Old Tom

September 7, 2017

Thomas Mitchell Morris, Sr., (1821-1908) better known as "old" Tom (because he had a son who was also a championship golfer who friends called "young" Tom), became a genius at golf innovation.

His contributions to golf during the mid- to late-1800s included new club design and better golf balls that helped improve the game.

He also designed and laid out new courses. In 1851 he became the "keeper of the greens" at the Prestwick Golf Club and soon was the spearhead for enlarging the golf course to eighteen holes and promoting tournaments for professional golfers. By 1860 he helped organize and host the first British Open.

But few people know is that his destiny to golf immortality actually took root after he was fired from his apprenticeship with Robertson.

The story goes that Robertson taught everything he knew about the golf business to Morris and the pair became close friends and playing partners in numerous golf matches.

Playing in alternate-shot format over a seven-year period, they never lost a match and soon earned the name The Invincibles.

One day, Robertson saw Morris playing a round of golf using a new "guttie" ball (rubber core) and fired his employee on the spot. The reason was simple: Robertson made, promoted and sold "featherie" balls (leather ball stuffed with feathers) and saw Morris as a traitor to his business.

Morris, who saw this as an opportunity, became a competitor to Robertson in 1849 and never looked back!

In 1864, Morris was invited to become a paid (50 pounds per year) greenskeeper at the St. Andrews Golf Course.

Morris stayed at this post for the next forty years, and during that time, redesigned St. Andrews and helped formalize golf to the game we play today.

One of his first chores was to widen the fairways to speed up play, manicure the hazards to meet playable standards, install yardage markers, top dress greens, use push mowers to cut the greens, establish different tee boxes for play, and most significantly shorten the course from twenty-two holes to eighteen.

Old Tom was a great businessman when it came to promoting and selling the game of golf. But not many golf fans know that he was also a championship golfer.

If you remember, he helped to organize and host the first British Open in 1860, and many golfers from his time say he had a method to his madness.

In the first British Open he finished second to his rival Willie Park, Sr., but went on to beat Park for the Open Championship title in 1861, 1862 and again in 1867.

In the first twelve British Open Championship tournaments, Morris won four times, finished second three times and was in the top six finishes five times. (Not a bad idea for a businessman to promote and win his home tournament while selling clubs, guttie balls and giving lessons ... take that Jordan Spieth.)

When Morris died at age 86 in 1908, it was a national day of mourning in Scotland. Mourners flooded the streets of St. Andrews as if a king had died. He had revolutionized the game of golf and made his mark on the game forever.

19th Hole Trivia:
  • The eighteenth hole of the Old Course at St. Andrews is named after Old Tom.
  • He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1976.
  • Old Tom played in the first 36 British Open tournaments.
  • His son Young Tom also won four British Open titles.
  • Old Tom died after he fell down a flight of stairs in the new golf club at St. Andrews.
  • He is buried next to his son in the churchyard at St. Andrews Cathedral.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter