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BEHIND THE TARTAN // OLD TOM MORRIS

This is the second installment of the Behind the Tartan series, written by Graylyn Loomis. To read more from Graylyn, have a look at his course reviews website.

It follows naturally that the figure highlighted after Allan Robertson in the Behind the Tartan series would be Old Tom Morris. Morris was born in 1821 in St Andrews, Scotland, and his childhood home can be seen just up the road from the 18th green of the St Andrews Old Course. His lineage traces back to Clan Buchanan, whose long history fighting in various Scottish wars mirrors Morris’s extraordinarily long life driving golf into the modern era.

Morris began playing golf at age ten, hitting bottle corks around the streets of St Andrews with a makeshift golf club. At age fourteen he began his apprenticeship in Allan Robertson’s golf shop, and his involvement with the game escalated from that point. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the best golfers in St Andrews and became famous for winning money matches across the links.

After a dispute with Robertson led to his firing, Morris moved to Prestwick in Ayrshire, Scotland to take a role as professional and greenskeeper in 1851. Morris designed and built the links at Prestwick Golf Club, maintained the course, and ran his own golf equipment business in his role as professional. He was also instrumental in arranging the very first Open Championship, in which he struck the first shot. That first Open Championship took place in 1860, and Morris would go on to win the championship belt four times in his career.

During his time at Prestwick, Old Tom developed greenskeeping techniques that are still used today. He noticed that “top dressing” the turf with sand improved conditions, and he soon hounded his staff to sand as much of the course as possible. Morris eventually returned to St Andrews in 1865 at the request of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club to act as greenskeeper and professional of the links. The popularity of the game had grown considerably, and heavier play on the links had left St Andrews in poor condition. Morris carefully enlarged the greens, widened the fairways, and built completely new greens for the opening and closing holes. His new greenskeeping techniques were instrumental in improving the Old Course. Morris would stay in the position for 39 years, although the Royal & Ancient kept him on in a paid advisor role until his death.

Old Tom Morris played a role in designing a majority of great Scottish golf links. Prestwick, Muirfield, the St Andrews Old, New, and Jubilee Courses, Balcomie links at Crail, Machrihanish, Askernish, and Royal Dornoch are just a few of the legendary courses attached to his name. He standardized the length of a golf course as 18 holes and set the new standard for strategic golf course design. He has indirectly affected nearly every golf course ever built.

In 1904, Golf Illustrated ran a story about Old Tom playing his traditional round of golf on his eighty-third birthday. He won the match 6 up with 5 holes to play. In a time when the average life expectancy was 47 years of age, Old Tom lived to 86. He worked on the links up until his death and outlived all of his children along with a number of his grandchildren. He passed away after falling down the stairs in the New Golf Club of St Andrews, a club that I am lucky enough to belong to.

When you hear the name of Old Tom Morris, ignore the commercial caricatures and appreciate the man who almost singlehandedly ushered golf into the modern era. When you see the bright Buchanan tartan associated with Old Tom’s ancient clan, picture the Scottish links with its green fairways and vivid yellow gorse in Spring bloom.

Photo credits to Masterworks Golf.
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4 comments

  • Great article. Both Tom Morris are true giants of the game whose legacy is eternally cemented. A friend of mine said it would be great to see them play today. I objected that it would not be good for their legacy as they clearly would have a steep learning curve what with all the new equipment, course designs, … I’m about a 15 handicap and I would say that if you brought them out today and gave them today’s equipment that I would be able to beat them thoroughly for a long time as today’s game really is night and day from the game they played. Plus, there were only like 8 people in the first Open (UK) Championship.

    Anyhow it’s great that there are people out here preserving the legacy of Tom Morris as their contributions were truly remarkable.

    John Williams
  • Hi Ron, Thank you for the comment. “Behind the Tartan” isn’t excerpts from a book – just a series that I am writing for SEAMUS. There is similar content on my website! I’m glad that you like the posts!

    Graylyn Loomis
  • Is the “Behind the Tartan” excerpts from a book? I would be interested in that book. Or do we go to Mr. Loomis’ website? Thanks for your time…..Ron Wright

    Ron Wright

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