"I used to play off a two handicap," Old Tom Morris tells me.
"Now I'm a cheating seven."
This is an article from the July 17, 1995 issue
Or is it David Joy speaking? We're in Joy's cottage behind the
Grange Inn in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Old Tom has just been
showing how he gripped a hickory-shafted club: hands split, feet
wide. "Moost ae th' arly champions had big hands," he says; then
the burr in his voice falls away and Joy straightens, saying, "I
had to learn to hit the ball as Old Tom. He had a hammer grip
and a very open stance because of the whip of the club."
It doesn't take long to get used to the way Old Tom visits David
Joy in midsentence. Since 1989 the two natives of St. Andrews,
born 135 years apart, have shared the same psychic space. Joy,
39, is a playwright, artist, actor and engraver who, when he
isn't walking the streets in cape and whiskers, directs plays at
the local theater. Tom Morris, 174, is the old fellow with the
famous beard--"honorary professional" to the Royal & Ancient Golf
Club, greenskeeper of the Old Course, pioneer course designer
and four-time British Open champion in the 1860s.
"I'm very careful where I take Old Tom," Joy says, placing his
stage whiskers on a workbench. "If you put him in the wrong
situation, it's just somebody in a costume."
Indeed, it's startling to come across a man, dead 87 years, in
the streets of St. Andrews. In May, Old Tom was spotted in a V-E
Day parade on Market Street, marching with the bustled members
of the Ladies Putting Society. On other occasions he has been
seen playing the Old Course with wooden clubs and feathery
balls, his beard and coattail flapping in the wind.
"I kept coming across Tom Morris in all sorts of situations,"
the actor says, recalling how two decades ago the most
ubiquitous of St. Andrews' golfing icons began to haunt him.
While working on a series of drawings of Open champions, Joy
covered his studio walls with photographs of Morris and his
cronies. Already there were ancestral echoes: Joy's
great-grandfather was one of Tom's regular caddies; his
grandfather was a clubmaker at Auchterlonies, St. Andrews' most
enduring golf retailer. So in 1990, when the Open was most
recently played on the Old Course, Joy got the idea of doing a
one-man Tom Morris show at the Byre Theatre. "I don't know how I
got away with it, because it was an improvisation," Joy says. "I
went out and researched him properly after I'd done the show."
The result is a splendid impersonation: a wistful old man whose
tales of golf in the 19th century are punctuated with warm
chuckles, resonant "hummphs" and a smoker's cough. "It's a
syrupy image of Old Tom," Joy concedes. "He was very stooped in
his old age, very vulnerable, but I do him proud and
straight-backed. He was already 'Old Tom,' you see, when he was
46, because he was the oldest winner of the Open at that age. He
had a pawky sense of fun, a dry humor. In the research I
couldn't find a bad word about him."
We go outside and stand in the garden next to a wicker
ginger-beer stand. From his hillside Joy can see the spires of
St. Andrews. "When folks come up in the summer," he says, "I let
them hit feathery balls from the garden into my car park. It's
like hitting a little baseball, and they can feel the give in
the old clubs. Because there's quite a difference in hitting the
feathery from the first gutta ball, which is like hitting a
And Old Tom begins to talk again, through Joy--a man of
indeterminate age staring benevolently down on the town where
golf gained purchase on a people.
You don't get to talk to the other icons of St. Andrews golf,
but you see their names and images all over town. At 22 North
Street, a polished metal plate announces R.R.B. AUCHTERLONIE,
D.D.S. (More than a century ago, another Auchterlonie, a little
boy named Willie, got his start in golf at this corner, using a
bent stick to propel champagne corks toward gas-lamp posts.) A
short walk away, in the Cathedral graveyard, one finds the
tombstone of Allan Robertson, Old Tom's first employer and the
first true golf professional. On Golf Place, a block from the
Old Course, graphite-shafted cleeks and cashmere sweaters beckon
buyers at Auchterlonies, where clerks drop the names Laurie and
Tom and Eric as if the famous clubmakers were still producing
beech drivers in the workshop.
Robertson, strangely enough, is the least visible of the
so-called "respectable caddies"--i.e., the ones whose skill
earned them course privileges. At the British Golf Museum, on
the sea by the Old Course, he appears as a sinister-looking wax
figure in a diorama depicting the manufacture of feathery balls
in the mid-19th century. At his side is a top hat full of
feathers, the volume needed to pack a ball. Robertson produced a
thousand or so featheries a year in his kitchen. His true
genius, though, was as a player. He was, in the words of the
Dundee Advertiser, "the greatest golfer that ever lived, of whom
alone, in the annals of the pastime, it could be said that he
was never beaten." This last claim stretched the truth--his own
apprentice, Tom Morris, bested him in singles play--but it is
accepted that Robertson and Morris, as a team, were never beaten
in foursomes. Furthermore, Robertson was the first man to break
80 on the Old Course, shooting a 79 in 1858, when feathery balls
flew no more than 170 yards and greens were unmowed stubble.
Robertson died of jaundice in 1859 at age 44. Had he lived
longer, he might be better remembered for his golf. Instead, he
seems a semicolon in the lore, a man who balked when modernity
loomed. In 1850, taking his first swing at the recently invented
gutta-percha ball, Robertson deliberately topped it and then
muttered, "Ach, it winna flee." To which Old Bob Kirk is
supposed to have said, "Flee, damn ye! Nae ba' cud flee when
So threatened was Robertson by the gutta-percha balls, which
could be made quickly and cheaply, that he got his hands on a
number of them and melted them down. But if technology refused
to stop for Robertson, he can take celestial solace from the
fact that the first Open Championship, played in 1860, was
staged to determine his successor as the undisputed champion of
A few steps from the Robertson diorama, the BGM offers an
early-20th-century display: the workshop of clubmaker Laurie
Auchterlonie. The only shortcoming of this exhibit is that
visitors can examine an almost identical shop, still in use, at
the current Auchterlonies, just up the street. Various
Auchterlonies have hung their shingles on three sides of this
block; time-lapse photography would show their names moving
around like carousel horses. "The present shop sign says SINCE
1897, notes retired R&A historian Bobby Burnet, "even though
that Auchterlonies actually began in 1914." He adds dryly,
"Which I think is contrary to the Trades Description Act."
It takes a genealogist to keep all the Auchterlonies straight.
The first Laurie won the U.S. Open in 1902. His brother Willie,
famous for carrying only seven sticks (and using only five), won
the 1893 Open Championship at Prestwick despite scoring 8, 5, 6
and 6 on the 1st hole. (His deepest-faced club was a mashie, a
low-lofted driving iron that made escape from rough difficult.)
A gifted teacher of the game, Willie served the R&A as honorary
professional from 1935 to his death in 1963, at 91. His son
Laurie, by most accounts an even better clubmaker, succeeded his
father as honorary professional until his death in 1987. The
second Laurie was "a very fine man," according to Burnet, "but
bad tempered." He wintered in Pinehurst, N.C., leaving St.
Andrews to his uncle Tom and cousin Eric, who didn't get along
with Laurie and ran a competing shop.
Today there aren't enough traditional clubmakers to carry on a
conversation, much less a feud. At the Tom Morris Golf Shop,
adjacent to the 18th green of the Old Course, club production
is stuck on zero. "Making handmade clubs won't pay the bills,"
laments the shop's manager, Brian Anderson. Instead, the shop
specializes in sportswear and souvenirs.
It was in this shop that Old Tom made clubs and held court from
1865 until his retirement in 1904. He lived upstairs in a flat
that is still used by his great-great-granddaughter, Mrs. Bunty
Mould of Crail. Except for a 14-year stint as greenskeeper at
Prestwick, during which time his sons Tommy and Jimmy were born,
Morris's world revolved around Fife, the sea and the game of golf.
More than any man of his time, Old Tom left his imprint on the
game. At the Old Course he helped devise the first metal cups
for firming up the hole; he discovered how sand, scattered over
bare spots, encouraged the growth of grass. He crossed the
British Isles by donkey cart, train and steamer, laying out golf
courses as obscure as Askernish and as renowned as Muirfield and
Royal Dornoch. He even invented the double-loop routing of nine
holes to a side that is now standard.
As a player Old Tom was known for good course management and
accuracy from tee to green. His weakness was the short putt,
suggesting that he patented the yips as well. A letter was once
addressed to THE MISSER OF SHORT PUTTS, PRESTWICK, and the
document was promptly delivered to Morris.
With thousands visiting St. Andrews next week for the Open, the
Morris grave sites in the cathedral cemetery are certain to
attract pilgrims. A white marble statue of Young Tom, who won
four Open championships before the age of 22, inhabits an alcove
tomb above the gray slab covering his father, who outlived him
by 33 years. The sad story is usually told in two parts: first,
how the Morrises, on Sept. 2, 1875, had just beaten the Park
brothers at North Berwick, on the south bank of the Forth, and
upon returning by boat to St. Andrews learned that Young Tom's
schoolteacher wife had died while giving birth to their child.
"It's na' true!" the stricken Tommy is supposed to have wailed.
The second act of the tragedy has Young Tom falling into
despair. At the October meeting of the R&A he and his father
were 4 up in a match with five holes to play, but Tommy fell
apart, and the Morrises lost all the remaining holes and the
match. Within weeks Young Tom's health was as bad as his golf.
On Christmas Day, when Tommy didn't appear for breakfast, Old
Tom entered his son's bedroom and found him dead in bed, at age
24. "There are all kinds of romantic theories, including that he
died of a broken heart," says Burnet. "The doctor's certificate
says it was the bursting of a blood vessel in his left lung."
Whatever. We are left with an image of Young Tom in his Balmoral
hat, which would sometimes fall off when he swung hard. The
three-round total of 154 he shot to win the Open belt at the
12-hole Prestwick course in 1868 was six shots better than his
father's best. Tommy won again the next year and was awarded the
belt permanently in 1870 when he routed the field with a 149.
Old Tom retained the prize, a red Morocco belt with mission
silver plates, and showed it to visitors on the slightest pretext.
"Tom outlived his whole family," Joy says, conveying with a
drooped eyebrow the implied melancholy. "His daughter Lizzie
went to America with Charlie Hunter. They named their first son
Tommy, and he died after three months. Then her husband died,
and she came home. It was just Old Tom and his own Lizzie
looking after him."
And now it's just Old Tom, who has, in a manner of speaking,
outlived himself. He'll probably turn up this week. He likes to
walk the New Course, which he designed in 1894, to check that
the revetted bunkers are sound. And no one should be surprised
if his bedroom window, above the golf shop, is open to the north
wind, because that's how he has it on even the coldest nights.
Certainly, Old Tom will appear evenings at the Byre Theatre,
puffing on his old clay pipe. Expect to hear tales of Tommy,
Allan, Willie Auchterlonie and the other respectable caddies.
But don't worry that you'll stump the old man with a hard
question. "You won't panic him," Joy says with a coy smile.
"What he doesn't know, he's just forgotten."