Old Tom Morris is one of the true pioneers and exponents of the game of golf. He was an accomplished champion, a golf course designer, and a golf club maker. He is perhaps the best symbol of the early days of golf, particularly as a symbol of how golf could be spread outside of the community of the affluent to the common people. He was also the father of one of the greatest golfers of all time, Young Tom Morris.
Today, he's visually remembered at each British Open by an impersonator who walks around the course, with full thick beard and dark suit, carrying a golf club and entertaining the crowd. He's a strong symbol of the heritage of golf.
Old Tom was born in St. Andrews, Scotland (widely known as the birthplace of golf) in 1821. In this community, he grew up surrounded by golf; indeed, his first job was as an apprentice to golf ball maker Allan Robertson.
Morris grew up in the earliest days of golf, when club construction was an art done by hand and the balls were similarly hand constructed. Thus, the game was quite expensive and not accessible to the common folk; it was largely reserved for the upper class and royalty because of the expense. Morris was fascinated by the game and his willingness to volunteer as a caddy and a ball retriever made him a regular face around the legendary golf courses of St. Andrews.
Robertson saw Morris's love for the game and allowed him to play with him as a partner in Tom's teenage years. The two were considered to be a formidable opponent in the 1840s on the course, but after a time, their relationship soured. The Haskell ball was introduced in the mid-1840s, the predecessor to the modern golf ball, and it was clearly superior to the type of ball that Robertson constructed. Tom switched to using and making these new balls, but Robertson stuck with the old ways, and this division drove a wedge between the two.
Finally, in 1851, Morris moved to Prestwick to be the greenkeeper. He helped to design the courses at Prestwick and eventually became the club professional there. In his spare time, he founded a golf club making business and also continued to return to St. Andrews for visits. Later in the decade, he helped to organize the British Open, the first of which was played at St. Andrews in 1960, in which Tom played and finished second. He would go on to win the third British Open in 1862 by the unbelievable margin of 13 strokes, a record which would stand for 138 years, broken finally by another legendary golfer, Tiger Woods, in 2000.
Tom played in every British Open from 1860 to 1896, winning the open four times. In 1865, St. Andrews hired Tom as greenkeeper, luring him back from Prestwick; later he was promoted to club professional.
Morris was associated with St. Andrews until his death in 1908, which was partially triggered by a fall he took at the clubhouse at St. Andrews a few months before. His funeral was attended by hundreds of friends and admirers of this progenitor of golf, and a portrait of him can still be found at the clubhouse at St. Andrews.
Old Tom Morris is best remembered as one of the pioneers of the modern game of golf. He helped to found the first world-class annual golf tournament, was one of the first legendary players of the game, and helped to cement its modern rules. His legacy lives on every time someone tees up.