June 26, 2009

The Open Going Back to Giving The Winner A Belt

Ryan Balangee at Waggle Room reported this first, but it's interesting to note nonetheless: Prestwick to Hand Belt to 2010 Open Champion.

"FOR only the second time since Young Tom Morris won three consecutive Opens between 1868 and 1870, an achievement which entitled him to take permanent possession of the championship belt, Prestwick golf club will present the winner of the Open in St Andrews in 2010 with a replica of the prized red morocco leather belt ornamented with silver.

"While all the victors since Young Tom, who received a gold medal in 1872, have lifted the Claret Jug, Sandy Lyle was the fortunate recipient of a replica belt in 1985 at Royal St George's to mark the championship's 125th anniversary."

This is a fantastic idea, and I am very glad it will come to pass. In my view, all too often, golf is forgetting its roots and its traditions, and by doing this, Prestwick will be calling attention not only to that, but also to two of golf's earliest and greatest champions, Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris (pictured wearing the Champions Belt, left.)

The Morris father and son combo were probably the first pair of great champions in the game. Each won the Open Championship four times, "Old" Tom in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867, and "Young" Tom, his son, won it in 1868, 1869, 1870 and 1872. No Open was held in 1871. Young Tom's four consecutive victories is notable in that he was given the Champions Belt after the third win and the famous Claret Jug was purchased for the next tournament in 1872, and his became the first name to be engraved on it. In their time, they were golf's greatest champions and both added greatly to the game, though Young Tom's life ended in heartbreak and tragedy.

In September 1875 Young Tom and his father were playing a match with Willie and Mungo Park, and Young Tom received a telegram that his beloved and pregnant wife, Margaret, had suddenly got very sick. The Morrises rushed home but during their journey, they received a telegram that it was too late: Young Tom's wife and newborn baby were dead.

Morris never recovered from the loss, and he died on Christmas Day the same year. Legend has it that he died of a broken heart, which cannot be far from the truth -- with his spirit broken, his health declined and he was left prone to influenza, which many say actually killed him. While the story of influenza may or may not be apocryphal, one thing is a certainty -- without his family, Young Tom lost his will to live and joined his lost loved ones in the great beyond not long after.

Golf writers ever since have wondered how many more Open championships the 24 year old would have won had this tragedy not happened. Considering that he won four by the time he passed on and at a young age, it's conceivable he would have at least doubled or perhaps even tripeled his numbers of wins.

For his part, Old Tom cannot be overlooked not only for his winnings, but also for his ever-lasting contributions to golf: he standardized the concept of 18 holes and introduced the concept of modern routing, where typically each nine holes return to the club house. He added that one would go out into the prevailing conditions and return the opposite way, providing a more thorough test of one's game. Morris was also the first to place hazards in a way that a player could route their golf ball around or over them, offering a new strategy that had not existed before. He also was the first to top-dress greens, something that's standard fare at nearly any golf course in the world today.

Finally, Old Tom left behind a number of courses rich with design elements that they have been copied ever since. He deserves credit for Muirfield, Prestwick and Carnoustie as a prime designer, among others and he also lent a major hand to the Old Course in St Andrews among many others.

By reviving the Champions Belt, stories of these great men will be told once more, and for golf fans everywhere interested in the game, that's an experience long overdue in modern coverage.

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