July 8, 2009

The Grandaddy Of All Open Champions: "Old" Tom Morris

More so any sport still played today, golf winds its way through history, leaving a trail a greatness still recognizable to those who take the time to look. Of all the great champions who have graced the game, Tom Morris Sr. stands as one of the greatest champions and benefactors of golf -- and the sport that still clearly bears his imprint to this day.

The Open Championship (don't call it the British Open, thanks) is perhaps the most perfect example of the enduring nature of golf-- it has existed for 149 years, and the annual event has only been interrupted by world war and a controversy in 1871 that led to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers administering the event. Its winners are a veritable who's-who of golf, and if one looks down the list of those who have hoisted the Claret Jug or worn the Winner's Belt from today back to 1860, it is like reading a roll call of the greats of the game from now back to the origins of the modern game.

(photo: Old Tom Morris in 1905, right; in the 1890's, below)

The Greatest of the Early Champions: Thomas Mitchell "Tom" Morris, Sr.

First played in the fall of 1860 at Prestwick, the inaugural Open Championship had a clear favorite among the eight professional competitors who vied for the prize belt that would be given to the winner: the keeper of the Prestwick Greens and crack golfer, Tom Morris. Morris did not win that day, losing to his fiercest rival, Willie Park Sr., by two strokes in a three round event that were played consecutively in a single day over 36 holes.

The next year, 1861, Morris began setting a mark of excellence on the young tournament that would not be eclipsed until his son came along, where Morris Jr. not only broke his father's records but also placed himself high in the annals of the game itself.

"Old" Tom Morris, as he came to be known in order to distinguish him from his son "Young" Tom, was a clubmaker, a golf course designer, a greenskeeper and, of course, a great golfer. Many of the elements of the game we take for granted today came originally from his hand, for example, Old Tom was the man who standardized courses at 18 holes, he was the first to groom hazards in order to enhance their punitive nature, and as a designer, he was the first who placed hazards in a manner such that strategy in avoiding them was clearly required in order to garner the lowest score possible. Obviously, these are things that modern course superintendents and designers do every day as part of their work, but it was Morris who was the first -- and in so doing, he changed the game forever.

He learned his skills from the man who is credited with being the first golf professional, Alan Robertson, and the two men also played in foursomes together and were never beaten from 1842 till Robertson's untimely death in 1859. Of Robertson, it is said that he was never beaten, and of Morris, much the same can be said of his play in the early years of his golfing career being that he was Robertson's partner and apprentice.

"£1 a day I charged plus expenses, and walked every venue." -- Tom Morris, Sr.

As a course designer, his handiwork is still golfed upon every day even now: Morris created the legendary courses at Carnoustie, Prestwick, and Muirfield, Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down along with Warkworth in Northumberland, Rosapenna in Ireland, among others. He also made changes and greatly evolved the Old Course at St. Andrews -- it was Old Tom who laid the sod of the 18th green there with his own hands. His work greatly influenced the likes of Alistair MacKenzie, designer of Cypress Point and Augusta National, Donald Ross, designer of Pinehurst #2 and Seminole, among many others.

Morris was also one of the first widely known champions that played the gutta percha golf ball (the aforementioned Willie Park Sr. being another) that eventually helped enhance and popularize the game -- prior to the gutta percha, balls were hand-stitched leather stuffed with feathers that were extremely expensive and thus unaffordable to any but the very wealthy. While some middle-class duffers were to be found in that time, they often were forced to play with limited equipment, especially when it came to golf balls. With the relatively inexpensive gutta-percha ball, more commoners could afford to take up the game, and thus the second great influx of the middle class (the sheep herders who invented golf as we know it being the first) into golf. Old Tom also developed and built golf clubs in his shop and even helped create many of the rules of the game that are still in place to day.

By 1867, Old Tom had established a clubmaking business aside the 18th green of The Old Course in Saint Andrews. He ran the business for the rest of his lifetime, and consistently employed at least six craftsmen, one of which, Bob Martin, was a double winner of The Open Championship at St Andrews in 1876 & 1885.

(pictured above: Prestwick, photo by Bryan Robson; an advertisement forMorris Sr. golf equipment, and below, the 18th green at St. Andrews Old Course.)

Those accomplishments alone would place Old Tom Morris at the pinnacle of great men and women in the great game of golf, but one distinction places Morris there as well: he was also a fine champion golfer. He won four Open Championships, in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867. He competed often on the courses surrounding St. Andrews, with his son "Young" Tom being one his competitors or partners. While the one would defeat the other with some regularity, Young Tom had an edge on his father, that being his superior putting skills.

In fact, Young Tom would often joke with his father if he left a short putt that "The hole'll no' come ta ye, Da." That in mind, it can even be said that the Morris father-and-son combo created the infamous lament of "Never up, never in."

They remain the only father and son to come first and second in the same major golf championship - with Young Tom triumphant over his father. Another record of Old Tom's would stand until 2000. He held the record for largest margin of victory in a major championship at 13 strokes in the 1862 Open Championship, which Tiger Woods finally surpassed with a 15 stroke win at the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2000.

Old Tom played in every Open until 1895 and died in 1908 at 86. His death was caused by a simple mistake -- he thought that a door led to a water-closet (bathroom) but instead was a wine-cellar, and he fell down the stair leading into the cask of bottles fracturing his skull in the process. He was buried next to his son in the Cathedral Church Yard in St Andrews, after a massive funeral that saw a procession where nearly every resident of the town and many from afar came to see him into his afterlife.

For a far more in-depth examination of Old and Young Tom Morris, I would suggest "Tommy's Honor"by Kevin Cook.

tomorrow: Harry Vardon

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