Old Tom Morris – The Grand Old Man of Golf

The Legacy of a Golfing Legend 

The sport of golf owes a lot to one man, who came from humble beginnings in the town of St Andrews, Fife, to become a golfing legend and leave a legacy that still today impacts every facet of the game. 

As a little lad in the 1820s Tom Mitchell Morris was knocking about “sollybodkins” with his mates – a game played with a homemade club and balls consisting of bottle-corks pierced with nails. His passion for golf was undoubtedly fuelled by the fact that he grew up in St Andrews where golf was virtually invented, having been played there since the 15th century. 

By the age of 14 he was an experienced caddy and player, and formally hired as an apprentice to Allan Robertson – regarded as the world’s first professional golfer – in his golf equipment manufacturing business.  

It was the start of a match made in heaven as Robertson and Morris partnered in competitions and became known as “The Invincibles” at St Andrews Golf Club. The pair fell out when Robertson fired Morris for using a gutty ball instead of the feathery ball which Robertson’s business produced. 

Morris went on to break records as a player (he’s still the oldest ever winner of The British Open Championship at the age of 46, with his fourth win in 1867). But it is as a course designer that we here at Golf Highland honour him the most. He has left his indelible, distinguished mark on so many of our incredible golf courses here in the north of Scotland. 

We’re pleased to say that we’ve got some of the best Morris courses as members in our Golf Highland collective: 

Triumph and Tragedy 

Old Tom Morris is credited with designing, modifying or remodelling at least 75 golf courses across the British Isles during his busy golfing career, the majority of them in Scotland.  

When it comes to golf course architecture Old Tom Morris cut his teeth as Keeper of the Green at Prestwick (between 1851 and 1865) followed by becoming Custodian of the Links at St Andrews. He transformed both courses from rather primitive layouts into challenging, entertaining golfing venues.  

He also earned the credit of creating the first 18-hole golf course in the world, built from inception, at Forfar Golf Club in 1871. It was later re-designed by James Braid, but 13 of the original 1871 greens and holes remain in their original locations today. 

While achieving acclaim and success immersed in golf and course architecture, Old Tom Morris was perhaps using the activity to keep his mind off of his personal tragedy. His son – known of course as Young Tom Morris – was unsurprisingly a golf prodigy, winning four consecutive titles in the Open by the age of 21.   

Father and son were close, both on and off the course, travelling together to tournaments and often playing together (although Young Tom beat his father, the current Open Champion, for the first time at the age of 13 in 1864 in a friendly game at St Andrews). 

On Christmas Day in 1875 Young Tom died, aged just 24, when his father was still a youthful 54. The death came just a few months after Young Tom had lost his wife and unborn child during a difficult labour. The official cause of death was listed as “pulmonary hemorrhage causing apnea”. 

Tom Morris’ Golf Course Architecture 

Family tragedy notwithstanding, Old Tom threw himself into golf architecture with renewed passion.  

Not many of Old Tom’s courses have remained unchanged over the years, but the essence of his design style is still there to be enjoyed and experienced in courses such as the “hidden gem” of golf in the Highlands, Strathpeffer Spa Golf Club with its stunning 18-hole parkland course and panoramic views. At the Tain Golf Club, too, many of Old Tom Morris’ original holes survive, either wholly or in part – look out for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 9th going out, and the 10th, 14th and 15th heading home.  

When you play a Morris course you will realise that he utilises the natural terrain and the site’s best features, creating an organic, raw and rugged minimalist circuit.  

Fairways are wide, allowing for width and angles of play. He favoured elevated tees with views over broken ground, and straight holes with few doglegs. Hollows or plateaus are put into play as natural green sites. Obstacles and hazards were strategically designed so the ball could be routed around them. 

Old Tom Morris liked uninterrupted views, and preferred not have trees around the course. He did, however, like to make use of hedges and walls around holes, and incorporated streams and ditches in the green design, liking grassy hollows as hazards. 

Championship golfer, greenkeeper, course designer, club craftsman – Morris kept working – and playing – right up until his death at the age of 87 after falling down a flight of stairs at The New Golf Club in St Andrews in 1908. 

If you’re a golfer who would like to pay homage to this golfing legend there’s no better tribute to Old Tom Morris than to make a pilgrimage to his favourite courses across the Highlands of Scotland. Our collective, Golf Highland, will show you the way. 

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