been the first to do it. He and his son, Tommy,  became a very successful team in challenge matches. 

Old Tom Morris, c. 1880

As a course designer, Old Tom has given the world a long list of courses that include: Kingussie, Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy, Prestwick, Muirfield, Machrihanish, the Jubilee Course at St Andrews, Balcomie at Crail, Moray, Bridge of Allan Golf Club, Askernish in South Uist, Lahinch and Rosapenna in Ireland, Warkworth, Wallasey and Royal North Devon Golf Club (Westward Ho!) in England, King Edward Bay Golf Club in the Isle of Man and the Castletown Golf Club in the Isle of Man. Glasgow Golf Club’s Killermont course was his last 18 hole design, opening in 1904, just four years before his death.

As the father of modern greenkeeping, Morris introduced the concept of top-dressing greens with sand, which significantly helped turf growth. He introduced many novel ideas on turf and course management, including actively managing hazards and yardage markers. He was the first to use a push mower to cut greens. He introduced the idea of placing hazards so that the golf ball could be routed around them; this was the beginning of strategic design, which has dominated golf course design ever since. At St Andrews he widened the fairways, enlarged the greens, and built two new greens (on holes 1 and 18).

U.K. golf historian David Joy, before a stroke curtailed his activities, was the consummate expert on Old Tom Morris. His stage and video portrayals of Old Tom were stunning in scope and a treat for all who had the good fortune to see them. Click below for a video of Joy as Old Tom.

The great amateur John L. Low wrote the following tribute to Tom following his passing on May 24, 1908.

Tom Morris, A Salute
Tom Morris has finished his round,
He leaves us with a hand-wave;
We also signal to him that he is still our comrade,
We look to him that he will continue to watch our ways.

Not by great adventures is he acclaimed hero,
These he met on his pathway, but they were not of his seeking;
Only as friend do we see him, quietly mingling with golfers,
Gaining his triumphs almost unconsciously.

In life often stricken, but in play seldom conquered;
With equal mind Tom Morris makes no change in his faith of his fortunes;
Quietly he takes by the hand all good men,
And together they walk forward strengthened.

Most single was the love of Tom Morris for the old links of St. Andrews –
Great gift of nature to a world full of golfers
Nothing recked of its value to city or stranger,
But the old course, for the love of itself, he nurtured most tenderly.

Loved of all golfers, Tom Morris leaves the links which lie ’tween the Swilcan and Eden;
Loving all golfers, Tom Morris still walks and plays with them, and partakes in their pleasures,
Or standing by the last hole makes the round end gladly by his converse,
Victory becoming more happy and misfortune forgotten in cheerfulness.

Patriarch and High Priest, Father and dearly-loved Friend of Golf,
At the end of your long round we salute you!
We see you make an indicative motion with your hand towards us,
We hurry forward to grasp it, hoping never to relinquish our hold.

Books on Tom Morris
The Soul of St. Andrews: The Life of Old Tom Morris.  William Tulloch (7 November 2010). Fireship Press. ISBN 978-1-61179-056-6.

The Life of Tom Morris: With Glimpses of St. Andrews and Its Golfing Celebrities. W. W. Tulloch (7 December 2017). (Classic Reprint). Fb&c Limited. ISBN 978-0-331-91332-3.

The Life of Tom Morris. Tulloch William Weir (14 October 2018). Creative Media Partners, LLC. ISBN 978-0-343-11940-9.

Tom Morris of St Andrews: The Colossus of Golf 1821 – 1908.  David Malcolm (1 July 2011). Birlinn. pp. 318–. ISBN 978-0-85790-107-1.

The Scrapbook of Old Tom Morris. David Joy. Sleeping Bear Press. 2001 ISBN 978-1-886947-45-7.

Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son.   Kevin Cook (27 March 2008). Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-59240-342-4.

St Andrews in the Footsteps of Old Tom Morris. Roger McStravick (2015). Saint Andrews Golf Press. ISBN 978-0-9571643-6-9.

(Not strictly about Old Tom, but nonetheless illuminating.)
St. Andrews -The Road War Papers. Roger McStravick (2020). St. Andrew’s Golf Press. ISBN 978-0-9935950-8-0