Looking Back
1868
/
The Story of the Open
Prestwick

Records are there to be broken, but some appear to be untouchable - that’s certainly the case when it comes to the feats achieved by Young Tom Morris at The Open in 1868.

Just a year after his father Old Tom Morris became Champion Golfer of the Year for the fourth time, the 17-year-old defeated him to be crowned the youngest Open Champion in golf history.

Not only was he almost four years younger than anyone else ever to win the title, his father finished second to him in that same year in a one-of-a-kind family accomplishment. 

It proved to be a changing of the guard at Prestwick 150 years ago, with Tom Jnr’s victory the first of four successive Open Championship wins for the young prodigy.

To this day, he is still considered one of the pioneers of professional golf and his legacy as an innovator has lived on despite his tragic early death at the age of just 24.

Home advantage for favourites

Going into The 9th Open in 1868, Old Tom was a heavy favourite to retain the title after becoming the oldest Champion, aged 46 years and 102 days old, at Prestwick a year earlier.

Tom Snr was instrumental in beginning The Open Championship in 1860, before going on to dominate as he claimed the top prize four times over the next seven years.

But Young Tom was always lurking waiting in the wings after making his Open debut in 1865, having grown up at Prestwick, placing ninth a year later and finishing in fourth in 1867.

In fact, Morris Jnr had already demonstrated he was capable of beating his father when he was 13 in a friendly game at St Andrews while Old Tom was reigning Champion Golfer.

“It was so different from The Open as we know it today. ” HannahFleming, Museum and Heritage Assistant Curator at The British Golf Museum

And Hannah Fleming, Museum and Heritage Assistant Curator at The British Golf Museum, said the field was already an awareness of the teenager going into The Open in 1868.

“Old Tom would have been seen as the favourite,” she said.

“The first 12 Opens were all played at Prestwick and both men won all of their Championships at Prestwick - four titles each.

“Tom was Keeper of the Green at Prestwick, which meant he was in charge of the course, he laid out the course and knew it very well, while Tommy learned to play at Prestwick.

“Even before he won the Championship, he appeared when he was just 14 when he didn’t finish and then a year later he came ninth and then the year after he was fourth.

“So, there was already an awareness of Tommy when he was a teenager and these appearances as a 15 and 16-year-old, there must have been talk at the time that he was on a good roll.”

Record-breaking performance

Making his fourth appearance at The Open, Young Tom took to the front early as he carded 51 in the opening round on the 12-hole course, the lowest score achieved yet in The Open.

Young

It gave him a two-shot lead over Bob Andrew, but he found himself trailing going into the third round after his father and Willie Park Snr set a new record of 50 in their second rounds.

Old Tom led his son by one shot after Young Tom posted 54 in his second round, but the third and final round saw Morris Jnr come of age as he bettered the record again by shooting 49.

His round included four threes in five holes from the seventh and despite having a comfortable advantage going into the last, Young Tom went for the green in two and made a four.

He ultimately finished on 154 overall, eight strokes better than Andrew Strath’s old record from 1865, while Old Tom was three shots adrift after closing with a 53 for 157 overall.

“Not only did Tommy make that record low score, it was all played in one day and it was only a 12-hole course, which is the information that people often find fascinating,” Hannah said.

“It was so different from The Open as we know it today. Tommy was also beating his father, Old Tom, and it was the first and only time a father and son came one and two.

“It’s not likely to ever happen again. Old Tom was the previous year’s Champion and then Tommy became the youngest ever Champion at 17 years old - and that’s never been beaten.

Championship Belt

“He did really become a golfing celebrity, and it’s difficult to think in those terms as the world was so different, but he was a celebrity golfer and someone to follow and look up to.”

‘The start of a new generation’

Young Tom’s victory that year at Prestwick kicked off an unprecedented period of success for him at The Open – the likes of which has never been seen again since.

He went on to defend his title the following year, making the tournament’s first ever hole-in-one in the process after holing out at the 166-yard eighth in his opening round.

A third successive win in 1870 resulted in the Challenge Belt, which was awarded to the Champion Golfer at the time, being awarded to him permanently as the rules stipulated.

There was no tournament in 1871 as a result of his hat-trick, largely because there was no trophy to present, but Young Tom made it four in a row in 1872 to win the Claret Jug for the first time.

It was not just on the course where Morris Jnr made a lasting impact, though, his aggressive style led to a huge increase in the popularity of golf as he became the sport’s first ‘rockstar’.

“Even compared to our modern Champions, who have won multiple Open titles, to win four in a row is really unique even with the conditions, the field being smaller, the equipment,” Hannah added.

“You can’t take away from the skill that they had, particularly Tommy, he had an exciting way of playing and it really is the start of a new generation of golfers.

“To put it up against our modern Champions, such as Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods, he generated the same kind of excitement - if not more so because of his age.

“Just the story of father and son playing together, and him beating his own father, and then obviously later on in 1870 winning the Belt outright - something we never thought would happen.”