Cape Gazette
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The 19th Hole

Old Tom was a pioneer

By Gene Bleile | Jul 11, 2013

There are many golfing legends, both men and women, who have contributed to the game since its invention by the Scots. But there is one who stands above all the greats and his name was Old Tom.

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Old Tom was destined for greatness, just by being born in St. Andrews, Scotland - the home of golf and the St. Andrews links. He was the son of a weaver and by age 10 was hitting corks with nails in them around the streets of St. Andrews with a homemade club.

By age 14 he was a caddie on the links. He got his first real job in golf as an apprentice to Allan Robertson, who managed the links course and also had an equipment and golf ball making business. Tom spent four years as his apprentice and five more years as a journeyman, all while playing golf and learning the business side. These experiences would influence golf for the next 50 years.

The rest of the story

Thomas Mitchell Morris, Sr., (1821-1908) was better known as Old Tom because he had a son (who was also a championship golfer).

His contributions to golf during the mid-to late 1800s included new club design and better golf balls, which helped  improve the game, as well as actually designing 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 that by being fired from his apprenticeship with Robertson, his destiny to golf immortality actually took root.

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, however 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, re-designed St. Andrews and helped formalize golf to be 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 12 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, Tiger Woods.)

When Morris died in 1908, at age 86, it was a national day of mourning in Scotland and 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 him.

• 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.

For more golf images, fine art photography and a blog go to genebleilephotography.com.

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