How Old Tom Morris shaped modern golf

Golf Traveller

From St Andrews and Prestwick to Muirfield, Portrush, and Carnoustie, the work of legendary course architect Old Tom Morris reads like a greatest hits of iconic Open Championship venues. Few designers, if any, have had such a lasting impact on golf as The Grand Old Man of Golf, born and bred in St Andrews.


You might think winning the Open Championship four times would be a man's defining legacy, but not in the case of Old Tom Morris.

Old Tom was a wonderful player, one of the greats of the early era of competitive golf.


He was runner-up to his fierce rival Willie Park in the first Open in 1860 but won it the following year as well as in 1862, 1864 and 1867. That final victory makes him The Open's oldest winner, at 46, and he held the record for the largest margin of victory in a Major – his 13-shot triumph in 1862 - until Tiger Woods demolished the field in the 2000 US Open.


But he was so much more than that. And that's what makes him one of the most important figures in the history of the game.


He was also a greenkeeper, a maker of clubs and balls, an instructor, a pioneer, and – perhaps most importantly of all – a course architect. His title 'The Grand Old Man of Golf' is the least he deserves. "I don't think we would have had The Open without Tom Morris, because it was his skills, his influence, the respect he was held with by the gentleman golfers, they wanted to sort of showcase him at Prestwick, and say 'look what Tom has done with our course',"says Hannah Fleming of the British Golf Museum. "And tie in the fact that he was able to make clubs, he was able to lay out courses, and have an influence in every aspect of the game."




Thomas Mitchell Morris was born and raised in St Andrews in 1821. The son of a weaver, he became an apprentice aged 18 to Allan Robertson, known as the game's first professional and who owned a shop in the Auld Grey Toun making clubs and balls.


They were as potent in challenge matches as a pair on the course as they were in the business, and also laid out the first 10 holes at Carnoustie. However they fell out when Old Tom played the new gutta percha ball to the disgust of Robertson, who made featheries.


Old Tom left Robertson (though they still paired up for matches, as they were so lucrative) and became greenkeeper at the fledging Prestwick club in 1851. It was his first significant step on the way to having a hand in the design of more than 100 courses.


During his time on the Ayrshire coast he also began to introduce greenkeeping methods that are now commonplace in the industry.


Old Tom advocated top-dressing greens with sand, widened fairways to account for increased numbers of golfers, created tees for every hole, and sympathetically 'managed' bunkers rather than leave them to the vagaries of nestling sheep and the wind.


His work at Prestwick was noticed by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and it brought him back to St Andrews in 1865 to work on the Old Course, which was in poor condition. Old Tom not only improved its presentation, he enhanced its playing experience by adding width to fairways and clearing out whin as well as creating two greens – the 1st and 18th - while making others bigger.


He changed the bunkering and made the significant decision to alter the direction of play to anti-clockwise. He gave names to the course's landmark features, such as Hell Bunker and the Valley of Sin.


Old Tom remained in his role until 1903 and during that time laid out the Himalayas putting course for ladies, as he was a great advocate of women playing golf - at a time when it was otherwise frowned upon.


The design of the Old is usually stated as 'Unknown' but if anyone's name should be attached to it, it is Old Tom's.


Four Opens and a hand in the most famous course golf will ever have would be enough for most men, but not Old Tom.


He didn't just work on more than 100 other courses, he created some of the famous and revered in the world.


Royal County Down's Championship course vies with St Andrews Old as Old Tom's finest piece of work. It mixes breathtaking scenery with an all-round examination of your game that is matched by only a handful of courses worldwide – and one of those is another of his. It is ranked as the World No.2 public access course, behind… the Old Course.


At Prestwick he designed, set down and maintained the course on which The Open began and prospered; this quirky links is an essential pilgrimage for anyone with golf running through their veins. In addition to its history, it is also home to a selection of iconic, unforgettable and enjoyably bewildering holes.


Old Tom laid out 16 holes at Muirfield in 1891, creating a course widely recognised as an unremitting but fair challenge and regarded by the majority of tour pros as the best Open host. Harry Colt is also credited with the design because he reworked the original with additional land bought by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1923.




You might associate Royal Dornoch with Donald Ross but in fact it was extended to 18 holes in 1886 by Old Tom, and he was responsible for introducing the plateau greens whose inverted saucer shapes are the soul of the course. A more characterful course you will struggle to find and it is another piece of Old Tom work that is an essential pilgrimage for the discerning golfer.


Old Tom travelled to Aberdeenshire in 1899 to create the eccentric links of Cruden Bay among duneland that was heaven-sent for the purpose of discovering memorable holes. Ranked No.2 in the Great Britain and Ireland's Top 100 Fun Courses.


North Berwick is No.1 in that Fun list. David Strath, its greenkeeper, made the biggest impression on this idiosyncratic, ludicrously entertaining course. But it was reported that he acted on "hints given by Tom Morris on a recent visit."


Those five are half of Scotland top-10 ranked courses. Then add in Carnoustie, a majestic links of myth and legend, which Old Tom helped Robertson lay out initially in 1842 and then returned to extend to 18 holes in 1857. But there is more.


Machrihanish is often the course most often linked with Old Tom, perhaps because of his lengthy boat journey to get him there in order to create the full 18-hole course on the Mull of Kintyre… or perhaps just because it is a beguiling, soulful links with a legendary opening hole.


It is entirely apt that Old Tom worked on Royal North Devon, originally known as The Burrows of Northam, for 'Westward Ho!' is England's version of St Andrews Old. Old Tom designed it in 1860, and it is an essential experience for connoisseurs, with a clubhouse that effectively doubles as a museum in addition to its minimalist links.


Naturally most of Old Tom's work was in Scotland given travel was a bit trickier in the late 1800s than it is today, but he did make it to Donegal in 1891 to create the Old Tom Morris Links at Rosapenna. It enjoys a delightful location on the edge of Sheephaven Bay and is part of a resort the equal of any in Europe.


So, Old Tom Morris' impact on the game as we all know is as extensive as it is varied.


He made the clubs and trusted in the balls that made the sport more accessible and popular, leading the worldwide sport it is today.


He not only created the courses that remain some of the finest in the world but also developed practises that mean those courses are now beautifully conditioned for us to play.


His architectural philosophy of those early courses now informs the designers of today.


He played as big a part as anyone in turning St Andrews into a golf Mecca.


He ensured The Open flourished through his legendary skill, his rivalry with Willie Park, and his popularity with the men who backed the championship financially in its early days. His son Young Tom even added to the narrative by winning it four consecutive times.


It is hard to imagine what golf would be like today without the extraordinary and varied life of Thomas Mitchell Morris.


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