Behind the Tartan – Old Tom Morris

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Behind the Tartan is a series of articles that I have written for SEAMUS Golf. Each article in the series focuses on a historical figure in golf, tying them into a tartan headcover from SEAMUS. I am a huge fan of the company and am very happy to work together with them on this series. Check out their awesome products!

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. PrestwickMuirfield, the St Andrews OldNew, and Jubilee CoursesBalcomie 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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