No individual had a greater influence on the growth of the game of golf in the 19th century than ‘Old’ Tom Morris.
Born in St Andrews, he learned the skill of club-making and producing golf balls. Clubs were hand-crafted and balls were feather-stuffed. The new gutta-percha ball then came along. Morris went to Prestwick where he became ‘Keeper of the Green’. Prestwick, influenced by Tom Morris, held a first championship in 1860 among eight local professionals for a Challenge Belt. A year later, it was declared that the Belt “on all future occasions until it be otherwise resolved, shall be open to the world”. The Open was born.
Morris (to become known as ‘Old Tom’ to distinguish him from his son, ‘Young Tom’) won the Open himself four times over the following decade, with his slow, smooth swing. He is still the oldest winner of the Open, at age 46.
Importantly, Old Tom was persuaded to return to St Andrews in 1864 to become the Keeper of the Green at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club – a position he held for nearly 40 years. As greenkeeper he made a lasting contribution to golf history. He introduced many innovations in course management including top-dressing of greens, active management of bunkers and separate mown tee areas. In course design, he helped to standardise the length of golf courses at 18 holes. He was widely consulted throughout the land as new courses emerged.
A statue of the Grand Old Man of Golf stands in the British Golf Museum at St Andrews, just down the road from the Royal and Ancient. Elsewhere, over the links of Rosapenna on the north coast of Ireland a fine statue by Paul Ferriter shows Old Tom still keen to play the game to which he contributed so greatly.