Young Tom was the greatest golfer of his generation and perhaps the first to inspire a frenzied mania in the viewing public. He had a thrilling, full, slashing action and attacked the course at full throttle.
He grew up at Prestwick, where his father was the greenkeeper and home of the first Opens, although they had moved back to St Andrews by the time he started winning – a so far unmatched four in a row. In 1868 he defeated his father, who had just won four Opens in seven years, with a course record 49 in the final round to become the youngest ever winner aged just 17 years and 156 days.
The next year he had the first ever hole-in-one, at the eighth hole in the first round, and went on to win by 11 strokes. The next year he claimed the first ever 3 at the 578-yard opening hole, holing a 200-yard approach, lowered his course record to 47 and set a total of 149 which was never bettered while The Open was contested over 36 holes.
He won by 12 strokes. As per the rules, he was allowed to keep the Challenge Belt – “without rivalry and yet without envy,” a tribute said – but it took until 1872 for The Open to be staged again. When it was, he won again, this time rallying from five strokes behind, but he could not win at either of the two new venues that joined the rota, St Andrews and Musselburgh.
In 1875 his wife, Margaret, died in childbirth, along with the baby. He had been playing in a challenge match at North Berwick with his father and they did not get home in time. Distraught with grief, he died of a ruptured artery that bled into his lung on Christmas Day.