Thomas Mitchell Morris, the Grand Old Man of Golf, affectionately known as Old Tom Morris, was born on June 16th, 1821, in St. Andrews, Scotland. Tom Morris founded what is now known as the Open Championship, winning it four times in 1861, 1862, 1864, & 1867 and playing in every Open from 1860 to 1896. The Open, also called the British Open, is the world’s oldest golf tournament. This year’s Open tees off on Thursday, July 14th, for the 150th time, returning to the Old Course at St. Andrews, the historic home of golf and Old Tom Morris.
The house where Morris was born no longer exists, but it is believed close to 121 North Street, St Andrews. The son of a weaver, he was educated at Madras College in his hometown. Morris began golf by age ten by knocking wine-bottle corks pierced with nails (to serve as balls) around the streets of St Andrews using a homemade club in informal matches against other boys; this was known as ‘sillybodkins.’
Old Tom Morris started caddying and playing golf regularly and was formally hired as an apprentice at age 14 under the watchful eye of Allan Robertson of St. Andrews, generally regarded as the world’s first professional golfer. Robertson ran the St Andrews Links and also an equipment-making business. Morris served four years as his apprentice and another five years as Robertson’s journeyman. By most accounts, Robertson was the world’s top player from about 1843 until he died in 1859. Ironically, Morris was fired from St Andrews Links in 1848 for the blasphemous use of the gutty ball instead of the feathery ball that Allan Robertson sold.
Old Tom Morris & Prestwick
In 1851, Old Tom moved to Prestwick to serve as a professional and Keeper of the green. Upon arriving, work was undertaken to layout, construct, and maintain the course. Due to the success achieved at Prestwick, Old Tom Morris engaged in designing golf courses for the hefty sum of £1! It is believed that Old Tom created or modified more than 100 golf courses, many of which are still considered some of the best in the game today.
Old Tom Morris Returns To St. Andrews
Morris was sought after by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which formally passed a motion in 1864 calling for his rehiring. Morris returned to St Andrews in 1864 to take charge of the links, as Keeper of the Green and professional, at a then-generous salary of £50 per year. St Andrews was then in deplorable condition, and his first task was to correct this. He did so by widening the fairways, enlarging the greens, applying greenkeeping techniques he had developed at Prestwick, building two new greens (on holes 1 and 18), and “managing” the hazards.
Old Tom officially retired from St Andrews in 1903, after 39 years of service. The R&A kept him on at a full salary in a consultancy position for the remainder of his life.
In his heyday, Morris worked as a greenkeeper, clubmaker, ballmaker, golf instructor, and course designer and played match and tournament golf. He still holds the record as the oldest winner of The Open Championship at 46. Also, he was part of the only father/son couple, being the winner and runner-up.
The Legend’s Legacy
His legacy continues to be felt to this day. Those influenced by him and apprenticed under his tutelage included Bob Simpson, Archie Simpson, CB MacDonald, Donald Ross, and AW Tillinghast. These men furthered the discipline of golf course architecture and inspired the current generation of practicing architects.