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History of The Open
Old Tom at 200
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A Life and Legacy
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To celebrate Tom Morris’ 200th birthday, enjoy this in-depth piece from The Open.

Born on June 16, 1821, exactly 200 years ago to the day, nobody could have predicted the impact that Thomas Mitchell Morris would have on the game of golf.

The son of John and Jean Morris, Tom was born into a weaving family, and was birthed within a weaver’s cottage as the sixth of seven siblings. In the 86 years of his life from the moment he was born, the man who would become known as ‘The Grand Old Man of Golf’ was not like any other.

Filled with the most remarkable relationships, experiences, innovations, popularisations and unfortunately, tragedy, the life story of Old Tom Morris is one that will be told for 200 more years, and indeed 200 more after that.

With input from leading golf historian and celebrated author, Roger McStravick, words from Learning & Access Curator at the British Golf Museum, Hannah Fleming, and passages taken from The Colossus of Golf by David Malcolm and Peter E. Crabtree, enjoy this account of Old Tom Morris’ life, and the legacy he has left today in golf’s original major, and the very game itself.

Legendary golfers including Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson play golf

Tom Morris (third from the right), with Allan Robertson in front

A Golfing Revolution

In 1821, Tom Morris was born in St Andrews, just a few minutes walk away from the golfing links. His father, John Morris, was a weaver by trade, well known and respected within the town. John also caddied on the links, as did his father, another John Morris, before him.

Tom was one of three brothers and four sisters, after his only younger sibling Jean was born two years later. His mother, also named Jean, was the daughter of a weaver, so arguably the most prominent profession of the time, particularly in Fife, seemed the natural working route for a young Tom to follow.

But Tom’s path quickly veered in another direction. At the age of five, he began his education, but on most accounts, including his own, he was not much of a scholar and literacy was perhaps the extent of his learnings. Rather, at that time, Tom was drawn towards the links, not just by the fascinating and exciting game of golf, but also the lucrative nature of the game.

As is written in The Colossus of Golf: ‘Golf became a central part of Tom’s early life, as it did of every other boy of his generation in the town, whether proficient or otherwise. Carrying a gentleman’s clubs was an easy-income for any able-bodied lad who made himself available at the top of the links. There is no doubt that the Morris brothers’ lives revolved around golf,’ (pg. 17).

Tom himself is quoted in Colossus as saying: “I began to play when I was six or seven, maybe younger. A’ St Andrews bairns are born wi’ web feet an’ wi a gowf club in their hands,” (pg. 17).

This possibility for Tom, his brothers and other young boys, coincided with a large shift in the St Andrews landscape. St Andrews was packed with history and the legacy of many glory days, but had fallen into ruin in the intervening centuries since medieval splendour. In fact, the town had become exceptionally poor at the time of Tom’s birth.

“St Andrews went through a revolution,” Roger McStravick said. “The town went through a revolution and the links went through an evolution. The town was through Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair, he came back from West India in 1830, and he had a vision of St Andrews being the metropolis of golf. And people thought it was absurd, because this is a fallen city, the grandeur of the medieval city that was the centre of ecclesiastical Scotland had gone since the summer of 1559, and the town had fallen into decay.

“So by the time we get to the 1800s this place is a ruin. North Street was a dirt path, people were putting their dung on the streets, cows and sheep were meandering across the streets. Playfair called it decrepit, and it was that.

“It was a ghost of itself. So that’s where Playfair came back and said this could be the metropolis of golf with beautiful housing, beautiful golf courses, beautiful places for people to stay, and they did think he was crackers, you know, and he was promptly laughed at. But he was a very determined man and he put his own money into things to get things done.

“So for Tom Morris, growing up, it would have been an exciting time, because so much money and investment was pouring in, and it is just transforming. And that’s very much in line with Tom himself, in that he always was ahead of the curve in terms of his thinking, you know he wanted ladies to play golf, and that was really frowned upon, so the town is evolving when Tom grew up.”

This evolution was bringing more wealth into the town, enticing more gentlemen to play on the links and indeed create further caddying opportunities for the young boys and men of the town, a profession Tom would always consider his own, and treat with the utmost respect throughout his entire life.

Although the possibility of Tom becoming a weaver was still strong in his early days, however, John Morris was not one to enforce that career upon his youngest son.

“What’s fascinating is that his family were in St Andrews from multiple generations,” Hannah Fleming said. “They were involved in this industry that was so important to the town, this weaving industry. And his father was a golfer, and Tom was around that culture and was going to play golf.

“But maybe Tom didn’t see it himself that golf could be a way into making money, but it was his father pushing him and saying, ‘actually, look at the reality that the weaving industry is not what it was’. And even today golf is one of the biggest industries in the town, so he picked the right thing to do, he must have had a natural talent for it, and his father would have seen that.

“And then you’re in the right place growing up in St Andrews, from industrial life of working in that kind of way, there was a shift in society of the importance of golf. It was a pastime, but then it became a way of earning a living, and there were opportunities to change your life through golf. Not every golf professional would have had that, but Tom certainly did.”

The weaving industry was declining rapidly, and although his family members still retained jobs in the industry towards the 1840s and 50s, it is widely acknowledged that the Morris family were looking elsewhere for Tom’s employment, clearly gifted as he was with a golf club.

And so it transpired, as by 1841, at the age of 20, Tom had earned an apprenticeship with the keeper of the links at St Andrews. He was to work in the game, learning to make golf balls, under the famed and universally renowned golf professional, Allan Robertson.

 

Allan Robertson, the first Champion Golfer

“Like his father before him, Allan held no official position on the Links or within the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, but he nevertheless oversaw, and to a large extent controlled, the play on the Links of St Andrews. He was simply Allan Robertson, and he was in charge.” pg. 23 - The colossus of golf

Allan Robertson is considered widely to be the first true golf professional. The son of a ball-maker, the Robertson family business was involved in making golf balls for over 200 years, and Allan himself continued this trade throughout his life.

But it was Allan’s golfing ability that drew him true repute. On more than one occasion, punters and spectators declared him the best golfer in all of the world, let alone the land. His death later in 1859 would indeed spark the formation of The Open, as it was determined that a new Champion Golfer ought to be found.

Robertson was just five years the senior of Morris, and they worked together closely in the 1840s. It is widely accepted that Allan taught Tom a huge amount in regards to being a golf professional, and it is doubtless Tom improved his own golf from playing with Allan too.

However Tom was already a standout player by the time he became an apprentice, and the pair, who became very close friends, played exhibition matches together as a team and were dubbed invincible in tandem, with few accounts of them incurring any loss on an even set match.

Indeed, as Tom won his first cash sum in 1842, it is written in Colossus that ‘What we can be sure of is that the 21-year-old Tom must have aspired to make a life for himself in golf… and although there may be satisfaction in glory, cash would have been the great driving force. There is no doubt that Tom would have received every help from Allan Robertson, his employer and mentor. Tom’s golfing talent, however, must have been apparent to Allan before this time, otherwise he would surely not have encouraged him to start out in a golf ball-making apprenticeship, a move that was to prove defining for the game of golf,’ (pg. 20).

Tom and Allan’s partnership was extremely lucrative for both, with challenge matches becoming ever popular among the gentlemen of the day, many of whom were coming to St Andrews during its boom in the 1830s, with a new railway system soon to follow and of course its wonderful links available to play.

Indeed, these challenge matches, where each player had a backer or multiple backers to post financial incentive, became huge spectacle events that would increase the game’s profile. Many of those matches highest in profile would feature Tom.

Yet while the St Andrews links was booming to the point where local medals among the members were being reported in newspapers, and challenge matches reported nationally, Tom and Allan would have a falling out in 1848, over the new gutta percha golf ball.

“Everything that I read in my research over the years,” Roger McStravick said, “is always about Allan and then Tom being the apprentice. But Tom didn’t start with Allan until he was 18 years old. And by the time he’s 18, he’s already one of the best golfers in town, he’s very well-experienced. He’s been born on the links, his father’s a caddie, so he’s been living all his life on the links.

"And Robertson’s only five years older, so it’s not so much father and son as brother and brother. And that’s the kind of relationship I see them having. Obviously Allan would have always liked Tom to know that he was the boss. You know, Allan’s a Champion Golfer, he had given him the job, not the other way around. But I think they would have been as close as brothers, partners on the course anyway at the very least.

“But people go, ‘why did they fall out over the guttie ball’? It was because the heritage of the Robertson’s business was going out of business, and on Allan Robertson’s watch. The family business, with lovely history, for over 200 years, was going to go out of business. Funnily enough it turns out that the guttie ball actually made Allan far more money than the feathery ball.”

Allan’s family had long since made the old feathery golf ball, but the gutta percha ball, a revolutionary new development made from the Malyasian gutta percha juice, was solid, firm and seemingly infinitely more durable than its feathery counterpart. It was also cheaper and easier to produce and purchase, and played a huge role in growing the game to those with less wealth or stature.

However, Allan held on to his family’s roots, and doggedly defended the feathery ball and its usage. As Tom himself said in 1905, their falling out was simply down to this fact.

“I can remember the circumstances well. Allan could not reconcile himself to the new ball at first at all. But the gutta became the fashion very quickly, so what could we do? One day, and it is one that will always be clearly stamped upon my memory, I had been playing golf with a Mr. Campbell of Saddell, and I had the misfortune to lose all my supply of balls, which were, you can understand, very much easier lost in those days, and Mr. Campbell kindly gave me a gutta to try. I took to it at once, and as we were playing in, it so happened that we met Allan coming out, and someone told him that I was playing a very good game with one of the new gutta balls, and I could see fine from the expression on his face, that he did not like it at all. And, when we met afterwards in his shop, we had some high words about the matter, and then and there we parted company, I leaving his employment.” Tom Morris, as quoted in The colossus of golf, Pg. 43

Although Tom and Allan had a fierce falling out, they would soon make up and continue to play in challenge matches together, as Roger McStravick details.

“Allan had a scrapbook, and the interesting thing is how much of Tom (after 1848) is in that scrapbook. They did have a big fallout in 1848, but they got over it very quickly. I think they got over it for personal reasons, and also financial reasons. They were the team to beat, they were the best golfers in the world, and they could earn a lot of money. In 1849 there was a £400 match. Now they wouldn’t get that, that’s the pot, they would typically get 10%, but if you think half of that 10% is £20 each. That’s about four or five years' salary. In one game. So golf was definitely kind to them, and Allan Robertson had no bother shutting up the shop if there was a chance to go and earn more money.”

One of Allan’s great gifts, that he shared with Tom, was the gift for networking and creating relationships. Tom himself was exceptionally likable, and the people he met and befriended in high places would have a huge impact on golf, and on the next chapter of Toms’ life, including a big move for the Morris family.

 

Prestwick and a burgeoning rivalry

In 1851, Tom and his wife Nancy, whom he had married seven years earlier, moved to Prestwick. With them they took Tom’s livelihood and ball-making equipment, as well as their newborn child, Tommy, soon to be known as Young Tom Morris. Tom and Nancy’s first born, also a Tommy Morris, had tragically died in 1850 at the age of four, before Young Tom was born in 1851.

The move to Prestwick had come about not only due to Tom’s falling out with Allan, but in part thanks to an opportunity presented by the man who was Tom’s principal backer, and close mentor, throughout his life, in James Ogilvie Fairlie.

Fairlie was a landowner and gentleman, possessing both exceptional wealth and social status. He played a key role in encouraging Tom to move to Ayrshire and to Prestwick in the late 1840s, a trip alone that was still a daunting one for a young couple.

“It was highly doubtful that the Morrises would have travelled particularly unless it was on a special trip,” Hannah Fleming said. “So your world, much like we’ve seen with the lockdown, shrinks to where you live. And everything was (in St Andrews) for him. His family, his work, the golf was his outlet I suppose.

“And then moving to Prestwick, that in itself was a big deal, the journey of even getting to Leuchars, to the train station, would be about an hour on the cart. It can take that now if there’s bad traffic nowadays! But it was a long journey just to get to where you needed to get the train. And then to move across the country with a young family, it had such an impact on his family, not only in terms of working at Prestwick, creating the course there, and then ultimately helping to start The Open, but it had such a profound effect on Tommy.

“Tommy was able to attend Ayr Academy, which was the same school that the landowner’s sons would go to, so this had an effect on Tom’s family that would last throughout Tommy’s life. And it’s amazing that sort of attitude of ‘yes, I’ll come and I’ll do it’, and Prestwick wanted the best and Tom was the best.”

The stresses on Nancy and Tom were immense during the move, but in what was likely a highly difficult upping of sticks for the family, the Morrises eventually settled near to where Prestwick Golf Course was to be laid out in a modest, two-room dwelling. Still, it was a home for the Morrises, and not one overly dissimilar to their St Andrews abode.

At Prestwick, Tom became greenkeeper and the Club’s servant, and laid out the 12-hole course which quickly drew acclaim, not just locally but across Scotland, for his impeccable design. These skills would eventually serve to improve the Old Course at St Andrews in later years, as well as the likes of Carnoustie, Muirfield, and hundreds of other golf courses in Britain and Ireland, and would inspire countless others across the globe.

“At that time course design was not necessarily part of the job,” Hannah Fleming said. “I think it was a skill he had that he could work with the land. I think because he was so familiar with St Andrews and also working with Allan Robertson who had that responsibility, it’s not necessarily something that every professional would have even taken on. It became his role as keeper of the links, I suppose, to look after the courses, and the step beyond that is to start to think ‘how does this land lend itself to a course and how can we improve things’, and then kind of go from there. It’s quite fascinating really.”

By this point, Fairlie was captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and Tom was engaging in challenge matches across St Andrews, Musselburgh and Prestwick, with Fairlie’s backing.

One of his key contenders, was the young upstart Willie Park from Musselburgh. An audacious and brash talent, Park began challenging the game’s top contenders, and quickly made a name for himself as a player to watch.

A portrait of Willie Park in later life

A portrait of Willie Park, Tom's greatest rival, in later years

While Park would never truly shake the moniker of pretender to Allan and Tom’s throne, a truth which no doubt irked him and his famed family of Musselburgh professionals, the reality was rather different. Park played, and beat Tom on many occasions, including their first game where Park won comprehensively on the St Andrews links.

Punters could not get enough of these matches, and the rivalry between the pair was fierce for a good quarter of a century from 1850, often with matches being played for outlandish sums. The two were very similar in ability, clearly both the very best players in golf, with the notable exception of Allan, and purses for matches often surpassed £100,000 in today’s money by backers, with likely considerably more being exchanged by bettors.

Tom himself even declared that ‘William Park was as good a golfer as ever lifted a club’, and the two golfers shared great respect, even if their competition was intense. These matches also represented events of huge importance for the townships and local communities of Musselburgh, St Andrews and Prestwick, which further elevated the status of the two players, making Morris, and Park to a lesser extent, national celebrities heralded far and wide.

“The matches between Willie Park and Tom Morris were really boisterous, absolutely boisterous,” Roger McStravick said. “And to such an extent that at one match in Musselburgh, Tom walked off the green and refused to come out, because they were kicking his ball into the rough! At that point there were hundreds there, they didn’t have TV or Internet, this was their entertainment. And Tom’s matches were getting into the national press, so although he was working class, came from a weaver family, here he is with big crowds following him.”

“Tom gets the glory so often, that probably Willie Park thought, come on, we’re just as great,” Hannah Fleming said. “Certainly the pressures on them, it’s not just on them, it’s for their towns, so in that early period even prior to The Open beginning it was all about that sort of reputation for Musselburgh or the reputation for St Andrews or Perth. Even in the early matches between the clubs, it was that feeling that you were representing the whole town, or at least the golfing community anyway.”

Robertson himself always maintained his title of Champion Golfer, and held it quite preciously, in large part as he never accepted a challenge from Park. As is said in Colossus: ‘Allan resolutely refused to play the brash, young pretender from Musselburgh and never did give Willie Park the satisfaction of matching him, and with good reason. A win over Park would not alter his status as the de facto Champion, but a loss would shatter the aura of invincibility that he had enjoyed in the golfing world for two decades,’ (pg. 76).

However, although there is little evidence of either Tom or Willie Park playing Robertson in a one-on-one match, ensuring an inability to tell for certain who was the best golfer of the day, an opportunity soon would come through a brand new Championship.

 

The Birth of The Open

Allan Robertson passed away in 1859, aged 44. The passing was a shock to the golfing world, and his funeral had over 400 attendees, including Tom, who was moved by the loss of his mentor.

However, with Robertson’s passing came a new beginning. Fairlie and the Prestwick Golf Club were determined to create tournament golf, a new form of play from the traditional challenge matches of the day. They had attempted to do so with the Grand National Tournament, but it had only lasted four years from 1856 to 1859 despite having elements of success. Then, however, came the beginning of The Open.

“In May 1860, doubtless after consulting Tom and much discussion with the members at Prestwick, Fairlie and the Prestwick Committee set about structuring and organizing what would effectively become the first Open Championship.” Pg. 86, The Colossus of golf
Old Tom Morris and Charlie Hunter at Prestwick in 1860

Tom Morris (right) playing golf at Prestwick in 1860

The 1st Open had similarities with prizefights in boxing, with the Challenge Belt, a Championship Belt that cost several thousand pounds of today’s money, the ultimate trophy.

The event would be a stroke play tournament, and the winner would be the leading stroke play player over three cumulative rounds, a rare competitive format at the time. Win three consecutive Championships, and you would win the Challenge Belt and be able to keep it, again a comparison to boxing.

Each winner too, perhaps most poignant in hindsight, would earn the title of Champion Golfer, a title that was now vacant due to Allan’s passing. Tom would be a competitor, and he helped invite the other seven professionals who would participate, forming what would be the first Open Championship field of players from a very select group.

No doubt, the biggest threat to Tom, on the links at Prestwick which he himself had designed and where he still worked, was his great rival Willie Park, who had played Tom’s design on just a couple of occasions.

“Tom himself would have had horrendous pressure,” Roger McStravick said. “He designed the course, so he’s got that pressure. The members are thinking the Champion Golfer’s going to be our professional, so there’s that pressure as well, and then the most important one, it was Allan’s title.

“It was Allan Robertson’s title, and he would have felt like he would have had to defend him, because he was Allan Robertson’s partner, and the person who wins this title would get the title Champion Golfer which Allan Robertson had guarded quite jealously. So I think the pressures would have been enormous on Tom. And he did quite well, but then just on the last couple of holes he fell and got into trouble.”

The 1st Open was an exceptionally close contest between Park and Morris, but the title was eventually claimed by the Musselburgh man with a narrow two-stroke margin, much to the dismay of those at Prestwick.

“The Victorians didn’t really show their emotions,” Roger McStravick said. “So it’s not like Tom is undergoing therapy and counselling, you just got on with it, you know, and you just had to suck it up and do better, and that’s what I think he had to do.

“But it would have hurt him, which would have made him more determined to come back, and suddenly he’s not trying to defend Allan’s title, he’s trying to win the title off Willie Park, and that’s a fundamental difference. The first one he really would have felt like he was defending Allan, and the second time he’s got to win it back, which would have been easier to do.”

Despite the disappointment felt by all those at Prestwick in 1860, Tom would win The Open for the first time the following year, with a larger field, due to less restrictive rules, enabling a select number of gentleman amateurs to compete.

“Then he makes up for it,” Roger McStravick says. “He wins the next year, and this is the poignant part for me, the stress on Tom at that time would have been horrendous. Because at the end of The 1st Open he had let down the members, he had let down the club, he had let down Allan, and he had let down his family.

“And then also, the Parks were from Musselburgh, so he had effectively let a Musselburgh man win, which was just… it was hard. I think he would have found it very, very difficult. But he makes up for it, he wins in 1861 and then in 1862 he wins it by the largest margin of victory to date, he won by 13 shots.”

Morris and Park continued to do battle, and would win seven of the first eight Opens between them, with Tom’s three Championships by the year 1864 giving him another level of national celebrity, reputation and recognition in social circles.

Indeed, Morris and Park helped grow The Open in stature from what was initially a slight inconvenience to some members in 1860, to already by 1867 becoming a fixture in not only the Scottish sporting calendar, but in the English calendar too, where the event was covered heavily in the gambling press.

“There were eight players in The 1st Open,” Roger McStravick said. “They were squeezed in between other members in their meeting, and they were quite annoyed about this band of rabble. These lower than low squeezing in among the gentleman golfers, it was such an inconvenience. The players didn’t take practice swings, they just got onto the first tee and got away, anybody who took a practice swing was just posing. So they just got away with a minimum of fuss.”

In this time, Tom’s eldest son, one of his now four children, was becoming something special, as is detailed in Colossus: ‘While all this was happening, young Tommy Morris was approaching his teens and about to raise the game of golf to a new level, a level that few at the time would have thought possible,’ (pg. 91).


Tommy Morris and a Return Home

While young Tommy Morris was born in St Andrews in 1851, he was raised in Prestwick, playing golf with friends and establishing himself as not just a fine player, but as the most exciting talent that the golfing community had ever seen.

“In 1864 at Perth, Tommy was already conveying his infectious excitement to the game and his dash and vigour made his play a spectacle. It was something that he would learn to use to best advantage in the years to come for he, more than anyone, was responsible for capturing the imagination of the public and turning golf into a popular spectator sport.” Pg.96, The Colossus of golf

Tom’s wonderful way with people, and his incredible stature within the game, had helped his family become as respected in Prestwick as they were in St Andrews, and this helped Tommy’s golf no end.

“I think that Tommy felt he could do better,” Hannah Fleming said. “He didn’t just have to be like his father, working, he could actually become a professional golfer and really take on that attitude. That’s what I get from it, that move to Prestwick sort of cemented that career that Tommy saw for himself.

“Tommy and his friends who were playing competitively, did seem to want more, and did seem to want that professionalism to come in, from Tom’s sort of era as the starting point. They wanted to earn money, to be given prize money and things like that.”

When Tommy was just beginning his teenage years, in 1864, Tom received an offer from the Royal and Ancient to return home and work at the links at St Andrews. He soon took up the position, and would keep it in some capacity for the remaining 42 years of his life.

In so doing, Tommy’s reputation increased further in his place of birth, and the young boy soon began to partner with his father. The two became a dream team, and Tom experienced many of his happiest years playing with his son.

In 1865, both Tommy and Tom competed for the first time in The Open, won by Andrew Strath, who had taken over Tom’s role at Prestwick. As is detailed in Colossus: ‘Tom could only manage fifth place behind Willie Park and Willie Dow from Musselburgh, and Bob Kirk from St Andrews. Young Tommy was in The Open field for the first time and with the foolhardiness of youth was not having a good day. He withdrew after the second round, even though a stroke better than his father,’ (pg. 107-108).

Tommy played again in The Open in 1866 and 1867, before in 1868, at the age of just 17, he claimed his first victory in the Championship. The runner-up was his father, as the pair were beginning to be referred to as Jnr and Snr, or more commonly Younger and Older. Young Tom followed his triumph in The 9th Open with three further victories, save for 1871 where there was no Championship. The result was four consecutive victories for Young Tom, who at the tender age of 21, became the first player to possess the Challenge Belt.

“From this time on, every young man who played the game well in Musselburgh, St Andrews, or anywhere else, reaped the rewards of Tommy’s flair and his father’s quiet charm; characteristics that they had somehow transferred to the game itself.” Pg. 163, The colossus of golf

In 1873, for the first time, The Open was played outside of Prestwick and brought to St Andrews. Tom had conducted considerable work to the Old Course, and had changed its character in large ways, setting up the first Open Championship that was to be played there. Tom’s impressive greenkeeping techniques, such as top-dressing, are still used today, and his initial placement of additional bunkers birthed strategic design, a form of design used almost exclusively in the modern game.

“He created the 18th green, he also did the first green and then that sort of opened up a new front nine,” Roger McStravick said. “He basically expanded all the greens, he couldn’t expand them towards the sea, in every direction, he had to expand them sideways because he had limited room. He created a brand new front nine, he didn’t add too many bunkers initially, but they were added in the early 1900s.

“The back nine is fairly similar to what we play today. So Tom, his effect on the links, was just colossal during that time, the first and 18th green, and the massive greens just all throughout the course, and an entirely new front nine. He also changed direction of play, they started going the anti-clockwise influenced routing. His impact, we obviously still feel it today.”

The 13th Open ended with Tom Kidd as the Champion, claiming the Claret Jug for the first time as the new prize of the Championship. Tommy finished four strokes behind, and was runner-up in 1874. Although Tommy was never presented with the Claret Jug, his name was the first to appear on it, engraved out of respect for his victory in the Championship the previous year.

While Tom continued to work tirelessly in all facets of golf, Tommy was now a true superstar of the game, and alongside the fame and respect of his father, was the main attraction in the sport of golf, for spectators and gentlemen alike.

“I think The Open coming (to St Andrews) would have caused an excitement,” Hannah Fleming said, “and the expectation certainly would have been that Tommy would win, and win again. But imagine if his life had extended, and he hadn’t passed away, what he could have done in golf, I think that’s always the thing that we think about.

“I think he would (have had insurmountable records) in many cases, because he was so good. I think that his friends and his fellow competitors, they all probably improved by their playing together. But that’s always the tragedy, I always get emotional when I think about poor Tommy.”

Portrait of Old Tom in the centre with surviving Open Champions

Tom Morris (centre) among surviving Open Champions, a painting created in his later years

A Tragic Tale

Neither Morris would ever win The Open again, as tragedy struck the family once more. In September of 1875, with father and son playing a challenge match at North Berwick against Willie Park and his brother, Mungo, Tommy was relayed news that his wife was undergoing difficulties in labour. When both Tom and Tommy rushed home, they found Tommy’s wife and his child both had died.

Tommy fell sick with sadness, and tragically passed away that Christmas Day with complications in his lungs, aged just 24. Such was Tommy’s repute that newspapers nationally reported his death with mourning and sadness.

For Tom and Nancy, the devastation was huge. The couple had already experienced a loss of a child and another son of theirs, John, was unable to walk throughout his life. Tom was stoic, but doubtless he would have been heartbroken at the loss of his eldest son.

“It was really, really sad,” Hannah Fleming said. “We don’t have an awful lot of direct quotes from him, but I think he held the sadness with him forever. The two of them were so close, they worked together, they played together. And that missed potential was probably just as hurtful and sad as the loss of his family members.

“Wherever he would go people must have talked to him about it, that feeling of always thinking what could have happened. From a human perspective, just so sad, but for an historic Open figure, what a loss for golf, and Tom must have felt that so deeply. And the fact that he (had to bury) all of his children, it must have been a horrible burden for him, and you’re talking about a time when you do look at the graveyards and you see children with infant mortality and everything, it’s terrible, but nobody would have expected that, even at that time.”

As if they had not experienced enough tragedy, Tom and Nancy’s only daughter, Elizabeth, who lived in America, gave birth to Tom’s first grandson in 1876, only for the new-born’s life to be snatched away just two months later through fever.

Nancy's health had been in decline for many years and later that year, after a long bout of rheumatic illness, she died, aged 58. For Tom, this time was incredibly difficult, and although he conducted his duties admirably, and voluntarily attended any events he could to uphold the incredibly high standards he set for himself, even the 'Grand Old Man of Golf' needed time for mourning those nearest and dearest to him.

Tom’s career carried on after Tommy and Nancy’s passing, although his quality of play was not what it used to be as he grew older. He was still able to play good golf upon many occasions, however, and could even beat Champion Golfers of the day well into his 70s.

His design of golf courses also became more prominent, as along with fulfilling his duties at the links and continually playing every Open Championship bar two from 1860 to 1896, he ventured further afield to design courses and work with new land.

But some respite was brought into his life again when his daughter Elizabeth returned to St Andrews in 1877. This provided Tom and his two remaining sons with much-needed comfort, and his daughter gave birth to three healthy children in the next six years. This was indeed a blessing for the Morrises, and enabled Tom to carry on in high spirit as a beacon of the game in Victorian society.

“Tom Morris stamped his character on golf throughout the course of the 1880s. He was the most popular figure within the game and his name was virtually synonymous with it. He was respected, and indeed, revered at all levels in Victorian society. Tom became the oracle and beginners emulated his calm acceptance of good or bad fortune in play. His innate characteristics of conviviality and congeniality, coupled with his pawky good humour, irrevocably came to be associated with golf at all levels.” Pg. 219, The colossus of golf

Legacy

Tom’s length of life no doubt helped his legacy, even if it provided the tragic burden of burying every member of his immediate family. His remaining three children all died around the turn of the 20th century, before Tom himself passed away at the age of 86 in 1908.

At the time of his death, Tom was a global celebrity, and had lived to see all of his own successes come to fruition. While he naturally would leave a legacy that he could hardly fathom, he had seen a large amount occur under his watch and during his life, a feat that could not be said of many of his counterparts.

The town of St Andrews had transformed throughout Tom’s life, and he had not just witnessed it become a booming resort as the spiritual home of the game of golf, but he indeed played a large hand in it becoming so.

Tom’s passing itself was greeted with tremendous sadness and was national news. Every national British paper wrote about Tom’s passing, and almost all ran large features or stories in prominent positions. His funeral, as is said in Colossus, was equally a large occasion:

“Tom had a funeral that would have graced a head of state. The townspeople of St Andrews said very little about him and merely mourned his passing. Tom was one of them, despite what the world would try to make of him. There were too many mourners to get into the service at St. Mary’s Church and there were too many to get within earshot of the grave. ” Pg. 337-339, The Colossus of golf
Old Tom Morris at St Andrews in later life

Old Tom Morris, in his later years, attending a women's competition at St Andrews


In his life, Tom had grown in fame and stature year upon year, progressing with his considerable age for the time, and could claim at least some semblance of responsibility for almost every facet of golf development in one way or another. He was a vital figure in fighting to allow women to play the sport and played a large part in the transformation of golf from a gentleman’s game into becoming a game for the wider public.

His charm and congeniality was legendary, and everyone who visited the town would strive to meet him, from heirs to royal thrones to tourists from around the world. His design work on the Old, the New and the Jubilee courses is still felt today by the countless visitors to St Andrews, and he had significant design input on no fewer than four Open Championship venues.

“Although the start of The Open was at Prestwick, and it was Prestwick members and the founders there who employed Tom,” Hannah Fleming said, “I don’t think we would have had The Open without Tom Morris, because it was his skills, his influence, even at that time the respect he was held with by the gentleman golfers, they wanted to sort of showcase him at Prestwick, and say look what Tom has done with our course. And tie in the fact that he was able to make clubs, he was able to lay out courses, and have an influence in every aspect of the game.

“Yes, we can cite Allan Robertson as the first professional, but I think it was after that, Tom’s popularity even, just his renown, started people having an interest in competitive golf. And then his influence on later generations, people watching Tom compete, being inspired, certainly James Braid saw Tom playing, and then would go on and become Open Champion himself.

“And throughout St Andrews his influence is felt through the streets, the town, and it becoming a place that people wanted to visit. The fame that The Open generates around the world, it is felt around the town. St Andrews, during The Open, there’s nothing like it. You can see it in our visitors' faces when they come through the door, they just can’t believe they’re here. And a lot of that is down to Tom.”

Doubtless, one of Tom’s greatest achievements that has stood the test of time was his contribution to The Open, and the birth of tournament golf, of championship golf, and of the original major Championship.

Both Tom and his son Tommy won the title four times, and with their marvellous play, taking over first from Tom’s good friend and mentor Allan Robertson, before then competing with Tom’s great rival Willie Park, the Morris family helped turn The Open, fairly quickly, into an incredible event. An event that today ranks among the elite in global sport.

It is with this legacy that those competitors at each and every Open, including later this July at Royal St George's and next July in St Andrews, feel his presence and impact as they compete for the Claret Jug, a trophy Tom never won, but shaped with his enormous influence on the golfing world.

Across all corners of the globe, Tom will be remembered forever, and as today his spirit reaches 200 years of age, The Open wishes the 'Grand Old Man of Golf' the happiest of birthdays indeed.

“He was painted by artists, honoured by poets, patronized by royalty, revered by The Royal and Ancient Golf Club and showered with praise and affection by golfers everywhere. Tom Morris was a sporting hero in an age of heroes, as well as golf’s first iconic figure.” pg. xviii, the colossus of golf

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