Old Tom Morris

Thomas Mitchell Morris, Sr. (16 June 1821 – 24 May 1908), otherwise known as Old Tom Morris, was a pioneer of professional golf and the grandfather of true links golf. He was born in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, the "home of golf" and location of the St. Andrews Links and died there as well. His son was Tom Morris, Jr. (died 1875), was also known as "Young Tom Morris."

Early golf career:

Morris was the son of a weaver, and began golf by age ten, by knocking wine-bottle corks pierced with nails (to serve as balls) around the streets of the town using a homemade club, in informal matches against other youths; this was known as 'sillybodkins'. He started caddying and playing golf from a young age, and formally was hired as an apprentice at age 14 to Allan Robertson, generally regarded as the world's first professional golfer; Robertson ran the St. Andrews Links and an equipment-making business.

Morris served four years as apprentice and a further five years as journeyman under Robertson, by most accounts the world's top player from about 1843 until his death in 1859. From the early 1840s, Robertson often chose Morris as his partner in challenge matches, played by alternate shot format, which were the principal form of competition at that time.

It was said the two never lost a team match played on even terms. The team became known as "The Invincibles". Morris by his early 20s was the second-best player in St. Andrews, close to Robertson in golf skill, and won an informal match from him over the Old Course in 1843, but the two players rarely played seriously head-to-head.

Moves to Prestwick:

Morris worked under Robertson at St. Andrews until 1851, when he was fired on the spot after being caught by Robertson playing the new guttie golf ball; Robertson had a profitable business making the featherie ball, which was threatened by the emergence of the guttie. Morris was then hired by Prestwick, which was just starting up. At Prestwick, he designed, laid out, and maintained the course, ran his own golf equipment business selling gutties and clubs, gave instruction to players, and ran events. He was influential in beginning The Open Championship in 1860, and struck the very first shot in that event.

Returns to St. Andrews:

Morris returned to St. Andrews as greenskeeper and professional in 1865, at a then-generous salary of 50 pounds per year. He was sought out by the Royal and Ancient, which formally passed a motion in 1864 calling for his rehiring. St Andrews was then in very poor condition, and his first task was to correct this. He did so by widening the fairways, enlarging the greens, applying greenskeeping techniques he had developed at Prestwick, building two new greens (on #s 1 and 18), and 'managing' the hazards. He stayed in the post until 1903, a total of 38 years, and was kept on after this by the R & A at full salary.

Competitive highlights:

Morris worked as a greenkeeper, clubmaker, ballmaker, golf instructor, and course designer, as well as playing match and tournament golf. He came second in the first Open Championship in 1860, and won the following year. He followed this up with further victories in 1862, 1864 and 1867. 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 winner and runner-up. Morris held the record for the largest margin of victory in a major championship (13 strokes in the 1862 Open Championship), which stood until Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. He became the second player to break 80 over the Old Course, scoring 79; Robertson had been the first to do it.

Once his son Young Tom Morris became an accomplished player in his own right by his mid-teens, in the mid-1860s, father and son formed a team for challenge matches, usually played by alternate shot (foursomes play), where they proved very successful. Their partnership, although not exclusive, would continue until the death of Young Tom in 1875.

Golf course design and greenskeeping innovations:

Morris played a role in designing courses across the British Isles. He began by assisting Robertson lay out ten holes at Carnoustie in 1842. His subsequent work included Prestwick, Muirfield, the Jubilee Course at St. Andrews, Balcomie (Crail), Moray, Askernish in South Uist, Lahinch and Rosapenna in Ireland, and Warkworth and Royal North Devon Golf Club (Westward Ho!) in England.

Morris was also the father of modern greenskeeping. He introduced the concept of top-dressing greens with sand, which significantly helped turf growth. He introduced many novel ideas on turf and course management, including actively managing hazards (in the past, bunkers and the like were largely left to their own devices, becoming truly "hazardous") and yardage markers. He was the first to use a push mower to cut greens. He improved St. Andrews by widening fairways to handle increased play, enlarging greens, and establishing separate tee boxes on each hole; all of these measures spread out play over larger areas, and led to better turf conditions. In course design, he standardized the golf course length at 18 holes (St Andrews had at one time been 23 holes), and introduced the concept of each nine holes returning to the club house. He also introduced the modern idea of placing hazards so that the golf ball could be routed around them; this was the beginning of strategic design, which has dominated golf course design ever since. Before his times hazards were thought of as obstacles that either had to be carried or were there to punish a wayward ball.


Morris kept working right up until his death, just before his 87th birthday. He died after falling down a flight of stairs in the clubhouse of the New Golf Club in St. Andrews. He is buried in the grounds of the St. Andrews Cathedral, and his grave attracts thousands of golfers each year who wish to pay homage.


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