The first thing that pops to mind about Old Tom Morris for most of us is one of those cheesy Titleist ads with John Cleese.
But Old Tom was also one of the first men who could truly be called a “golf course architect.”
Like most, even before I got into studying golf course architecture, I knew Old Tom was the pro at St. Andrews for a long time. But what I didn’t know was his personal story (or how extensive his portfolio was).
Old Tom was an apprentice to greenkeeper Allan Robertson (considered by most to be the first “golf architect”) at St. Andrews. Robertson was largely responsible for molding the already-300-year-old course into what we know today, smoothing its greens, strengthening its bunkers, and removing some gorse.
But Old Tom and his mentor got into an argument over technology in 1850, and Old Tom bolted for Prestwick–site of the first Open Championship–until 1864. The story goes that Old Tom ran out of “featheries” out on the links one day and was forced to play one of the new gutta percha balls that he’d found in the gorse. Well, Robertson was a premier featherie craftsman, and didn’t like that fact that Tom had tried out (and enjoyed the benefits of) a competitive product that flew farther and more consistently. Shockingly, those Titleist spots aren’t far from accurate!
At any rate, after his stint at Prestwick, Old Tom returned to St. Andrews and served as “Custodian of the Links” until he died in 1908. One of his best-known initiatives at the Old Course was the Valley of Sin in front of the 18th green.
While at St. Andrews, Old Tom served in turn as mentor to Charles Blair Macdonald, who brought golf to the United States in the 1890’s. He also designed his share of spectacular links courses in the British Isles, famously charging a mere £1 a day. His creations include some of my personal favorites like Carnoustie, Cruden Bay, and the front nine at Lahinch.
Without exception, Old Tom’s work is overwhelmingly dictated by the hand of Nature (he didn’t have the “advantage” of a bulldozer), and all of his courses exude a raw, almost primeval feel. Specifically, his design at Dornoch had a profound influence on Donald Ross, who grew up there…and one wishes that more contemporary architects worked harder at the timeless quality that Old Tom’s courses possess.