Young Tom Morris followed in his father’s footsteps, winning four British Open Championships before his tragic death at the age of 24. With broad shoulders and hands that were both powerful and deft, he dominated the game in the short time he played it.
“He was simply too good for the available competition,” wrote Ross Goodner in Golf’s Greatest. That includes his father, Old Tom, whom he succeeded as Open champion in 1868. The following year, Old Tom finished runner-up to his son. It is the only time in major championship history that a son and his father finished first and second.
Young Tom was a prodigy. At age 13, he won an exhibition match in Perth for a first prize of 15 pounds. At 16, Morris won the Open Professional Tournament at Carnoustie against the best golfers in Scotland. At 17, he became the tournament’s youngest winner and began his domination of the British Open, winning three consecutive titles to take permanent possession of the Championship Belt in 1870.
"He was simply too good for the available competition." - Ross Goodner
That was the year he shot 149 over Prestwick’s 12-hole course, a score that was 12 strokes better than the competition and unequalled by the Great Triumverate of James Braid, J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon while the gutta percha ball was in use. His opening round of 47 that year, one-under 4s, included an eagle 3 at the 578-yard first and has been described as the first great round of golf. H.S.C. Everard speculated, “It was probable that Tommy attained a rare pitch of excellence at as early an age as any golfer on record.”
The Open wasn’t played in 1871, but Morris made it four in a row in 1872, which is a record. That victory also gained Young Tom Morris the distinction of being the first golfer to win the silver claret jug, the permanent trophy for the Open Championship.
Tall, strong and incredibly handsome, Young Tom was to golf in his era what Arnold Palmer became in the later 1950s. It was said he sometimes inadvertently snapped a shaft in two merely by waggling the clubhead, but he also displayed an uncanny finesse around the greens.
Tom Morris, Jr. recorded the first hole-in-one during a major championship at the 1868 Open Championship.
“Young Tom Morris brought to the game a flamboyance that it had never known,” wrote Charles Price in The World of Golf.
Like his father, Tom Morris Jr. was idolized not only for the way he played, but the way he competed. In St. Andrews: Home of Golf, Young Tom was described as “endearingly modest.” Robert Clark, author of Golf: A Royal and Ancient Game, wrote about Morris’ “amiable temperament…obliging disposition…gentlemanly appearance…manly bearing,” and “undaunted determination.”
Today, he would be described as having the total package. “Golfers may come and golfers may go, but it is very much open to doubt whether any golfers will be quite the idol of the day as Young Tom was during his brilliant career,” wrote Harold Hutchinson in The Book of Golf and Golfers. His life came to an end in 1875.
Playing an exhibition match with his father in North Berwick against Willie and Mungo Park, Morris received a telegram that his wife of a year and son had both died during childbirth. It was a mournful party that made the voyage across the Firth of Forth to St. Andrews, and Morris never recovered from the shock of his loss.
He died three months later, on Christmas Eve, of a pulmonary hemorrhage, causing some to speculate that he had died of a broken heart. His memory is perpetuated by a plaque in St. Andrews Cathedral which bears the inscription, “Deeply regretted by numerous friends and all golfers, he thrice in succession won the championship belt and held it without rivalry and yet without envy, his many amiable golfing qualities being no less acknowledged than his golfing achievements.”